I didn’t want to be on that road.
The day started cool, clear and nervous. The noise from the rear wheel was back, back louder than ever before, and I still couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Nothing was hitting the spokes and the tire was good. So why did it thwap on every revolution?
The answer came at the top of a bridge. If you don’t dissect bike for a living, picture it this way: you know how there are gears on the back wheel? Well, there’s a little part that holds them in place, and that little part was loose. It’s called a lockring. Mine was hanging useless on the axel and the gear set was wobbling free. The hard pedaling on the steep bridge made the chain slip.
A short postcard of my day would read: Tried to fix gears; lockring is stripped. Some grit destroyed the threads. My fault, should’ve cleaned more. Limped to a store that sold WD-40, but even cleaned up it won’t screw back on. No way to coon ass* it with regular hardware. The bike works if I leave it in second gear, with the front on the big gear. Really weak pedaling. Going to try for Abbeville.
[*Cajun slang that does not refer to people of color! It refers to the Cajun country way of bodging things together so they just barely work, e.g. "that's a coon ass car you got," or "FEMA sure coon assed this hurricane recovery."]
There were no bike shops for a hundred miles, but I had a host waiting for me in Abbeville, 65 miles away. That’s an easy six hours of pedaling on a normal day. Stuck in one of my lowest gears it was more like 11 hours. The chain would slip off every hour or so. There was always a chance, as the gears worked looser and looser, that it would fail completely and I’d be hitchhiking or camping out.
I made my gambit.
Highway 14 is not a good place for bicycles, even fast ones with all their gears working.
It’s a divided highway with a high speed limit, but it’s not an interstate. The shoulder is a joke, about as smooth and straight as an alligator’s grin. And bikes aren’t supposed to be on the shoulder, they’re supposed to be in the lane.
These lanes were heavy with people going home from work, mostly pickup trucks. Dealerships must offer pickup owners a rebate if they promise to be bad to cyclists. I kept an eye glued to my rear-view mirror for signs of people who wouldn’t slow down and merge over; most did, and I could always bail to the shoulder if I needed to.
It was a pretty bad ride.
Just at sunset a big white truck came barreling up my lane. He laid on his horn. I had seconds before he’d reach me, and I let those seconds tick away, motioning for him to get over. He kept honking and charged on in.
I dove off the side of the road.
The Giant went over those grooves in the pavement, the ones that vibrate car tires, but on a bike it’s more like firecrackers exploding under you. We leapt onto the busted shoulder, the chain jangled free of the gears, and I’m sure I said some words that are better left unblogged.
Well, I did say I could always bail onto the shoulder if I needed to.
After a few minutes I was underway. I stuck on the shoulder for now, recovering myself.
I blinked into the sun. Something was up there—someone had pulled over. It was that white truck, with his mini-flatbed and his load of logs. He had pulled over and the driver was out, standing behind his machine, just waiting for me.
Waiting for me.
Two years ago the prospect of this much confrontation would’ve sent me into an adrenaline sweat. Turning around wasn’t much of an option, so most people would do one of two things: lose their cool, or try to bike past him without engaging. I couldn’t picture either one working well.
(And honestly, for 2,000 miles I’ve fantasized about schooling bad drivers on sharing the road with bikes. I’ve had a lot of practice for this conversation.)
So I bicycled up to the man, who stood there with his arms crossed and his feet wide apart, and I stopped the bike. I waited.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing out there?” he said. He used an angry lecture voice, like you’d use to a 14 year old, not exactly shouting.
“I’m supposed to be in the lane,” I said. I used a regular voice.
“You’re supposed to be in the lane?” Sarcasm.
“Yeah. I’m supposed to be in the lane. It’s the law.”
That seemed to throw him, so I went ahead. “If I ride on this shoulder I’m gonna have a flat tire about every two miles.”
“Look, do you see what I’m hauling here?” he asked, pointing at the logs. “It’s not exactly like I can just swerve around you with all this stuff.”
That was true. It wasn’t a full semi (it had actually looked like a pickup truck in my rear view mirror) but it was a big pile of truck all the same.
“Well, did you see me up ahead?” I asked. “Could you have slowed down?”
“Okay,” I said. “What if it had been a tractor. A big slow moving vehicle that can’t possible fit on the shoulder. What would you have done then? You would’ve slowed down until you had a chance to merge over. You wouldn’t have just honked your horn till you slammed into it. Would you?”
We both knew I was right, and he changed direction.
“You gotta look out for your safety out here. You gotta start using your brain. You ride out in the traffic like that, someone’s going to hit you.”
Now the thing is, for whatever kind of point I might have just scored with the tractor comment, he was right. He had scored right back. But something in his voice gave away a much deeper truth. We were both scared out here.
So I told him that.
“I don’t want to be on this road,” I said. “I wanted to take a different road but it was all gravel. This is the only play I can make.”
Neither one of us was going to apologize or shake hands, but we had communicated. He went back to his truck. I biked past him and I went on my way.
I’l always respect him for pulling over.