INSULT TO INJURY

On trying to commute by bike in Jacksonville

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I could have gotten off my bicycle and walked 
 it across the intersection. I could have been 
 wearing a helmet. I could have been wearing white. If I hadn't been so lazy, I would not have gotten lost, which added hours to my trip, which meant traveling in the dark at rush hour. I could have done many things to avoid being hit by that car.

The trip to my destination had gone as well as my trip home had gone poorly. The night before, I did what I usually do when covering unfamiliar territory riding my ancient Peugeot touring bike. I went to Google Maps, typed in my destination and hit the bicycle icon. This revealed the best route, which incorporates bike lanes wherever possible.

Having bike lanes available on a trip is better than not, but not by much. That white line painted down the road is really just a theory. People often park in the lane, drive in it and cross it with alarming regularity. Worse, novice riders think they're safe in this lane and drop their defenses. This is a mistake. The thing you understand very quickly when you're commuting on a bicycle is that car drivers either do not see you or, worse yet, they do and consider you just another vehicle competing for space and position. This competitive mindset is scary for a cyclist who, unlike a driver, is not encased in metal and surrounded by airbags.

However, I do use bike lanes whenever possible because the alternative is worse. Some roads are very narrow, and trying to share them with cars, especially pickup trucks, is asking for it.

Sometimes I take the advice shouted from passing cars to "get off the road." This means traveling on a sidewalk — but, unfortunately, sidewalks were not engineered for bicycles, especially touring bikes. The often-uneven pavement is hell on moving parts. Worst of all, not all sidewalks end in ramps, and jumping curbs on a bike engineered to cover distance is not an option.

What I find most effective is using a combination of sidewalks and roadways. I glance over my shoulder and try to gauge how far I can get before the traffic will catch me and then I dart back on the sidewalk and coast until there's another break in traffic. Sometimes along the way, you can cut through neighborhoods. This is the easiest, least stressful way to ride.

This is only an option if you're traveling through neighborhoods that were built before the 1980s, when city planners, in their infinite wisdom, abandoned the grid system and replaced it with only one access point in and out of the neighborhood. This is fine if you're driving, but if you're walking or on a bike, it's quite impractical.

On the Westside, it's rarely a problem. On the day of the accident, I cut through Brentwood without incident on my way to Myrtle Avenue, which the Google route said to take all the way to Beaver Street. I made a decision that could have cost me my life: I deviated from my planned route because I didn't feel like going back over the thigh-killing Beaver Street viaduct incline. I took off down King Street and began to look for a major intersection where I could turn left. I didn't know that I'd go seven miles before finally finding such an opportunity.

By now, the sun was setting and I was now going in the wrong direction entirely. By the time I got to Edgewood Avenue, it was pitch black. It was there I realized I still had to go over a railroad viaduct, and this one was a lot less friendly than the one I'd wanted to avoid. I walked my bike up the east side until the sidewalk ended, but the path was literally blocked by construction. I had no choice but to try to cross four lanes of rush-hour traffic. There was no break, so I decided to cross the northbound lane first and then the southbound. When I got to the median, which is raised concrete no more than 18 inches wide, I couldn't tell if there was even a sidewalk on the southbound side, so I was forced to take the harrowing walk down the hill on that narrow sliver of concrete, with traffic whooshing by in both directions at 50 miles an hour.

When I neared the bottom, I saw a break in traffic, so I mounted my bike and began sailing down the incline. I got back on the sidewalk and, not wanting to lose momentum, I made sure I was OK to go through the intersection at Old Kings and Edgewood.

That's where it happened. A small, black, four-door car turned left and across my path. I want to believe she didn't have her signal on — I would've noticed that, I tell myself — but the truth is, I don't know for sure. What I do know is the driver did not see me.

It's true what people say about things slowing down during a crisis. Maybe a second elapsed from the time I saw the car start to turn till when it hit me, but I still had enough time to pull the bike hard to the right in an attempt to avoid it. I repeated in my mind, over and over, like a mantra or prayer, "I'm gonna make it. I‘m gonna make it." By the time the car hit me, I'd almost cleared its path. What struck me was the passenger side mirror, hitting me right square in the ass — sending me, it, the contents of my saddlebag, and my bike tumbling through the air. Strangely, before I hit the ground, I knew I was going to be all right. Somewhere in mid-flight, my mind took a quick inventory. I remember thinking, No broken bones, no torn ligaments.

The driver pulled over and ran to my aid. "Oh, my God," she gushed, "are you all right?"

I looked at her and nodded. "I think so."

She helped me up. I picked up my bike and walked woozily to the side of the road, where I sat down. I looked at her; she was young and pretty, and my thoughts turned to how dumb I must look to her sitting on the ground in a heap. Strange that I was seized by vanity in that moment. I am 50 and bald on top, but lots of hair on the sides, so when I have my hat on, it gives the illusion I have a full head of hair. Where was my hat? I wondered. I looked around and saw it in the middle of the road. Looking up, I asked if she could get it for me — she did — and I felt a little better after I put it back on.

"Are you sure you're all right?" she 
asked again.

"I think so," I repeated.

"It's a miracle," she added.

I agreed. I asked her if she thought we should call the police and fill out an accident report. A worried look came over her face. I looked at my bike, which appeared still usable. I asked her to help me up and managed to get the chain back on the sprocket. Why call the cops? I thought. Wasn't I lucky to be in one piece?

I bid her well and walked my bike down Edgewood before I finally felt good enough to get back on and ride. A mile or two from my house, a young man leaned out the window of a passing car and shouted an obscenity. Everything's back to normal. o

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