‘Get out of the road, sweetie’

Cycling paves a road to cleaner air, quieter cities and communication among citizens. It also lends a fascinating glimpse at human nature.

Photo By David Robert

“It is said that the only time a person feels more important than the whole of his community is when he is insane—or when he is driving.

The Immortal Class,
Travis Hugh Culley

I am sailing. I’m gliding down a Sierra Street hill on a bright sunny afternoon, going as fast as any car. I feel at one with my bike. The light at Ninth Street, where I must turn right, is green. No vehicles are coming in any direction, so I stretch my left arm out—the bicyclist’s turn signal—and move into the turn lane.

For a split second, I think: Biking gets no better than this—the wind, the sun, the exhilarating speed. Then, I realize I’m trying to take the corner too fast. Way too fast. The two-story house on Sierra and Ninth is barreling toward me. I slam on the brakes of my Trek mountain bike. I somersault over my handlebars. My bike handsprings and lands on top of me on the sidewalk.

For minutes, I can’t even move—only groan. I try to get up, but some invisible steel-toed boot seems to be kicking me in the gut. I hear a gasp of concern, and suddenly a woman is bending over me. I try to feign all right-ness, but she’s not buying it. After a few more minutes, I’m able to stand. Nothing seems broken, only bruised (my legs), torn (my pants), bloody (my elbows), sore (my shoulder) and slugged (my gut—those handlebars make a mean prizefighter). Finally, I manage to pedal away meekly on my bike, which has sustained minor injuries in the form of scratched-up handlebars, a tweaked seat and a dislocated chain. I ride shakily to the RN&R office, where I promptly throw up.

The next day, with a good deal of wariness, I get back on my bike to ride to work, school and the grocery store. I don’t have a choice. I don’t have a car.

I stopped driving my car four months ago for several reasons. One was money: My clunker of a car needed repair, and money was tight. Another was health. I thought it would be sensible to combine working out and getting around into physique-friendly bike rides or walks.

Then, politics. Like most of us, Sept. 11 sent me a big wake-up call. America gobbles up oil to feed its gas-guzzling SUVs, with big gas companies seeming to care little where the oil comes from, while our relations with the Middle East get more convoluted—and potentially volatile—by the day. Then, of course, there were environmental reasons.

And finally, I gave up my car because I wanted to observe people. From the car, many of Reno’s downtown pedestrians look like slightly unnerving drunks or bums who probably want your pocket change. Some talk to themselves, or to passers-by who walk quickly away, as if the words—or their speakers—are viral.

But when walking or biking downtown I’ve gotten into friendly conversations with an amicable guy selling poetry, a grandfatherly man who asked teasingly for a ride on my handlebars and a teary-eyed little girl who needed help finding her mom.

This is not to say that walking downtown always gives me the warm fuzzies of a Frank Capra movie. Sometimes it’s closer to Hitchcock or Quentin Tarantino. And as a woman walking alone, I hear the occasional jeer or catcall, and I’m sometimes the recipient of heavy leering.

On my bike, I feel less gendered, less open to leering—but not necessarily less vulnerable, especially after my ugly Sierra Street fall. And I’ve been cut off and yelled at by various motorists while exercising my rights as a cyclist. (We have pretty much the same set of rules as motorists—we can ride in the center of a lane; we can change lanes and turn as motorists do, so long as we use hand signals.)

One morning not too long ago, I was heading south on Virginia Street, riding in the margins of the road but steering clear of the glass-clogged gutter, when a brown, early-'80s Japanese-make car passed by. I heard a whistle, followed by a loud, ‘Get out of the road, sweetie.’ If I had yelled back, he would already have been too far away to hear me.

But I am a conservative cyclist and a novice one. Dan Gingold, a Spanish major in his last semester at the University of Nevada, Reno, gave up his car three years ago. He says he’s gotten into yelling matches with motorists, is frequently cut off by buses and has even had beer bottles thrown his way.

“Sometimes it can be dangerous,” he says. “They have a 3,000-pound car. I have a 30-pound bike.”

Gingold says that he gave up his car in part because it was faster to get from his home near Washoe Medical Center to UNR by bike than by car, especially since the university can be a parking nightmare. He also got tired of paying for all the costs that come along with cars, and he doesn’t like contributing money to oil conglomerates. And he liked the added health benefits.

“I feel a lot healthier except when I have to breathe a lot of exhaust,” he says. “The bicycle is probably the best invention in a long time.”

“Public space, once intended for public use, is now managed by the profit interests of the machine age,” writes Chicago bike messenger Travis Hugh Culley in The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. “And though the bicycle is what gave us the paved road … it has become the immigrant of the roadway, losing its rights to the road and its status as an equal in the public arena.”

Culley notes that today, in this country’s congested urban areas, a car is about as fast as a horse and buggy were 100 years ago. Bikes are faster than cars in these areas. Bikes reduce not only air pollution, but also noise pollution. And they help to create a sense of balance and autonomy in cities that have been de-centered by suburban sprawl and are held together, it seems, only by freeways.

Culley writes: “Even in healthier areas, few people are willing to step out of their cars or their homes and experience the space around them. … Americans have been made fearful and resentful of one another. There is no communication in the public arena to calm our fears and loosen our sense of inequity. The private car, being ideologically anti-urban, has reinforced the poverty of the past hundred years by separating our communities and steamrolling our commons. The car protects the public from public space—the last frontier where our ideas can be openly challenged and improved.”

Cycling is not radical. In the sense that riders conserve fuel, it is conservative. In the sense that it’s economical and a fairly fast means of transportation, it is practical. And every ride feels like an accomplishment of sorts—as Gingold points out, you earn your way to each destination. Biking is also, for me at least, a way to re-envision Reno—to plant myself in the heart of the city and observe all the wonderful strangeness of human nature.

I heard that Reno had a local Critical Mass group meeting downtown on the first Friday of every month. Critical Mass, a grassroots movement that started in San Francisco in 1992 and quickly became thousands-strong, began cropping up in cities across the nation after its debut. The event has no official organizers; it’s an “organized coincidence” in which cyclists ride together through the streets, often taking up lanes and blocking traffic. The idea is to form solidarity among cyclists, many of whom feel like pariahs of the road, and to send a message to motorists: Biking is a viable alternative to driving—and cyclists have a right to receive respect on the road.

But Reno Critical Mass, which enjoyed a minor heyday in the late-'90s, is no more, Gingold says.

“It sort of fizzled out,” says cyclist Tim Healion, owner of Deux Gros Nez, a coffeehouse on California Avenue. “It never really got off the ground in Reno. People are less receptive of it [in Reno].”

Healion says that the group was trying to send out a message that cycling is a fun, clean, easy alternative to driving.

“People didn’t get it,” he says.

Reno is hardly a biking haven. Bike lanes are scarce; many roads are bumpy and filled with glass. And Nevada has a strong car culture with the National Automobile Museum and Hot August Nights. You can purchase almost anything without leaving your car: hamburgers, Starbucks coffee, prescription medication. You can drop off film for developing. Las Vegas even has a drive-through wedding chapel.

And Reno roadways are not so nightmarish for drivers as those in bigger cities, so there’s less incentive not to drive. But as Reno continues to expand, with homes and business going up left and right on the south side of town, Reno will not stay a driver’s dream forever.