I decide to take a break from work around 3:30, close my laptop, and head downstairs to unlock my bike and ride to the grocery store. It's about a 6-minute ride through a few side streets before I reach Dufferin, which is usually quite busy and has no bike lanes. I ride up Dufferin waiting for a break in the traffic and turn left into a side alley behind a community center that opens out into the parking lot of the grocery store. I lock up my bike, detach my panniers and bring them into the grocery store, stuffing them underneath the grocery cart. Shopping doesn't take long. I only need a few things for dinner tonight, but I also need to grab some bigger items. I get milk, eggs, and a couple of other things as well. When I check out, I pack my panniers, load them into the grocery cart, and wheel them outside where I unload them from the cart and slowly attach them to my bike.
In order to attach grocery-laden panniers to my bikes I have to unlock my bike, move it against the wall, take one pannier and attach it to the back rack, then move the bike around 180 degrees and attach the other pannier. Sometimes when I do this the bike will come close to falling. I haven't quite mastered how to load heavy paniers without clumsily knocking the bike over (despite having done it at least 70 or 80 times already).
I get on the bike and leave the way I came through the parking lot, always noticing the way the bike handles differently with the additional 40 to 50 pounds that I'm usually carrying while grocery shopping. I get back on the cobblestone path that leads out onto the sidewalk that runs parallel to Dufferin and then get back on the road when there's a clearing in the traffic. As I come to turn left on Hallam, I pause in the left turn lane holding my hand out to signal that I'm turning left. I watch a few cars pass. The light turns yellow and I start to commit to the turn. There is one car approaching and it speeds up. I hesitate. The light turns red and I abandon my turn. A second passes and I back off quickly. The car runs through the red light. I shake my head and yell something that I can't remember as the car passes. I hear it honk several short blasts in response.
Today is a day where I will confront the car. I make a clumsy U-turn and continue after the car. Memories of the times I've done this flood me and I think about how I will be better this time. I know I will be better. Still, I can't stop myself. I’m not better enough to just let it go.
I ride up to the car, catching them at another red light. I think about the fear they might be feeling as they see me approaching. I feel the fear in myself of worst-case scenarios. I pull up to the car to their passenger window and look at the driver. They roll down their window and I start talking.
"You can't drive like that. You just ran a red light. You could have killed me."
The driver denies this, but for whatever reason I can't remember what they said. I am too caught up in the adrenaline of having to say what I want to say, of having been wronged. I can't hear him through the sounds of the street, their accent, and my own thoughts buzzing through my head. All I can see are their reactions and what looks like defensiveness to me, on their face. I see them move their hand to the shifter and I wonder if they are going to park his car and get out. I've never had a confrontation where someone has gotten out of the car. But that doesn't happen. To be honest, this driver looks quite kind. Most of the people are that honk at me. There are jerks, sure, but I have a feeling that this person is not.
I continue. "I'm a person on the road too," I say, tapping on my chest. "You can't drive like that. People in cars kill cyclists. You ran a red light. You could have killed me," I repeat.
I think that was the extent of what I said, but I don't really remember; I often don't remember details after confrontations like this. I do another u-turn when the traffic is clear and head back down to where it originally happened, this episode lasting probably no more than a minute or however long it was that we were at that red light.
The Anger and The Car
When I confront the car anger is the dominant emotion. Anger infused with frustration. I have a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the unfairness of life, a childish and naive attitude I often feel I should have outgrown by now. But while the majority of this mindset comes from an abundance of privilege, occasionally some of it comes from rationality—at least I like to think so.
When I'm riding a bike, I'm a fragile leaf in the wind. Passing, weaving, and dodging massive swinging branches made of metal, thousands of pounds, all controlled by two hands and one foot (and hopefully a decently alert mind).
The sense of unfairness comes from many things. First, it comes from the amount of exerted effort it takes for the two parties, the cyclist and the car, to get where they're going. The person in the car needs to move their foot some 3 inches either in depth or in width when they accelerate or move from the gas to the brake, slight adjustments of the hands on the wheel, and of course, hopefully, looking in the mirror every 3-10 seconds.
The cyclist is doing more than that. Their body is used to propel their motion, and while it seems ridiculous that I must state this, it is this contrast that feeds the sense of unfairness that roams around inside me. I am moving myself. I am using the limited energy of my day to get myself where I want to go.
Yes, I could be a person who moves themselves by moving their foot three to five inches back and forth, their hands fractions of inches left and right, their eyes darting from mirror to mirror. Instead, I choose to move my knees up and down, pilot my hands left and right, ring my bell when I need to be heard, and perhaps most of all, expend a great amount of mental energy making sure I don't get hit by wayward cars.
