29 December 2008

Why Am I So ANGRY Tonight?

It's been a long and troublesome cold spell in Seattle. For two weeks I didn't ride my bike. I didn't ride, not because a local cyclist was killed, but because the local area was inundated with over a foot of snow that has clogged streets, shut down everything from newspaper and mail delivery to pick up of garbage from the curb. It is all melting away now, however and leaving in its wake the usual mess of sand, blowing garbage and abandoned cars.

Just before the cold snap started, though, I did a 50 mile ride on Saturday, December 13th. As I rode out of the house the temperatures were just above freezing, and it didn't warm up a whole lot, but throughout the day, I kept thinking about what had taken place just two days before. At a little after 6:00 am on Thursday December 11th, a 56-year old man bid his family farewell and left for work. He did this pretty much the same way he'd been doing it every day for a long time. He was gainfully employed as a mechanic. He loved his family and was a contributing member of his community. Unlike most morning commuters, though, this man was one of a much smaller community of working Americans who chose to ride a bicycle to work and home. Just an ordinary guy, with an ordinary family, living an ordinary life in an ordinary community. Just like me.

At a little after 6:00 am that same morning, I did exactly what this 56 year old man did. I strapped on my helmet, turned on all of my headlights and taillights, straddled my bicycle and headed off to work.

There is one big difference. That night, I got to walk back through the door to my ordinary home, kiss my ordinary family hello, sit down to an ordinary dinner and go on with my ordinary life. This stranger was far less fortunate. As he rode down Renton Avenue South out of Skyway, he was struck by an oncoming driver in a Large American Car and died at the scene before he could tell his wife just one more time how much he loved her.

I found out about Paul Radliff as I was walking to lunch, when I got a call from a friend; a friend who knows I commute by bike every day and was worried about my safety.

And on that Saturday, I rode around on my bike like a deer caught in the headlights, thinking about this man and his family and what had been taken away from him. I was filled with a sadness that doesn't often hit me when I read or hear about a traffic fatality. I wasn't particularly angry at that point, just shocked and sad. Not shocked as in surprised. But shocked because this man was so much like me. I do the same thing every day that he does, and I was still alive and able to enjoy the coming of winter. Sad because he had so much of a life ahead of him that was unfulfilled.

I rode around that day, more conscious of every car that passed me. I was shaken by this incident for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the reaction of our local law enforcement officers and their attitude toward cyclists. Specifically in this instance, is the fact that the 79 year old driver who was never identified in the media "because he hadn't been charged", was neither cited at the scend for failure to yield the right of way nor charged with any major offense (i.e., vechicular homicide, inattentive driving, negligent driving), and the only thing that the police would say was that the investigation was continuing.

I refuse to call this a tragic accident, which is what I have seen it described as. I call it what it is. Vehicular Homicide. I have perused our local newspapers since then. Of course, since we had a major weather event, everything else has taken a back seat to dealing with plowing roads and making it possible to move more and more cars around the city again, and all of the police departments' energies have been re-allocated, so something like investigating a manslaughter becomes a thing of non-importance. This seems to be a trend in my community and it saddens me. I did manage to come across this photograph of Paul Ratliff in the Seattle Times, along with a nice article about him.

photo from Seattle Times - Marie Bolstad

I have sat and studied this photograph a lot over the past few weeks, contemplating what Paul's Christmas would have been like. Would he have been sitting at home like me, staring out the window as more and more snow piled up on his street, wondering when he was going to be able to ride his bike again? Would he have been pacing back and forth through the house like a caged animal, just chomping at the bit to get back out there on his bike? Would he have been cruising the internet scheming on ways to make it so he could ride his bike in bad weather?

Something that has been a bit odd for me is that as I rode to work the day after finding out about this uninvestigated and unpunished homicide, I kept wondering if there was something Paul could have done to make himself more visible. What part did he play in his own death? I found myself falling into the same trap that many motorists seem to put us in. WHY do we instantly blame the victim?

And then I started to feel anger. Anger at the police for failing to make certain that the driver who was responsible was cited and appropriately charged. Anger at the driver who failed to recognize and appropriately respond to an obstacle in front of him and in the process kill another innocent man. Anger at the insensitive assholes who posted in the newspaper every bit of vitriolic hatred toward people on bicycles they could muster from the privacy of their computer keyboard. Finally, anger at myself for falling victim to the same prejudice that I want others to rise above.

