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Becky Jo’s Carfree Life: Ode to Zen Bike Guy

Posted by on December 26th, 2019 at 9:59 am

group of cyclists riding at night in an urban setting, wearing casual gear and lots of lights on the bikes

Foster Night Ride photo by Krishna Muirhead

Now that we’re acquainted, my first and biggest question is:

“How are you not constantly having a heart attack?”

I know some of you are totally chill. I see you. I have this amalgamation of chill cyclists in my head, based heavily on a few in particular. One looks more like he’s hovering along, and there just happens to be a bike under him. You know the guy. No helmet, no hands on the handlebars, not even aware of the potholes, wearing all black sometimes with a plaid flannel variation, and certainly unconcerned with vehicles. He’s glorious. Sometimes he’s female. She has the cutest little basket in front of a big heavy cruiser, wearing a dress and sandals, and without any effort whatsoever is passing me up a hill. Sometimes it seems like folks of all kinds are passing me and not at all having the same level of stroke-inducing-crazy-car-magnet-luck I’m having.

Be honest with me, okay? Is there some law of diminished returns on wearing reflectors, all the lights, Day-Glo green and pink, and two rolls of reflective tape? Is there a point at which it starts being more like a flame-to-a-moth scenario? I know it happens with emergency vehicle lights and traffic, so you can tell me. I’ll believe you.

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Maybe all of you really aren’t chill and secretly you’re covering up that little pulsing vein with your adorable fresh-cut bangs.

To remain chill back when I used to car-commute from Reed to Hillsboro, I’d listen to Audible. Let me tell you, Jo Nesbo during winter on the Sunset Highway crawling along in winter is extra creepy. Two problems with that. My car had airbags, and I can’t bike with earbuds. I know, I see some of you with your speakers and that’s cool, but I’m barely functioning here as it is, right? I’m not ready for speakers.

Maybe I’m just preaching to the converted. Maybe all of you really aren’t chill and secretly you’re covering up that little pulsing vein with your adorable fresh-cut bangs.

Granted, I don’t have a very chill personality. It may shock you to know I’m pretty “Ready, Fire, Aim.” I like to jump in with both feet, and when someone nearly kills my daughter and me on our bikes, I tend to release a tirade of expletives and epithets that would make sailors blush.

So, please tell me, oh Zen Bike Guy, how can I be more like you, if only while biking?

Photo courtesy of Krishna Muirhead, Zen Bike Guy, old friend and bike mentor, IG @ilefteye 

— Becky Jo, @BeckyJoPDX

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Alan 1.0PeteRebeccaCarrieClark in Vancouver Recent comment authors
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I wear many hats
Guest
I wear many hats

I remind myself that when I yell, I don’t really yell at other people, I yell to hear myself, and to reinforce my own anger. Neither method of yelling ends up being a productive conversation.

SilkySlim
Guest
SilkySlim

It has taken me years to finally approach a near zen state. I think a big chunk of it is reminding myself that I definitely still prefer biking, and my reasons are generally unassailable. For trips under 3 miles it is almost a 100% guarantee I will be faster door-to-door by bike. My odds of being caught in traffic and being late is about 0%. My legs are hot. Beer tastes better when you arrive parched.

On the flip side, as said above, yelling rarely improves anything. I still communicate my disapproval of certain driver actions, but instead of shaking my fist at a red light runner, I instead look at the driver behind me, and give a disapproving shake of the a head, trying to convey “whoa, can you believe that guy. you’d never do that right?” I theorize that seeing a real life human express how something was scary to them will affect their future behavior.

David Hampsten
Guest

Most of us slow down as we get older. I know I’m much slower (and heavier) at 52 than I was 22. Definitely more cautious and hopefully wiser. And some days the arthritis kicks in, a reminder of all my injuries from my so-called youth. But I agree with SilkySlim, I still prefer cycling…

Paul Pederson
Guest
Paul Pederson

In high school I was too young (stupid) to be scared, everything I did was zen because I was incapable of comprehending the consequences of anything. Even when my gf was hit while we were on a ride I don’t really think I understood how close of a call it really was.

