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June 20, 2006

Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Bad

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Apologies to George Orwell and Animal Farm for the title but, hey, I'm a sucker for word-play.

I'm also probably a sucker for writing this post, as I expect readers bearing torches and pitchforks to storm my humble abode. Hmm ... maybe I shoulda petitioned Michael for a pseudonym after all.


I used to ride a big, heavy, single-speed, fat-tired Schwinn when I was a kid.

And I won't categorically rule out buying a bike in the future, though I'd have to be living in a fairly flat and relatively car-free environment before I'd do so.

But, bicycle enthusiasts, I'm not of your faith.

Sadly, sometimes you just have to choose sides.

I'm a car guy. You can talk about pollution, resource-depletion, aerobic factors and the entire litany, but you won't change my mind.

As I stated in the title, four wheels good, two wheels bad. My line is drawn.

Sharing the road with bicycles makes me nervous. The speed, weight and protective differences between cars and bikes are profound. Simply put, I'm afraid a bike rider will do something stupid and I'll kill him by accident. Bikes belong on trails, not roads and most streets.

The bicycles that really get my goat are the "recumbent" kind, where the cyclist is usually in a supine position. A Wikipedia entry on these bicycles is here. Scroll down for a discussion of pros and cons compared to conventional bikes where the rider is upright.

(For me, the greatest disadvantage of recumbent bicycles has to do with dismounting. When I rode a bike I encountered many situations where I had to stop to dismount or reposition my bicycle. This is manifestly hard to do starting from a semi-supine position. Recumbent bicycles strike me a being most useful in cruise-mode out in the country as opposed to the herky-jerky city biking environment.)

Here are a couple pictures of recumbent bicycles.

recumbent bike - 1.jpg

recumbent bike - 2.jpg

The first picture is public-relations fantasy for a build-it-Urself vehicle. The second shot is closer to what you're likely to see on streets and roads. With one exception.

My experience has been that, in almost every case, the rider of a recumbent bicycle is a wiry guy with a beard. I'm not kidding. I almost think that the factory making those bikes has a laboratory (over there, that cement block building halfway hidden behind the paint shop) where they clone those riders.

Another thing about those wiry riders with beards is that they exude an aura of intellectual superiority over the socially-unconscious likes of me. And in fact they probably are smarter than me in raw-IQ terms. Then again, Einstein combined a stratospheric IQ with gaping holes in the common-sense department, so I don't automatically take such people seriously.

Matter of fact, I regard recumbent bicycle riders as little more than show-offs.

Sorta like Ferrari drivers.



posted by Donald at June 20, 2006


Great piece. I bought a comfort bike since I am 77 and my use for trail bikes has diminished with everything else. Works great in this retirement community as it is flat here and with imagination one can avoid most traffic. I do avoid crowded places like the plague though. I certainly wouldn't ride a bike in a crowded area. Or a hilly one.

Loved your characterization of the recumbent biker!

Posted by: citrus on June 20, 2006 12:28 PM

Well, i'd say cars only belong on longer trips, for hauling more than a bike attatchment can carry, icliment weather, or for the physically weak;) and yeah, i've noticed cars seem more nervous of me than i am of them.

Posted by: Zetjintsu on June 20, 2006 12:41 PM

Chacun a son gout.

Posted by: Jonathan on June 20, 2006 1:22 PM

2things, only tangenially related.

1) There is a huge market/community for users of portable bikes; example: inhabitants of the suburbs of big cities, who ride their bikes to the train station, take the train and then bike to work w/o unnecessary hassle and expence of in-city transportation. Like this guy.

2) in my "friendsband" on Live Journal this morning there was a post by someone living in Boston suburb: very respectable, solid middle class, plenty of "houses of worship" around. The author drove on the main street, slowed down at the red light, and turned to look at the motocycle's noise on the left. The biker, a wiry guy with a flowing beard, was absolutely naked, except for a tiny loincloth that didn't perform any consealing functions due to ergonomic specifics of the position. And he sniggered openly at the surrounding car-riders.
Later the poster learned (from the offspring) the guy is a known feature in town.

Posted by: Tat on June 20, 2006 1:51 PM

"Simply put, I'm afraid a bike rider will do something stupid and I'll kill him by accident."

Because car drivers never do anything stupid and kill people by accident.

Don't be nervous... if a bike is on the road just drive around when safe. I bet you never kill a cyclist!

You do realize how foolish you sound in this post, don't you?