Today, I'm on a week of vacation. Shortly after lunch, I strapped on my helmet, cinched up my cycling shoes, put on my reflective rain jacket, kissed my loving wife goodbye and headed south from my ordinary little home on a ride to my mother-in-law's house. Normally, I would ride along Lake Washington to Renton, but today, I was once again thinking of Paul Radliff, and how his life was cut short at the hands of a careless and inattentive man. As I rode down Cloverdale, the light turned green and I went through the intersection and turned right onto Renton Avenue South. There are three steep hills to get to the top of the hill in Skyway, and no hills if I ride around the base. Today, instead of turning onto Henderson and going along the lake, I rode up the hill. I rode up and up and up, thinking of Paul with each rotation of my pedals. It was all I could do not to cry. It was all I could do not to scream at every car that went by me. I know it isn't their fault. I know I shouldn't be angry at everyone in a car, and I'm really not. But today, I rode for Paul. I rode in his honor and in his memory.

As I crested the hill and started down the other side, I felt my speed begin to increase. There were cars coming up the hill and cars behind me. 10....15....20. The winds were strong this afternoon and blowing straight into my face. By the time I got to the intersection where Mr. Radliff was killed, I was up to 25 mph, and I saw the "ghost bike" that some concerned citizen has placed at the corner. I had to concentrate all of my energies on the road in front of me, as I carefully scanned each and every car that approached me as I descended toward Renton. When I got to the bottom of the hill, I was relieved.

Automobiles are responsible for thousands of deaths every year. Drunk drivers, careless and inattentive drivers, inexperienced drivers, drivers who due to their age or other limitations should not be driving any longer, and angry/hostile drivers make up the mix of what ordinary guys like Paul Radliff and I have to deal with every day. Fortunately, I get to live another day.

I want justice for Paul. I want the police to arrest the driver. I want them to perp walk him through to the booking area, fingerprint him and place him in a cell along with the other individuals who are arrested on suspicion of a crime. That won't happen because all he did was kill a guy on a bike.

And that is why I'm angry tonight.

Who Says We're NUTS????

December 28, 2008
Dateline Seattle, WA.
Weather Forecast: 40F, SW Winds to 15; 70% chance of precipitation
Current Condition: Most snow melted; bike paths still impacted with 4" slush

I'd wanted to do a 200 the day after Christmas, but with recent severe weather in the form of the most significant snow storm and longest cold snap since 1950, the Seattle area has been overwhelmed in a lot of ways, and there was still too much snow to do what I would consider a safe ride. The last time I'd been off the bike for 14 consecutive days was in August, 2008 when I had hand surgery, so my legs were definitely not in top form. I managed a short 20 mile ride on Saturday ….

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…. just to get a bit of a warm up and experiment riding in some slush just so I'd be a little better prepared for being on the tandem and possibly having to react when I've got somebody else who is depending on my handling skills to avoid a career ending crash. Also spent a couple hours Saturday getting the tandem clean, lubed and ready to roll for 130 miles of hard winter riding conditions.

Sunday morning I awoke to rain. Not heavy, but definite rain. By the time I got to Mercer Island for the start, it had quit and I arrived at the same time as Pam was driving in. She told me it was raining hard to the east, and we are riding right into it. While we were getting her saddle and pedals on Sherman, Geoff rode up and a few minutes later, Chris arrived. Both Chris and Pam are going for their 1st R-12; this is month 4 for Chris and 3 for Pam. Both are new to randonneuring and very determined. Pam is a really strong stoker, with in incredible strength on the climbs and absolutely fearless on descents (much more so than me), and not intimidated by the threat of falling (only because I've never dumped her yet). She's a seasoned mountain biker and former gymnast, so when I finally do crash us, it will be most interesting to see what kind of acrobatics she's going to engage in to save her own life while I go tumbling off the side of a mountain. Chris rode RAMROD with me this summer and took on the R-12 as his next challenge, buying a new titanium custom built Davidson for his pursuit. Geoff, of course, is a long-term randonneur and veteran with whom I always enjoy riding.

At 7:50 we took off out of the QFC lot, heading east. We managed to get as far as the East Channel bridge over Lake Washington before we had to portage our bikes over the first snow field. Heavily saturated slush about 4” deep was not rideable.

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We knew the trail between the slough and Eastgate would be impassable, so did a 3 or 4 mile detour that took us through the Lake Hills Connector, adding a couple of good little climbs to our early morning ride. As we turned east at Factoria, a fine mist started to hit us that got gradually heavier until we got to Issaquah, at which time it was a full fledged rain shower. Because of all the snow melt, the roads were also littered with a lot of sand and gravel which mucked all of our bikes up pretty good. Geoff was the only one without a mudflap, so he mostly led from behind until we got into Redmond, where Chris removed his front mudflap and Geoff mounted it on his bike, which helped immensely. I had added a new front mudflap to Sherman, and looking at the degree of grime on Geoff’s bike in comparison to what was on the tandem, we got a really good demonstration of just how much a front mudflap helps to keep crap out of the drive train. I’ve heard people talk about this before, but this was the first time I saw a really good demonstration of it. That front mudflap also kept a lot of the crud off of my feet, though they ended up cold and wet anyway.