I’m still zen-ish, but more from experience now, I guess. I’ve bike commuted for a over a decade and now I can sort of predict the most common patterns of driver stupidity. The right hook, the left cross, getting doored. Knowing good lines through these situations keeps me lower the amount of “omg I’m going to die” moments. I’m not a big fan of reflective stuff, honestly. A lot of dangerous scenarios don’t involve headlights on you until it’s too late. A good front light and a good rear light (flashing) is what I’ve settled on after a lot of variations. Regardless what you wear, bike like you’re invisible, because if you’re not shaped like a pick up truck drivers are blind to you for sure…

For me, the thing that keeps me going is that the more bikers we have on the road, the safer all of us are. We’re all part of the solution, no matter how zen or non-zen you are 🙂

Jay T.
Guest

What Paul said. Plus these two thoughts:

-Multiple years of crash statistics for the town I ride in are shown at https://corvallisrightofway.com/causes-of-collisions/data/. People driving cars rarely, rarely hit bicycles and riders from behind. There are other causes of crashes, but taking the lane can prevent many of them and is eminently safe. There are steps to follow in order to get into the middle of the lane legally and safely, but they can be learned.

-I’m not responsible for the feelings of the drivers following me. Listening to the noises their vehicle makes-engine, horn, bell-might trigger something in me, but it doesn’t let me know definitively how they’re feeling. The honk might be because they think my butt is cute or because they’re tired of sitting in a tin box or something else. Not much I can change about that. I just need to take care for the safe and legal operation of my bicycle.

Rain Waters
Guest
Rain Waters

Upload and train your mind to autoexecute this mantra whatever novelty appears to happen

“I guess it doesn’t matter anyway”

9watts
Subscriber

I have been biking in traffic since I was 11 (and decades before there was anything like bike lanes). I know cars are right close by and that in theory a false move or bit of in attention could kill me, but the statistics seem to be on my side: Zero collisions with moving vehicles in 37 years.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

Take quiet streets. Prefer greenways, but bike lanes are OK if you’re in a hurry. Don’t be in a hurry. You’re on a bike, enjoy it.

Bike in the middle (or left side) of the lane. You’re easy to see when you’re directly in front of people. If you’re riding in the door and debris zone then you’ll blend into the scenery on the side and not be seen as an obstacle in the road. You’re legally allowed to take the entire width of the lane, so don’t feel bad.

Put your earbuds in and hear what you want. It helps take the pressure off of hearing impatient drivers behind you. Deaf people do just fine. Hearing is a not a safety requirement.

Dress the way you want. Aren’t you already tired of wardrobe shaming? My first bike jacket was a bright yellow windbreaker, my second a Showers Pass black jacket with reflective accents, and now I just wear whatever I’m wearing (usually a black or brown jacket). If it’s raining I have a rain cape that’s reflective.

I value bike reflectivity. I prefer reflective sidewall tires, and I have stock reflectors on my pedals, both wheels, steering tube, and rear fender. My regular bike has dynamo lights, otherwise I often use only a front light.

You could take all the precautions and still get hit. The only time I was ever hit was early morning before sunset when it was still dark. I had full reflectors, full lights, wrapped in xmas lights, with a spinning neon wheel light. Driver was pulling out from a side street, stopped at the stop sign, looked, then pulled out right into me and T-boned me. They said they had no idea how they didn’t see me. Don’t worry too much about being hit with a car. Always assume that you will, so that you’ll have a last minute option in case a driver really doesn’t see you.

I don’t like letting a driver know I see them. I like them to assume I’m oblivious and that they need to take the legal needed care. If they know you see them then they’ll try to bully you and take your right-of-way.

Get a video camera. I always have mine, and they help motorists behave, even when the battery is dead. And evidence always helps for that time it goes over the line dangerous and you need to use ORS 153.058 to write a citizen-issued citation. I found a cheap one that I can hook to my portable USB battery and it will record for hours.

tldr: ride on quiet streets in the middle of the lane wearing whatever you want while listening to your choice of noise and not caring about the insecurities of motor vehicle drivers.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Ahh Grasshopper, zen wisdom comes with total awareness. Pay attention, know your event horizon and know that, like a rabbit (read Watership Down) even though you are clever and agile your environment is dense with killers. I still go sort of crazy in a real close call but NEVER touch the offending car. People carry guns.

