Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Can one's cycling persona influence driver behavior?

By Angela Connolly -- I love riding my 1972 Raleigh Humber, a classic English 3-speed cruiser. I found the bike for a bargain price on eBay. I had fallen in love with one like it that had been donated to the Newark Bike Project, the community's local bicycle cooperative where I am a volunteer. I loved the idea of something so close to England, a country that I love, one that I have visited many times. "Lady Louise", named after my good friend in England, is dark green, and well worn, the original decals mostly intact. When the bike arrived, it was in dire need of some TLC to restore it to its original beauty. I was lucky to have Frank Warnock, a Newark Bike Project lead mechanic and three-speed enthusiast, to help with this task. He carefully rebuilt the Humber, restoring both the performance and beauty of this special bike. To complete the bike's vintage feel, we mounted a wicker market basket to the handlebars, and a vintage green Swiss Army style bag, popular during the '70's, hangs from the rear of the bike's original Brooks leather saddle. I put some 1970's buttons on the army bag, depicting cultural icons of the 70's, including the famous "happy face" symbol and a peace sign. The brass bell gives a soft, friendly sound when I ding it. It now looks as though it has traveled through time, directly from the '70's, a time that I enjoyed as a happy teenager. Although I lived in the Bronx, NY, and never owned a bike as a child, I had friends who taught me to ride, shared their own bikes with me, and Raleigh bikes were a popular favorite back then.

Known as the "Aristocrat of Bicycles", the Humber was built to give the English population who chose not to drive cars an affordable, reliable means of transportation. Available in both men's and lady's models, the Humber is solidly built and heavy. I can cruise along at a steady, comfortable pace. I ride this bicycle only in the immediate area, within a radius of about 10 miles or so, and mostly on side streets. Although the Humber is far from the English villages that it was meant to cruise through, it seems content to travel through the housing developments and local streets that surround my house.

On a recent lovely Fall day, I rode to nearby Main Street in Newark. Riding the Humber is bicycling at its most very basic, purest form for me - no biking shoes, no clips, no Lycra required. On very local trips, I do not even wear my helmet, although I agree with helmet usage, and would not ride my road bike without one. Dressed in leggings, a long sweater, plaid shawl, and leather boots, I set out for a nice leisurely ride. Just me, the bike, and the pleasant clicking noises that the Sturmey Archer internal hub produces as we roll along.

This outing was no different to others that I have taken on Lady Louise. The first thing I always notice while on the Humber is the reaction I get from people, both walking, and in their cars. The cars give me room, waiting patiently behind me as I go across intersections. Drivers smile at me, and wave as they pass me carefully, giving me lots of room to go safely. Pedestrians I meet are a joy, also. Slowly biking my way up the hill through one of the developments, an older lady called out "You lookin' good, Sista". Everyone that I meet along the way, it seems, reacts positively to me. At my destination, parked on Main Street, people admire the bike, ask questions about it, many telling me that it reminds them of a bike that they had, long ago.

The author, taking the mighty Hares Corner on Miss Fuji.
I have different experiences when riding my road bike. Miss Fuji, as I call her, is a sleek ride, all blue, silver and attitude, and very fast. Crouched in the road cycling position, I look the part of the fully kitted out Lycra cyclist, from my helmet, all the way down to my Shimano shoes that I clip into my pedals with. Although I am by no means a very fast cyclist, I look and feel more powerful, and confident. Perhaps this is conveyed to those that I pass, because it creates a totally different riding experience. When on the Fuji, I ride too quickly by people who are walking to exchange greetings, so there's no friendly interaction. I struggle to get up the hills as quickly as I can, because being clipped in, I have to maintain a reasonable speed, or lose my balance and fall over. Cars, expecting me to go faster, and getting angry when I don't, crowd me, they honk, yell, and sometimes send rude gestures my way.  Generally, where I am given plenty of room riding the sharrows on Main Street when on the Humber, this isn't always the case when I am on the Fuji.

Those are my experiences, at opposite ends of the cycling spectrum. And I wonder if other cyclists, ladies or gentlemen, have experienced the same. Can the way we dress for cycling, and the bikes we ride, really influence how drivers treat us?  While I enjoy both types of cycling, and each of the bikes and the rides that I take on them are very special to me, I think that the persona that I present on the Humber somehow brings to mind a slower, more gentle way of riding. It is one that can remind us of a kinder, safer past, long before the current existence of heavier traffic, aggressive and distracted driving, drivers using cell phones and texting while driving. When I am riding Lady Louise, I like to think that I am in that safer world, even if only for a short time.

In between? The author's Crossroads Cruz, a Hybrid featuring a Sturmey Archer
8-speed hub, might just be the perfect medium.

Poster's note:
Personal testimony, and at least one study - supports the claim that drivers pass helmeted cyclists more closely than unhelmeted cyclists (because unhelmeted cyclists seem more vulnerable), and so helmeted cyclists are more likely to get hit. Read about it on BicycleSafe.com. Delaware Bikes' position is simple - it should be an adult's personal decision whether or not to wear a helmet

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