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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  11/1/1999

Living Dangerously

Over the course of the past year, there have been at least four cycling fatalities in the North Bay. The need to make sense out of such senseless tragedy prompts many of us to try and draw some moral from the story...to come to some meaningful conclusion. "This wouldn't have happened if ______." (Insert your personal theory.) The most obvious conclusion one might draw is that cycling is inherently unsafe. This is a point of view cyclists hear over and over again from non-cyclists: "Aren't you terrified to be out there? I could never do that!" Highly publicized cycling deaths only reinforce this conviction.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Overall, cycling is a relatively safe pastime. Almost all popular, active sports--softball, tennis, jogging, soccer, skiing, basketball..you name it--have a higher incidence of injury. (And we're not even talking about the more extreme sports, such as sky-diving, free climbing, or white-water kayaking, or the contact sports: football, boxing, hockey, etc.) And while the dreaded car-bike accidents sometimes result in more serious injuries, even in most of these incidents, the injuries are more often than not superficial.

Most active cyclists will have experienced a bike crash, either first hand--ouch!--or as an observer. They look and sound horrible, don't they? Arms and legs flailing...all those crunchy, scrunchy noises...pretty bikes getting trashed. But all that thrashing and trashing actually represents kinetic energy being dissipated, usually in rather spectacular but ultimately relatively harmless ways. The speed and the total weight of bike and rider are both fairly low, so there really isn't that much energy to be dissipated. In most cases, the riders walk away from the wrecks. In the largest percentage of cases, they climb right back on the bronc that bucked 'em off and finish their rides.

In contrast, in a serious car wreck, there are several thousand pounds of metal and usually a lot of speed that all have to be dealt with, and the little, soft-tissue humans in the middle of it all absorb literally tons of abuse in various unpleasantly traumatic ways. Car accidents are substantially more likely to result in deaths than bike accidents. Even cars hitting cyclists are less likely to involve deaths than cars hitting cars. Of course, we read every so often about a death or other really bad outcome from a car-bike crash, and this drives all other rational statistics from our heads.

Of all cycling crashes, fully 50% come under the heading "falls" (which essentially means self-inflicted, single-cyclist incidents). Of the remaining 50%, 17% are bike-bike tangles, 8% are bike-dog encounters, and 8% are whatever else you can imagine. Only 17% involve cars and trucks, and of those, only a small portion are anything more serious than the cycling equivalent of a fender-bender.

How often can cyclists expect of find themselves in a crash or any sort, serious or otherwise? The old statistic that's trotted out as gospel is once every 3000-4000 miles. However, a break-out of that figure by age group reveals more salient data: children crash every 1500 miles and college-associated adults crash every 2000 miles. These make up the bulk of the mishaps and skew the statistics. The typical adult club cyclist averages one crash--usually minor--every 10,000 miles. (I've cycled approximately 125,000 miles as an adult, and I've crashed five times, or around once every 25,000 miles, which for me translates to once every three or four years. Although most of these crashes looked quite frightening, I walked away from all of them with only minor scrapes and bruises.)

It would be incorrect and misleading to state that cycling is completely safe. We recognize that a roughly calculated risk is accepted--perhaps in some cases even courted--as a part of the sport: the thrill factor. Most cyclists will admit that the fun of flying downhill, carving a corner, head hung out over the bars, is heightened by pushing the limits...exploring the fine line between maximum performance and going too far. While we don't always have to go out there and let it all hang out, cycling does allow us to dial in just the right dose of excitement by choosing how hard to push the envelope. Sometimes though, the envelope pushes back...the unseen scatter of gravel, the road still wet in a shady corner...and then our calculations go in the dumper and so do we. The rules of the game are too fraught with variables to ever know to a certainty where the edge will be on a given day, and that element of uncertain risk is part of the spice that makes living on the edge so much fun. We each have our own limits--some are more cautious or more crazed than others--but no one who is terminally timid will ever get much fun out of riding a bike.

On the other hand, there are millions of happy cyclists out there who are not thrill-crazed adrenaline junkies. They have discovered what the folks in their automobiles will never understand: that it's okay out there on the roads, and that if you choose your routes prudently and ride in a reasonably responsible fashion, you're going to enjoy yourself immensely, with only minimal risk to life and limb.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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