Posted by: hmmm on June 20, 2006 2:04 PM

I've never quite gotten used to riding bicycles on streets. It probably seems more dangerous that it really is, but perceptions cannot easily be ignored. Recently I've been thinking about getting a mountain bike for use on trails, although here on Long Island trails suitable for bike riding are few and far between.
One thing I've noticed in the past 15 or 20 years is a big decline in the number of adults I see riding bicycles. In fact, other than the (very) occasional hard-core rider on a racing bike, just about the only adults I see riding on the streets anymore are carless Mexican immigrants. The decline in adult bike riding could be due to traffic fears - but then why do they let their children ride? - but more likely is yet another manifestation of our increasingly lazy, couch-potatoish society.

Posted by: Peter on June 20, 2006 2:15 PM

I'm more nervous of bike riders than you are, because I'm neither driver nor rider: I'm a pedestrian. Simply put, I'm afraid a bike rider will do something stupid and kill me by accident, more so than I'm afraid of cars. At least drivers can be more or less trusted to keep off the sidewalk, stick to their designated side of the road, and pay some kind of lip service to the road rules. With common sense you can avoid cars, but not bicycles.

Also, if you do get struck down, the driver can usually be relied upon to at least make a show of contrition; whereas any cyclist that bowls you over when hurtling round a blind corner on a footpath will invariably denounce you for interfering with their divinely-appointed mission to Save The Planet by pedalling around a toy that cost them the equivalent of three months of my salary.

Incidentally, I've never seen a recumbent cyclist who wasn't a prematurely aged hippie, either.

Posted by: Ben.H on June 20, 2006 2:32 PM

Gosh, I don't think you sound foolish at all. I would group "motorcycles" in with bicycles, though, as far as dangerous vehicles to drive a car around and fear of killing one of them. Particularly since cyclists who travel where cars travel seem to assume everyone has nothing to do but keep track of smaller, slower vehicles (or in the case of motorcycles, faster vehicles) which one is not expecting. The worst car accident I ever had involved a motorcycle coming out of nowhere and hitting me (when I was in a car). I didn't get hurt---he spent a night in the hospital. Of course, no protective clothing, short sleeves, although he at least had a helmet. Scary.

Having said that, though, as long as they are riding around where cars are not, I really enjoy bike riding itself. Just not on the highway.

Posted by: annette on June 20, 2006 2:38 PM

Well I'm anti-bike because I never learned the grace of keeping one upright. As I child I couldn't do it--for no known physical reason, and later, as a determined adult I tried to overcome my inability. I bought a 350cc Harley (used) and with a seasoned cyclist by my side and helmet securely strapped on, went about 20 feet, slowed, and tipped over, ending up looking like Arte Johnson on his tricycle. I cried and gave up (I'm a girl, I can do that).

Posted by: susan on June 20, 2006 3:21 PM

I don't have a problem with bice riders in the street, as the only streets they can reasonably be in are city streets where you can't drive much over 25 mph. Motorcycles on the highway are another story, particularly in slow traffic when they course in between lanes. I still cannot believe this is legal (it is, I just can't believe it). You really cannot see them until they pass you. I've almost hit one countless times, and of course they give you the evil eye.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 20, 2006 3:50 PM

Patriarch -

You must live in California - that's the only place I know of where lane-splitting is legal (sort of - everyone does it, but it's legality is one of those nebulous grey areas. Basically, bikers will do it in front of carbound cops who can't catch them, but usually chicken out when a motorcycle cop is around...)

I learned to ride when I was living in California. Splitting lanes on the highway was one of my guilty pleasures - there's just something so godlike about bypassing all those people in metal cages.

I never gave anyone the "evil eye", though - I found (and still do, even though I'm stuck back here in Mass. and don't do it much anymore) that in order to successfully navigate traffic I had to treat the cars like slow-moving herd animals that were easily frightened. If someone cut me off, I didn't get upset, anymore than I would at a cow. The cars, in my mind, really didn't have a human component at all. After a few months of daily commuting, it got so I had a sixth sense about them - I knew before the driver did if it was about to make a sudden move, just based on the traffic layout and the way it was behaving. It was a wierdly meditative endeavor...

Posted by: jimbo on June 20, 2006 5:02 PM

Oddly, despite the aging hippie vibe recumbent riders give off (bang on description, Donald!) every recumbent driver I've known or heard about has been a science/engineering/techie type. Obviously, many techies do indeed look all greybeard hippy, but there does seem a curious dearth of artistic types pedalling supine around the city.