All this unfairness talk sounds like quite a bit of complaining, doesn’t it? Throw on top of that (in case you couldn't tell) that I have a sense of smug satisfaction that I can live my life this way, biking around the way I do. Yes, it’s true that I’m proud that I'm able to move myself by bike rather than having to have a car. And while things might not always be this way (fingers crossed), my life circumstances (read: privilege, luck, and personal choices) at this time allow me to use my bike year-round as my main method of transportation instead of needing a car. But what kind of argument is that? Or am I just writing this to be another annoying cycling advocate?
I digress. Let’s get back to the anger. The anger doesn't come from just from some perception of unfairness and the fact that I have to put more effort in to get where I'm going.
There is a certain toxic masculinity in road rage. I don't have the studies to back it up, but from what I've seen in my life, it seems that men have more issues with road rage. And to some degree, regardless of gender, the car facilitates a space of one’s own, a small world where you are the lawmaker, and any offender is them against us. But this car-world-morality and it’s enforcing thereof is amplified dangerously by toxic masculinity. When wronged, there is the need to show your rightness, and shouting matches and violence, tailgating, and other dangerous reactions all seem to be ways of demonstrating a culture of disturbed notions of strength and dominance.
This expands to being a cyclist as well. These are the parts that I'm not proud of; the parts of me that get a sick sense of satisfaction as I have a story to tell about some idiot driver that I accosted for their wrongs. How I was able to catch up to a speeding car after it nearly hit me. or after confronting someone who threw something at me from their car as they drove by. It's certainly a weird part of my lizard brain, and I don't like it. This bizarre desire to have some collection of daring "war stories" from my own menial life that show I was tough, I was strong, I was right, and I made sure the other knew it.
I don't like that anger is the dominant emotion that I feel. I’ve learned recently that anger in men is one of the few emotions that culturally, at least during my upbringing and before it, seem to be the emotion we are "allowed" (and sometimes even encouraged) to express. The parts of me that identify as a man lean on these old ideas that surely go back ages. I often wonder if the shakes I have in my hands after a confrontation with a car and its driver are somewhat due to multiple conflicting parts of my identity clashing.
But there are alternatives that I'm slowly starting to see and consider. I could feel sadness, seeing someone run a red light. Sadness that they have to rush. Sadness that they don't have much thought for other people. I could feel grateful that I did not get hit. And all that? It might be enough for me to continue on with my day to appreciate the life that I have that didn't end or get waylaid.
But anger in the car continues to be a problem and it's important that I acknowledge that road rage shows itself in many forms. I do believe that cars provide us with an isolated bubble around us, our own little world that we have dominance and control over. It is this my-worldness that makes it easy to stop seeing other cars as machines piloted by people.
So if they're in a bubble, how do they see me on a bike?
I can tell you, without a 1-ton chassis of metal protecting me, I’m not so much in my own world. Sure, sometimes it feels like "me and my bike against the world", but most of the time it feels like I’m part of the world (oh, there's my soap box, ahem). I’m certainly closer to the ground and things are a lot louder out here on the bike. I can’t really listen to music safely. But with all that said, I’m going at a slower speed where I can see my community day in and day out, watching it change and grow. When I volunteer to deliver food bank parcels by bike, I carry mutual aid to people who often don’t have cars either, and cannot leave the house to get to the food bank. When I ride to the lake, and while it takes some 5 kilometers or so (and passing under a highway), I eventually get to a place where cars aren’t allowed and people are relaxing on the hills of Ontario place, having picnics, running, and so on.
These kinds of experiences are the counter to the anger that floods me after a close-call involving myself or a loved one, or a stranger on a bike. Just like when I ride the used Miyata I bought from a friend; something about the mustache handlebars makes me feel like I’m having a picnic of my own as I cruise down the streets on this too-small, 20-something-year-old bike. Pure delight.
The delight offsets the anger. But the anger is still there.
The Martyr and The Car
Beside anger is a complicated martyr-hero syndrome. Somewhere swimming under my helmet I have a deluded sense that I must speak up, (not just for myself, but for every cyclist!) when a car nearly hits me or cuts into the bike lane to get around traffic. I rationalize: If I don’t say something this person is never going to learn. So, let’s try and knock this problematic thinking down so that I can finally stop believing me and my two wheels are so important, shall we?
Question 1: What makes me think I actually am standing up for cyclists everywhere. Maybe I’m actually quite a poor cyclist who doesn’t signal, wobbles over potholes into traffic, and rolls through stop signs? Maybe I'm just looking for a fight?
Answer: An Us Vs Them sentimentality, probably. I suppose by the nature of fragile I feel on a bike, I extend that feeling to other cyclists. We’re the ones who will get destroyed when you hit us. Cars worry about other cars. They don’t have to be as vigilant about cyclists. So, when I make known my presence, I’m hoping to be remembered on behalf of the next time that driver encounters a cyclist on the road. Perhaps I just need to make better choices about how I be remembered.
