Late last August, along the coast of New Hampshire, Kevin Walsh, police chief in the town of Rye, got a lecture on law enforcement from a bunch of grown-up bicyclists. Local law requires bikers to ride single-file when there is traffic. But this day, a pack of a dozen or so bikers were racing down Ocean Boulevard, at high speed, up to five abreast, according to an interview the chief later gave. Walsh decided to flag them down and tell them what they were doing was unsafe, “out of control,” and “an accident waiting to happen.” He stood in the middle of Ocean Boulevard and signaled them to stop. The bikers blew past him in a whoosh! of Lycra, sweat, and profanity. Walsh got in his cruiser and cut off the bikers four miles up the road. When he stopped them, they began to chew him out. “You almost killed somebody back there, standing in the middle of the road,” one of them screamed at the cop. “Do you understand we can’t stop? Do you understand we can’t stop like a car?”
Like many episodes in the world of adult recreational cycling, this one breaks new ground in the annals of chutzpah. Few noncyclists would think to scold a law enforcement official for having nearly been run over by them. Fewer still would release to the news media a video of the incident—which came from a camera mounted on the handlebars of one of the bikers—in the almost demented belief that it constituted a vindication rather than an incrimination. And yet you can see it online.
Incidents like this now happen every day. Laws governing bikes on roads have never been crystal-clear, and have always been marked by a degree of common sense and compromise. An increase in racing and commuting bikers has altered what passes for common sense. Cyclists like the ones in New Hampshire, whose reckless riding and self-righteousness have earned rolled eyes nationwide and the nickname of “Lycra louts” in England, have tested the public’s willingness for compromise. As bicyclists become an ever more powerful lobby, ever more confident in the good they are doing for the environment and public health, they are discovering—to their sincere surprise—that they are provoking mistrust and even hostility among the public.
When there are more bicyclists on the road, when most bicyclists are no longer children and teens, and when well-built bikes can easily descend a hill at 50 miles an hour, new questions come up. The first is how we are to think of bikes. Are they like really fast pedestrians? Or like cars with a lower maximum speed? The law’s general view is that they are vehicles. But what the law really means is not that bikes are exactly like cars but that they are analogous. You don’t need to get a license to ride a bike, you don’t need your vehicle inspected to put it on the road, and you aren’t charged tax for the upkeep of highways. There is considerable ambiguity here, and activist bikers, with lawyerly sophistication, almost unfailingly claim the best of both worlds. Consider the guy we mentioned above who insisted police chief Walsh give him all the rights of the road for a vehicle he claimed to be unable to stop. Bicyclists are exactly like cars when it suits them—as when they occupy the middle of a lane in rush hour. But they are different when it suits them—going 18 mph in that very same lane even though the posted speed is 45, riding two abreast, running red lights if there’s nothing coming either way, passing vehicles on the right when there’s a right turn coming up. This makes bikes a source of unpredictability, frustration, and danger.
This should not alarm us unduly. Bicyclists sometimes do require the middle of the roadway, and do need special consideration. The rightmost part of the road is often punctuated with old-fashioned sewer grates that will swallow a tire whole and fling you over the handlebars. There are broken bottles, dropped hypodermic needles, oil slicks that have drained off the road’s crown, and places where the road is frittered away. The right side of the road is also where passenger doors get flung open, sometimes suddenly, and one piece of bad timing will send you to kingdom come. Almost 700 cyclists died on the road in the United States in 2011. Let us not forget the environmental, aesthetic, and health benefits of cycling over driving, which are obvious and undeniable.