A bike on the road: One true story of a near miss and 5 cycling myths dispelled

Let's all calm down here. Take a breath. Realize that we're all traffic.

I, on my bike, was having this discussion just the other day with a motorist on the Red Arrow Highway. His point was, "I'm tired of having to go around you people." My counterpoint was, I don't want you to plow into me and kill me.

Portions of the Red Arrow is also MDOT-recognized as U.S. Bicycle Route 35, popular with long-distance bike tourers traveling along Lake Michigan. I was pedaling south Sunday afternoon, June 3, headed for Warren Dunes, on a little weekend adventure (soon to be a story in Second Wave). 

Red Arrow is four lanes, speed limit 55 mph. No paved shoulder -- paved shoulders are more-ideal for bikes -- but plenty of room to pass.

I was riding far to the right, by the white line, very visible with large bright colored bags on my bike and a flashing red taillight. I saw ahead in the lane to the left of me, a car, stopped, waiting to turn left. 

In my rearview mirror, I see a red pickup speeding from behind. I have to think in a fraction of a second: Is he going to slow down, pass when it's safe to do so? Or will he try to squeeze between me and the turning car? 

Should I plow into the gravel shoulder -- but there's no time to act. The pickup blew by, a couple feet from hitting me.

He did have the patience to stop up ahead because he was offended by my hand gesture that's become a bit of an automatic reflex in such situations. I was simply hoping to communicate to him that reckless driving that endangers my life makes me angry.

He stepped out of his truck. I observed that he looks around 60. My main thought is, is there anything in his hands? No. He's unarmed. I can hear him indicating that I should stop and "back it up" -- back up my angry gesture and, I assume, fight him?

I pedal past. He yells "(Obscenity), go back to Chicago!"

I yell back, "I'm from Kalamazoo, b---h!" 

He gets back in his truck and drives alongside me to continue the discussion. I apologize for the gesture, but say that I felt like I was about to be murdered by his bad driving. He countered that I shouldn't be in the road, I was too old to be riding a bike anyway, etc. 

And he drove on. I pedaled into Warren Dunes, to enjoy the lakeshore beauty of Berrien County.

5 myths of bicycle riding debunked

Bike pedals or gas pedals, we are all traffic on the road.
I drive a car, and I ride a bike. So does Paul Runnels.

"In an hour, I'll be in a car, on the road, paying my gas tax," he says during a break on a Kalamazoo bike ride.

Runnels, 67, was wearing a jersey commemorating his recent bike tour in the mountains of Colorado. He's riding his black carbon fiber Trek Domane to the site of a memorial to the June 7, 2016, tragedy where Charles Pickett, Jr. killed five and seriously wounded four members of his Chain Gang bike group, near Markin Glen Park. 

Runnels has his own memorial that he can see when he rides. It's on the frame of his bike -- a decal he had made with the names of the dead and wounded.

"I thought I'd get reminded of my fellow riders when I take off to ride." 

Runnels was one of the four wounded. He suffered a subdural hematoma, but his helmet prevented what would've been a likely fatal brain injury.

"I don't want to seem preachy or anything, but probably the best thing that anybody could do, aside from paying attention to the traffic, is wearing a helmet. You don't have to interact with a motor vehicle to crash. And if you have a helmet on, you're going to save your head 90 percent of the time," he says. 

People ask him how he could ride again after the crash. "I was in front of the pack, so I got up there pretty far before I got knocked off. But I don't have any memory of getting hit or seeing the truck or anything. So in a lot of ways, it's a little easier to get back on a bike, without having a memory of being in the crash. Plus, the four survivors, we've stayed pretty close, so we're our own little support group, along with others in the community," he says.

Pickett was found guilty on charges including five counts of second-degree murder, operating while intoxicated. He faces sentencing this month (June  2018).

The roadside memorial will become permanent this June 7, with an unveiling at 5:30 p.m. and a memorial ride.

The Chain Gang tragedy inspired a new awareness of bikes as road vehicles in Michigan and new rules for safe passing of cyclists and other road users.

But, Runnels says, myths and misconceptions remain.

Paul Runnels says it was not that hard to get back on his bike after being in the crash that killed five others, because he can't remember it. Photo by Mark WedelAs he recovered and got back in the saddle, Runnels got involved in lobbying the Michigan legislature for laws protecting cyclists, became a member of Bike Friendly Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club, and League of Michigan Bicyclists.

Since 2016, there were a lot of brainstorming sessions to address misconceptions about bikes, he says. Runnels worked with Bike Friendly Kalamazoo head Paul Selden on a list of "Answers to Common Bicyclist-Motorist Myths, Misunderstandings and Misconceptions".  Runnels' name is on the document, but "I have to give a lot of the credit to Paul (Selden) both for initiating it, being a mentor and processing it."

The list is highly-detailed and backed with a "stack of papers," he says, "all based on original research."  The document is "a work in progress," which will be updated as needed.

We asked Runnels what he sees as the most-persistent myths about bikes and the rules of the road.

Myth 1. Bicyclists are the worst scofflaws. Wrong. Everyone is a scofflaw. There's data to prove it.

"The one that struck me the most, I think -- I don't want to overgeneralize, but that motorists tend to think of bicyclists as disobeying the rules. Or don't belong on the road at all."

