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Riding a bike can be hazardous to your health

It's Russian roulette on two wheels

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I have ridden bicycles since I could walk. I love riding. I love the sensory aspects of riding: the wind in my face, the precariousness of balance, the air pushing its way into my lungs, and the near weightlessness of the experience when I reach that epiphany of power and motion, when gravity is merely a memory and I feel for a moment as if the birds should envy me.

It is therefore unfortunate that I have come to the conclusion, after riding for more than 50 years, that riding a bike has become an uncommonly dangerous activity due to the traffic laws and to the complete disregard that the average driver has for any bicyclist. On any given day in San Luis Obispo, I am cut off, honked at, sworn at, run off the road and even hit by drivers who never even stop to ask if I am all right. I have come to a conclusion: that riding a bicycle on Osos Street is, essentially, Russian roulette. Within the last few years, I have seen two cyclists lying in the street, waiting for an ambulance. Each was a young woman, students I would presume. Between 2003 and 2006, 441 bicyclists were killed on California roads.

A woman in a delivery van pulled into me--from a stop sign. I somehow managed to push off from the hood while staying upright and landing to the side of the vehicle. She then unleashed a torrent of profanity at me and told me to keep my *&#* bicycle out of the street, and promptly drove off, never asking if I was hurt. More recently, a mirror from a van or pickup hit me in my left shoulder from behind as I rode south on Osos Street at about 5 p.m. I never saw it coming. I was tossed on a diagonal--still with the bicycle--across Osos Street, taking most of the stress on my hip as I slid across the street, decorating the pavement with my flesh and blood. No one stopped. I never saw it coming. I was, effectively, sucker punched. There were numerous people at Gus', and not one got up or asked if they could help. A teenage kid on the sidewalk helped me get up. Pieces of the truck mirror were lying in the street.

The bicycle is arguably the most efficient method of travel in existence. A well-tuned bicycle converts 95 percent of the rider's energy to motion, and further, riding any bicycle is at least five times more efficient than walking. In addition, a bicycle requires few materials to construct, most weighing less than 30 pounds and able to last indefinitely with minimal maintenance.

Those who are under the delusion that there is a technical solution to our dependence on fossil fuels and to global warming are na've at best or, to be brutally honest, fools. Hybrid cars, like all cars, require an enormous investment of steel, aluminum, plastic, rubber, glass, and, in the case of the hybrids, lead for batteries. Disposing of these massive batteries after they have outlived their usefulness presents an enormous future environmental problem. Bio-fuels are also no answer, despite the fact that they appear to be the latest panacea. They not only cause even greater problems in terms of biomass efficiency and global warming, they also divert land formerly used for food production and/or even forests to production of fuel, all while acting as an inflationary factor on the cost of food crops.

It is beyond absurd that in an area with 300 sunny, warm days a year, most of the populace drives two blocks to the grocery store, two blocks to the restaurant, and--my favorite absurdity--to the gym. Let's see now: We have garage door openers so we do not have to lift our garage door, and sprinkler systems so we do not have to water the yard, and elevators so that we do not have to walk up the stairs. Then we drive to the gym. I personally abhor gyms for that reason.

And, last but not least, are our traffic laws. Bicycles are subject to the same laws as automobiles. The rampant stupidity of that as a concept is really not something that I can possibly wrap my head around. Most of the sidewalks in San Luis Obispo see very little pedestrian activity--the exception being the downtown core, Higuera and Marsh streets, and the streets that intersect them. I utilize deserted sidewalks often as a respite from traffic and the crazed inattentive drivers who frequent the streets of SLO, and each time I do so, I am violating the law.

When bicycles have unquestioned priority over automobiles, and those spaced out drivers are required to always yield to bicyclists as pedestrian right-of-way, then and only then will it be safe for the bicyclist to venture into the streets with 4,000-pound cars and 20,000-pound trucks. Think: How can a person on a bicycle expect to share the road with multi-ton vehicles with hundreds of horsepower?

Personally, I feel that every SUV and pickup truck driver should be required to genuflect to the bicyclist, as we use NO fuel, NO parking places, NO oil, NO massive tires, and very little space on the roads--and yet, they are the vehicles who most often run me off the road!

The most common faux pas is the pass and then cut hard right in front of the cyclist to make a right turn. My personal favorite was a guy in a pickup with a double horse trailer. I barely avoided the trailer, using one of the most spectacularly athletic maneuvers of my existence by jumping the curb to my right to get up on the sidewalk. The side of the horse trailer literally brushed my shoulder. But, you know, what the hell, he's got places to go, things to do, and I was, like, in his way. How could I have been so insensitive? 'Cause, hell, I am, after all, just some fool on a bicycle.

Be nice to Jim Fleischman if you see him riding around town. In fact, be nice to all cyclists. Send comments to the editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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