Question 2: What kind of progress do I think is even possible, accosting driver’s in their cars? How often do people react favourably when someone tells them they screwed up and nearly hurt a stranger?
Answer: I can’t know what progress will be made. The deluded cyclist martyr only can imagine that each thing they do is a step toward more awareness.
Question 3: Aren’t I chasing some kind of disaster? Is the chip so large on my shoulder that I can barely stand to have it there before I must urge someone to knock it off (with their Mercedes)?
Answer: I think I covered this fairly well in the above The Anger and The Car. But, truthfully, it’s hard to tell the line behind letting anger take the handlebars and other mentally unwell parts of me wishing for something bad to happen to me.
That brings me to our next part.
The Death and The Car
Content warning: A story of cyclist who was hit and killed by a truck, writings on death, and visions of car-inflicted-harm and death.
In November 2022 a cyclist was hit and dragged at Yonge and St. Clair by a pickup truck making an illegal right turn article. My gut wrenches to think about the horrific scene of 20-year old Kartik Saini being hit and dragged until his death.
Everybody thinks about death and mortality differently and in different amounts. I’m not sure if I think about more than most people, but sometimes it feels that way. I find talking about death to be a fairly taboo topic, and I often feel a great pressure not to speak of it (nor do I think I really want to). But for me, when I’m cycling I have fleeting thoughts of getting hit. These thoughts don’t happen very often; in fact, cycling is around 95% of the time a very pleasant thing that makes me quite happy. Yet, when I am not in a good headspace; when I’m feeling a particular emotional turmoil, sometimes I have visions of being hit by a car and thrown from my bike. This scenario is not something I particularly wish for myself, although in my darkest moments, I suppose I have wished for some kind of reprieve, regardless of how grisly that is.
This being the first time I’ve written about it, I find it rather hard to describe. It feels taboo to speak of, and I feel the desire to reassure people — that I’m fine, that I don’t wish bad things to happen to me, that intrusive thoughts are a normal part of life and accepting them is a way to make peace with them. And so on. I will also mention that I find it particularly sickening for to me to write about these thoughts just paragraphs below the mentioning of a cyclist whose life was taken from them and in such a horrid way.
So why am I prodding into this area? I want to acknowledge and pry into why these things envisioned are related to cars, specifically. What does it mean that I envision being hit on my bike? I never imagine harm happening to me, nor inflict self-harm in any way upon myself. Yet, these things have popped into my head. Perhaps when I am at my lowest, when I am at my most anxious, I finally acquiesce to my fragility: a little fish surrounded by sharks. I am nearly granting the car, as if it’s a blood-thirsty creature, it’s rightful domain over me.
At this point, I have more questions that answers, or even ideas. But what pervades is a tiny thought: what have cars done to me? Have they twisted the pathways in my brain so that I’m more alert? As a result, has my body become trained to be more nimble to avoid this mock-predator? Or has my psyche simply, time after time, been impressed with a dominator under whose shadow I’m always trying to escape? A shadow that sometimes, in my worst moments, I want to say " ok, I give up. You win."
As a postscript, I would like to put on my solutioning hat and address various parts of this essay. Writing this out has given me insight into things I could do differently (which is partially why I decided to write this).
First off, I’d like to call out the tone of self-deprecation in this article. I willingly put myself down and poke fun at the cyclist version of me described because I don’t think the people I want to read this will get past the first half-page if I come across too righteous and anti-car.
Second, regarding the Martyr/Anger concern. The other day I was biking home and I heard two short blasts of a whistle. I looked around and couldn’t see anything. When I heard it again I spotted the source: a cyclist going the opposite direction, just leaving my peripheral vision. Being heard goes a long way. Sometimes when you ring your bell (literally, not metaphorically) it can be quite hard to be heard. With that comes the fragility and a widening of the gap of us vs them.
Similarly, I have seen cyclists who have cameras mounted to their helmets. Even this small addition to your kit seems like it could go a long way in showing drivers that they are being watched. With the possibility of captured evidence of poor driving, people might just act a bit more civil on the roads. I don’t want to have a camera strapped to me, but I can see how it could provide some psychological safety.
And finally, I’d like to address learning to let go. I don’t know anyone else who confronts people in cars while on their bikes. Just that alone makes me feel a bit disturbed. Writing this has been act to move toward being better; maybe confrontation will still rear its head, but I’ll have more patience, or more gratitude at the end of it. All emotions should be welcome as they arrive to be felt, but also, strong emotions don't necessitate immediate action.
All of the above are nice ideas right? I would put them into the kit of defensive cycling. To be sure, it’s utter bullshit that any of the above should be necessary, but without the infrastructure for better cycling, better driver-education and a whole slew of other issues, these kinds of things need to exist.