He cites surveys such as one by the University of Colorado, that show people operating bikes and motor vehicles violate traffic laws at similar rates.

"In a fairly large survey that was anonymous, 18,000 people, investigators found that bicyclists, pedestrians, motorists, as groups, break the rules almost evenly. Like, 96 percent of bicyclists said they broke rules, 98 percent of pedestrians and almost 100 percent of motorists at some point say they break them. When it comes to actually violating significant rules, then rates are about the same when you break it down.... between seven and 10 percent, roughly."

One complaint is that bikes "tend to roll through stop signs. You're going pretty slowly, you have a lot more visibility than in a car, you can see what's coming...." Also, to make a full stop, many road bikers have to unclip shoe from pedal, put a foot down, stop, then take off and clip back in, Runnels says.

And automobile drivers are not so law-abiding themselves. "Motorists, and I'm guilty of it too, you roll through 'orange' lights." 

We've all been impatient, found ourselves blowing through a yellow light as it turns red, he points out.

We all speed a bit over the limit. Forget to use signals. Maybe even get behind the wheel after having a drink. Or check the cellphone when our eyes should be on the road. 

"But for some reason, motorists tend to view bicyclists as breaking the rules" more than motorists. "But it's just not true. We're all scofflaws."

Could there be a tendency of both cyclists and motorists to see someone as "the other?" There's that cyclist in the way, going slow, and then there he goes, through a stop while I wait? Or, there's that aggressive driver, passing just a foot away while obviously going 10 mph over the limit? Is there a tendency to turn the other road user into a "THEY" who is always using the roads wrong? 

"We, as motorists, we can rationalize what we're doing, but it aggravates us to see a bicyclist doing something different," Runnels says. "And as bicyclists, we can rationalize what we're doing. And neither one of us sees ourselves as doing anything particularly criminal." 

We need to understand that we're all entitled to use the roads, but that perceptions tend to be different from behind the steering wheel and the handlebars, he says. 

"We need to keep educating, and be patient, and realize we're all traffic."  

Myth 2. Bikes shouldn't be on the road. Wrong. Bikes are legal on nearly all roads, except for interstates. 

Runnels' document quotes Michigan law and policy, which call for "roadways planned, designed, and constructed to provide appropriate access to all legal users... whether by car, truck, transit, assistive device, foot or bicycle."

But one thing bikers have to constantly consider is, though I may be legal and have the right-of-way, is it safe to assume my rights will protect me against a 4,000 box of metal operated by someone who's also operating a smartphone? 

"Physics always favors the motorist," Runnels says. "My advice to myself is, just be cautious, be careful." 

Myth 3. Bikes should stay on the trails/non-motorized paths. Wrong. Trails are best for those biking at slower speeds. Though they can be a great option for those cyclists who don't want to be on the road. 

Runnels is happy with the efforts of Kalamazoo to link communities with trails. "For some people, riding on trails is fine. I've talked to people, the only way they want to ride is in spin classes, that's the only way they want to interact with a bicycle." 

But, "if you're a road biker, used to hammering a little bit, you have to be careful" on trails or non-motorized paths. 

His average speed is around 15 mph, a bit slower than before the 2016 crash, Runnels says. In comparison, my average speed is 13 mph.

Some prefer relaxed rides of 10 mph, and that's fine on a trail, especially if you happen to go around a blind corner and encounter a couple of parents pushing a stroller, for example.

But groups hammering away at 15 to 20 mph should stick with the roads. "If you're riding in groups, especially, riding on trails is almost not safe. You're going fast, you don't have the visibility, you're slowing down, speeding up, slowing down. It's very distracting if there's a lot of other users on the path," he says.

For the same reasons, bike riding is unsafe on sidewalks. Runnels writes, "except perhaps for children," sidewalks "often introduce more points of conflict between bicyclists, motor vehicles, and pedestrians...." (It should be noted that I, when younger and dumber, was hit by a car when riding on a downtown Kalamazoo sidewalk. The driver, coming out of a blind alleyway, couldn't see me coming, and I didn't see him in time. I was only scraped and bruised, but learned to respect the momentum of a 1980s Cadillac.) 

Myth 4. Bicyclists don't pay for roads. Wrong. Most bicyclists also own cars and therefore pay taxes that go toward roads. Roads are also funded by property, income, and sales taxes.

"We do very little damage to the road, and we're also probably drivers 95 percent of the time, so we're paying gas taxes, we're paying sales taxes, we're paying all kinds of taxes that do go toward maintaining roads. Even if a small percentage of that money goes to creating more-bike-friendly modes of travel, we still do pay our share." 

Myth 5. Only kids should ride bikes. Wrong. Why should only kids be allowed the freedom and fun of riding?

Runnels agrees with my opinion that maybe those stuck in cars are a little jealous of other adults having fun on a bike. "Some of it is probably that; some of it is, I think, some people see it as elitist, maybe. Some people just have the idea that cars should have primacy, and that's that."

People ride for many reasons, he says: fitness, fun, daily transportation. "There are all kinds of reasons people ride bikes. It certainly isn't to interfere with traffic."

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992. His first long-distance road bike ride was down to the country store four miles from home to buy fireworks and a Mad Magazine. He wrote a book on riding from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. last year, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information follow this link.  
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