Cycling is full of contradictions. On one hand, it’s a blissful escape; by riding a bicycle, you can literally pedal yourself into a state of better mental health. On the other, it can be deadly, and unless you’re a first responder or a combat soldier, your rides are pretty much the only times you’re forced to confront the very real possibility of your imminent demise during the normal course of your day.*
Sure, statistically there are a lot of activities that are way riskier than cycling, but the fact remains that you can totally die out there.
So what’s the best way to cope with this? Ride anyway and try not to think about it? Forget the whole enterprise and declare, “Fuck it, I’m leasing a Hyundai”?
Hardly. I believe that there is a middle way, and that you can cultivate a cycling attitude that will keep you both happy and alive. In order to achieve this balance, it can be helpful to meditate on the following as you ride.
Start Every Ride with a Goal
No, I don’t mean a goal like beating your best time to work or crushing that Strava KOM. I mean start with a noble goal, like having a good ride—and by “good,” I mean one that’s completely free from altercations and injury, and that leaves you happier than you were when you started it. Take a moment to visualize your entire ride going smoothly from beginning to end. Then imagine pouring this optimism into some kind of vessel, placing it into a cupholder on your handlebars, and getting through the entire ride without spilling a drop. While you certainly can’t control every aspect of your ride, you do have full control your own actions, and riding mindfully will help make you make good choices and turn your idealized ride into reality.
Then, when finished with the ride, celebrate with a ceremony in which you drink your optimism in the form of an actual alcoholic beverage. (Repeat as necessary.)
Always Think About How You Could Die
Common wisdom would have you believe that in order to stay in the zone, it’s best not to overthink things—you know, “Don’t look down” and all that. This may be good advice if you’re carrying a tray of drinks or going for that bowling high score, but we're talking about riding a bike and even with the advent of bike lanes, the truth of the matter is that most of the streets you’re riding are basically designed to kill you. (Well, technically they’re designed for cars, but that’s pretty much the same thing.) So ride that way! Think about it: If there was a bounty on your head, would you walk around casually like nothing was wrong? No you would not. You’d dye your hair, stick on a fake mustache, and expect assassins to leap out of every nook and cranny.
Constantly thinking about death would seem to run counter to the whole optimism thing, but in fact it’s the best way to reconcile ourselves with our own mortality, which is the basis for everything from celebrating Halloween to listening to Slayer. On the bike, knowing death is always there ready to pounce reminds me to never take my own safety for granted; it compels me to check over my shoulder, reposition myself on the roadway, or check my speed as necessary. Does it create fear and keep me off the bike? No, nothing keeps me off the bike. But imagining myself not making it through an intersection alive does make me think twice about trying to catch the light that’s about to change.
Flow Like Water
Remember the old “I’m rubber, you’re glue” chant you’d recite when someone called you a name? Well, when someone’s bullying you on the bike, you don’t want to be rubber or glue. Glue is sticky and rubber is non-wicking and uncomfortable. What you want to be is water, and that’s easy on a bike: no other road user can move as fluidly as you can. Use this to your advantage. When an obstacle enters your path, don’t get mad, get around it. Yes, those drivers in the bike lane deserves at least a few choice words and perhaps some broken side-view mirrors. However, if they were reasonable people, they wouldn’t be sitting in the bike lane in the first place. They’re not going to listen to you, so don’t bother. Exhale, go around as safely as you can (which you will because you’ve already imagined the scenario in which you die), and instead channel your energy into putting pressure on your city officials later.
Same goes for pedestrians who step into your path: it’s annoying, but as long as you’re attentive, riding sensibly, and focused on transporting your vessel of optimism you should have no trouble safely avoiding them. Most importantly, don’t heap the same derision onto them that motorists do onto you. They’re even more vulnerable than you are.
Water is power. Use yours wisely.
Know Your Enemy
Lest any of the above give you the wrong idea, when it comes to the streets, we’re not all equal stakeholders who must learn to live together in peace and harmony. Make no mistake: Drivers are your enemy. But when your enemy is legion, has seized control of the infrastructure, and has law enforcement on its side, is it really wise to attack them? Of course not. Instead, find inspiration in the fact that you’re vastly more nimble and adaptable than they are. Use their plodding and lumbering to your advantage. They’re the dinosaurs, destined for extinction, while you’re the small and nimble mammal flourishing right under their moribund noses.
The writing is on the wall for the automobile in the form of endless traffic jams and diminishing interest in car ownership. Evolutionarily speaking, that sedan with the AAA bumper sticker is no match for your bike. So why waste time engaging in conflict when the war is already won?
*Well, you also risk imminent death whenever you travel by motor vehicle, but as a society we’ve learned how not to confront that.
Illustrations by Taj Mihelich