Compassion Is On Our Side

Bikes Parked Together


Every cyclist knows about the negative stereotypes attributed to them. Newspapers, blogs and online comment sections are filled with the same sentiment in the form of  acrid accusations.

Cyclists are characterized as either scrawny or overweight Lycra-wearing morons, as arrogant hipsters, and as reckless scofflaws who violate all of the traffic laws – and think that they own the road.

I’ve written about police who wrongly blame cyclists for causing accidents and about inflammatory journalism, which perpetuates myths about who cyclists are and how they behave. What I described wasn’t a pretty picture of how cyclists are perceived.

In the face of all of this negativity towards cyclists, what must be brought to light is the side of cyclists that motorists never seem to see. Perhaps, they just don’t know what it’s like to be a cyclist. Perhaps, they’re unwilling to find out.

Despite rumors to the contrary, cyclists are a varied bunch. Some identify with bike culture subgroups and behave in ways consistent with those groups’ beliefs. Others ride for personal reasons, and they engage in cycling on their own terms.

Most cyclists are not arrogant or reckless, and don’t think that anybody owns the road. Roads, to them, are meant to be shared. That sharing attitude transcends views about whose rights should predominate, motorists or cyclists.

Even with a lack of uniformity in cycling views and behavior, cyclists share one thing in common – they all ride bikes. This commonality creates a bond between cyclists, which motorists can’t understand.

There are unwritten rules in the world of bicycling. Those rules dictate how cyclists interact with one another and the world around them. And, they are based on compassion – a word rarely uttered in the same sentence as “cyclist.”

A glimpse inside this world begins with observing how cyclists react to a cyclist in need. When stopped on the side of the road, particularly when riding alone, a cyclist can always count on other cyclists to ask whether they’re all right.

If they answer in the affirmative, the passing cyclist rides away. If not, the cyclist stops to offer assistance. This assistance includes fixing a flat tire, lending tools to fix a mechanical problem, offering the use of a cell phone, giving away tire patches and sharing water.

Some cyclists stop to help a fellow cyclist who has been injured in a crash. Others stop at the scene of car versus bicycle accidents to help the cyclist assert his or her rights.

But recently, I saw an example of cyclist compassion unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a motorist.

On a late afternoon, I was out for a ride on one of my regular routes. I was riding at a moderate pace since I was on my hybrid bike, rather than my road bike. The weather was hot and humid and the traffic was fairly light.

As I was riding up a steep hill, I heard the soft ticking of what could only have been a high-end racing bike. Without turning around, I assumed that the rider was traveling faster than I was. It came as no surprise when he called out “on your left.”

We were on a narrow, winding road where cars could barely squeeze by one another, so I stopped pedaling and waved him ahead to prevent him from being stuck in the middle of the lane for too long. Contrary to the stereotype of Lycra-clad cyclists, he passed me carefully, and as he pulled in front of me he said “thank you.”

Given my attire, cycling shorts and a t-shirt, his politeness and respect was appreciated. This wasn’t an isolated incident. I’ve had numerous conversations and polite interactions with cyclists dressed in full kit, while I was dressed in ordinary street clothes.

Shortly afterwards, another cyclist came up behind me. We were closer to the top of the hill and there wasn’t much difference in our speed. He rode behind me for a while and then decided to sprint to the top.

He alerted me to his intentions and passed just in front of me. When we reached the top of the hill, we both began to accelerate. I was just a couple of bike lengths behind him when I saw him swerve quickly.

A chipmunk had darted out from tall grass on the side of the road, directly in front of his bike, and ran right under his wheel. The rider’s wild maneuvering was unsuccessful. He accidentally ran over the scampering animal.

Immediately, he stopped to look back at the chipmunk. I stopped too. He looked at me, in distress.

The chipmunk had run right under his wheel, I told him, and there was nothing he could have done to avoid it. He looked visibly shaken and said that he felt terrible for running it over.

He asked me whether I thought that he should go back and put it out of it’s misery. He wanted to put a rock on top of it to avoid a prolonged death. With cars racing down the step hill, putting a rock in their path didn’t seem like a good idea.

Glancing back, we could see the chipmunk flailing in the throes of death. I had steered around it on my way down the hill. It’s tiny body was badly squashed. Already near death, it didn’t look as if it could live much longer.

So, there we stood, two cyclists trying to figure out how to help a dying animal. My suggestion was to move it off of the road if he wanted to help it, but I thought that it was probably best to let nature take its course.

There wasn’t much we could do for the injured chipmunk. And, if the cyclist went back to look at it, he wouldn’t be able to get the image out of his mind.

As we deliberated, the chipmunk stopped moving. If it wasn’t dead, it was unconscious. Since it couldn’t move, we concluded, a car would run over it or one of the carnivorous animals roaming the area would make a meal of it.

To take his mind off of the dead chipmunk, I complimented him on his nice bike. After chatting about bikes for a few minutes, he thanked me for stopping to console him for having killed a chipmunk.

We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and then mounted our bikes to be on our way.

In all my years on the road, I have never seen a motorist stop to help a small animal that they had run over. Some motorists have stopped for larger animals, particularly those who look like pets, but very few seem to care about living things.

Many times, I’ve seen a squirrel, raccoon, or chipmunk run out in front of a car and the driver didn’t even brake. Either they weren’t watching the road or they believed they had the right to hit anything in their path. After all, some of them have struck cyclists and then driven off without stopping to help.

Next time cyclists hear one of those familiar anti-cyclist rants, they should inform the speaker (or writer) about how cyclists help one another – and how they even care about the death of small animals. Then, cyclists should ask them to consider, who is arrogant and uncaring, and who is kind and compassionate – motorists or cyclists?

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