Cars are safe. No, I am not ignoring the statistical evidence that shows that cars are coffins. What I am saying can be clearly illustrated with a question. If you had to make a late night dash across a gang-infested neighborhood and you had the choice between a car or a bicycle, which would you choose?
The vulnerability of cyclists is something that those who venture out after dark know all too well. Cyclists all have their stories. I have broken down the DEFCON levels of fear.
DEFCON 5: Yelling from car windows.
This benign interaction wouldn't be considered fear inspiring by veteran riders. It is simply pathetic.
"Get a horse faggot."
" Get off the road faggot."
And my favorite comment offered to me during a fenderless ride in the rain, "You got shit up your ass you faggot."
Sticks and stones. I don't respond because I know where it goes from there.
DEFCON 4: Throwing Stuff.
A quick rundown of what I have been hit with over the years: pennies, an apple (in the head), a 60 mph big gulp from a passing car on the highway, a cup of tobacco spit and a near miss with a medium sized jack o' lantern. Throwing stuff is usually indicative of high schoolers and still not too much to worry about assuming you continue to resist the temptation to respond.
DEFCON 3: Mugging.
Though I have never been mugged I have had some close calls. Years ago my wheel's quick release was stolen while I was at work. While walking my disabled bike home at midnight I was followed by two street punks yelling, "Where you going with my bike bitch?" and "You better give me my bike you little faggot." A couple of blocks of this and a police cruiser rolled by which sent my friends in the other direction.
DEFCON 2: Redneck Showdown.
Mike Curiak describes an encounter in New Mexico during the Great Divide race when he was forced to hide in the bushes to get away from hooligans harassing him. Dave Nice just this week found himself in a standoff with drunk hicks on a Colorado highway when a cop recognized the prey/predator scene unfolding and intervened.
DEFCON 1: International Redneck Showdown.
I have read a lot of stories of people who have biked all over the World and it has led me believe that the level of fear that we may experience in a violent confrontation with local thugs grows exponentially when traveling through 3rd world countries. See Goran Kropp's story of biking from Sweden to Everest and back.
I would imagine that most people who put themselves in a position to experience these unfriendly conditions have thought out what it is they would do. I have never attempted to hurt someone in my life and I want to keep that streak going. I am not about to beat someone over the head to avoid losing my bike which would be replaced by insurance anyway. I have always hoped that level-headed cooperation and reason would be my best defense. Pose no threat and inspire no attack. This philosophy gets all muddled up when the heart starts pumping and the rednecks get that Clockwork Orange look in their eyes.
Several years ago I took a late Autumn bike trip to Farragut State Park in Northern Idaho. The park was empty but for the ranger who lived at the entrance to the park. The first night I put up my tent and enjoyed some top ramen and hot chocolate as the stars came out. That night the temperature dipped into the twenties and my well used sleeping bag did not keep me warm. I barely slept. During my ride around the park the next day I came across some brand new mini-cabins that had been built at the far end of the expansive park. $40 later I was in the luxury of the heated, well lit cabin with a nice soft bed.
I had a great day and fell asleep fast. Sometime around midnight I woke to the sound of voices. Three obviously drunk young men were walking toward the cabin. Without a car parked outside they had no indication anyone was within 4 miles. One of them began kicking the door trying to bust it open. I began to quickly and quietly get my clothes on.
They began to argue about whether to head down to the beach or build a fire in the fire pit next to the cabin. I knew what I was voting for. With the help of my Jedi Mind Force they headed to the beach. I was relieved but it got me thinking about fear and the importance of dealing with these issues. I have been lucky but I won't always be lucky. Are the risks worth the adventure? Add to these human fears the factors of bears, severe illness or injury in isolated places and the dangers that I am too naive to even recognize.
One of the challenges of The Great Divide and similar activities is to find peace within yourself. More than the physical effort, the risk of failure or the shear selfishness of this enterprise is my need to deal with these fears in a way that reflects my beliefs and my goals. I know that it holds the potential for the greatest reward.