Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Biking in New Orleans

Two things before we start. One: I’m completely unharmed, for friends and family reading this. Two: There is no hyperbole in this post.

I just started work at an IT consulting company in downtown New Orleans, about three miles down St. Charles Avenue from where I live. Since it was 50 degrees a few mornings ago, I decided to bike to work.

The first major intersection between my house and downtown is Napoleon Avenue. Around that area, St. Charles has a boulevard where the streetcar runs, one lane of traffic and a curb lane. Bike lanes run from approximately Octavia Avenue all the way west to the riverbend, but there are no bike lanes going east (downtown) from where I live. Because of this, I usually stay fairly close to the parked cars in the curb lane.

I waited for the light to change and crossed Napoleon Avenue, getting up to speed as I did so. There was a bright blue car, possibly a minivan, possibly a sedan, sitting on the curb about 20-30 feet past the intersection. As my front wheel passed the car’s left rear wheel, I saw the driver’s door begin to open, perhaps five or six inches outward, directly in front of me. 

What happened next was pure instinct; the thinking part of my brain was not involved. I had less than a second to react. I yanked on the handlebars as hard as I ever have. The bike slewed crazily to the left and out into the middle of the driving lane. I cleared the edge of the car door by no more than two or three inches. Thankfully, the car coming through the intersection behind me either threw on the brakes or was already pretty far behind me, because I was not hit.

Less than a second.

At this point, I started thinking again. My bike has road tires, which are not built to grip the road during violent 45-degree turns, and it was wobbling like crazy and still going at a pretty high speed. I’m going to crash in the middle of the street, I thought, imagined myself falling, and started preparing to take the blow on my forearms.

Again, my body had other ideas. Without orders from the top, I slammed both my forearms down on the handlebars, which were weaving back and forth. That stabilized them, the bike stopped weaving, and I began to guide it back towards the curb lane. I turned around and looked back during this process and heard a woman shout “Sorry!” This all took place in a second or two but seemed much longer.

As I got back out of the driving lane, I shouted “Jesus! Fuck! Christ!” On “Christ”, the car behind me—a white SUV—pulled alongside me, and the man inside hollered “Are you okay?” I said something reassuring, I don’t remember what, and he drove off.

That was the end of it. I wasn’t hurt. I stopped a few blocks later to adjust my clothing and whatnot, but that was it. I missed it entirely. I went to work, did work things, and eventually got out of work. 

Around 5:35 that evening, I was biking home on St. Charles, having just passed Lee Circle and passed under the freeway bridge. Again, I was biking fairly close to the parked cars. I was wearing grey pants and a dark green sweatshirt. I had my red taillight and white headlight on, although they were not flashing so that any idiot could see them. Apparently that’s necessary here.

I never saw the black sedan until it pulled up alongside me. Its lights were on, and so was its turn signal. It began to turn directly into my path. I have no reason to believe he saw me.

This time was different. Instead of an instant of pure reflex and a violent change, everything seemed to be happening in pleasant slow motion. I pulled back on the brakes, again instinctively, but I had time to lazily contemplate the movement of the car. It didn’t register that I was about to hit it. It was moving ponderously into my path, and I remember thinking that the driver was cutting it pretty fine.

I was lucky again. We were in the middle of a block. Instead of turning onto a street, he turned into a driveway that happened to have a gate. That meant he was slowing down almost as much as I was. The angles kept changing as we raced to the bottom.

Because of this, instead of hitting him at full speed, I only nudged his right rear door with my left handlebar as he finished cutting me off. We came to a stop.

I was too disgusted to say or do anything. I remember being completely unsurprised that this had happened again. There was no noise from the car, so I pulled off the sock that served me as a glove, gave a big smile and a sardonic thumbs-up, and got back on the bike, shaking from the waist down.

I can think of three possible explanations for me not hitting the first car. Either the driver paused in the middle of opening the door, or she realized what was happening and pulled it back in a split second, or I simply dodged it entirely. Whatever it was, that was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. I have no doubt that if I’d been just a touch slower to recognize and react to what was happening, I would have smashed into the car door and suffered serious injury. The same goes for the second car. If I hadn’t recognized what was happening and slowed down, I would have plowed into its side at a considerable speed.

I’m very glad I can do that. I hope it does not prove necessary on every single commute. Who needs coffee when you have a heart attack?

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