And...I'm feeling a little guilty reading the comments about the dangers of bikers. I used to be a bicycle messenger (though we call them 'couriers' up here. Much more romantic, don't you think?). In the course of doing my job, I wreaked havoc on downtown drivers for years. I break out in cold sweats remembering some of my 'exploits', like riding the wrong way down a very fast one way downtown feeder route at the height of rush the centre lane. Needless to say, I got (and gave) many a one-fingered salute. And deserved them all.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 20, 2006 6:10 PM

I live in SW Ohio and your profiling of recumbent bikers is hilariously spot on in my area as well. I ride the standard upright kind,and, as a short-haired clean-shaven well-educated middle-aged man, I probably fit the profile for that type of bike rider. I can't see how anyone in their right mind could take a recumbent into traffic, even with a big flag I've seen some equipped with. Still, I haven't seen a dead one yet.

Posted by: OutOfContext on June 20, 2006 7:28 PM

The grey beards are not at all incompatible with the idea that recumbent-bike riders are aging ex-hippies. It's sometimes easy to forget that the hippie era is by now quite far in the past. Woodstock was 37 years ago, the Summer of Love 39. Keeping in mind that many of the hippies were well past their teens, in many cases well into their twenties, simple addition shows that many of them today are nearing retirement age.

Posted by: Peter on June 20, 2006 7:32 PM

In Cambridge (Mass) in the 70s/80s, the concentration of recumbents rose the closer you got to MIT. Beards were clearly overrepresented. I assume the demographic was engineers attracted to the recumbent's improved utilization of power, aerodynamic profile and general techie coolness. Surprising that they didn't think more about traffic safety. I used to pass one angry-looking beard almost every evening on curvy, high-speed, high-traffic Memorial Dr. If traffic was heavy, all you saw was an eccentrically bobbing orange flag.

Posted by: robert on June 21, 2006 3:25 AM

My experience has been that, in almost every case, the rider of a recumbent bicycle is a wiry guy with a beard

0hmigod yes! I can 100% confirm same experience.

Too funny.

Posted by: Hart on June 21, 2006 8:22 AM

People who ride bikes in heavy traffic should be sure they have signed their organ donation cards and kept them up to date.

Did the grey-haired guys have a receding hairline and a ponytail? Most of them around here do.

Posted by: Miriam on June 21, 2006 10:19 AM

I live out in the country on a secondary road and I assumed, foolish me, that it would be quiet. Thanks to motorcyclists it's anything but!

Nothing like a biker, exercising his God-given-Amurrican-right-of-self-expression, to ruin everyone elses peace and quiet.

If the above makes me an old fogey square, so be it.

Posted by: ricpic on June 21, 2006 11:23 AM

don't discriminate against Canadians. Here's a shot taken in a quiet picturuesque village in Quebec, 100 km from Montreal.

Posted by: Tat on June 21, 2006 7:22 PM

My experience: have never seen any bicyclist or motorcyclist but that they did not break 2 or 3 traffic regulations. Bicyclists are "above" stopping at red lights or stop signs or driving on the correct side of the road. Motorcyclists not only split lanes when I see them but also - invariably - engage in swerving in and out of lanes when doing so, at very high rates of speed. This is sad, but I've observed NO EXCEPTION AT ANY TIME (not even once) to the above. I.e., every time I see a bicyclist, he/she runs a stop sign or red light; every time I see a motorcyclist, he's a blur swerving around stopped cars and splitting lanes. PS: I haven't seen a helmet on any motorcylist's head - outside of movies or TV shows - in about 5 years. And the only traffic fatality I ever saw was a motorcyclist: they were covering the mangled body (lying in the middle of the road) with a sheet by the time I reached it in the long, slow queue of traffic. I hope he didn't take anyone with him.

Posted by: DR on June 22, 2006 5:52 PM

Allegedly, I have a higher IQ than any US president has ever had, and I'm a complete dope. Nigh onto helpless in the day-to-day realities of living, in fact. Can't even spell; not to mention the fact that I can't compute arethmetical combinations. However, I too think recumbent bicycles are somehow... illogical. I much prefer my 1994 BMW R1100RS: Now THAT's a "bike."

Yeah: I'm one of those motorcyclists zipping through traffic and between cars: Riding a bike means never having to say, "I got stuck in traffic."

Posted by: Hucbald on June 26, 2006 3:19 AM

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