By Stan Purdum
Virtually every road cyclist has had a few encounters with rude or aggressive drivers, but I may be unique in that one of my most memorable incidents of harassment came from a man on a lawnmower.
It happened like this: On ride when I lived in Ohio, I had to pedal a short distance on one of the area’s busier roads to get to a low-traffic side street. The busy road was narrow, with no paved shoulder, so though I stayed near the right side of the lane, the couple of cars behind me couldn’t pass because of oncoming traffic in the other lane. But neither of the drivers behind me was “pushing,” and within a moment, I was close enough to the side street to signal that I intended to make a right turn and would soon be out of their way. I delayed the forward progress of those two cars by probably no more than 10 seconds.
Those drivers made no problem for me, but as I turned onto the side street, I noticed a man on a riding mower cutting the grass on the corner lot. When he saw that I glanced at him, he threw up his arm in my direction, middle finger extended.
I continued rolling past him, but since for once, the guy flipping the finger wasn’t then zooming away in a vehicle, I realized here was an opportunity to talk to him, maybe even reason with him. So I turned around.
He was still mowing, so I dismounted and stepped onto the edge of the lawn and waited for him as he mowed toward me. As he came close, I said, “What did I do to offend you?” (I knew darn well I’d done nothing, but I thought that he might respond to that question.) What he did, however, was to run his mower close to me and say, “Get off my property!” So I backed up a couple of feet to the road’s edge, but then repeated my question.
…YOU F—ING CYCLISTS DON’T F—ING BELONG…
At that, he stopped mowing and did, in fact, give me an answer. The gist of what he said was about what I expected, that bicycles didn’t belong on the roads. But he didn’t say it calmly like that. Instead, his words spewed out loudly, like a verbal fart: “WITH ALL THE BIKE TRAILS IN OHIO, YOU F—ING CYCLISTS DON’T F—ING BELONG ON THE ROADS HOLDING UP TRAFFIC.”
I thought for a second how to respond, and then said, “You know, trails don’t go all the places I want to go.”
“LIKE F—ING HELL THEY DON’T!” he screamed, looking like steam was going to erupt from his ears at any second.
It was obvious that the level of his anger rendered anything resembling reasonable conversation unlikely, so I said to him, “Well, clearly we’re not going to agree.” And then I mounted my bike and continued on my way.
As I rode on, I thought about why this man’s anger was so hot. Most drivers experience a momentary delay once in a while because of a cyclist on the road, and while it might annoy some, most take it in stride as part of the reality of driving. Perhaps this guy had been caught behind a group of cyclists who’d acted like they owned the road. I’ve occasionally seen cyclists do that, so maybe I’d just been on the receiving end of the finger and angry blast that this man had wanted to aim at them.
Or, since he was shouting about trails, maybe he was upset because some of his property taxes support the county parks, and thus, indirectly, trail building, and so he thought all cyclists should use them. Or maybe he was just being a jerk.
But it also occurred to me that I’d been made the object of venom by a man who didn’t even know me because I belonged to a “group” he despised. (That group is “people who ride bicycles on the road.”) Being disliked because of one’s group identity is not unlike the psychological maladaptation that results in racism, xenophobia, hatred of homosexuals, and the like.
And those kinds of indiscriminate animosities often say more about the one who holds them than they do about those who are the target of them. I’ve seen a study of prejudice that suggests that reasoning can dispel a prejudiced outlook from people who have no internal need to feel superior to others, but reasoning is not nearly so effective with those who have that need.
It may be, however, that I’m over-analyzing this encounter.
Maybe, after all, the finger flipper was just being a jerk.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls,New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic (both for sale in hard copy form in the RBR Bookstore) Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.