Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reflecting on the Ride of Silence (May 2011)

It could have been just another evening group ride assembling at a local park.  But, it wasn’t.

There was something in the air.  Something other than the cold that pierced two layers of technical fabric and the dampness that trapped it there.  Another unseasonably cold and overcast mid-May day was slowly fading away without a moment’s reprieve for the sixty eight riders assembled at Recreation Park.  It almost seemed fitting for the somber ride we were about to set off on.

I had never ridden with the members of the Arlington Heights Bicycle Club before.  While I couldn’t be certain that they weren’t an unusually quiet and reserved group, I suspected otherwise.  At least on any other night.  The night of May 18th was certainly an exception.  This night wasn’t about the people gathered together to ride.  This night was about those people that would never be there to ride again.

Aside from the club members, the group was an interesting cross-section of serious, recreational, and hardly-ever cyclists.  I immediately struck up a conversation with an enthusiast who was so passionate about time trials and triathlons that he commuted to work each day on a $7000 carbon race bike, just so he wouldn’t miss any training opportunities.

Next to him was a husband and wife in their thirties on a pair of mountain bikes.  Neither was dressed warm enough for a ride in 50-degree weather, but they soldiered on nonetheless.  There was a gentleman in his late sixties riding a woman’s model comfort bike that he obviously borrowed.  A father and daughter duo arrived sans helmets – he on an old ten-speed and she on a fixie.

Every person in attendance had a reason for being there.  One young lady had lost her father three years earlier to a freak cycling accident.  Others were there to honor someone they knew who had been badly injured or killed on a bike.  I’m sure that there were a few there, like me, who were fortunate to have never experienced the loss of a close friend to a cycling accident.  We were riding to assert our right to be on the road.  We were hoping to make a statement to every motorist who passed our silent group.

Riding in silence is more difficult than it would appear.  A big part of group riding is communication – both verbal and non-verbal.  On this night, we had to settle for the non-verbal and hope that the less experienced cyclists among us would catch on to our hand signals.  They did.  No one collided during any of our stops.  Pothole crashes were also averted thanks to considerate forewarning.

The silence forced me to refrain from admonishing motorists who, despite a block-long line of cyclists riding two abreast, still zipped past our group as if we were just one long parked car.  These were neighborhood streets, mind you.  There was absolutely no need for anyone to maintain a 30 mph clip in the oncoming traffic lane only to make a turn in another two blocks.  Cranial-rectum disorder runs rampant among many impatient motorists.

A couple of club members rode tandem bikes singly to honor the silent rider.  The empty “stoker” seat represented every rider that could no longer be with us.  This was a very fitting tribute.  I can’t speak for everyone, but it certainly reminded me of why we were riding.

Silence is sobering.  While many onlookers and passing motorists cheered us on, the entire 8-mile ride was eerily devoid of sound.  Always in tune to the rhythms of the road and braced for the traffic approaching from behind, I found myself unaffected by normal noises.  I was on auto-pilot.  I held my lane, kept my position in line, and signaled my turns almost by rote.  My mind was elsewhere.

I can’t say that I was lost in deep reflection on those that would never ride with us again.  Try as I may, my mind will never allow me to dwell on such sadness for very long.  My thoughts tended to be in the moment.  I felt an overwhelming need to protect our little group as we pedaled the quiet suburban streets at dusk.  I was ready to place myself and my bike between every cyclist and any impatient, inconsiderate, self-absorbed motorist carelessly careening through life as if they were the only one on the road that mattered.

I’m no martyr.  I am a parent.  This is just normal instinct.  On this night my senses were heightened.  The silent rider on the tandem next to me was a constant reminder of how vulnerable we all are when we’re out on the road.  We can be taught to ride safely, to make ourselves visible, and to obey the rules of the road, but we’re never really protected from the worst drivers around us.  Maybe that was my most sobering reflection while out on the ride.

I am grateful to have ridden with the other 67 cyclists as we honored those that can no longer ride.  I sincerely hope that our procession through the streets of Arlington Heights caused at least one motorist to reflect on the importance of sharing the road.  With luck there will be many others that read about the Ride Of Silence in local papers like the Chicago Tribune and begin to start showing us all a little more respect.

Special thanks to Gary Gilbert, the members of the Arlington Heights Bicycle Club, Village Trustee Joseph Farwell (and his daughter, Molly), the bike patrol officer who lead the ride, and all those who braved the weather to show their solidarity and respect for both those who can and can no longer ride a bike.

Please take a moment to visit the Ride Of Silence Honor Roll.

Keep riding and be safe!

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