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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Bicyclists persevere despite hostility

Image of Chicago-area bike commuter Nick LenarzFrom the Chicago Daily Herald, 09.02.07:

Ditch the drive to work

High gas prices have sucked cash out of our pockets for months. Nick Lenarz takes a stand every day when he hops on his bike in Rolling Meadows and pedals 15 miles to his job in Northbrook. On a good day, he sees other cyclists on the road, reminding him he's not alone in his quest to be healthier, support the environment and save a ton of gas money.

Then there are the not-so-good days. He's had encounters with anti-bikers, occasionally ending with an object thrown at him: an apple, garbage, an open beer can.

"Luckily, I've never been hit," the 34-year-old jokes. (Read more.)
This otherwise very favorable article, which includes a helpful list of bike-commuting how-tos, begins with this provocative anecdote. Which raises something I've always wondered about: Why are some motorists so hostile to bicyclists? Is this hostility going to get them to their destination any faster? Would more drivers and fewer bicyclists improve their travel times?

And I also wonder about this cyclist, Nick Lenarz, pictured above. Doesn't this seem like protective overkill? A helmet, reflective vest, and air mask? Are conditions in the greater Chicago suburbs really that bad?

Image: Daily Herald. Chicago-area bike commuter Nick Lenarz.
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips


Anonymous said...

My name is Nick Lenarz; yes, I'm the masked man in the article. You asked if conditions in Chicago are "that bad", to which I can only reply, "Sometimes," but I feel the risks created by the absence of my equipment are greater than any discomfort or ridicule I may experience by their addition.
The filter mask is made by Adrien Janis Bledstein, designer and owner of I Can Breathe! (tm) masks and personal comfort items in Chicago ( My wife bought it for me this past Father's Day, and I've been riding with it ever since. It's FANTASTIC- I generally don't smell exhaust except when the filter needs changing, or if the exhaust is particularly heavy (diesel is the worst). It doesn't restrict airflow at all, and although you can't tell from the pictures, the majority of the outside of the mask is GREY... it used to be white. I'm glad that gunk doesn't wind up in my lungs anymore.
The vest is a precaution I added while riding in the spring and fall, when it's still dark out when I leave. I've found it increases driver awareness even in broad daylight, so I just made it a regular part of my outfit. I figure ANYTHING that gets more attention- lights, vest, reflectors, whatever- is better.
As for the helmet, that's a funny thing. Growing up, I never wore a helmet, nor did any of my friends, and we've survived so far. Of course, we confined ourselves more or less to our hometown, where help was not far away if something happened.
The farther I ride from home, however, particularly in areas with which I am not familiar or where traffic is greatly increased, I choose to wear it as a precaution. It doesn't fatigue me any more or less than not wearing one (although sweat builds up more even under a ventilated helmet such as mine), but there's a peace of mind that I'll have that modicum of cranial protection should anything happen.
I was going to list a few memorable events from this season, but I can't decide- being cut off by a semi pulling into a parking lot, being edged off the road by a bored commuter, having a half-empty beer can thrown at me by hooting teenagers (gee, wonder where the other half the contents went on a Wednesday afternoon?), drivers shouting "GET ON THE @#%#ING SIDEWALK!!", walkers yelling "GET OFF THE @#%*ING SIDEWALK!!", the dirty looks, the brush-backs (people driving as close as they dare for no good reason)... too many to choose just one!
As for WHY? I don't know. Perhaps they're envious of my ability to keep slogging gears day after day, rain or shine (but no lightning!). Perhaps they feel guilty for driving three miles to work, polluting and causing congestion while I do five times that one way and only take up a 3x5 foot area. Perhaps it's pent-up road rage from being hemmed in traffic while I cruise by unfettered. Maybe it's just a vicious release of tension after a long day at work.
But why at ME? Because I'm an easy target. Because I'm smaller, slower and weaker than their puffed-up and armor-plated selves. Some people simply can't stand anyone being happier or freer than they are, without trying to drag the other down to their level. I don't know... you'd have to ask a driver for that one, I guess.
Hope this hasn't wound on too long. Feel free to contact me at with any other questions. I'm open to any discourse about the joys (and pains) of bike commuting. It's a wild ride, but I love it... as Phil, a 70-year-old rider and coworker at my second job at Village Cycle Sport in Arlington Heights says: "We're cycle-paths!".

