On the Wing

See Bicycles


One thing you learn when you bike in the Northwest is that you won’t get much riding done if you don’t go out when it’s cold, dark and wet. You don your cold-and-wet-weather gear, get some bright lights, pop fenders on the bike to avoid getting mud all over your back and in the faces of your riding buddies, grit your teeth and off you go. You may think that’s not for the faint of heart but soon you discover that your heart isn’t as faint as you thought, so you keep going winter after miserable winter, short days and all. And you’re happy. Wet and cold, yes, but happy.

On the flip side, you also learn to heed the call of a dry day, especially if the sun is out, no matter how busy you are or how full your docket happens to be. Work and errands can wait; the bike can’t. Clip on and before you know it the messy slog of winter riding is a fading memory, and all is forgiven.

I was in Tacoma on one of those exemplary days back in March, bike in tow. It was the first springlike day of the year. A bright, sunny Saturday morning, not a cloud in the sky, temps forecast to climb from the 40s in the morning to the 60s by noon. Perfect riding weather.

I was on the road by 8:30. “This is so great,” I kept repeating to myself, “so great,” like a broken record.

My route took me from downtown up the hill to westbound North 26th Street, a wide east-west thoroughfare with a generous bike lane. My destination was Point Defiance Park. I would ride a lap or two around the park and head back downtown on 26th. It was a Goldilocks ride: not too short, not too long.

Traffic was light, but as always I was on constant alert. I try to ride defensively, follow the rules of the road, stay on the right, signal, make eye contact with drivers as needed, bark a loud “Whoa!” if it looks like they hadn’t seen me, the equivalent of honking. Those are survival skills I’d picked up in my years of commuting and going on team rides, and they have served me well.

I heard once that a cyclist will be in an accident on average every 10,000 miles of riding. I’ve clocked several times that over the years, and I’ve been in three memorable accidents. Two involved a car whose driver hadn’t seen me; in the third the bike slid on an oil slick I hadn’t seen, flipping over and sending me on a short airborne trajectory to the pavement. I came away with a broken elbow and a few missing teeth. My helmet was trashed.

I was lucky. All three times I lived to ride another day. I’ve had friends who weren’t and didn’t.

I was lucky that day in Tacoma as well.

I was still headed west on 26th when I noticed a car coming out of a side street on the right. It looked like it was slowing down to stop at the stop sign, but just in case I tried to make eye contact with the driver and motioned them to stop. The driver’s side window was up, so I barked my usual “Whoa!” to make sure they’d noticed me.

To my disbelief the car kept inching forward, slowly turning right onto 26th and showing no intention of yielding. I started swerving away but in the end I found myself flat against the driver’s door. The bike rolled out from under me and I slid down, landing on my right side. The bike took out the car’s side view mirror on its way down.

All that took no more than three seconds. Somehow I managed to spring right back up, in time to hear a string of foul obscenities come spewing out of my mouth. The driver rolled down his window, slack-jawed at the sight of a cyclist screaming at him five inches away from his face. “I didn’t see you,” he kept repeating, “I’m so sorry! Are you OK?”

I knew that my right side had taken a serious blow and that the pain would get worse once the adrenaline wore off, but I was still in one piece and I hadn’t hit my head. I wasn’t going to let this incident ruin a perfect day for riding. The bike was relatively unharmed, so once everyone had left it was time to continue with the ride, if for no other reason than to calm my nerves. I would deal with the pain and discomfort later.

Ironically the driver claimed that he hadn’t seen me when he looked my way because the sun behind me was too bright.
It’s been three weeks since the crash as I write this. My doctor warned me that the pain from the contusion on my right side may take as long as two months to go away. I still haven’t had a good night’s sleep.

It could have been so much worse. For me but also for the driver.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.