Alex Reedin
Guest
Alex Reedin

It took me a long time to become mostly inured to the motor vehicle madness and I never really got used to it. The facts are:
-The average American is at more risk of injury per mile biking than driving. Both driving and biking in Portland are safer than average, so I suspect this is also true in Portland.
-Unless you were reliably getting 30 mins of exercise every day pre biking, the health benefits of biking far outweigh the additional danger.
So I always tried to tell myself that the benefits of being healthy (and my kids having a healthy parent) outweighed the cost. Plus there is the whole climate change thing.

I like side visibility; there is a British company selling dual side blinkies that I recommend. I agree with the above that visibility on the bike is the most convenient.

https://brightside.bike/

If you someday get an e-bike, I found my experience of unexpected dangerous motor vehicle behavior to decrease dramatically once I started mostly e-biking in the middle of the right lane on 4-lane roads. People driving have a full lane to pass you in, don’t right hook you, and don’t pull out unexpectedly from side streets. The actual safety is questionable given more cars around and higher speeds but I found the experience less jumpy than being stalked by cut-through traffic on greenways while on guard for side-street stop sign runners and waiting interminably at most intersections with major streets.

The threats and honking on big streets increase dramatically, though, if you bike slow.

In terms of how to actually be calm after a perceived near-death experience, I don’t know. Never figured out that one. A speaker did help in order to have good-mood music blaring.

Mick O
Guest
Mick O

“How are you not constantly having a heart attack?”

Mostly, it’s just time spent in the saddle. It just gets better and better.

Tony Thayer-Osborne
Guest
Tony Thayer-Osborne

I take something from riding motorcycles to heart: “Ride like you’re invisible”

But also being predictable helps. I have these rules I follow:
1. I really hate riding on sidewalks because people in cars aren’t expecting a fast-moving flesh and metal bullet to be there.
2. No music except for that inside my head.
3. Flashing rear-light at least during the day and solid lights at night (I carry a full backup set just in case).
4. Don’t ride on 82nd or MLK/Grand

Kate
Guest
Kate

1. Have a strong front and back light, make sure you have some side visibility either through reflective tire sidewalls, or spoke lights. The spoke lights are a great way to feel festive.

2. Ride defensively, assume people don’t see you. As importantly, ride predictably. By that I mean to try to ride in a relatively steady line and at a steady speed so cars know how to adjust their timing to you.

3. When a car passes you and looks like they may be slowing to make a turn, alway be ready to make a quick right-turn with them to avoid a t-bone, though you may still end skidding into them sideways.

4. If you’re riding next to a congested lane, and cars have stopped up ahead to leave a cross street clear, slow down and proceed cautiously, there is often a car about to ‘shoot the gap’ of those cars that have stopped. I also employ tactic ‘6″ while i slow, which is drift right or left to be more visible to car potentially crossing.

5. I generally do try to make eye contact and look people in the face. You can usually, though not always, see if a person really registers you or if they are ‘vacant staring’ past you.

6. If you are riding in a bike, or greenway, drift in the space depending on you are trying to be the most visible to. If you are riding in a R-side bike lane and are worried about people pulling out in front from cross streets, try to ride as left in the lane (near the cars) as possible so they are more able to see you. If you’re worried about someone you riding next to that might turn in front of you, drift a little further right so you’re less likely to be in their blind spot.

axoplasm
Subscriber

When I first started riding for transportation in Portland, I was super not-Zen. I used to fill my pockets with gravel that I would fling at cars that cut me off. For example.

Over the years I developed a fondness for lower-traffic streets and scenic routes. I’ll ride miles out of my way to go through a cemetery, or up a path, or down a series of undeveloped alleys. This was really a scheduling challenge more than anything else. Once I’d removed the pressure of OMG IM LATE, I am much less troubled by traffic or anything else.

I still make eye contact & direct cars, e.g if the right of way is unclear. I do this with *very gentle but obvious* hand signals. Car drivers are like irritated cattle, they get confused and spook easily.

