Bicycling Zen and the Irate Motorist Syndrome

A hundred-mile ride sounds inconceivably long to most people, and when I think about it rationally, it seems impossible. But when I get out there to do a century, I don’t watch my odometer and spend the whole time calculating miles left — that leads to madness. Instead, I find myself in this quiet place where I’m just focused on hanging on to the wheel in front of me, the feel of the wind and sun on my skin, the air in my lungs, the next pedal rotation. Eating. Drinking. Shifting. The next hill. Simple things.

I don’t worry about the next fifty miles; they’ll take care of themselves. Instead, I focus on the next fifty feet. I pace myself. If I’m riding hard, time contracts to a point. Every moment I have the opportunity to choose: Keep pushing, or let go? Every time I choose to continue to push hard, I triumph.

Every mile traversed is a blessing of quietness in my mind. In those miles, I’m not worrying that I don’t have a job or any good job prospects. I don’t worry that I’m wasting my days. I don’t worry about money, house maintenance, what we’re having for dinner, or being alone most of the time.

It’s a mental stillness that I can never achieve anywhere else. It’s beautiful.

Then somebody drives by and honks, shouting, “Get off the road!” If I’m lucky they confine themselves to that kind of polite and misinformed ejaculation. More likely, they’ll lace their comments with profanity and a one-fingered salute, just in case I didn’t get the point. Usually, thank goodness, the wind whips away most of those nasty shouts, so I don’t have to hear the details, just the tone.

I know that bicyclists do plenty of things to earn motorists’ animosity. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of plenty of egregious on-bike law-breaking myself, especially when riding with a group. But often enough, I’ll be doing something innocuous — riding alone along on the other side of the road; riding in a group single-file in the shoulder — and BAM! Irate Motorist Syndrome strikes. It’s road rage, but magnified. Even if I am doing something wrong, does that make it right for the Irate Motorist to retaliate? If you see somebody in a car run a stop sign, does that make it OK to chase him down, honking and flipping him the bird? No.

What is it about my being on two wheels that makes it acceptable for a stranger to come up and shout red-faced profanities at me? If I cut in the grocery line, would the same person walk up and start screaming swear words at me like that? No. If I cut into a lane on the freeway rudely, would he lay on the horn that hard, that long? Not likely. It’s as if because I’m on a bike, and the motorist has seen bicyclists doing things he hates, that makes it OK to take out all his vitriol on me, regardless of my own behavior.

I continue to be saddened by these interactions. We Americans have an amazing system of beautifully-paved asphalt roads that are a boon to motorists and bicyclists alike. I wish we could overcome our selfishness, our impatience, our busyness — all those things that contribute to anger, us-versus-them, and hatred — to be able to both courteously share use of the amazing infrastructure available to us.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to seek the peace of two-wheeled zen. And I’ll continue to smile and wave at angry motorists. If you see me on the road, you’ll know me by my two white streamers on my helmet. Think about driving by with a word of encouragement. I could use it. After all, odds are I’ve ridden over fifty miles, and have as many more still to go.

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  1. John Fitzpatrick
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    It is a particular personality type that you refer to. And, actually, yes, this person will lay on the horn if somebody cuts in front of them, speeds up so they don't have to merge, and flips off other drivers as readily as bike riders. It would behoove us all, drivers and bikers alike to try and avoid over-generalizing the other. We do share the same roads. And I am the recipient of the road ragers outbursts fairly often too.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    wow, very well said. I have felt the same way a million times. These days when an irate motorists starts yelling at me, I try very hard to stay focused and ignore them. I find it's best not to say anything back…