Ride a bicycle on the road long enough, there is going to be some form of conflict with a motorist. People have bad days, some people just plain don’t like cyclists riding the road, and sometimes a cyclist might actually do something rude or stupid while riding. No matter how hard you try to be polite and to share the road, sooner or later someone is going to get upset with you.
I have been pretty fortunate since the early days, some 20 years ago when I started commuting the roads of west suburban Chicagoland. The first year or two of commuting saw some conflict, some severe and some not so severe, in part due to the fact that I was still new to cycling and had a lot to learn. I made mistakes, learned from them, and I honestly have to say that instances of conflict, even motorists flipping me off, dwindled to near zero after a few years of experience riding the roads. I have even been thanked and complimented by motorists, one said that she saw me on the road almost every day and thanked me for not only the safe way that I rode but for being a good example. It has been a long time since I have had any type of confrontation with a motorist.
I was due. You know what’s coming.
Tonight was a perfect evening for a ride, a bit of a strong head wind from the east, but easy enough to handle after warm up. The temperature was in the low sixties, perfect, with clouds. I have been out for rides 4 out of the last 5 days, my legs starting to feel good. After picking my son up from tennis practice, I arrived home at 5:15 and decided to get a ride in while there was still light. I have a nice ten mile loop with just enough time to ride it, a scenic route on lightly travelled roads that takes me east out of town, south for a bit, then west back into town. I felt great.
It was on the trek back west. I travel west on a fairly busy road, then turn right onto a quiet road that follows a river. Almost home, just a few miles to go. I stuck my left arm up as I approached the right turn, leaned into the turn. A couple in a Toyota RAV4 approached from the opposite direction, sped up as they turned left while I was turning right. I knew that the driver saw me. They nearly hit me from the left, swerved into the opposite lane to avoid hitting me as we arrived in the same spot at the same time. Had I been a car, he would have hit the left side of my car.
I yelled a loud HEY as they turned, afraid they were going to hit me. Apparently that offended the couple. They slowed in front of me, then slammed on their brakes, then drove slowly ahead while the woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window, flipped me the bird, then leaned out the window to yell at me to share the road. I yelled back, told her that they nearly hit me, that I had the right of way. Had I not been turning right and instead had continued riding straight ahead, they would have hit me. I just ducked my head down and looked straight ahead, not wanting conflict. I wanted them to go away, just wanted to ride. I could see the driver holding his finger up in a continuous salute as the passenger continued to scream at me, her finger held high as she returned to her seat. This continued for a few hundred yards, then the driver slammed on his brakes a few times then drove off with squealing tires.
I was relieved that they were gone, not really upset, happy that I had been relatively civil (I did yell back, so I wasn’t perfect). Then I saw the Toyota stop at a stop sign about a half mile ahead… and turn around. The car roared back in my direction, swerved into my lane as it approached me, then back, the driver yelling at me to “stop and talk, a@@hole” as he pulled to side of the road opposite me. I kept riding, ignored him, didn’t even slow down. I wish I had looked over my shoulder to see what the Toyota was doing, because I was coming up to the stop sign and needed to turn left. As I stopped at the sign to wait for cars from the right and left, the Toyota came to a skidding stop behind me. He had turned around to chase me down. I was trapped since there were cars coming from both directions and two waiting to turn left in front of me. The driver in the Toyota yelled at me, saying something about talking and kicking my ass as he got out of his car. I had simply looked straight ahead when he had pulled up behind me, shaking my head no.
I had no choice but to get off of my bicycle. I didn’t know what he was going to do. He stomped up to within a few feet of me, yelling the entire way. I glared at him, told him to admit his mistake, I didn’t care what had happened, and asked him to get back in his car. His response? No, how about he kick my ass instead.
Here I am holding a bicycle in my left hand (no way was I laying it down), slick cleated shoes on, honestly trying to keep calm and keep my blood pressure down. I didn’t want to fight. But I also wanted the guy to go away, couldn’t push him away with one hand and slick shoes on, so when he took another step at me I slapped him in the face with my free hand. It was a weak attempt, my heart not really in it.
That’s really what he wanted. He backed off and started screaming that he was calling the cops. I didn’t say anything except “go ahead, but I am leaving”. I got back on my bike and took the left turn as the man continued to scream that he was calling the police. He got back in his car and followed, he and his wife (I know that now) yelling at me out the window. A police car approached from the opposite direction and he flagged them down. About a mile down the road, the policeman came up beside me.
“Do you know what that guy is upset about?”, the policeman asked through his passenger window.
“I know he’s upset. We had a confrontation back on River Road.”
“Pull over in that parking lot and let’s talk about it.”
I complied. The policeman was calm and I could tell he was not aggravated with me. I waited for the policeman as the Toyota pulled up behind him. The policeman asked me to come talk to him out of earshot of the angry Toyota driver. When we walked around a corner, the policeman told me he also is a cyclist, that he deals with situations like this all of the time. He said that most of the time the motorist is the one who is angry and the cyclist is usually cool — and he told me that he could tell that I was. I was. It wasn’t just psychology that the policeman was employing, he was telling the truth. I kept the story short, told him what had happened, including that the driver had turned around twice to chase me down. I admitted that I had slapped the guy.
“Did you feel threatened?”
“Very much so. I only wanted the guy to back off and go away.”
“That’s all I need to hear. I need to go talk to them, but it’s only going to be a minute and you can go. Are you OK? Do you want to pursue any action against this guy?”
“I just want to finish my ride.”
“Good. I will be right back.”
The policeman was true to his word. He talked to them for a minute, then I saw him put his hand up and kept it up as he walked away. He held one finger up as he looked at me (his index finger), an honest resigned look on his face. Then he approached me, told me that I could go, that he needed to talk to them some more.
“I will make sure I hold them for a few minutes. You sure you don’t want to pursue any action against the driver?”
“No. Thanks. Much appreciated, officer.”
There were no shaky nerves from me. I didn’t feel agitated. I rode the few miles to home easily, but trying to keep an eye over my shoulder! I have had a driver get out of a car to threaten me before, but this is the first time that one actually did more than get out of his car. The time before, the adrenaline had me shaking for quite a while after the incident.
This comes closest to being the most insane confrontation that I have had in all of my years riding a bicycle. It could have been much worse, however.
I wonder if the guy would have acted so tough if I were riding with a group or with another friend? Probably not.