Inside an International Bike Incident
It’s been three days since the incident and things are finally calming down. We’ve had a flurry of newspaper, TV and radio interviews. We’ve been inundated with emails and comments from apologetic Kiwis. We met the mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade-Brown, for afternoon tea. Walking down the street the other day, people stopped us to tell us how sorry they were about what happened. So how did it all happen?
Just the Facts
We are fairly experienced city cyclists. I’ve taken the League of American Bicyclists (the US oldest bike advocacy group) bicycle safety course in the US, an intensive two-day course about traffic and traffic skills. It uses the same theories that are taught by other advocacy groups in the UK and in New Zealand. We’ve applied these techniques for thousands of miles on our bicycle travels without incident. I mention this to point out that we are not rogue cyclists who don’t know how to ride on roads.
We had just met up with the NZ Cycle Trail team and the Kennett brothers and were generally feeling good about bicycling in New Zealand. We were riding from the Wellington CBD back to our homestay in Newtown on Riddiford. We were on a 4-lane stretch of Riddiford (which, ironically enough, is next to a hospital), with parked cars next to the curb. We were positioned in the left lane and, because of the parked cars and driveways, we were riding further out in the lane to be seen and avoid any doorings. Traffic was light. The right lane was WIDE open allowing easy passing for a motor vehicle. We weren’t impeding traffic. We weren’t hogging the road. All it would take is two seconds for a car to safely pass in the open lane, just like they would do with any other slow moving vehicle (like a school bus, city bus or truck).
Apparently, two seconds is sometimes too much to ask.
As we were approaching Mein Street, the silver sedan hesitates behind us, then passes very aggressively. Laura is riding in front of me and and all I see is that the car just barely manages to pass without hitting her. It was completely unnecessary and an obviously intentional scare tactic. In the heat of the moment, we react, just like anyone else who cares about their life or their loved one. It’s a basic human instinct. We generally keep our cool, but there was obvious malice in his driving, and we threw our arms up in a “why’d you do that” gesture.
It is not a proud moment when, as a bike advocate, you lose your cool, but I did. Finger gestures where made, to which the driver returned the same. This is where some “blame the victim” usually creeps in and people will no doubt say that I somehow brought this whole incident upon myself, conveniently disregarding the fact that just moments before someone driving two tons of steel had threatened us with bodily injury. This point has always bothered me when I’ve read these sort of stories myself. The cyclist is suppose to not react, to be a Ghandi-esque figure at all times, not registering any discontent at the fact that two tons of steel was just maliciously steered at them with impunity. Forgive this cyclist for being imperfect and human.
It was then that time stops and speeds up at the same time. The car stopped, blocking traffic (ironically enough), and the driver bolted out of the car, yelling in a language I couldn’t understand. The hardest thing to understand, and what haunts me still, was the look of incomprehensible rage on his face. When I close my eyes, I can still see his bulging eyeballs beneath his baseball cap and hear him screaming. His anger had completely consumed him, taking over anything that was reasonable or human. It was obvious that this guy had some serious issues that went far beyond us just biking in the road.
As he ran at us, Laura managed to dodge him. I attempted to do the same, but he tackled me off the bike, knocking me hard to the ground. It was completely surreal. We spend most of our lives sheltered from violence, so when it comes raging at you it is hard to fathom. Fortunately, where I fell happened to be in a traffic island, so I was in no danger of getting run over by other passing cars. What little traffic there was came to a screeching halt. I got up, stunned, and not fully comprehending the situation. This was not exactly on the agenda for the afternoon. He came at me again, punching me in the face, and I went down again.
Still screaming incomprehensibly, he got back in his car, sped off, and ran a red light. Immediately, people came out of their cars and off the sidewalk to offer help and information. People handed us slips of paper with their names and phone numbers to give to the police.
And that’s just the beginning.
I’ve been fortunate in never having been the victim of assault or being met with such violence before. There are a lot of strange contradictory feelings that go on. Why me? Was it my fault? As a bike advocate, I usually read or report about these stories, so it is strange territory to be the subject of one.
At weak moments, I wonder if somehow our reaction could have justified his violence. But I remind myself to take the long view and that, for all our yelling (at his initial threat on our life I might add again), his actions are inexcusable. The first day or so, I found myself just staring off and reliving the whole experience again, with infinite permutations. In some scenarios the outcome is much worse, in others I’m the victor – if there can be a winner in this type of thing. Sometimes there are intense flashes of anger and shame where my body just seizes up.
I wasn’t quite sure what my reaction was going to be after all this. Would I be terrified to ride on the street again? Would I want to end our tour? Would I be consumed by anger? It’s a little bit of all of that, but also another emotion that I didn’t quite expect – pity. Pity that something like a bicycle could make someone so angry as to lose all decency. I can’t imagine what kind of inner life you must have to fly off the handle at someone riding a bicycle, but it must be hell. I imagine he must have been a kid once, excited to ride a bicycle, and somewhere along the way things went wrong.
The other day, we rode past the spot where the incident happened, and I decided to make a video. On the way there, someone honked and I instinctively clutched the bars and wondered if it was him again. Of course, it wasn’t, but it may be a long time until that reaction passes.
We’ve been caught up in a little bit of a media frenzy the last few days and it has been exhausting. When the whole thing first happened, my natural reaction was to just quietly forget it all. I even waffled on filing a police report. But I know as a bicycle advocate that it’s important for these stories to be told, to get them into the public consciousness, for however brief. I also knew that, because of our situation as being American tourists and journalists, with connections to several bike groups, the story would spread. If it had happened to any other cyclist, it would have just been another filed police report.
Still, it was with some hesitation that we went to the press. Our hope was to turn this unfortunate incident into a “teachable moment,” that beyond the sensationalism of an American tourist being attacked abroad, it would spark some larger conversation about road culture in New Zealand. We applaud the NZ government for investing millions into a wonderful cycle trail network to attract tourists as part of a job creation scheme. That is why we are here after all. But we are finding that, for the cycle trail plan to truly be successful, it has to be part of a larger plan to integrate bicycling. It does no good for an overseas tourists to fly here to ride the 18 Great Rides, only to get honked at while in the city.
A lot of people have wondered if we would end our tour in NZ or give up bike travel in general. The short answer is no. Despite this terrible incident, we know it is an anomaly. We have seen so much kindness in our travels in NZ that we know that this is not who the people really are.
People also tell us that New Zealand has the worst drivers. Drivers aren’t an anonymous separate species. These same “drivers,” when not in their cars, are hospitable and good people. There is a strange disconnect somewhere that has to be addressed.
We are in Wellington for a few more days, then we head to the South Island. We’ll be spending some time in Nelson, which we hear is the most bike friendly of NZ towns, with several cottage industries related to bicycle tourism. From there, we will probably go down the west coast of the South Island.
We’ll continue to pedal on. I’ll keep my finger gestures in check and try to leave this nasty incident behind me.
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