Saturday, March 31, 2007

Riding With Mark Vande Kamp

Mark Vande Kamp and I have a lot in common. We both grew up in the midwest. We both have somewhat philosophical natures. We both are bike nerds who ride longish distances for fun. We both have cute wives who are somewhat understanding of our needs to sometimes go out and ride even though we both have jobs and families and there are many other things we could be doing.

So this morning Mark and I go out for a small ride, the kind of ride we do when we don't have much time. Christine has commented that "the two of you together do dumber stuff than either of you would do on your own" and this explains why I'm awake at 5:00 AM and out the door at 5:50 AM to meet up with Mark.

Of course it's raining, this is Issaquah and we get more rain than Seattle and this is the last day of March. But I've got a good yellow rain jacket and rainlegs and lights that shine on the wet asphalt and of course it's a good day to ride.

I ride west on the roads that make up my usual commute route but early on Saturday the traffic is lighter and the houses are darker than what I'm used to from my weekday routine. Routine isn't the right word for my route, however. No matter how many times I ride these roads, I see something new. It took me a while to learn this, to slow down and look, to be here now, wherever I happen to be riding. This light, this rain, that bird there and the wind from the north are unique to this moment.

Familiarity does breed a certain efficiency, of course, I know the crack in the pavement at the next corner, I know how long this light will stay red. And memory flavors the ride, I know the house that often smells like bacon will probably smell like bacon again an hour from now, but now I only smell the yard's spring plants and damp earth. This is the news I do not see on television or hear on the radio, but somehow I think it is important for me to learn this right now.

The waves are lightly white-capped as I roll across the bridge and the rain has pretty much stopped now. The wind is just below the speed a gull needs to hover, but one is trying anyway and slowly drifting north.

I'm at the Seattle side of the bridge at 7:00 AM and Mark is there two minutes later. Our plan is vague, involving heading north into the wind and turning back at some point. The main goal is to ride and chat and have Mark be back at his home around 2:00 PM.

We ride up alongside Lake Washington and through the Arboretum. Our conversation ranges over a variety of subjects, as it always does, and we discuss cycling, as we often do.

"I have a question for you," I preface and then I follow with "you bike commute every day, right?"

"Pretty much, yeah"

"OK," I say, "so what I want to know is this, and use whatever scale makes sense. How often do you have, let's call it a 'bad' interaction with a motorist?"

Mark grasps the question right away and his answers show the clarity of thinking I've come to expect from him. "First off," he says, "I'd say Seattle is pretty good. And I'd put the 'incidents' in two categories. The first is the intentional. The guy who yells 'get the hell off the road' or who blatantly buzzes by. That's rare. Maybe like once a year."

"The second kind," Mark continues, "is more common but still not all that common. That's the, uhh, ignorant driver. The don't know how close they came by me, they turn without looking, things like that. Those kinds of things still don't happen that much, maybe once a month?"

"I thought you'd say something like that," I say. "I tend to classify the second type of thing as more oblivious or distracted rather than ignorant."

Mark nods, "Yeah, that's more what I meant."

"I'd say my numbers and sense of it are similar," I say and then I go on to tell him about a former colleague. (Since I'm recounting this in a public forum, I'll make up a name for my former co-worker. I'll call him Barney.) Barney and I both worked at the same place, we both bike commuted, similar distances over similar routes. But at least once a week Barney would come in fuming, with a tale of a close encounter or a hostile shouting match. Of course, it was never Barney's fault, he just ran across morons. But I had a similar commute and I'd have an incident maybe once a year while Barney would have one every week. Maybe some of it's luck, but maybe some of it's Barney. Barney would always race every where, Barney was in the zone, his MP3 player cranking out his favorite tunes. But the problem with being in the zone is sometimes you're zoned out and the rest of the world keeps happening.

And I'm too old to worry about being fast. And too lazy to pack my life full of other places I have to be right now. I have enough to do being right here, right now.

We're riding on the Burke Gilman trail now, a place that I try to avoid on sunny days for the same reason Yogi Berra avoids Coney Island, "nobody goes there, it's too crowded." But early on damp Saturday it's not too bad. Mark and I discuss the recent "Sound Off" spurred by a recent article in the Seattle paper about the Seattle Bike Master Plan. I point out that while of course we had some motorists calling for the banning of cyclists from the roadways, we also had at least one moron cyclist calling for the banning of pedestrians from the Burke Gilman trail.