It was liberating to learn I’m unlikely to be struck from behind, and way more likely to run into a car door or get clipped by someone turning their car across my path. I have more control over things in front of me.

Lights, reflective gear, riding defensively, etc.…do what makes you feel safe, within reason. Personally I think most of that is sympathetic magic except for strong lights front and back. I prefer to imagine I’m invisible, and ride appropriately.

BikeRound
Guest
BikeRound

I believe I said “American roads” one time. I am having a hard time comprehending your message. What is an ESL misfire? I think we should keep in mind that many people read this site, and we should be doing our best to be responsible advocates for saner transportation policies.

sad
Guest
sad

I also don’t appreciate your writing style, and your comments about “that guy” feel sexist to me. some of us have just been riding longer than others. I saw a person walk confidently across the crosswalk the other day, but it never would have occurred to me to ask them how they don’t have a heart attack just because they can cross the street. It seems like someone who is going to write articles for a bike blog might as well know what they are talking about. I’m tired of the “whoa is me!! cycling is so hard!!!” If you want to empower female cyclists or any cyclists for that matter, you might refrain from the stale “cute little basket” comments or , “adorable fresh cut bangs” -is this supposed to be an insult? I’d love to see some articles on family biking from someone with a confidence perspective that does not pander to the US vs THEM scary story that the media wants to portray. On another note, I wonder how much time you have spent writing the article, and then commenting on it ( only because I’d like you to be paid fairly for your time) Let’s do better.

Rebecca
Guest
Rebecca

I’m really enjoying your writing style and sense of humor, and the hyperbole in that particular passage made me laugh out loud. I know that feeling! I’m learning how to mountain bike and am regularly humbled by young children who go flying off of jumps like it’s nothing. (Aw, C’MON! lol)

What helped me get into cycling was finding a group of novice women like myself to go on rides with. It was great to share experiences with other women who were just getting started, to have people that could relate to my many mishaps without being judgey and the reassurance that smart, capable people were working through the same problems that I was – a Community of Figuring it Out, if you will. It was very empowering. I feel that the way you’re sharing your honest experiences and obstacles here, you are providing that sort of (virtual) camaraderie to other folks who are just starting out. What a cool thing to get to do for people you may never meet.

As for riding with cars – I just assume everyone behind the wheel is drunk, sleepy, texting, putting on makeup, making themselves some cheese and crackers, or all of the above, and keep an eye on them accordingly 😉

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

One word: experience.
After you’ve seen enough of the same scenario play out, you learn to recognize what’s going to happen before it happens.

Other than that, I try (emphasize “try”) to keep the following things in mind:
1. You must babysit everyone. Pedestrians expect full right-of-way at all times (as they mostly should), which means they expect bicyclists to watch for them. Drivers expect full right-of-way at all times (which they shouldn’t), and expect bicyclists and pedestrians to watch out for them. You, as the bicyclist, are always expected to stay out of the way, even though you don’t always have to, legally speaking, and there are many times you can assert your right-of-way safely, usually to the consternation of drivers (so be prepared).
2. Wheels don’t lie. Turn signals lie; wheels don’t. Drivers imbue their vehicles with a “body language” that you will learn to read, but it starts with wheels. If wheels are moving, the car is moving. If wheels are angled, the car will turn, regardless of signal, etc.
3. Wheels also speak. Audibly. Listen for the sound of car wheels slowing behind you. If you hear it, it isn’t because the driver is being careful to pass you, it is because they are about to turn. Also, they don’t see you, or they think they can beat you to the corner and turn in front of you. Act accordingly.
4. If you think drivers aren’t going to look where you are, move to where they are looking. This generally means moving farther left, when safe. This is especially pertinent at driveways where drivers are looking for the tiniest of gaps to floor it into. All the reflective tape in the world will not move a driver’s head or eyeballs.
5. Keep in mind the Salmon and the Tuna. One day the Salmon comes up to the Tuna and says, “You’re always in salt water—you should try swimming in fresh water once in a while”. To which the Tuna replies, “What’s ‘water’?”. Most (most) drivers are completely clueless as to what it’s like to use a road any other way than in a car, and have no idea how to share or cooperate with any other type of road user. See #1.

