I recently revisited one of my favorite movies, The Hunt for Red October. Remember the “buckaroo” line? The normally unflappable Soviet Captain Marko Ramius, played by Sean Connery, wrings his hands over the penultimate challenge he’ll face in his quest to surrender the nuclear attack submarine Red October to the Americans:
Moscow’s not the worry, neither is the whole Soviet navy. I know their tactics, I have the advantage. The worry is the Americans. If we meet the right sort, then this will work. We get some… buckaroo…?
That’s how I feel when it comes to bicycling with trucks. Like Ramius, I’m pretty secure in my own skills. After years of experience, I don’t rattle easily when “captaining” my own ship. Self-confidence is, after all, just one of the many rewards that riding a bicycle, both for transportation and sport, bestows every day. But when I hear a brawny, umpteen-wheeler that might as well be a U-boat rumbling behind me on a narrow road, my thought is always: Is this driver “the right sort” or is he a buckaroo? Will the driver, gunning to get to his destination or make his delivery, become impatient and possibly act recklessly? Or can we work together to negotiate a thoroughfare that we acknowledge is dangerous for each of us, but in very different ways?
As in The Hunt for Red October, tactics matter, because, in a contest between tons of steel, the flesh and bones aboard my wisp of carbon or aluminum will lose.
My tactics come down to this: taking control, communicating clearly with the driver and being willing to surrender — get off the road — in the name of safety. It applies in the city or country, and I’ve found that it makes riding in both places less scary.
No Place to Go – For Either of Us
So, was the driver bearing down on me on a shoulderless ribbon of road outside a village on Long Island last weekend “the right sort”? First, let’s get visibility out of the way. Some accidents result from drivers not being able to see bicyclists or pedestrians. (In the EU, a voluntary rule aimed at improving visibility for drivers, who currently have many blind spots, recently stalled.)
This driver could see me; I was riding ahead. But the distance was closing. Would he get antsy and try to pass, giving me no place to go, or would he wait because the conditions for him were unsafe, too?
The next turn on my route was coming up, so I telegraphed my intentions with hand signals. (“One ping only, please.”)
I’m bearing right. (Hope you’re not!)
But he was bearing right.
I knew he would have to come to a full stop at the upcoming stop sign of a T intersection where he would either turn left (Whew!) or, if he were once again turning in my direction, would at least allow me to open a gap that would get me closer to my destination.
With still some distance between us, I signaled a right turn at the stop sign, and pedaled down the road. Soon the truck was rumbling up behind me again. And there it remained for an unnerving quarter of a mile.
The driver had been patient – not a buckaroo. I had no safe place to pull off to the right and there wasn’t enough forward visibility on the winding road for him to pass me. We had reached an impasse.
So this is what I did: Take the road in order to surrender it. There was a turnoff to the left another quarter of a mile ahead where I could exit safely. I signaled a left turn to the driver, glanced over my shoulder to check that there was a safe margin of pavement between us and then moved into the lane in front of the truck , where I pedaled until I signaled the turnoff. Then, without pivoting to see the driver, I gave a wave and a thumbs up. Thanks for not being a cowboy. This time.
For me, the take-away on that Saturday was: When a situation feels uncomfortable, and you have time to think ahead, you’re better off taking control, communicating and getting off the road — than suffering through the fear of being run over, or worse. Nervous people make mistakes.
Over time, this becomes easier because the more frequently one rides a bicycle with traffic, and the greater the variety of situations one encounters and adds to one’s mental hard drive, the more natural and less complicated decisions on the road become. I admit that it has taken me years to develop the nerve to “control” a driver behind me – trucks and taxicabs included — by taking the lane. Group riding – where multiple cyclists basically represent the outline of a car when they move into traffic — helped.
Cultivating that ability has been enormously liberating for me. Sure, anything can happen, even to the most experienced and safety-conscious people. But can’t that be said of just about any activity in our lives that involves risk?
In the movie, American submarine Capt. Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) , the man who, once liberated from his buckaroo tendencies by protagonist Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), says, “The hard part about playing chicken in knowin’ when to flinch.”
I flinched on Saturday, even though the driver wasn’t a buckaroo. I often do — but on my own terms. And I’m okay with that.