Biking postsSunday August 25, 2013
Running More Reds in Noodge City
On the bikeride to work the other day, stopped at a red light at 1st and Denny, a dude in a truck to the left motioned me over. Initially I thought he was going to ask for directions but no.
Dude: Can I ask you something? Why do you feel you can go through that red light back there?
Me: You ever drive on the freeway?
Dude [unsure]: Yeah?
Me: You ever go over the speed limit?
Dude: OK, but ...
Me: Same thing.
He didn't think it was. I did. We talked over each other until the light turned green and we went our separate ways.
I've written before why I think running a red for a bike and speeding on the freeway for a car is similar. You can read it here.
The irony is where we had the above conversation. Stopped at a red light.
Biking in Seattle More Dangerous than in New York City, Expert Says
This was on the front page of The Seattle Times today under the headline, “Worse than Manhattan? Bike expert rattled by ride through city.”
John Pucher, a Rutgers professor, bike-safety expert, and author of the book, “City Cycling,” visited Seattle and took a ride down 2nd Avenue, which I ride every day, and which has its own bike lane. Kinda sorta. Like all bike lanes, it's there for bikes until someone bigger and more impatient wants it. Which often happens on 2nd.
In the article, Times reporter Mike Lindbloom describes Pucher's trip down 2nd:
Close encounters of the wrong kind greeted him down the southbound slope: a woman texting while her SUV drifted toward him; a FedEx delivery truck blocking; cars headed toward Interstate 5 turning in front of him at intersections; a black sedan whose driver abruptly stopped to parallel park.
Then he quotes Pucher:
“I’d say it’s as bad as a major avenue on Manhattan,” Pucher said. “I think it’s maybe even worse, because I think here, there’s more left and right turns, there’s more doors that are being opened, more cars that are trying to park.”
For Seattle, Pucher recommends cycle tracks (bike lanes separated by curbs, parked cars, whatever), and greenways (being developed in neighborhoods). He doesn't think much of sharrows (the bike symbol painted on the street as a reminder to drivers to share the road, but which looks like a flattened cyclist). I agree on all counts. I've even written about 2nd Avenue and its lousy turns a few times myself.
Here's another key graf from Lindbloom that doesn't make the Emerald City in the Evergreen State look very green:
In 1990, about 1.5 percent of Seattleites bicycled to work or school, compared with 1.1 percent in Portland. By 2011, Seattle had climbed slowly to 3.7 percent, while Portland zoomed to a 6.8 percent commute share for cycling, census surveys show. “I hope this is a wake-up call to Seattle” to build safe routes now and not in a decade, he said.
Overall, the article made me feel two ways: 1) vindicated, since we have an outside source corroborating what I've long said; and 2) tough, since I bike that shit every day. OK, three ways: it made me sad, too, about my city. We were progressive once.
Running Reds in Noodge City
Yesterday, biking to work, I was stopped at a red light on 5th and Pine when I saw no more traffic coming down 5th and ran the light. Halfway across, a middle-aged pedestrian, on the other side, caught my eye and said the following, drawing out the word in an odd, admonishing fashion:
I burst out laughing.
It was partly the way he said it. If the dude had had a sense of humor, he would’ve meant it ironically, or with a wink, but there wasn’t a trace of humor in his voice or stance. There was just a tsk tsk.
Among strangers, this is the dominant form of communication in Seattle. Newcomers talk of “the Seattle chill,” and how no one talks to anyone; but Seattle is also Noodge City, full of those ready to shake an admonishing finger about things that have no real consequence. I get admonished for running reds half a dozen times a year.
To all of these people I say the following: Do you ever break the speed limit? Of course you do. Who doesn’t? You’d be a fool not to. In fact, it would be dangerous not to. Driving 50? Or 45? On the freeway? Are you crazy? You’re a hazard.
And the reasons we break the speed limit on the freeway are the same reasons cyclists, or at least this cyclist, runs reds in downtown Seattle: 1) it rarely results in a ticket, just as, driving 5 mph over the speed limit rarely results in a ticket; 2) it’s faster, and we all want to get where we’re going sooner; and 3) it's safer. On the freeway, you want to go at the same pace as most drivers. On a bicycle at a stoplight, you want to build some distance, and speed, between you and all of those impatient cars behind you.
In a sense, we do it for you. You're welcome.
