From mortality to mortification, 25 years of bruises on PDX streets

lifestyle columnist Catherine Hastie
Lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie.

Cathy Hastie is BikePortland’s lifestyle columnist.

What daily activity involves quick-twitch muscle action, practiced hand-eye coordination, thinking on your toes, hearty cardiovascular fitness and the ability to outwit competitors? It’s not kick-boxing at the gym.

If bike commuting were a sport, I would compete in the “masters” category. I have been biking to work for more than 25 years: approximately 7 miles per day, 240 days a year. With 42,000 miles on Portland’s city streets, you’d think I would have been injured by now. But I remain unscathed.

Well, almost.

There was that one time I stupidly rode parallel to the train tracks that cross SE 12th at Clinton Street. My mind wandered and my tire inserted itself in the rail without my permission, sending me careening to the ground. But a skinned knee hardly qualifies as an injury.

I suffered another self-inflicted wound back in the days when I used to ride the number 96 bus to my job in Lake Oswego. This was in 1998: TriMet had not yet installed bike racks on their fleet. We cyclists loaded our bikes inside the bus, usually in the handicapped seating section or by the back door, and hoped the bus didn’t fill up. I was 9 months pregnant, hefting my 2-wheeled urban beast up the stairs of the double-long express back home to Portland. Needless to say, I was a bit awkward. As I swung my recently expanded belly for momentum and lifted, my pedal banged me in the thigh full-force and ripped a hole in my pants. It left a small scrape and a bruise.

Small potatoes compared to the pain and suffering I endured the following day, when my first daughter was born.

My husband looked back at me wondering why I was biking like an old lady with hemorrhoids. His analogy was apt.

By far the most embarrassing biking injury I have incurred has to be the one most recently acquired. My husband and I were celebrating our 18th anniversary in a downtown hotel, just 4 miles from home. It made no sense to drive and pay for parking, and riding the bus seemed decidedly unromantic, so we biked.

I had chosen a green velvet dress for the evening ahead. With the elegant dress, my cleanly shaven legs and my easily-stained suede pumps, I rode more demurely than usual, but I still wore the requisite windbreaker and backpack. It worked.

But there was one fatal flaw to my outfit.

For obvious reasons, I had chosen sexy lingerie, of the lace variety – apparently very sharp lace. Mild discomfort on the saddle gradually turned to abrasive pain. I sat on one thigh to persuade the underwear not to rub, weakly pedaling mostly with just one leg. My husband looked back at me wondering why I was biking like an old lady with hemorrhoids. His analogy was apt. The lace edging had sliced a small gash on the inside of my thigh, leaving an unbecoming welt at crotch level. Just my luck!

With my ride.

These injuries are petty complaints, I know. I consider myself lucky. I have never pitched myself into a ditch, left shreds of flesh on the asphalt, picked gravel out of my face or slipped headlong into dangerous traffic on black ice. That is saying something, because, on top of these minor incidents, I have actually been hit by a moving vehicle – twice! It may come as no surprise that both accidents occurred on Southeast Powell Blvd.

The first car that slammed into me lifted me and my $119 Huffy clear up onto its windshield. I was 15 years old. We didn’t wear helmets back then. The driver, a young man without insurance, had turned quickly from Powell, heading north on 36th Avenue as I was crossing 36th from the sidewalk. Thankfully, his low-rider scooped me up instead of throwing me under the chassis. He was scared to death at what he had done. He literally folded my mangled bike into the trunk of his car and drove me home. The impact had cracked his windshield, but the only thing I suffered was an intense freak-out.

With no more than three steps on the asphalt, I heard a long, piercing screech, and instinctively knew trouble was imminent.

It is eerie how similar my second accident was to the first. Jump ahead to 2005. I was a full-grown, responsible mother of 2, and knew better than to ride my bike on the sidewalk. This time I was running to work, west on Powell at 8th Avenue. I approached 8th Avenue and checked both of the lanes where cars entered the intersection. The coast was clear, so I stepped out into the street.

With no more than three steps on the asphalt, I heard a long, piercing screech, and instinctively knew trouble was imminent. Blindly, I sprang up and backwards, never seeing what made the sound. Instead, my elbow connected solidly with something hard and metallic and my thigh reverberated from a hard blow, and I knew I had just been hit by a car.

I landed on my feet. Staggering backwards, I watched as shards of a passenger-side mirror clattered around my feet. I looked up to see a brown passenger van, driven by a woman who obviously valued time more than safety. She had turned, illegally, from eastbound Powell, across three lanes of traffic, to avoid the wait at the legitimate left turn one block away.

I screamed profanities at her and checked my body for holes and blood. Again, I realized, I had escaped harm.
Because I wasn’t lying dead in the road or bleeding profusely, the woman insisted she continue on her way. She was peeved about her side mirror. I didn’t argue. I was still in shock.

But as she drove away, my blood started to boil. She had made an illegal turn, actually hit a human being, could have killed me, but was free to go? I was outraged. I chased her down. Luckily, a train-crossing three blocks ahead had backed up traffic. Her time-saving maneuver hadn’t saved her anything. I easily caught up to her and knocked on her window.

“I changed my mind,” I panted. “I want to report this accident and I need your license and insurance information.”

She protested, but eventually she did the right thing and gave me her information. (I reported the incident to ODOT, and miraculously, 3 years later, a traffic barrier was placed at the median on Powell. Drivers can no longer repeat her stupid mistake.)

In the end, the bruise from the van throwing me backwards was no bigger than the bruise from my bicycle pedal on the bus. But I learned two valuable lessons:

  1. Even with the most careful riding and running, the lives of car-less commuters depend on smart, safe driving by everyone; and
  2. I can smash things to smithereens with my elbows! Good to know.

Correction 1/18: An earlier version of this post contained two incorrect intersections.

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