Confessions of a reformed car chaser

Editor’s note: Sal Ruibal covered endurance sports for USA Today for more than 20 years, including more Olympic Games, Tours de France and other sports than he’s probably like to admit. In 2007 he was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame for his coverage of a sport that had previously been considered too far outside the mainstream. Now he has offered his services to Bicycle Times. We couldn’t be happier.

By Sal Ruibal

The recent brouhaha in Colorado over Vail District Attorney’s Mark Hurlbert’s decision to charge a wealthy investment banker Mark Erzinger with two misdemeanors instead of a felony for hitting a road cyclist and leaving him in a ditch has brought out a firestorm of criticism.

Everyone has pretty much made up their minds that this is a travesty of justice, mostly because the DA’s reasoning was that the banker wouldn’t be able to do his job babysitting a billion dollars of other rich guys’ cash if he had a felony on his record. Without his job, he wouldn’t be able to pay the expected millions in restitution to the victim, New York anesthesiologist Steven Milo, who specializes in highly technical liver transplants.

This is wrong on many counts, but to me, the DA’s logic is missing a key point: Who would want a reckless, unaccountable, inhumane jerk investing their billions? OK, maybe Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and AEG before the Bush Depression.

But the Vail banker’s actions before and after the crash (he called his Mercedes owner’s hotline before thinking about calling the police) would be a clear signal that he has incredibly bad judgment. People with that big of a moral blind spot should not be allowed near other people’s money, kids or votes.

Which brings up my main point: What we do in public has consequences and reflects on our character, and in many ways, reflects on the culture we belong to.

His culture is “millionaire jerks who recklessly drive Mercedes,” while mine is “self-righteous bike riders who think they own the road.”

Well, I used to be that way. I am a reformed car chaser. Many times my horrified friends had to watch while I raced at full-throttle for the opportunity to scream profanities at inattentive drivers who made a minor driving mistake I thought endangered my life.

Sure, I made my point, but the driver with a spittle-spotted window didn’t go home and buy a subscription to Dirt Rag, he told all his friends at the nursing home that some crazed mofo biker went ballistic for no good reason and all these bike jerks should be tossed in jail.

And his friends agreed and called their sons and daughters that night and recounted the story of the scary, wild-haired bike maniac. And their sons and daughters told the story to their co-workers and all agreed bikers should be neutered and/or jailed.

I finally realized I had a bike anger problem three years ago after riding with mountain bike goddess and author Marla Streb near my house in Virginia. We were in the crosswalk with the green light; I rode through first, but as Marla entered the intersection, a car turning right on red hit Marla’s bike, tossing her to the road and opening a small cut on her knee. Her front wheel was bent.

I flew into a rage! The elderly driver and her granddaughter were paralyzed with fear.

But Marla, goddess that she is, calmly talked to the shaking driver and assured her that the cut was minor, but the disc-brake wheel was ruined. Marla then joked with her, saying, “Well, maybe you would like to buy my new book?”
“Oh my goodness,” the driver said. “I’m on Social Security!”

Everyone laughed, including The Angry One. I rode back home and brought Marla a front wheel and we had a great time in our beautiful woods. Turned out the wheel was still under warranty and the LBS had it going in no time.

Little old lady went home and told everyone at assisted-living that she met the nicest and most beautiful mountain biker and how she will make sure to look both ways when making a right turn. And the seniors had a good feeling about those bikers, if not all bikers, because Marla saved the day with her social intelligence.

And they passed on the story.

How we behave in public and on public streets does make a difference in how our sport and lifestyle is perceived. And that perception can make a difference as we ask the general public to support our efforts to make roads and paths safer for everyone, but especially vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists.

Is it really necessary to blast through red light just because you can? Is ignoring a stop sign a cool thing or a selfish act?

Cool is the operative word. Cool says use your red-light time to perfect your track stands. Cool says don’t mock cyclists who are slower, fatter or inexperienced; encourage their efforts.

My anger subsided after a wise friend told me she uses stop signs and traffic slowdowns as time to silently say a few prayers, thanking nature for its beauty and asking for peace and prosperity for all.

I still get pissed when cars get too close and the urge to run them down bubbles to the surface. But then I say a prayer: “God, help me smite that sinner!”

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