Friday, December 24, 2010

The Counterbalance

Over the last nine+ years of living in Downtown Seattle I’ve managed to ride up most of the steep little climbs around town. Always in the back of mind was the fact that I had not ridden up the Counterbalance (officially Queen Anne Avenue) on the south side of Queen Anne. The tracks are long since gone, but 120 years ago an electric streetcar was a popular form of transportation up Queen Anne hill.

The Counterbalance was a heavy 16-ton weight attached to a cable that would move the opposite direction to the travel of the street car. Due to the steepness of the street, the weight was required to assist the electric cars in climbing the hill and ease the pressure on the brakes on the downhill bound cars:

Queen Anne Avenue is one of those odd streets where there are no lane division markings. It’s really about a three lane street, but drivers almost arbitrarily use it as either a two or four lane, depending on traffic and time of the day. Because of this, I never really had much of an urge to ride up the Counterbalance, and rarely did I ride down it. Walking up and down the street gave me a pretty good feel for how it might be on a bike.

A few Sunday mornings ago, I managed to convince Reg N. to meet me at the bottom of the hill. Just as with Onion Valley in the Sierras (David L and I added a day to do this one); I guess I figured my Curriculum Vitae wouldn’t be complete without this steep little bugger. While not nearly as long as the climbs out at Cougar and Squak Mountain, it’s still a nice little test piece.

There are plenty of one block wonders around town. There are many very steep blocks all around Queen Anne, and some short steep pitches in the Montlake/Interlaken area. The south side of Somerset in Bellevue has some super steep blocks, and the trip up the cobbles on Virginia from Pike Place Market goes at 19+%.

None of these tiny climbs compare to the .5 mile long Counterbalance, where the crux .25 mile section averages nearly 15%. Here is how I rank the short but sweet climbs around town, at least the ones that come to mind:

1) Counter Balance on Queen Anne
2) Seattle View Hill south of Downtown Renton
3) West Dravus St. on the east side of Magnolia

I certainly can’t compare the Counterbalance to Onion Valley, White Mountain Rd, or Horseshoe Meadows, three monster Sierra climbs I did in CA. Nevertheless, what the CB lacks in length it makes up with steepness. It’s one of those nasty Seattle climbs that you don’t go looking for on a daily basis, but you just have to do…at least once. The Counterbalance is certainly Type II fun; you know; the kind of fun that’s only fun well after it’s over.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Upon Reflection

Thinking about my “near death” experience last Friday still gives me the heebie-jeebies:

I had intended on just trying to forget about it, but something has been gnawing at me all weekend. I did a 60 mile ride today before the rain. It was a beautiful day with almost eerily light traffic, so I had some time to think.

In the way of disclosure, 99% of the reason I write this blog is simply just for me. It’s nice that I have people choose to read what I write, but I write for me. Sometimes I need to vent, as I did in my previous post.

Nevertheless, I do hold myself accountable, and I apologize for my comments about people who have, or may be in the process of losing their jobs. I meant no offense. In fact, I thought I was being clever, which I was not. Even if it was, sometimes being clever isn’t the right thing to be.

Out on the bike today, I tried to process what happened on Friday, what I did, and what I should have done. My conclusion is that it was my fault that the incident occurred at all. If I had been 100% focused on the traffic that was overtaking me, I would have picked up that gold Chevy Luv pickup in my mirror, and I might have had time to act accordingly. The major reason I put up with the occasional “Dorky mirror” comment from cycling buddies is because of the huge safety factor it adds to be able to “profile” the vehicles (especially pickup trucks) behind me. Without a mirror I wouldn’t have even had a clue as to what was about to occur. I don’t know if that truck was hidden in a blind spot behind another car, or if I just failed to pick up the color on an overcast day.

I ride my bike all over the metro area and well beyond, and I have most of the danger spots well categorized in my memory. That little bridge on Issaquah Hobart just south of May Valley Rd. is certainly a hot spot and potentially very dangerous for cyclists. I’m usually hyper vigilant riding that section of road, but this time I let one slip through the cracks. I recall once coming to a complete stop before the bridge while travelling southbound because the overtaking traffic just didn’t feel right.

Last Friday, I just had the miserably timed misfortune to not have 100% focus at the very split instant that one of the “one in a million” asshole drivers spotted me in a very vulnerable spot on the road. You know, the one driver I did not want to be passing me at that time and place with some type of bizarre attitude in his head. “Tommy Timing” was not in play on this one.

I normally don’t have a bad temper. I never threw or broke clubs when I played competitive amateur golf. Yeah, I’d utter the occasional swear word, but I tried to mutter under my breath. The temper does fire up when I feel that my life has been threatened by some moronic fool. It’s difficult for me to control my temper and think rationally in that situation.