How I Nearly Died on the Way to Work Yesterday
SEATTLE — It was raining pretty hard for my morning bike ride yesterday morning, and I was soaked by the time I got close to work. I live in First Hill and the office is in lower Queen Anne, so I tend to weave through downtown, over to 1st Avenue North, take a left by Key Arena and then a right onto 1st Avenue West for half a block. At which point, halfway down the two-lane road, I take a left into a parking lot, which leads to the bike racks below our office building.
(Aside: Only in Seattle would you have, on either side of a major street, two 1st Avenues labeled “North” and “West,” even though they run parallel to each other. Shouldn't it be “North” and “South”? Or “East” and “West”?)
The turn onto 1st Avenue West is always a drag. It's a four-way stop, and there are almost always cars, generally impatient, heading up 1st Avenue West. I'm coming down a slight hill, then have to turn over a rough patch of road, and then go up a slight hill. More, I need to own the lane, rather than ride on the right-hand side of it, since I'm about to turn left into the parking lot. Doing this, I assume I'm pissing off cars behind me. I assume they're wondering, “Why is this asshole taking up the middle of our lane? Why isn't he off to the right so I can get past him?” By that point, hopefully, I've taken my left into the parking lot, they go, “Oh,” and all is good.
Yesterday morning, as I was about to make that final left, the car behind me—a pickup truck, it turned out, perpetuating my stereotype of pickup-truck drivers—gunned its engines and flew past me in the left lane, just as I was about to turn into that lane to get into the parking lot. If I wasn't paying attention, I would've been flattened.
I cursed a blue streak but the guy drove away. He was late, after all. He had important business, after all.
On the way home, I saw another pickup truck fly through a red light on Denny. Like five seconds after it had turned red. I think he just wasn't paying attention.
Anyway, another day. Still here.
This is the way I think I'll end
This is the way I think I'll end
This is the way I think I'll end
Not with a whimper but a splat
Dave Eggers' Review of Grant Peterson's 'Just Ride': Annotated
The following review of Grant Petersen's book, “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike,” by Dave Eggers, was published in The New York Times Book Review last Sunday. I objected when I read it then. Today, a Facebook friend posted it favorably. My objections now.
Many a weekend bicycle rider has had the same unsettling experience: You ask a friend to ride with you along some scenic, low-impact route. You show up wearing shorts, Sambas and a T-shirt, and he shows up dressed for an Olympic time trial. Sambas? On his torso is a very tight shirt slashed with a half-dozen garish colors and logos irrelevant to him. His helmet, decorated with flames or stripes or both, is equipped with a rearview mirror. A rubber straw dangles around his neck like a fur stole, through which he can drink fluids from a container on his back. And then there are the spandex leg-enclosures. These have patches of yellow on either flank, giving the impression that your friend is wearing chaps. Yellow-and-black spandex chaps.
All this for a 10-mile ride on a bike path. Now that's one well-dressed straw man. (But I agree on the spandex chaps.)
If you can identify with the more casually dressed biker described above (what if you identify with neither?), or if you want to go biking but have been scared away by the sport’s cult of gear and equipment (or traffic?), then your bible has been written. Grant Petersen’s “Just Ride” is a wonderfully sane, down to earth and frequently funny guide to riding, maintaining, fixing and enjoying your bicycle. That so much common sense will be considered revelatory, even revolutionary, is a testament to how loony the bike world has become.
Petersen opens with this salvo: “My main goal with this book is to point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment and attitudes, and then undo it.” And he goes on to prove, conclusively, that most of what ails the world of cycling comes from nonprofessional riders pretending, or being bullied into pretending, that they’re professionals. The solution, he says, is to emulate kids and other “Unracers” — people who bike for fun and not profit. What if you bike for transportation? What if you bike commute? Is that dealt with at all? Aren't bike commuters, like, 90 percent of the cyclists most people see? (Or, more often, don't see.)
The accepted orthodoxies are upended, one after another. Petersen is skeptical of special biking shoes. I felt the same until I ruined too many tennis shoes biking in the Seattle rain. Bike shoes are much more rain resistant. He is pro-kickstand, pro-mud-flap. Definitely pro-kickstand. Where did that go? Bring it back! He thinks a wide, comfortable saddle is O.K. Who doesn't? He doesn’t see why anyone needs more than eight gears. Well, he's a professional. Biking up some of Seattle's hills at the end of a long day, at the end of a long week, I don't mind having those extra low gears. He thinks fragile carbon-fiber bikes and super-narrow tires are impractical for just about everyone (“Getting paid to ride them is the only good reason I can think of to ride that kind of bike”). I guess. I have a hybrid. He has nuanced thoughts on helmets (he wears his at night but not during the day) and reminds us that biking is “lousy all-around exercise” and shouldn’t be considered a stand-alone regimen. I didn't wear a helmet until I took a header against a car's bumper in '94. Now I wear one all the time. Then again, I bike in traffic. But most satisfying is his takedown of the tight-shirt, spandex-shorts phenomenon. Does that include tight cotton shirts? Is it the tightness or the fabric of the shirt that we're objecting to here? I'm confused.