"I tend to treat other users of whatever road or pathway I'm on the way I'd like to be treated," I explain to Mark.

"Hmm," he replies drolly, "I'm not sure that's an original thought."

"Yeah," I admit, "I do think I read that somewhere!"

We talk about the "red light thing." The "red light thing" is this. Some cyclists run red lights. This drives some motorists crazy. The fact that some motorists bring this up in almost every "bikes on the road" conversation drives some cyclists crazy. For example Paul Dorn writes about it here:


and here

Paul argues that motorists speed and do all kinds of other not cool things and that even if every cyclist came to a full and complete stop for every light, we still wouldn't get respect. Paul believes organizing will get us respect.

Well, I work for a bike advocacy organization, the Bicycle Alliance of Washington and we are doing what we can. And I can tell you this: I spend some of the time that I could be using to help mentor a new bike commuter or get another bike locker installed somewhere or teaching someone how to adjust their brakes answering phone calls like the one I got from a woman who opened the conversation with the words "Cyclists drive me crazy!" You guessed it, one of things that made her pick up the phone and call us was the "red light thing."

I didn't tell her that some drivers speed. I did tell her that some cyclists run red lights. And that yeah, that's against the law. I also told her that I don't run red lights. I stop at them. She said that she's never seen a cyclist stop at a red light.

That may be a true statement.

Now I believe that cyclists have stopped at red lights in her presence but she hasn't seen them. We notice bad behavior, not good. In the classic movie Casablanca, Peter Lorre's weaselly character Ugarte says, "you despise me, don't you?" and Humphrey Bogart replies "If I gave you any thought I probably would."

As cyclists, I'm sorry to say, we are often the Ugartes of the roadway. We like to think that we are cool, or noble, preserving the planet, setting an example and sharing the road. The truth of the matter is that much of the time we are ignored. We don't even register in the consciousness of many of our fellow road users. And, unfortunately, most often the cyclists who are noticed are the ones who are behaving like jerks.

Some drivers are jerks. Some cyclists are jerks. I have very little control over anyone's behavior but there is one person I try to control.


I try not to behave like a jerk.

As I said earlier, Mark and I are very similar. We have similar riding styles and philosophies. And today we are riding along the trail. I ding my stupid little bell to let pedestrians know I'm coming up behind them and Mark calls out "on your left." We ride without incident.

At Woodinville we leave the trail and ride up the hill and out into the country. We talk of many things and roll down at least one road that we don't know. We manage to find Lost Lake, a location that ironically assures us that we aren't lost and then follow Fales Road to Highbridge and then ride across the valley to the town of Monroe.

It's 10:30 now, the time Mark had picked for turning around but the schedule allows for breakfast at the Hitching Post. Breakfast is wonderful and just the thing for a couple of guys who are not nutritional role models.

We roll back across the valley and go our separate ways. Mark heads back to Seattle and I roll down the valley toward Issaquah. I cross back over the river at Duvall and ride the Snoqualmie Valley Trail south. An eagle watches over the valley from the bare branches of a tree under a clouded sky. Dogs are walking with their people along the trail. It's a good day to walk and it's a good day to ride.

I'm home a bit after 2:00 PM.


UltraRob said...

Very good post. There's plenty of rude drivers out there but I see way too many cyclists not obeying the lay. When I'm riding my normal amount which unfortunately hasn't been the case lately, I think I have one of the really mean intentional encounters every couple months. I have the motorist not paying attention kind a couple times a week but I almost always see that it's going to happen in plenty of time to adjust my speed and avoid even having a close call. I have a 3rd category that falls in between. In the last couple of years, guys in diesel pickups will let off the gas pedal as they're approaching and then floor it just as they're passing so that there's a big cloud of smoke to inhale. I also put people that honk when they're almost beside me. In most cases I think they're just trying to warn me they're there. They do it too close and sometimes startle me. I think less experienced riders might end up swerving into the traffic lane.

Anonymous said...