There is no way I should have tried to provoke a confrontation with the idiot who close passed buzzed me. I was irate, but I absolutely should have not done what I did. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I shudder to think what possible outcomes could have resulted.

Tracy is acquainted with a very experienced Washington State Patrolman. Here is what the patrolman told us:

"In regards to your question it would be tough to investigate the incident after the fact. I could think of a couple of charges which could be brought against somebody for intentionally driving so close to a bicycle that it forced it off the road. One would be reckless driving and the other would be reckless endangerment. But to prove these or charge them there would have to be a positive ID on the suspect driver. A person could always be given an infraction for negligent driving second degree, but still the driver needs to be ID.

The other thing is, who's jurisdiction does it belong too? The State Patrol can investigate a crime in any jurisdiction. But if the incident occurred on a county road or city street then the local agency has right of first refusal. If the incident occurred on a State Route or Interstate in an unincorporated area then we don't have to ask the locals if they would like to investigate the incident. It really doesn't matter because the locals usually want to give it to us anyway.

The final thing that can be done is a letter can be sent to the registered owner of the car. This letter would advise the RO their car was observed driving recklessly which puts them on notice."

So even if you have a witness (I did, as another driver stopped to see if I was OK), you still have to have a positive ID on the driver. That's tough to do if you only saw the back of his head through the car's back window as he sped away. It's hard just to think clearly enough to get the license plate #. Nevertheless, if this happens again, we will contact the Patrolman to see if he can have a letter sent to the offender.

Making the driver aware that Big Brother is watching is better than nothing.

My Candian friend Johny commented on my last post. He was riding his bike in a small town when a driver actually hit his pedals while passing and just drove away! Somehow he managed to not crash, but he was incredibly frustrated by the lack of response from the local law enforcement agency. Last week, eight cyclists were killed in Southern Italy when run over by an oncoming motorist who was under the influence of marijuana:

As cyclists, we have to face the facts. Cycling and sharing the road with cars is certainly a potentially very dangerous pursuit. Anytime you throw your leg over the toptube, one must assume a definite level of risk.

I am going to continue trying to stack the deck in my favor. As always, I will be super cautious, as visible as possible, and constantly alert. In addition, I am going to continue to be as courteous as I can to car drivers. I view myself as a “professional” cyclist, not in terms of racing, but in terms of commitment. I’m going to act accordingly, even more than I already do.

For some time now on the group rides that I lead, I and the other leaders of the ride have pretty rigidly enforced a policy of stopping at stop signs and rolling away slowly so that trailing riders don’t have to blast through the intersection to stay in contact. The ride goes more smoothly, and we certainly set a better example than many of the groups I see around town.

I’ll continue acknowledging oncoming drivers in rural areas with a friendly nod, and I’ll keep giving a little wave when drivers give me a nice wide berth when passing. When I approach a four way stop with a car perpendicular to me, I slow and wave the car through the intersection, even if I was at the stop first. I guess I figure that by doing that, I may influence that driver to react differently the next time they are sharing the road with a cyclist. Who knows, that cyclist might be me.

Honestly, when it comes right down to it, I get a lot more discouraged by what I see cyclists doing than by car drivers. Although there will always be those occasional jerks who get behind the wheel of vehicles, I am going to do my best as a cyclist not to aggravate them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Mean Season—it’s that time of the year…again

Around noon yesterday, I was in the middle of my 50 mile ride when I came the closest I have ever been to getting killed while riding my bike. Other than that, it was a great ride. Wait, am I exaggerating? No, I am not. Ahhh, season’s greetings from the most nerve wracking time of the year for me to be on a bike.

I was riding southbound and uphill a half mile south of May Valley on the Issaquah Hobart Road. There is a very short bridge where the shoulder disappears and the road narrows down. I had been glancing in my mirror, gauging the traffic flow to time it so that I could cover the 25 yards or so without a car near me. I thought I had found my gap, and I was pedaling briskly to get across the bridge.

Traffic was a little heavier than normal, and I did my best to monitor the cars overtaking me. Somehow I missed a car. This guy in a pickup came out of nowhere; until I heard the engine being gunned, I had no idea he was there. I did at least get one part of the timing correct. There was no oncoming traffic and this moron had the entire road at his disposal.

There is absolutely no question that the driver intended on terrorizing me with a close buzz. He accelerated to make sure that I didn’t reach the end of the bridge and have room to bail right into the shoulder. My mirror only enabled me to see just how close he was right before he went by. Had I flinched left, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. I often use the mirror in tight situations to get a little clearance by moving slightly left and “walking” overtaking cars out a little. I then move right as they pass. Since I had no idea this guy was there and there was no shoulder, I was just riding near the right edge of the road. There was no more “right” left when he blew by me at 60mph in a 45mph zone.