Heading through Marymoor Park, we got our first taste of having to ride through slush, and I was really glad for having taken the time I did on Saturday, as I had to plow through it on the tandem. Even with the wider tires and additional weight, it’s not easy or fun, especially knowing that if I go down, I’m taking somebody with me. Pam was a good sport. When I got us through it, I said to her, “well, I guess that got your adrenaline pumped up a bit, huh?” And she said that it would take a lot more than that to worry her.

We headed south out of Marymoor along West Lake Sammamish and had to go back up the steep grade we’d gone down before, some sections that were 12 – 14%. A tough go on the tandem, but we managed to keep up with both Chris and Geoff at a whopping 4 mph!!! After getting through Eastgate area again, we had to use our next detour to avoid the snow covered bike paths between S. Bellevue and Renton along the east side of Lake Washington, a normally very easy section of mixed roadway and bike path. The work-around was not nearly as easy, and Geoff added in a wonderful little “bonus climb” for us at 18%. I think this is the steepest I’ve ever done on the tandem, and still my stoker never complained about how hard it was, only about how many extra miles we’re adding in to an already too-long ride to be doing in the middle of winter (actually, it isn’t the middle of winter yet, but I didn’t want to appear to be nit picking the issue).

Once we got to Renton, it was really smooth sailing the rest of the afternoon. The sun came out for a little bit, the pavement dried up along a good part of the route and except for a light headwind (4-8 mph), it was totally enjoyable as we headed out West Valley Highway, stopping for a snack in Kent.

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The final push into Orting was a bit rough as the winds seemed to pick up a bit, but with broken clouds and on a newly paved bike path paralleling the highway, it was really enjoyable. Mt. Rainier even decided to show itself for a brief spell.

After a half hour stop in Orting as Geoff and I watched Pam and Chris eat sandwiches and I downed a handful of ibuprofen, we took off north, but the rain had started again. At least we had a tailwind pushing us along. Geoff has added a nice little easterly section that took us slightly into the foothills along a road with no traffic and then after riding through Sumner again, we took off on one of my old training routes back into Algona/Pacific where we picked up the Interubran Trail into Tukwila, where it intersects the River Trail. We probably should have not even gotten off onto the River Trail, as we encountered a lot of slushy areas. Just after hitting this trail, we encountered a huge snowman that took up most of the trail. Fortunately, there was enough melt off that we could ride around it. But a half mile later, as we were going through Fort Dent Park, the entire trail was covered. Geoff and I had a little bet going, as I really didn’t think we were going to have to use any more detours. He mentioned when we got here that it looked like he’d won. Not being the least bit competitive, I thought we could ride through it, so Pam and I took the lead. I was right. We managed to get through it. I slipped and slid my way along, Pam having the foresight to not say anything and letting me concentrate on keeping the bike upright. We got through the mess, and I asked her again if I’d managed to increase her heartrate, but she still wasn’t bothered by it all.

We continued on past Boeing Credit Union and the Tukwila Community Center before we started to hit some really odd long and narrow slushy patches. I’d relaxed a little and all of a sudden found myself in the middle of one of these patches of icy, mucky slush that I had to steer us through. The back end of the tandem was sliding all over the place and I thought we were going down for sure. If I had been on my single, I know I would have crashed, but the fat tires and weight saved the day and we got through it. As I let out a huge sigh of relief, my hands trembling and knees knocking, Pam said, “well, THAT one sorta got my heart going.” FINALLY!!!!! Now I know what it takes.

At the next possible opportunity, I took our little entourage off the bike path and onto East Marginal Way. No need to crash to prove a point. Geoff wins.

The designated route includes following along the River Trail into South Park and onto the Duwamish, my daily commute route. But having already added several miles, Geoff eliminated this section and we went into downtown on Airport Way, so we just had a 6 mile long puddle instead. Rain was coming down hard now and had been for a half hour. We were now fully certified members of the drowned rat club and the temperatures were dropping.

I had expected the I-90 Trail would be fully melted, and it was for the most part, but there were several sections just before the tunnel that still had big sections of slush, with 6” wide tracks to ride through. Pam told me that these were there to improve my handling skills and prove I could ride in a straight line. I tried. I was mostly successful. I didn’t crash us. It was somewhere around here that Chris and Pam realized we weren’t 2 miles from being done, but had to do a loop around the south end of Mercer Island, another 12 miles and 1,000’ of climbing before we’re done. Neither was really happy about this.

As we got onto Mercer Island and headed south, it seemed like the temperature warmed a few degrees. Chris was slowing down and this is a road that just wants to be ridden fast. For some reason, I can really fly on this stretch, especially on the tandem, but on this night, I would be in cruise control. Once I accepted this, it was really nice to just relax. No heavy traffic, the rain had quit, and there was a broken cloud cover, with a few stars visible. We rolled into the finish line after 132 miles, all of us successfully completing the course, no flat tires, no crashes and all of us one month closer to our R-12.

A great day in the saddle, all in all.