My husband and I were driving home from Hingham the other night. It was about 8 p.m., and suddenly there in front of us were four males, who looked to be teenagers, riding bicycles the wrong way on a busy street — without helmets. They were trying to cross the street in the dusky night and were weaving in and out of lanes. Wearing dark clothes, of course.
It might just be the arrogance of youth that causes this crazy sort of behavior, but I have seen even worse, and not always from the young. Among the worst are parents riding with their children, none of them wearing helmets. First of all, they're breaking state law, which mandates that those 16 and younger wear helmets.
Second of all, are they crazy? Bad stuff can, and does, happen to even the most expert cyclist. This is where the other half of the equation comes in: derelict drivers.
Ask Levi Leipheimer, a teammate of now-retired Lance Armstrong who has won a slew of competitions himself. He says he is "lucky to be alive" after being hit by a car in April while in Spain training for the six-day Tour of the Basque Country. The driver apologized for not seeing Leipheimer, who was riding on the right side of the road, in the breakdown lane. Seems the driver wasn't paying attention; he was busy looking at a helicopter, and so strayed right. Leipheimer missed the Tour and several weeks of racing while he recovered.
Also in April, time trial world champion and Olympic silver medalist Tony Martin of Germany broke his cheekbone and jaw when a car suddenly crossed the road in front of him.
And who can forget the "celebrity car" that veered into cyclists in last year's Tour de France, resulting in serious injuries to the riders?
Closer to home, a friend was riding on the South Shore recently when a car blasted its horn at him. My friend was riding just where he should have been, on the far right side of the road. As the angry driver — in an SUV, of course — blew past him, my friend could see that he had a youngster in the car. And neither driver nor kid were wearing a seatbelt. Angry and stupid is a bad combination.
I say "in an SUV, of course," because invariably the angry, careless drivers are in a large vehicle — SUV or truck — and usually are men. Cyclists can tell the difference between a polite toot of the horn, which tells them: "Be careful, car back here," and the guy sitting on the horn, giving them the aural equivalent of the middle finger.
Ari Shocket belongs to the Blue Hills Cycling Club, a group that rides out of Milton. Shocket, who lives in Walpole, puts 5,000 to 6,000 miles a year on his bike and says the Milton-Quincy-Canton area is busier with more bike-car antagonism than further down the highway where he also rides: Dover-Sherborn, Norfolk, Sharon, and Foxborough.
"There are lots of areas with pretty, quiet roads there," he says. "It just seems there's less traffic and conflict between cars and cyclists."
Drivers who make abrupt right turns, known as "right hooks," too close to cyclists pose a major danger. They either don't realize, or don't care, that cyclists may be traveling almost as fast as they are, between 20 and 30 miles per hour. So when the car turns right, it cuts off the biker who has no time to react, resulting in the biker either crashing into the car or being hit.
This nearly happened to Shocket a few years ago, when he was riding in the Pan-Mass. Challenge. A car came around him and turned right. Shocket had no time to brake, so he "basically took the turn with the car." He stuck his left hand out so that he was touching the side of the hood, which helped him turn with the car.
"They were dragging me right," he says.
Shocket was once riding with a Blue Hills Cycling Club buddy, a teacher at Milton Academy, when his friend was hit by a driver who made a right-hand turn in front of him. The driver? One of the teacher's students. I'd like to see her final grade.
Something most drivers don't do is to look before they open the car door, which can result in "dooring," or knocking a biker off her bike. This recently happened to a woman in Jamaica Plain, causing her to fall off her bike into oncoming traffic. A city bus narrowly avoided running over her. There is a $100 fine for this, though I wish police would ever enforce it.
Brian Murphy of Hingham has been working in Ontario, Canada, the last 10 months. A Masters racer, he's been cycling around the South Shore for decades and now has joined a cycling club in Canada. There is no comparison, he says, between biking here and biking there.
"Most motorists in the greater Boston or South Shore area have little tolerance for sharing the road with cyclists, while most here in Canada exhibit a high sense of courtesy," says Murphy, who runs a consulting firm. Canadian drivers give cyclists "at least three meters of space" when passing, even on isolated roads. "As you know, that distance can be as little as three inches back home," he says.
Canadians never try to pass a biker on a blind turn where oncoming traffic cannot be seen, whereas Americans do it regularly, he adds. Bike lanes are "religiously observed" by drivers.
"I have never been spit upon, slapped, yelled at, or cut in front of by a Canadian driver," he says. "Canadians do not hit the car horn to frighten the heck out of the cyclists as they approach."
His Canadian cycling friends laugh at Murphy's stories of how great they have it, "not having to worry about whether the next motorist is going to play chicken with your life."
But back to the clueless American cyclists, such as the young'uns my husband and I saw in Hingham. Drivers have reason to be fed up with them. You know the ones I'm talking about: They're on the cellphone, or riding with a drink in their hand, or wearing baggy trousers with a loaded bag dangling from their handlebars — all accidents waiting to happen.
And cyclists should know better than to ride with earphones on; they can't hear those around them and can easily zone out.
Jim Quinn owns The Bicycle Link in Weymouth, which sponsors the Mass Bay Road Club, a group of cyclists with whom he rides. He says his group is responsible — most veterans are — for their own safety.
"We don't stick up for someone who doesn't pay attention to traffic laws," says Quinn.
Time and again, he sees drivers who floor the accelerator to pass cyclists, even on a hill. "It's the same old thing. They don't want to take that right foot off the gas pedal," he says.
If some of these angry folks would take their foot off the gas pedal and put both feet onto bike pedals, it might help their temperament, as well as the environment.
Quinn says, however, that this biking season has been relatively peaceful. "But I've been in the woods, mountain-biking a lot," he says.
That explains it.
Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at email@example.com.