The Perils of Bicycle Commuting

Last night, on my bicycle commute from work I had a run-in with a motorist. Technically the confrontation was with a backseat passenger. No one was hurt. It was just a verbal spat that result in an arrest for the (drunken) harassing behavior and drug possession.

Commuting is a great way to combine exercise and low impact transportation while getting outside. This year, I’m traveling less, spending more time at our plant sites, and commuting more than ever. The rationale is simple. The distance from home is about 11 miles, I have to go to work anyway, and I love to ride. I have several routes and variations of those routes that keep it interesting and allow a manageable commute of 11 to 17 miles, that can usually be done in an hour or less each way. My ride home typically takes five to 15 minutes longer because it is uphill.

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If there is a single drawback to bicycle commuting, it can be described in one word: motorists. If there were no cars or trucks on the roads, I would love to ride even more. I see a lot of crazy conduct on the roads of Connecticut (and Massachusetts) where I do most of my riding. Cycling offers a unique vantage point and with nothing blocking or filtering your view, you take it all in. That includes seeing a lot of ignorant drivers. I see it all of the time, but rarely write about it. I’m sort of numb to it. However, if you were a new cyclist or if you were less tolerant of the risks, you would likely stop riding on roads altogether. In recent years, many people have told me how they no longer ride on the roads.

I certainly don’t recommend riding on the roads that I use for commuting. I’m a huge advocate for safe riding and especially bicycle commuting, but for the average rider, the risks don’t outweigh the benefits. I’m on Burnside Avenue all of the time and that road has seen three cyclist related deaths in recent years. They have done work to make the road safer by limiting it to one vehicle lane, and by adding a bicycle lane, but that was only in response to the accidents.

Around here, the roads are terrible and getting worse. Despite being fenced off from traffic, even sections of the local paved bike paths have hazards that include cracks, potholes, glass, and weeds. The city streets have even bigger potholes. They are narrow and lack shoulders. They have faded paint/markings. There is even more glass. They have cracks and frost heaves. It’s nasty, but in a weird way, I know every flaw and still enjoy riding these roads. It’s the act of commuting, and not the environment, that keeps me doing it. My routes aren’t entirely devoid of beauty. Sections of the East Coast Greenway are lovely. Riding through Wickham Park is beautiful.

I left Horst Engineering’s Burnham Street plant at 5:53 P.M. I rode up Burnham Street, cut through the industrial park, and accessed the bike path from Tolland Turnpike. This is a typical route for me. I ride this section of path several days a week. It has huge cracks, and at this time of year, long weeds spout from them. It’s unfortunate that this section isn’t maintained. When they extended the East Coast Greenway from Manchester to Bolton, I was against asphalt. I didn’t want them to pave it. I preferred cinder or dirt like the Hop River State Park Linear Trail. The photos show what happens when you fence off a bike path and then neglect it.

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It was a hot evening with the temperature in the low-90’s Fahrenheit. It was the kind of summer night where if you didn’t have your air conditioning blasting, then all your windows were rolled down. On a bike, there are no windows and there is no air conditioning.

I got off the path near Wickham Park and then took Burnside Avenue (Rt. 44) to Middle Turnpike and then to Center Street. I was in a rush to make a “belt test” for the kids at Park’s Taekwondo, so I just went straight up 44. It’s not a pretty road, but not every bicycle commute is pretty. Sometimes, you just have to get from point A to point B. On this road, I saw a usual number of distracted drivers, and at a stoplight, reminded one to put away her phone.

I made my way up Center Street towards downtown Manchester. When you ride your bike straight up 44 like this, you are prepared for something to happen. At this point, I was listening to some music, and minding my own business. A car came rolling by me and a person in the back seat on the passenger side hung out the window screamed, “Get out of the road.”

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I tapped my EarPods twice to stop the music and waved at the guy in a dismissive manner. He proceeded to flip me off and shout some obscenities. I was riding nearly as fast as the car, so I accelerated a bit. I was in that kind of mood. Most of the time, I just ignore people, but like I said, it was Monday night, the end of a long work day, and it was hot. I was a little frustrated too. In situations like this, I usually weigh my options before responding, but sometimes your reaction is spontaneous. There were a lot of other cars around, so I “let him have it,” shouting back and telling him where he could go.

They had to stop at a red light, and I planned to just ride past them, but as I cautiously approached, he swung open the car door as if he was going to “door” me, all the while yelling at me. I easily swerved out of the way. He was one of four people in the car. Two men were in the back, and two women were in the front. I rode up on to the sidewalk to give myself a little space. You never know what a lunatic like this will do, so I figured that rather than get run over, or worse, get shot, I should be careful.

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As I was riding on the sidewalk, they pulled past me once again and this guy was again hanging out the window and shouting obscenities. This time, I decided to “blow kisses” in his direction. I realize, that wasn’t very mature. We discussed my approach at the dinner table later in the evening, and my kids found it amusing, but Debbie wasn’t impressed. My daughter thought that I was using some figure of speech, but no, I told her that I was literally blowing kisses in his direction. I hopped back on the road and kept riding. It wasn’t long before I caught them again. This time, they were sitting at the light at the Center Street/Main Street intersection. I slowly pulled up behind them, pulled out my iPhone, and snapped a photo of the car’s license plate. The driver saw me in the rearview mirror and I knew she wasn’t happy with me, or the guy in her backseat.

I pulled alongside them and pointed at her and said, “He isn’t the only one that’s going to get in trouble. You are.” Just then, the light turned green. They turned left on Main Street and I rolled through the intersection continuing on Center Street. I spotted a Manchester policeman in his SUV on the opposite side of the intersection. I pulled over. He apparently saw part of my interaction with the car, was trying to figure out what happened, leaned out of his truck, and yelled from across the street, “Do you want me to go after that car.” I replied, “They were harassing me.” That was enough for him. He took off. I figured I would keep riding. I knew I could always call the police later and send them the photo.

I got about a half mile up the road and the policeman was parked on my side of the street facing my direction. I came to a stop, he got out of his truck and approached me. The last time a policeman stopped me on a bike, I was the one who got a written warning. That was for running a red light in Truckee, California. That was a memorable ride, with the ticket writing moment captured by my iPhone camera. Now, this ride was becoming memorable too.

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Officer Johnson was very kind. He asked me if I had a photo of the car and its license plate. I confirmed that I did. He proceeded to tell me that he was a cyclist, loved to ride, and confided that it was “nuts on the roads.” Like me, unless commuting, he heads for more rural roads. I explained how I commute to East Hartford nearly every day and have done so for a very long time. He was sympathetic after I described the incident and would have talked all evening, but I told him I was in a rush. He thanked me, gave me his phone number, asked me to text him the photo, and then to follow-up with my contact information.

I sent the photo immediately, and then rode off. I got to the belt test in time and both kids passed. Afterwards, I sent the rest of the information and thanked him. Then, I rode the rest of the way home. When I got there, I had another message from him. He indicated that he caught them, and arrested the kid in the backseat. I thanked him again. His final reply: “You’re welcome and you did your part also, made it easy for me.”

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So, I guess you could say it was a happy ending. It’s natural for me to feel odd when someone gets in trouble, but if I recall my own anger and frustration when the car first passed me, but I figure that this guy got what he deserved. It’s important to report incidents like this and advocate for cyclists. If you choose to ride, do it as safely as possible and don’t ignore the risks.

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