Anonymous said...

I went to a wedding in Kenilworth a few weeks ago. While driving back to Palatine, we were going along some road in Winnetka or Willmette, and there was one of the largest road signs I have ever seen that says "BICYCLES PROHIBITED"

This seemed illegal to me. Anyone know the road I am talking about and what's up with that?

sasquatch2 said...

I see things is based on the number of drivers "or cagers" as they are commonly referred too, verses the number of cyclo-paths. every 100th person is a real prick, luckily I've only seen about 5 cyclo-paths in my 2 year stint commuting. I've seen millions of cagers, that's a lot of pricks but also a lot of good people. It's the stooopidity and unawareness of drivers that put me in harms way daily. the very nature of driving in today's womb like vehicles where people are pampered while being entertained in their vehicles is a danger to everyone. these people are so insulated from their surroundings that their commute becomes like another TV show they watch on their high-def widescreen (windscreen). Luckily they don't have to worry about the act driving, it's OK to crash! They'll be fine because they have airbags up the wazoo. And that's not even the environmental rant!!!


Anonymous said...

I wear a yellow vest a lot & a helmet too. The former because I ride a lot at dawn/dusk and on roads without great visibility, and the helmet I always wear one.

I kind of like the idea of the mask, I have asthma and car exhaust can really get to me, though of course I'd rather breathe it on a bike than contribute...I don't know that it is overkill, but the downside to me is that it wouldn't allow you to smile or communicate as effectively with cars. I use my voice to thank drivers or alert them (nicely :)) to my presence and I think it helps a lot to encourage the good 99% of drivers to continue being courteous. And I smile a lot, in spite of the bugs. But hey, whatever keeps you commuting by bike works, ya know?

As for the rest, my theory is that cars separate us from human to human contact and the big metal walls, airbags, etc. dehumanize our interactions on the road. So I think it's easier to treat another human poorly (just as it is online) if you don't have to look them in the face. And having a huge vehicular weapon against a puny bicycle I think encourages a lot of people to prove their might/superiority, probably because their boss yelled at them, or another driver cut them off, or their kids are squealing or something totally unrelated to the cyclist made them angry, most times. I honestly don't know if drivers are more or less rude to cyclists than other drivers, but I'd suspect that there isn't a huge difference except that it's more dangerous and obvious to us since we aren't likewise caged off.

Nick, really enjoyed your story.

Jett said...

Nick, thanks for sharing your story. You mentioned that you don't always see others on your commute into the office. Think of how nice you are making others feel when they find you riding along on their commute.

Anne, I think your comments are on target. People change once they're behind the wheel of a car and it's the isolation that does it. When I actually speak with someone who has transformed inside their car, they either revert back or shut me out.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nick, if that thing will filter the smell of the hog trucks that sometimes pass me where I ride, it's worth it! Man! Takes the whole joy out of smoked bacon and sausage. :-)

jsulak said...

That mask looks like a great idea. I'm in Houston and used to bike commute, but stopped partly because I was worry about all the exhaust I was choking down. It might just be worth looking a bit silly to save my lungs.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nick Lenarz
I am one of the other Nick Lenarz's. I am Nicholas Norbert Lenarz. Related to Nick Lenarz, who came from Germany in 1853. He settled in Minnesota. I am 58 years old. I am retired and I have taken many bicycle trips to Europe, South America,and New Zealand. Small world, that we have the same name and the same interest. I hope that you don't have my middle name too !!