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Bella English

Can’t cyclists and motorists just get along?

By Bella English
July 31, 2011

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As the bicycling season kicks into high gear with August vacation beckoning, gas prices rising, and Boston unveiling its bike rental program, more than ever motorists and cyclists need to get along. It can feel like the front lines out there, with cyclists trying to dodge errant cars, car doors, dogs, debris, and potholes while drivers complain about bikers hogging the road, darting in front of them, and blowing through stoplights.

In Massachusetts, cyclists have just as much right to the road as motorists; it says so in state law. In most places in the state, it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk, so please don’t tell us cyclists to “get on the sidewalk where you belong.’’

Even in this summer’s Tour de France, there was an extreme case of driver error when a TV crew’s car veered into a rider, knocking him into another rider, who was thrown onto a barbed wire fence. And those are the world’s best bikers, the kind who can somehow change their shoes or their shirts while pedalling away at awesome speeds.

Here is an average cyclist’s view from the saddle: I’m riding a 20-pound vehicle, at 15 to 20 miles per hour, on the right side of the road. I ride single file, on the right, stopping at lights and signs; to blow through one is suicidal. You drivers are in 2-ton vehicles, driving up to 60 miles per hour. I’d be a splat on your windshield.

Here is an average driver’s point of view: You guys ride four abreast and blow by us in packs. It’s hard to see you. You act like you own the road. You get on my last nerve.

Cyclist: What is it about you drivers, on your cellphones, who fail to stop properly at the “stop line,’’ nearly barrelling into me as I’m passing by? Get off the cell and stop before the stop sign, not after. And please don’t turn right without due warning or stop suddenly right in front of me.

Driver: You’re too fast. I can’t see you.

Cyclist: I’ll repeat. Get off the cellphone and slow down.

Driver: Some of you just don’t know what you’re doing.

Cyclist: That’s true. The other night, as I was driving, I saw a biker without a helmet and no light, riding on the wrong side of the road, wearing baggy jeans, earphones, flip flops, and a backpack. I wonder if he’s still alive.

Driver: I drive a Prius, which is silent, and I love to sneak up behind bikers, whom I loathe, and sit on my horn.

Cyclist: Honest to God, the Globe actually ran a column by this woman with this dangerous drivel and plenty of other ignorant nonsense in it.

Driver: And what the heck is up with those spandex shorts? Do those guys think they’re Lance Armstrong or what?

Let’s settle the spandex question here and now. Men and women cyclists wear them for comfort, not fashion. (Let’s face it, few over the age of 30 look good in spandex.)

I called in my favorite biking fashionista, Jim Quinn, who owns the Bicycle Link in Weymouth. Quinn rides with a group out of Norwell and puts 150 fast miles on his bike each week. And, yes, he both wears and sells the standard bicycling gear: spandex shorts and a jersey. “They’re completely comfortable and they offer unrestricted movement,’’ says Quinn.

Billy Starr, founder of the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, which is next weekend, is more blunt. “Why do baseball players wear knee-high socks? Why do football players wear helmets? Why do rock climbers wear special shoes? There are reasons for it: So they can perform well. Thus it is with spandex and bikes.’’ Specifically, the shorts are lightweight, cool, and wick sweat away from the body. Moreover, they provide crucial padding against an unforgiving bike seat. Or, as Starr puts it: “You want your privates protected.’’

Still, when I Googled “men’’ and “spandex shorts,’’ I came across a range of opinions from asking if the dude is gay to it’s a personal choice, to a single word: “Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!’’

When I see a cyclist not wearing spandex, I assume he or she is new to the sport and will be reaching for the spandex before too long.

Back to safety. Last summer, my friend Michael was riding with a group, single file, down the center of a one-way street in Milton because the right side was pocked with holes and bumps. An impatient driver passed him on the right and accidentally - one hopes - veered into him. Michael was thrown off his bike. Miraculously, he didn’t break any bones or hit his head. But he had plenty of scrapes and bruises, plus some psychological trauma.

The driver stopped, and what did he say? “I thought you were turning left! I never thought this would happen to me!’’ To him? Police didn’t cite the driver since Michael was able to pick himself off the pavement - a pretty low standard if you ask me.

Then there were the cyclists doing a 120-mile ride from New Hampshire. They were in Wellesley, 20 miles from home, when a guy in a pickup truck hauling a boat pulled right in front of them, avoiding them only because the bikers swerved. A couple of miles later, there was the guy, backing his big boat into his driveway.

“Hey,’’ yelled the cyclists, “you almost killed us back there.’’

“Listen,’’ replied the guy, “you don’t belong on the road. Get off my property or I’m calling the cops.’’

Like I said, there’s plenty of ignorance to go around, but it seems that drivers win on arrogance. A little respect on the road goes a long way.

After I was in a serious bicycle accident in Canton last fall - a pothole was the culprit - some lovely drivers stopped to help me out. I’ll never forget those acts of kindness and their attitude that all of us, on the road, should look out for each other.

Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.