Clark in Vancouver
Guest
Clark in Vancouver

I take a philosophical approach to it.
Cycling is an inherently safe and pleasant activity. It’s just disenfranchisement and the monomodal built environment that can make it seem otherwise. I look at environments and how they influence behaviour, then I have nothing to do with the bad ones that create conflict. I don’t see motorists as crazy and evil but regular people who are simply going along with the system and reacting to a frustrating environment. The best thing is to not be in those places. I seek out greenways and PBLs, slow down when there’s some nutty traffic thing ahead, etc. I’m both relaxed and aware of what’s around me. This is pleasant.
My time in the Netherlands was an eye-opener. What I learned mostly is that even after attaining a system that completely includes cycling there will still be people driving cars. (The rhetoric I heard before here was that once gas got very expensive there would be fewer cars around and then we’d get the streets back.) I also saw the Dutch and how happy they are. They make a lot of decisions based on quality of life and equity. It changed my approach to advocacy. I no longer saw it as a fight against an oppressor and now see it as fixing a systemic lack of inclusiveness.
I also got myself a style of bike that’s more like they have over there. Upright, efficient and with stable geometry. It makes a huge difference. I feel more in control and very comfortable.
My style of biking has changed with this bike. I now do speed control changes instead of stops-and-starts. I see something ahead and slow down well before until I know what’s up instead of continuing until the thing is a problem and braking. Again, relaxed and alert.

While I hope that the built environment improvements will continue it’ll always be an ongoing process so I’m having a good time now with what there is now and getting my mobility needs met.

Carrie
Subscriber

Becky Jo — I am SO GLAD you are here.

I try hard to be the Zen cyclist because it’s good for ME. I can react better (if I need to) if I’m not tense and stressed and I can truly enjoy my time outside if I’m not worried about keeping up with the others (or dropping the others, or whatever). It’s not all roses and sunshine out there (I was left hooked in May & just last month had to stop riding and take really deep breaths for a while as I was nearly smushed between a trailer and parked cars), but most of the time it’s so great to be outside and moving rather than in a tin can and not moving. And it’s just The Right Thing to do for your community.

I also do think the longer you ride the better you will be able to anticipate where you do need to really pay attention and where you can just sit back and ride. There are certain intersections or scenarios where I am always super alert, and then there are other sections of my ride where I just ride. One other great thing about riding in Portland compared to other places I’ve ridden is that people here will ride whatever bike they have in whatever clothes they have for the ride in front of them. I came from the triathlon world where you only ever rode fast bikes in lycra and never rode a bike in ‘street clothes’. Now I marvel at the incredibly fast commuters on their hybrid city bikes in street clothes and the people carrying loads on their cargo bikes and the 10 year old on his drop-bar bike racing me to the next light. I’m really so very glad you’re joining us out here.

Pete
Guest
Pete

Being Zen is a practice and also a heightened state of awareness. Zen bike guy isn’t throwing caution to the wind, being too care free, or naive to danger, they have likely been cycling a long time on the same streets and even though they look like they might be a little lackadaisical, are probably very capable of dealing with a dangerous situation quickly, efficiently and safely as soon as they are aware of it.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

One thing not mentioned yet is a mirror. While your no-hands, no-helmet ninja won’t have one, plenty of ‘zen’ riders do. Check some out at your LBS, there is a wide range of choices, starting with whether it goes on your bike or on your head. My preference is the EVT Safe Zone Bicycle Helmet Mirror; look for it at Bike Gallery.

As for all the visibility stuff, I haven’t heard of a bike crash due to the “flame-to-a-moth scenario,” but I often hear of “didn’t see them” or “came out of nowhere” excuses. I don’t want to give excuses to bad drivers. I have heard (reputably) that strobe-type flashers provide less distance perception to the approaching vehicle than steady lights but I’m not sure how that plays out in real-world crash statistics. Also, strobes are hard on photosensitive people. My favorite after dark set-up includes steady white front light on the bars, steady red on the rear rack, and a gently pulsing light on the back of my helmet. I also have bits of reflective tape on the pedals, the rack stays, and wheels. Remember that “Hi-Viz” colors are not especially visible in the dark; lights and reflectors are.