Thems the Breaks

In 2007 I started riding regularly in the early morning hours to build some level of fitness.  My career was transforming with increased responsibility meaning that fewer and fewer "after work" hours were on offer.  No matter how long the day went I could at least count on a 9:am start for what was ostensibly a desk job.  If I could limit the number of times I hit snooze and scrape myself off the mattress I could make some claim to a work/life balance by kitting up, hitting reset on the Cateye bike computer and start turning the pedals.  Sleep still in the corners of my eyes, I would push through South Philly to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from which I could stretch my legs with a selection of routes ranging from 25 to 40 miles.  I often had company, and in a matter of minutes I found myself alert and energized.  Golden.

At 5:30am Philadelphia is still truly an hour away from its dawn regardless of when the sun breaks the horizon behind the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.  Whether through the fog of my own breath in winter or through the first beads of sweat that my cycling cap failed to catch in the summer humidity, the city struck the senses as something familiar, something welcoming and somehow - SAFE.  

The notion of feeling safe while riding around any large city is a feeling earned, even if somewhat misplaced.  Confidence abounds after countless hours of pedaling.  Bike handling and reflexes improve and an almost defiant sense of road-share entitlement develops. The experienced rider dares to explore roads once thought intimidating.  We become intrepid as Strava times improve and we embrace the suffering that comes with steeper and steeper pitches.  We earn the roads once meant only for our car driving counterparts.  

Never complacent.  The head is always on a swivel, and our ability to decode the traffic matrix becomes acute, borderline automatic, so that what once were dangers are now mild inconvenience, even ritual.  Having ridden in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles I can testify that every city has its own rhythm, its own cadence and temperament that is unique.  They are difficult to articulate and yet entirely discrete as one navigates the landscape of stop lights, cars, busses, road construction and bike lanes.  Pardon the metaphor, but if riding in LA is the Elfstedentocht, then riding in Philadelphia is short track Olympic speed skating.  Both involve skates and both are races, but they require disparate sensibilities. LA traffic, with its congestion and lumpy topography of endless one to four-mile climbs within city limits is unfamiliar if you're used to Philadelphia's narrow one-way corridors and mostly rolling suburban terrain.  Some re-tuning is required.

After nearly a year in New York City, I relocated to Los Angeles in the fall of 2014.  I was quick to pick up my old habits, setting off by the dawn's early light (or often before it) to clock 30 miles in advance of the commute to South Pasadena.  In time, I found LA's rhythm.  I acclimated, feeling confident exploring most of the city from the poshness of the west side to the Latino neighborhoods of the east. 

The morning of Tuesday, June 13th I was out on one such ride, solo, retreading familiar roads.  Pushing off shortly after 6:am, I would start on the LA River Path, just half a block from our home, heading Southeast.  There are many little traveled streets that traverse the hills of Cypress Park and Glassell Park which provide a spectacular wake-up for tight legs.  Climbing up Division Street, I took my time, not feeling any particular pressure to push things hard.  After navigating through Highland Park, I set out North on 64th which is a steady 3% grade for just shy of 2 miles delivering me to Colorado Blvd.  Not particularly intense, I've grown fond of this mellow slope as it's little traveled, has a bike lane and after the steeper pitch of Division behind me, it feels good to the legs.

A left on Colorado and I was headed downward into the heart of Eagle Rock.  After the slightest rise, the descent is something of a reward as the legs flush out whatever modicum of lactic acid built up across the most recent climbs.  Colorado is wide, has a bike lane.  Comfortable.  "Safe". 

I would have continued on, heading south on Eagle Rock Boulevard, beyond Silver Lake to Sunset Junction, Elysian Park and home to continue on with my day.  I would have keyed entry through the back gate, turned off my Strava depositing the bike in the garage where I'd unwind the strained Boas of my cycling shoes.  Addie hates the clicking sound and it seems like a reasonable courtesy given all other manner of nonsense that accompanies living with a cyclist.  Shower.  Banana.  Off to work by automobile.

But on June 13 the driver of a white Honda Civic, for reasons still unclear, derailed the balance of my day and the coming months.  Turning left with no apparent vision of the oncoming cyclist hurdling westward through an intersection - in the bike lane - with a green light - with the right-of-way - and screaming for some mercy knowing the impact was imminent - struck my rear wheel forcing a crash that would break my collarbone.

 The viewing looking back up Colorado from whence I came (taken a few days later)

The viewing looking back up Colorado from whence I came (taken a few days later)

As roadies we leave for every ride believing the best in people, that they might be kind, alert, considerate and invested in the safety of those with whom they share the roads.  We place trust in others that the responsibilities that come with operating machines weighing more than a ton and capable of irreparably damaging most of what they hit will be honored.  We have to.  Not to would result in resigning ourselves to the limited confines of bicycle paths and closed courses which are the fastest routes to cycling boredom.  One of the reasons I left NYC was that the only places to spin up were the mind-numbing circles that made up Prospect and Central Parks.  I can't imagine restricting a lifestyle as such.  And arguably, these spaces are no more safe.  Remember what happened to Bono?

We promise our partners and our families that we'll "stay safe out there" every time we leave for a ride.  We promise to be careful, exercise caution and even to "have fun".  We carry it with us mile-after-mile.  At a combined weight of less than 180lbs my bicycle and I are no match for vehicles of steel, aluminum, plastic and glass propelled by engines pushing horsepower in the hundreds.  This entire episode has brought this to light in ways never before so prescient.  The fact is we make these promises but our ability to honor the contract is limited by 3rd parties unable to be foreseen.  Riding with others helps, and riding in places with minimal car traffic does even more.  But I've learned that the feeling of "safe" is one that though can be earned over time, can be taken away in an instant.  Worse than a collarbone, maybe that's the break that will take the longest to heal.

I say this to cyclists and motorists alike.  "Stay safe out there."  There's too much at stake not to.