Last weekend, I got on my cross-country bike, the one with semi-slicks, and pedaled out of my neighborhood, half intending to violate my self-imposed sidewalks-only rule so I could do laps on this big steep hill up a road called Pacific Island Drive. It was raining lightly and the streets were sopping from the previous night’s deluge, and when I got to the intersection at the bottom of the Pacific Island hill, all four lanes of the road were blocked with police tape.
There, at the base of 60-foot ponderosa pine, located across the sidewalk from the downhill lanes and in the yard of a small office building, was a compact SUV with the entire front end compressed like an accordion. No one was in it, the ambulance was gone, and now the police were just doing their forensic work. By that afternoon, a few young girls were gathered around the tree, and a memorial had been set up.
I turned left and continued on my way.
Southern California has been inundated with rain this winter, as you probably know. What you probably don’t know is that our soil, at least here in southern Orange County where I live, is primarily clay. It does not drain well, it takes forever to dry, and if you poach and attempt to ride in the mud it will leave ruts that last weeks. In short, as a dedicated mountain biker with ambitious climbing goals, it’s been frustrating: We need the rain, but I want the vert. The options have been 1) don’t ride, 2) ride a spin bike, 3) ride on the pavement.
It’s the last of those to which I turned, but with mixed feelings and concerns. Four years ago, after a spate of deaths and bad injuries to road cyclists I knew or was connected to, I decided to quit riding on the road. I sold my road bike and stayed in the dirt. But I continue to ride to the trails, or to hit paved hills when I wanted extra climbing, until, eventually, there were enough close calls, ugly incidents, and reports of other deaths that I decided once and for all to stick to what I know and love best: trails.
It wasn’t an easy decision. I’m wired with the expectation that I can and probably should enjoy every adventurous pursuit available. Kite surfing? Count me in! Ice climbing? I just sharpened my tools. The idea that I would give up something I like because of an excess of caution didn’t sit well, even if I knew it was the smart thing to do. So, you know, me being me, occasionally I’d violate my rule and log a few miles here and there on the road.
It’s been about a half decade since I said goodbye to that beautiful Specialized Roubaix and the situation on the roads has gotten worse. There are a lot of aggressive jerks in Orange County who drive way too fast, but we are in the midst of an epidemic of road accidents everywhere. And you know the reasons why: smartphones. People are texting, fiddling with Waze, trying to skip songs in Spotify. Deaths from distracted driving increased 8.8 percent between 2014 and 2015—almost 300 more people died than the previous year—the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported. The number of cyclists killed by cars jumped by 12.2 percent—89 more died than in 2015—to the highest level in 20 years. Insurance companies are paying out more than they’re taking in, directly because of distracted driving accidents, and premiums are consequently increasing.
Michael LaRocco, chief executive of State Auto Financial Corp., recently told an insurance-industry conference that it’s “an epidemic issue for this country.”
A New York Times story this week quoted Tim Burns, the owner of Village Bikes, as saying, “I’ve lost three customers who died being hit by cars. I don’t even try to sell road bikes anymore. People don’t drive a car anymore. They do everything except drive a car — texting, putting on makeup.”
This is true everywhere and not just in places where drivers gun on surface streets and don’t respect cyclists. Distracted driving knows no geographical, gender, or age boundaries. It’s just not safe out there, I don’t think it will be again, and I’ve long stopped feeling like Chicken Little. Too many people have died, too many people have gotten hurt. We all have to make our decisions for ourselves, and I try to mind my own business, but when I see friends training in the bike lane while Cadillac Escalades zoom past them at 60 mph (Sean, I’m talking to you), I want to beg them to stop. Road cycling is a beautiful, wonderful, noble pursuit. And there are places and times and situations where it’s perfectly safe. Gravel comes to mind. Italy, too. But when a 4,000 pound vehicle going fast is separated from a fragile little creature on a 20-pound bicycle by nothing, there is no margin for error. In the modern urban, suburban, exurban racetrack, it’s just not worth it. Not for me, anyway.
Last Saturday, I kept riding. It was wet, it was cold. Less than a mile down the road, a landscaping truck with balding tires fishtailed and spun 180 degrees going down a hill. No cars were around for it to hit. No cyclists, either. I watched from the sidewalk as it corrected course and continued down the road.
Instead of going along the coast highway, I headed toward a paved bike and walking trail and went inland. A few miles later, at an intersection, I leaned one arm against a streetlight pole and waited for the red to change to green so I could cross. Duct-taped to the pole was a poster with a picture of a dad surrounded by his kids. “Please help us raise money to support the family,” said the flier. The father was in a coma. He’d been riding his bike the week before, on this road, and was hit by a car.
Note: For those of you who’ve complained, sometimes in less than civil terms, about riding on the sidewalk, it is legal in some parts of the municipalities where I live. Typically, it’s allowed outside of downtown and busy pedestrian areas. If I do encounter pedestrians, I move to the street or bike lane to go around them, and give them plenty of room. I know this isn’t enough to satisfy some but I follow the laws, ride only where it’s legal, and try to be considerate to others.
Photo by jbdodane
Adventure Journal is free but relies on reader support to make stories like this possible. Please join the thousands of your fellow adventurers and subscribe to our amazing printed quarterly or pick up an issue here.