He might have missed me by a foot. It gives me the creeps to think about how close his right rear view mirror must have been to my head. I was incensed. I immediately gave him the finger; he returned the salute. I did it again, this time an extended version and more emphatically. I heard his tires screech as he nailed the brakes. The adrenaline was surging and I put my head down and started pedaling hard. As I was getting close, he started to pull away. I gave the “bring that shit to me” motion with my right arm; you know, the “get out of your truck and discuss this like a man” gesture. He stopped.

I motioned again as I slowed to a stop just behind him in the shoulder. His response was to nail it in reverse, doing a burnout. At first it appeared that he intended on finishing the job of killing me. I jumped, he stopped, I motioned again, and he drove away.

At the time, I was pissed in so many ways, not the least that he didn’t get out of the truck. I intended to throttle this guy to within an inch of his life, as he had just figuratively done to me. With the adrenaline that was coursing through my veins, at that moment I felt like I could have kicked ass on Genghis Khan, Braveheart, and the Gladiator simultaneously. In retrospect, I‘m certainly glad he drove away. I had such tunnel vision that I had not even looked to see if there was anyone with him. Surely there must have been; people don’t act this way solo. Do they? Post incident, I had a vision of two dudes emerging from that truck with at least one gun. Putting a gun in the hand of someone like this; well I guess it’s likely that the consequence for me would have been the same as if he had hit me with his truck.

As he drove away, the red mist field of vision faded, and I at least had the presence of mind to point at his license plate, hoping he was smart enough to "get it" as he looked in his mirror. I got my phone out and left a voice memo with the number. Of course I had no idea as to what kind of truck it was. I had been pretty single-minded the whole time all of this was going down.

At this point, a big GMC pickup pulled off the road just ahead of me. A driver named Herb had stopped to make sure I was all right. Herb had seen the whole incident, and told me that from behind it appeared that the driver was aiming for me. I asked Herb if he noticed what kind of pickup truck it was, and he told me it had been a beat-up gold Chevy Luv. Herb and I talked for a few minutes, and he didn’t hesitate to leave his phone number and offer to be a witness if I could get anything done about what had happened.

I ride my bike about 10,000 miles a year and I ride all over. Of the bazillions of cars that have passed me, 99.9999% of the drivers have been courteous. When I talk to other cyclist’s, I get the impression the close pass scare occurs a lot more for them than it does for me, despite the miles I rack up. As a matter of fact, since I have been using a Dinotte 400r unbelievably bright rear light, most of the cars give me a very comfortable berth. The light does something; drivers seem to be subconsciously or consciously giving more room than normal.

I like to think that I am an extremely cautious rider, as well as being a pretty experienced rider. There isn’t a whole lot that I have not dealt with on the bike when it comes to traffic.

By no means am I saying I am a perfect angel on the bike 100% of the time. But I wasn’t doing anything wrong on Friday when I nearly got run over. I had been riding in the shoulder and not impeding traffic in any way. I was dressed in bright yellow and using front and rear super bright lights. I was being courteous and respectful of the car drivers. As usual, I was doing everything in my power to not get hit.

The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is always the most nerve wracking time of the year for me while riding:

Since the economy nosedived there is a lot less traffic, but the drivers seem to be angry and in even more of a hurry. The Holidays do that to you, I guess. Perhaps many of these people are worried about losing their job and they are in a rush to get to the store and buy presents before they do get the sack.

Now I am really bummed. I just went back through my phone voice memos, and apparently I forgot to save the audio messages I left with the license plate and Herb’s phone number. Damn technology! My last phone auto-saved memos and I guess I just forgot to do it because I was so disturbed.

I had intended to contact the State Patrol as well as the Issaquah Police. I don’t know if the police are empowered to act on something like what happened to me. If would have been great if an officer of the law could knock on this asshole’s door and explain the consequences that would have resulted had he run me over in broad daylight. There were witnesses and I believe their testimony would be unanimous that this driver intended to hit me. The driver sure couldn’t have used a defense common when motorists kill cyclists after striking them from behind. With me wearing super bright yellow, and using the brightest tail light in the business; I don’t think a jury would buy that the driver “never saw him.” My rear light is brighter than a normal auto tail light, and is easily visible from 1.5 miles back in summer daylight.

I don’t know what lesson there is for me to learn from this episode. You can be doing everything right, or as right as you can be while sharing the road with car traffic, and still get killed riding your bicycle. Issaquah Hobart is not a road I go out of my way to ride, but I have ridden it many times with no problem. And make no mistake, I will ride it again.

Seattle is about as good as it gets when it comes to cycling. I shudder to think as to what it’s like to ride in, say, Wichita Falls, Texas.

I know the type of scare I experienced yesterday can occur any day of the year when I get out on my bike. But for me, things are the tensest at this time of the year. Tis’ the joyous season. Be careful out there. I know I will be.