Surviving the Ride of Death

I am not a cyclist, though I’ve been one in the past. In my youth, I rode heroic distances for no reason. In my teens, I played stupid cycle games with my friends — and somehow we all survived. But I learned to ride in an era when they didn’t wear helmets in the Tour de France, and I stopped riding back when bikes were still made of steel and had kickstands. More recently, though, I’ve chosen to ride a bike to work at least once a week.

It’s 4.8 miles from east Asheville to Swannanoa on Highway 70. But my wife, friends, family and co-workers call it “The Ride of Death,” fearing that it may be the end of me — not from the exertion, but due to a close encounter with one of the many cars on the road.

My first Ride of Death came back in April, when my office participated in Strive Not To Drive’s “Ride to Work Day.” I well remember turning onto 70 that day with the chorus of Richard Thompson’s “Wall of Death” ringing in my head: “It’s not like the other rides/it makes you want to live and you want to die;/let me take a chance on the ride [wall] of death.”

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced that riding to work was a good idea. But after thinking over my experiences since then, I’ve realized:

• A 20-minute bike ride wakes me up more than any amount of coffee will.

• I feel better and have more energy all day.

• It’s good for my health and the environment.

• It saves me money.

• It’s an easy way for me to help improve air quality.

• My waistline may shrink.

• I’m not old yet. And finally —

• It’s possible to do this every day.

Many of my cycling friends tell of their own rides of death. Most seem to involve things like riding a single-gear bike up a sheer slope to photograph the eggs of some rare, cliff-dwelling bird. My ride is much different. By cycling standards, it’s short and flat, and my cycling time is still below the national average commute (24 minutes 32 seconds in 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). In my case, the danger comes not from raging nature but from the cars, trucks, bajillion driveways and 11 traffic lights en route.

Still, I have learned some survival skills along the way:

• Watch all cars.

• Assume that an unseen car is going to bolt out of every driveway.

• Intersections are death zones for the unobservant.

• Turn signals are meaningless.

• Leave your iPod at home: You need to be able to hear the traffic.

• Try to look as big and bright as possible.

Those are the basics, the seat-of-the-pants stuff. But there are also more specific strategies for both cyclists and drivers that can help everybody share the road safely.

Hints for bike commuters

Be a Car: When you’re on the road, it’s important to follow the same laws and rules that drivers do. As I approach an intersection, for example, I move into the center of my lane. This is the only way I’ve found to keep cars from making a right turn right THROUGH me.

Be Predictable: It’s tempting to ride between lanes, cut across lanes and hop onto sidewalks. But all these things confuse the drivers around you and may get you killed.

Use Hand Signals: It’s the only way you can communicate with drivers.

Plan Your Route: Specific roads and times of day can mean the difference between serenity and trauma. The N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation has published the Bicycle Transportation Map Asheville and Buncombe County, NC. Available at most bike shops, it’s a great resource for charting your own route to work. It’s also accessible online (www.ncdot.org/planning/tpb/gis/DataDist/GISBikeMaps.html).

Try Not to Stink: Plan ahead and have a change of clothing waiting at the office. As my wife has let me know, my bouquet is not exactly floral after strenuous activity. And at this point, a five-mile bike ride is strenuous activity for me. Fortunately for those around me, my office has a shower.

Bring Lunch: Otherwise, you’ll have to try to convince co-workers that they want Mexican food AND your company during lunch hour.

Hints for drivers encountering cyclists

Obey the Law: According to the North Carolina Driver’s Handbook, “Bicyclists usually ride on the right side of the lane but are entitled to the use of a full lane.”

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