Is Road Riding Worth the Risk?
After getting hit by a car, our bike-test director comes to terms with distracted driving and a society that devalues cyclists
The impact was as sudden and unexpected as lightning on a cloudless afternoon. One moment I was pedaling on a side road to my house after wrapping up a trail ride. The next I was 20 feet off the road on my back, tangled beneath my mountain bike in a stand of chamisa. People talk about their lives flashing before them in such moments, but for me there was only the sound of breaking glass and a searing pain in my left side as the car hit me from behind.
Short-circuited with adrenaline, I leapt from beneath my bike and sprinted down the roadway toward the scuffed and dented late-model Nissan, which was easing to a stop in the bike lane several hundred yards up the road. I gripped my phone—I don't remember pulling it from my thigh pocket—to get a photo of the car’s license plate, and I was screaming as I ran: “You hit me! You f*%#ing hit me!” I now realize that, by saying those words aloud, I was trying to make sense of what had happened. To the driver’s credit, despite my rage, he didn’t flee.
It seems like I hear a story of a cyclist getting hit by a car almost daily. Between 2010 and 2016, fatalities of cyclists struck by vehicles rose by 35 percent, up to 840, in 2016. People for Bikes says that increase doesn’t indicate a growing risk, but rather the overall growth of cycling. Yet, cyclists notwithstanding, fatal automobile accidents due to distracted driving have also ballooned during that same period. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that on any given day during daylight hours, some 660,000 people are using cell phones while they drive.
In the past few years, I’ve told my wife, Jen, that as many people as I see texting while driving, it seems almost inevitable that I’d eventually get hit. I routinely watch cars piloted by drivers who are staring down into their laps as they veer into the other lane or off the road. For a while, I started counting vehicles with distracted drivers that passed me. On one road ride a year ago in Santa Fe, in the first hour I tallied 37 people using their cell phones at the wheel before I gave up on the task. I’ve since scaled back my road riding in favor of gravel and mountain, in part because of this threat.
And yet, I was hit on a mountain bike while pedaling the half-mile stretch of asphalt between two trails. I had purposefully chosen dirt to avoid the stress of cars that day, and I was on the road for less than three minutes before I was struck. I was also riding at the farthest edge of the road, almost in the dirt and over five feet away from traffic, in what Santa Fe Police Department sargent Tim Benavidez would later call “the biggest bike lane in Santa Fe.”
The most galling part of the crash happened shortly after it. After taking separate statements from both me and the driver, SFPD Deputy Maria Hernandez, who arrived on the scene first, said she was exonerating the driver and issuing me a ticket for riding after dark without a light. I was dumbfounded, but had the presence of mind to produce the track from my Garmin showing I’d been hit at 7:23, just 15 minutes after sunset. No lights were legally necessary. (I almost always ride with one, but on this day my battery was dead.)
In the past few years I’ve told my wife that as many people as I see texting while driving, it seemed almost inevitable that I’d eventually get hit.
As officer Hernandez tried to figure out what to do next, I realized that because the driver and I had moved a quarter of a mile up the road to a pullout where we could safely wait, the police hadn’t even looked at the site of the crash. An inspection of the scene, with broken glass and the remains of the vehicle's side mirror in the dirt, made it clear that the driver had veered five feet into the bike lane. Sargent Benavidez, who arrived second and took control of the scene, allowed that the vehicle was moving a lot faster than the driver claimed. “Probably 40 to 45,” he said.
Let that sink in: I was in a bike lane, wearing a bright orange helmet, sans earphones, when a car traveling over the speed limit and completely off the road struck me from behind—and the police tried to ticket me and let the driver go free. I realized that day that altercations between cars and bikes aren’t so much about the risk factors, like distracted driving, bike lanes, or mountain versus road. They’re about a car culture that devalues bikes.
Over the years, passing motorists have thrown and struck me with eggs, fountain drinks, and, once, a half-empty can of beer. I’ve been shouted at, flipped off, menaced, driven into the shoulder, and even chased on foot. My own father-in-law grouses regularly about cyclists on the road and likes to joke about “door-popping” them. If cyclists can’t even rely on our families or the police, it’s clear that we are on our own.
In this case, I was extremely fortunate. The driver landed only a glancing blow with his passenger side mirror, which struck my left quad and knee, then my left tricep, and finally my handlebars. My helmet shattered from impacting the ground, and my bike took a couple of nasty gouges. I was bruised and cut, I had headaches for a week, and I’m still suffering from back and neck pain. I can’t stop thinking about how much worse it could have been if the driver had been a few inches farther right.
Irena Ossola, a 29-year-old local racer who was recently struck, wasn’t so lucky. She had to be airlifted to a regional hospital. Nor were Clare Rhodes, a 72-year-old Santa Fe local, and one of her riding partners, 68-year-old Kenneth Vieira, who were killed by a motorist while waiting in the bike lane for a light to change in Tucson last year. And just a mile or two down the highway from where I was brought down, a ghost bike commemorates the death of another rider at the hands of yet another careless driver. The list goes on and on and on.
So will I keep riding the road? I want to. I’ve been doing it for 30 years and testing bikes for Outside for over a decade, and I still love it. Why should I, the victim of an assault, be intimidated out of something I love because others are irresponsible, antagonistic, or both? I believe it’s important that we stand up for our rights to use public byways.
But since the accident, I have found no joy on my road bike. I constantly look over my shoulder, wince when cars come too close, count the minutes until I’m finished with my ride, and wonder when another inattentive driver will inadvertently run me down. Perhaps in time my anxieties will diminish. For now, though, I don’t know if it’s worth the risk of becoming another ghost bike on the side of a lonely New Mexico highway.