Riding Her Bike

This—any day like this—is why she adores every transference of the seasons. She doesn’t have a favorite. She loves each one for its unique nature. But she also loves when the qualities of one season infiltrate another. Today is such … Continue reading

Fearful

Last week’s frightening encounter on my bike got me thinking about some of the previous times I’ve felt fearful. And I realized something about myself. I’m not particularly daring—not when there’s a chance (or even the suggestion of a chance) of physical harm befalling me.

There are few things I do fearlessly. There’s no inner daredevil hiding out inside of me. I will never skydive. I’m not getting on the back of a motorcycle. I don’t find riding rollercoasters thrilling. I don’t want to climb Everest or swim with sharks.

I haven’t always been this way. As a kid I was bold. I hadn’t been hurt much, and so I didn’t know how to fear pain. My timidity developed with age—with each cut that needed stitches, each broken finger (of which there were many), and that dislocated shoulder didn’t help any.

Back when I felt my most beautiful and graceful in pink tights and a tutu, I used to want a motorcycle. Riding the bus on my way home from ballet class, I’d pass a motorcycle shop. And each time I did, I would eye the display and daydream about riding my black Harley.

As a kid I’d climb and run and hang upside-down without fear. Now, when I’m running up or down stairs (say trying to catch the subway), I almost always imagine loosing my footing, falling forward, and knocking out my front teeth. That fear makes me slow down, or at least hold onto the railing.

A number of years ago I was in Puerto Rico with friends, and we decided to go horseback riding. This was going to be a dream realized for me. I thought back to my childhood desire to get on a horse and ride it at full speed. I imagined the sensation of being atop a galloping steed must be akin to flying, and the idea of that thrilled me. But when it came time to actually mount my horse and I realized how high I’d be and that there wasn’t a seatbelt up there (!)—nothing to keep me in place (which I guess is what I thought a saddle was)—all I could think about was falling…and then shortly thereafter getting trampled by the horses behind me. I didn’t feel secure. Forget galloping dramatically across the open terrain, I was afraid to trot or canter.

During a trip to Texas a few months ago, my husband and I rented bikes and, albeit unintentionally, found ourselves off-roading. For the record, I love riding my bike—love it. On a warm or sunny day, I can bike for hours. But I’m a city girl and used to cycling on pavement, preferably in a protected bike lane (i.e., one that is separated from car traffic by more than a line of paint). But this city girl also loves nature. My favorite bike routes take me through tree-saturated parks or along a river. So I thought biking through the woods of suburban Texas would be fun and scenic. However, my scaredy-cat sensibilities were not prepared for what we faced: narrow paths that were too narrow for two bikes moving in opposite directions to pass each other—narrow paths that were full of obstacles like exposed roots, fallen trees, steep declines, malevolently abrupt sharp turns, and other people (some on bikes themselves, others on foot).

And as if all of the obstacles weren’t enough (so many things that I could crash into or that could turn me into an unwilling projectile), the prospect of loosing control and falling was made more frightening by the ravine lying in wait to “catch” me and (at least in my mind) ensure that I broke at least two bones before coming to a complete stop. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times during that bike ride I’d see a sharp turn, steep incline, or felled tree ahead and decide to walk my bike rather than risk one of the worst case scenarios that kept playing on loop in my head. I was full of fear—fear of falling, fear of spraining, dislocating, or breaking, fear of loosing a tooth, fear of flying into a tree, rock or ravine, fear of being impaled by an unfortunately located branch, fear of everything that could possibly hurt me. Fear held me back. Fear kept me from fully enjoying myself and just riding.

I understand that some fear is healthy and normal. Whenever a car starts to drift into the bike lane and gets too close for comfort, I feel a burst of fear. That fear causes a swell in adrenaline, and it prepares me to pedal faster or use my reflexes as needed to avoid impact. But once the threat is gone, so is the worry. That’s the kind of fear I want—the fear that leaves once it’s done its protective duty—the fear that doesn’t stick around after it’s delivered its message of warning. What I’m tired of is the kind of fear that overstays its welcome—the kind of fear that is needy for attention. It gets in the way of a perfectly good time—the kind of fear that is hypochondriacal, obsessive, and paranoid. I want my fear to be a sage advisor, not an irrational adversary. Fear was meant to protect and extend life, not get in the way of living.

The thing I’ve realized about fear is that it only grows when you feed it. And what my fear likes to eat most is my avoidance of it. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. I can starve my fear down to a much less intimidating size just by looking at it, spending time with it, defying it. When I engage my fears, they gradually start to dissipate. For example, even though I was initially disappointed in myself for being too scared during my Texas off-road bike ride to fully enjoy it, because of the risks I did take—every obstacle I rode over and every time I went faster than my hyper-cautious pace—when I got back home to my city cycling routine and its potential perils, I was a noticeably more confident cyclist. For every fear I faced, I am that much less afraid.

Adventures in Bike Riding: Road Rage

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.