Cyclists are their own worst enemies. Between running lights and stop signs while usually never heeding someone else's right of way and often gunning down pedestrians in the process, it is a wonder cycling is not banned entirely from many cities. I don't think that is a far fetched proposition either. I don't always stop for every light or sign but I do heed the order of right of way and don't encroach upon cross walks. Great blog Kent.

JordynStories said...

Thanks Kent,

This is why I read your blog.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kent,

That couldn't possibly be the Mark Vande Kamp I went to St. John's College with here in Santa Fe could it?

I agree with Andy that cyclists can be their own worst enemies. Too many cyclists hit the streets with unfriendly feelings and attitudes. It's my current feeling that all that bad energy creates conflicts that might not have otherwise arisen. People tell me all the time that Santa Fe is not a "bike friendly" city. It's almost as if they live in a parallel universe inhabited by homicidal motorists. In twenty years of riding here, I've had only one overt case of hostility, and the minor annoyances seem few and far between.

But I try to hit the road with a light heart and a ready smile. When a carload of teenagers goes by me, and someone screeches out of the window, I just wave and grin.

Maybe it's idiotic, but I feel a whole lot better about it.

Tammy said...

Nice ride. and nice Eagle. I love riding in the valley. So peaceful.

I've often used that line about there being jerks who are drivers and jerks who are cyclists. It seems every non-cyclist I know has to tell me about the rude cyclists they met when they find out I am a cyclist. I just say, 'there are drivers who are jerks, right? Well, cyclists can be jerks, too. Doesn't mean we all are.' Whatcha gonna do? ;)

rob hawks said...


Yes it is true. There are cycling jerks and driving jerks. Do you do something about that? Across the many years I've been cycling, I've attempted a couple of times to make it known to other cyclists when I see behavoir that doesn't benefit the common good. I think you know I'm going to tell you that I get more bad reactions than good ones for that effort, which is why I, statistically speaking, never do it much.

Imagine the reactions from drivers if I
were to make it known when I've seen analogous behavior to what I recounted above. The thing is if they are jerks on
bikes or jerks in cars, usually their jerkishness is pretty well rounded and they will in fact react badly to anyone who speaks up after witnessing their transgressions.

So, what do you do? I try to supress the urge to speak up and say something. Instead I try, try mind you, to just be obvious about doing the proper thing. Is that really the right and best thing?


Unknown said...

Sounds like a fine day out.

One of the assumptions I ride with is that each driver, cyclist or pedestrian will do the absolute worst thing possible at the least opportune moment. Every one of them has the opportunity to prove me wrong, and most do.

Of the ones that engage in the AWTPATLOM, most of them know it, and, as is the custom of their kind, will react aggressively if this is pointed out to them.

As a non-cycling example, I was walking up a main street in town last week. The roadway is three lanes one way, and the main artery westward through town, heavily trafficked with a brisk average speed. There is a side street which ends at this road, requiring a right turn by the motorist. The effect of this is that the drivers look left at the one-way traffic and at best, roll the stop sign.

There are currently spray-painted outlines on the curb where an older woman was killed there two weeks ago.

As I reached this point, a driver in a convertible BMW came up the street, looking left, and went through the crosswalk and stop sign at easily 15 mph. If I'd been two steps further, I would have been in the crosswalk.

I called out (because my adrenaline consistently outdistances my brain), "It's a STOP SIGN!"

To which they replied, "I DID stop!", adding a few of their favorite anglo-saxon modifiers.

Be careful out there, kids.

Anonymous said...

Kent has spoken! The debate ends here. It's Easter, ride like JC would. Even if you don't buy into all that new testament hooey, treat others like you expect to be treated and the world will get a little bit better.

Paul Dorn said...

Thanks for citing my blog. My point is that bicyclist behavior--good or bad--is irrelevant to how much respect we receive. (Same as motorists; highways get built whether drivers are nice or not nice.) What matters is political power, which means organizing and advocacy.

Anonymous said...

I do agree with Paul. You don't get rights and respect for being "nice". Nice doesn't work. Sure, I stop at red lights, but I don't really blame cyclists who don't as long as they're reasonable about it. In some situations it is actually safer to blow a red for one thing.