Yesterday I had a somewhat unsettling experience during my bike ride. For the first time in a while, I felt fear. I’ve been nervous before—drivers on their cell phones, drivers ignoring stop signs, drivers veering into the bike lane, or parking in it so I have to go around, cab drivers, et cetera. I’ve been worried about getting lost or getting a flat far away from a bike shop. But mostly my bike rides are fun. I explore, expand my mental map of NYC neighborhoods, save money on gas and Metrocards, get some “fresh” air, and all the while don’t even notice that I’m also exercising—unless there’s a hill I have to get up. Plus, there are a lot of interesting cyclists out there. I’ve seen a man giving his pet cockatoo a ride on the handlebars. I’ve seen another man using his bike to haul a giant cupcake. I’ve seen tandem bikes, recumbent bikes, over-sized bikes, and adult tricycles. I’ve even seen a man riding his unicycle across the Queensboro bridge—a feat that impressed me even more when I realized that unicycles (as far as I know) don’t have multiple gears or brakes.
I’ve seen road rage while driving my car. Once, while my husband and I were travelling through Central Park, a sporty blue car lightly hit mine. The driver seemed oblivious, and when I pulled up to tell him what he’d done, he threw a tantrum. He also threw his drink in our direction. He then proceeded to jerk his car from lane to lane like he was playing bumper cars. As he aggressively maneuvered away, I couldn’t help but notice a sizeable taxi-yellow streak along the right side of his car. That’s when I knew he was crazy.
Yesterday I experienced bike road rage for the first time. I was only about ten minutes from home when a bike ahead of me, a bike being ridden by a guy who seemed to be on his cell phone, but who I now believe might have been talking to himself, slowed down. Since there was a red light ahead, and I stop for red lights (especially since I got a ticket for running one), I slowed down as well. And I kept slowing down to keep him in front of me since I expected that he wouldn’t stop for the red light, and I didn’t want to bother passing him just to force him to pass me. Twenty or so feet from the intersections he stopped, waved for me to pass him, and then looked back when I didn’t. “Go around,” he said. I explained that I was stopping for the red light, but he kept insisting, so I went around him only to stop a few feet later at the intersection.
I thought that was it. I could hear him talking, but it was only when he pulled up alongside me that I realized he was talking to me. “That little mouth of yours is going to get you into trouble,” he said. And then he rode away. But we were going the same way, and I was biking faster than him, so rather than repeat my last “mistake,” I passed him this time. When he caught up with me at the next red light he was still yelling. “Who you got? Who’s going to protect you? You should have kept your mouth shut.” He yelled a lot of other things that I didn’t pay attention to. What had begun as his irritation with me was clearly escalating into over-reaction territory. I looked him in the face with incredulity, unable to believe that this middle-aged man was really yelling like this at a woman—hoping that with my backpack and helmet on he might think I was a teenager heading home from school and stop berating me. He didn’t. However he saw me, he was yelling like he wanted a fight. And the more he yelled, the more I realized this situation wouldn’t diffuse easily.
I did my best to ignore him and continue with my ride. He would stop at each red light to yell at me for a bit, and then let me ride on. We kept going for a few more blocks like this. But soon his words started to make me think he might get violent. The moment when I actually became scared came when he started rummaging through his bag—all the while yelling vague threats at me, “You’ve gone and gotten me really angry now. You see what you did? You shouldn’t have done that. You’re going to learn your lesson. Show me what you’ve got. It’s just you.” I didn’t know what he was looking for in his bag, and I didn’t want to find out. I was now trying to come up with an alternate route. I was now trying to remember if there was a police station or fire station nearby, a school that would have security, any place that was crowded where someone might stick up for me if this guy’s angry words became angry actions.
I wished a police car would drive by, and like I had conjured it with my mind just by hoping, at that very moment I saw a police car turn onto the next side street. It was a traffic police car, but I figured that was close enough, especially since I felt like this guy’s anger was still escalating. I turned to follow the officer. I had no intention of interacting with him, but I figured turning off the main bike route and being in a police car’s presence would be a double deterrent and get Mr. Angry off my tail. I mean, who goes out of their way to keep yelling at a stranger? Who continues to yell threats in front of a police officer? Mr. Angry. That’s when I knew he was crazy. Even though I had turned off the main bike route and was now riding alongside a police car, Mr. Angry kept following me and shouting.
The police car stopped, and realizing that Mr. Angry had indeed chosen to follow me on my attempt at a police escorted detour, I stopped too. Again, I figured Mr. Angry would just keep on biking, and I wouldn’t even have to talk to the officer, but I was wrong. Mr. Angry kept on yelling. So I got the officer’s attention and explained what was happening. This made Mr. Angry even angrier. “Oh, now you’ve really done it. You better live with him. You’ve made a big mistake getting him involved. He won’t always be here. I ride these streets all the time.”
Mr. Angry gave the police officer his version of the story, and I didn’t hear it all, because by this point I’d crossed onto the sidewalk to keep the police car between us. At one point I heard Mr. Angry say, “Yes, maybe you should call them.” Which made me think the officer had offered to call the police. Which made me wonder, “Wait, aren’t you the police?” That’s when it occurred to me that perhaps I’d picked the wrong police car to follow. In any event, I got the result I was looking for. The officer asked me if I could take a different route and nodded for me to continue on. I thought he was going to follow me home or at least for a while to make sure I got away from Mr. Angry. But once I got a block or two away, I realized the police car wasn’t with me. Though, and much to my relief, neither was Mr. Angry. Perhaps the officer had given Mr. Angry a Gandalf-like, “Though shalt not pass.” Or maybe he continued to engage Mr. Angry until I could get far enough away. All I know for sure is that I decided to double-back and ride a different route entirely to avoid risk of catching up with Mr. Angry again.
Having picked a different route, I continued with my ride, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous at times. I looked back more than once to make sure he hadn’t found me somehow. It was comforting that I saw a lot of police cars every now and then—though I couldn’t help but wish I’d seen one of them first. Perhaps then Mr. Angry words would have gotten him arrested. Though, as I said, traffic cop or not, getting his help had produced the desired effect. It got me away from Mr. Angry, and hopefully our paths won’t cross again.