The Day of the Geechee is Gone, Boy

“The day of the Geechee is gone, boy, and you going with it.” The intro lyrics to a song playing in my ear as the trolley jerked and swayed its way through an area south of the 94 some call “the 4 corners of death”. Standing there at the back of the train, holding a well-equipped bike that took me 3 years to gather enough cash to afford, the music helped sooth some exhaustion that, for the first time in many years, made me not want to ride home. The trolley is a convenient backup (cop out) for the ride home, although if I time it right, I can beat it to most destinations. Tired, but the grip on the stem is tight. Not out of fear of being mugged, robbed, or otherwise, but simply because I didn’t want my bike to fall over.

It is a funny thing, cycling and fear. The common question I get often, “aren’t you afraid of….?” Cars, getting hit, being all sweaty getting to work, how people look at me, getting beaten and robbed in certain parts of town, or the best one: having to go to the bathroom in a public place because “you can’t hold it”. Yes, all kinds of worries for the non-cyclist about being a cyclist. There’s a statement on a water bottle I have that the president of Velocity USA gave me some years back, “There is always danger for those who are afraid of it”. So, what is the biggest fear I have as a cyclist? Myself.

I started on an aluminum road bike, wearing a proper kit. This was my commute gear. I was afraid that other cyclists would look at me as non-serious. I switched over time to more practical commute clothes. Then, I adopted a bit of a “street edge”, afraid that I wouldn’t be taken seriously by commuters, and the car-free crowd. In time, I adopted an aggressive attitude: slapping mirrors, yelling; I was afraid people in cars would not take me seriously. Later, on the Internet, in the thousands of forums and e-mail lists, I adopted the angry cyclist, afraid that people were being too divisive. That fear is probably the only one that is founded on anything other than ego. But the fear, and the problem, were internal. It was, as I realized later, me.

Critical Mass is the best example of what’s wrong here in San Diego. Early on, there were rides of 30 – 40 people. I watched once as a cyclist was run over by an impatient driver of a Toyota 4 runner. RUN OVER, as in the car drove OVER the cyclist. Comments on news reports were “they should have got out of the way”. Cyclists on the Internet (where we all somehow gain some sort of imaginary intelligence, experience and perspective that should automatically give credence and mandatory right to be heard and accepted and believed), touted that “Critical Mass gives a bad name to cyclists”.

For years I troubled myself over the concept, mission, and effect of Critical Mass. For the last several months, I’ve been working with biccontrol on a way to influence the mass in a beneficial manner. And I spent a lot of my time trying to wrap my head around how to change the perception of the mass to other cyclists. I find it funny, when listening to a Peruvian rapper, that I hear a line from a movie about war (A Soldier’s Story, a really good movie), referring to an ethnic culture from Africa, and it makes something very clear.

Cyclists’ biggest problem is not how people see us, or that we lose some sort of legitimacy when one of us does something wrong. Blaming our problems on the individual actions of people who ride a bike is fundamentally wrong. Our rights, our lack of facilities, our lack of proper respect by law enforcement, our treatment by people in cars, none of these are indelibly linked to the actions of one or two riders.

Focusing viral Internet banter about “massholes”, or red light runners, or road cyclists, or couriers, or fixed-gear riders, or commuters, or any other subset, and blaming them for the status of cycling in San Diego is at the very least, misinformed, but mainly just ignorant. The problem is the system. The problem is the attitudes of the non-cyclist. The problem is the attitude that we are somehow ghost citizens, second in line to the right to be on a street or subservient to 4 tons of “I’m in a hurry”.

The kicking and the biting about Critical Mass needs to stop. There is no difference between San Diego Bike Club’s weekend rides (which by the way, runs lights to keep the mass moving and takes over the streets) and Critical Mass, except that one group wears matching clothes. The whining and finger pointing with in needs to stop, and we need to look out and demand what is ours, and start advocating for change. Cyclovia? Overdue. More bike parking facilities? In line with public parking. Proper enforcement of laws for cyclist? At the minimum. It’s the focus on Critical Mass that is a symptom of our problem; the fundamental problem is that we focus too much on what is wrong.

I look to businesses like Velo Cult.  Unpretentious, they involve themselves in any cycling community building event possible, yet barely publish their name to the event. I look to some of my friends, who spend less time complaining on the Internet, less time languishing at board meetings, and more time pushing for change with government — that’s change. They don’t focus on the crimes of one particular person, and they’re not judgmental about what you ride, they’re just happy you do ride.

If YOU feel that somehow your reputation as a person is at risk due to the behavior of other cyclists, then start riding rollers in your living room, because that’s all you’re due.

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