Suddenly and completely, like a Honda Civic, bicycle season is upon us. It is a time of great confusion. Squealing 10-speeds leap from sidewalk to street without signal or interruption. Phalanxes of silent, spandexed professionals choke every road. Children wobble forth from every shaded drive and retirees on recumbents lurk in your blind spots. You literally cannot start your car without a cyclist flying into your windshield, and that makes driving a stressful ordeal.
I feel your anxiety. You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and you can't drive back and forth to the pharmacy all summer without hitting a few bicycles. It's inevitable. You're going to run over a family in the next few months, and the mature person accepts that. But no one likes to watch torso after lifeless torso slide off the hood of his car, so even the boldest drivers can get a little overcautious this time of year. As a cyclist, I only ask that you remember one simple rule:
If I have come to a complete stop, do not also stop.
I know what you're thinking: I'm about to jump my bike off the yield sign and into the grill of your car, my bones and ligaments snapping apart like a model airplane kit. But I see you. My feet are off the pedals, and I am balanced in a stationary position. It may look like I am about to ricochet off your front bumper in a spray of spokes and teeth, but I am waiting. Take your right of way.
I know the cyclists of Missoula have led you to believe I can shoot across the street in an instant, so fast my brain and all the ideas for movies about wizards it contains become a mere streak upon your windshield. But it actually takes me a while to get going, as you will see now that you have impatiently waved me in front of you.
I know this is preferable to the most common traffic outcome, where you continue at a normal rate of speed and, just as you reach the intersection, a whole pack of Cub Scouts shoots out from the bike trail and under the wheels of your car, creating a continuous slick of blood and integument that sends you hydroplaning into the gas station. And yes, that does happen 10 or 20 times each summer.
I know all these facts are true. But another world is possible, if we believe in each other.
For example, if you saw me stopped at the intersection and kept going—knuckles white, eyes clamped shut, just waiting to hear my skull pop as it wedged between the pavement and your undercarriage—but I somehow remained stationary, we would both win. I could cross the street at a leisurely pace after you passed and your grim vigil behind the wheel would be a few seconds shorter.
Such a paradise is hard to imagine, especially in a town like this one, where every car is festooned with the organs of dead cyclists. But I think we can achieve it. All you have to do is see me come to a stop on my bicycle—or even not see me, for all I care—and keep going.
If, in making my case, I have exaggerated how often motorists collide with bicycles or the sound a human leg makes when it gets sucked up into the serpentine belt of a Ford Super Duty, I apologize. It's just that the problem of drivers who stop for stopped bikes is the kind of driving problem Missoula has.
Very few people in the area are driving aggressively. Those who are have had their license plates marked with a 13 for the safety of other drivers. The rest drive courteously, but a lot of them are courteous in ways that are poorly thought out, such as seeing me waiting where the bike trial crosses the road and slamming on the brakes. It is a mistake borne of an abundance of caution, but it is a mistake nonetheless.
We're both better off if you exercise your right of way. It's not just a privilege but a responsibility, the way an actor does the play no favors by offering his role to someone else right before he goes on. Just go on. The show has been choreographed so that we all know how to play our parts and everything will run smoothly if we stick to the script. Break a leg, they always say. There's a risk of it happening that way, but the show must go on.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and conflicts of courtesy at combatblog.net.