“In its need for special clothing,” he writes, “bicycle riding is less like scuba diving and more like a pickup basketball game.” A regular cotton T-shirt and a pair of shorts will ventilate better, he says, and if you’re not trying to shave seconds off a world record, the microscopic aerodynamic advantages of tight synthetic clothing just don’t apply to you. Again, I'm not a fan of spandex shorts--especially on guys. But shirts? You know how long it takes a cotton shirt to dry after biking with a backpack on a hot day? Too often I'd bike to work in the morning in a cotton T and by evening it was still damp. Ick.
Coming from just anyone, this kind of thinking wouldn’t carry much weight. But Petersen raced for six years, then worked at Bridgestone, Japan’s largest bike maker, as a designer and marketer. When the company closed its American office, he opened his own shop, Rivendell Bicycle Works, in Walnut Creek, Calif. It would seem, then, that Petersen, as the ultimate insider, would be the first guy to push expensive racing gear on every would-be enthusiast to walk into his shop. And yet!
But with this book, he’s trying to bring biking back to a state of moderation and rationality. If you like the gear, he’s fine with that, and if you don’t agree with all his advice, no problem. But he makes the case that at its core, biking should be a simple, democratic, sometimes ludicrously enjoyable means of getting around. It should be. But what prevents that, more than cyclists who over-gear and somehow “shame” the rest of us, is this: traffic. It's that we've designed a society for automobiles rather than for cyclists and pedestrians. What keeps most people in their cars, I've found, is people in their cars.
“No matter how much your bike costs,” he says, “unless you use it to make a living (or unless you commute?) , it is a toy, and it should be fun.” I use my bike to commute. It's fun. But it's not a toy.
Amen. Ride safe.
Adventures in Cycling: Yo Yos Apologizing
I nearly got killed on the way to work yesterday.
I shouldn't write that. Too many people already think it's too dangerous to bike in the city when it's not, really. Put it this way: If I drove, I might be dead already. At the least, I'd be fatter with higher blood pressure. Maybe I'd be dead from higher blood pressure.
So yesterday I was biking north on First Avenue in downtown Seattle, my usual route, and was about five blocks from crossing Denny. There are two north-bound lanes, and I was in the right lane, as usual, where four cars were moving slowly. They were moving so slowly that I caught up to them, and, since the left lane was clear, I decided to go around them. The second car in line had the same thought I did, about five seconds after I did, and just as I was pulling even with him. Thus, as he pulled out into the left lane, he began to push me into oncoming traffic.
YO! YO! YO!
That's my default yell. It worked here. He finally noticed. And he rolled down the window with a smile on his face and said kindly, “Didn't see you. Sorry.” Then he made the light, which was yellow, while I was stuck behind with the rest of the traffic, and with all of the mixed feelings such encounters tend to bring out.
For some reason, his mea culpa bugged me. “Didn't see you.” Of course he didn't see me. I didn't think he was pushing me into oncoming traffic on purpose.
But at least he was nice about it. At least he said “Sorry.” At least he smiled.
Then I realized this is what bugged me most of all.
A year or two ago, I had another YO! YO! YO! encounter, this time on Second Avenue, which has its own bike lane, heading south after work. A woman driving north apparently saw a parking space she wanted on the east or southbound side of the street and pulled a 180 to grab it. She nearly ran me over in the process. YO! YO! YO! Her windows were rolled up, and she kept them rolled up, but she did apologize. I could see her mouthing these words, angrily, with a scowl on her face: “I'm SORRY!” It was as if she were apologizing for the tenth time rather than the first. My immediate thought back then: You don't seem sorry.
The guy yesterday was the same, if opposite. He was just a little too happy in his apology. He seemed like someone who had realized long ago that you can disarm people with kindness, and that's what he was doing here, disarming me with his kindness, but he, too, didn't seem that sorry about nearly running me over. He seemed pretty happy about it. And then he made the light, while I was left behind with all of the mixed feelings such encounters tend to bring out.
The 10 Sartorial Steps to Winter Biking
There are 10 sartorial steps in the transition from summer biking to winter biking. Each one is necessary but a drag.
You start out, free and easy, some time in August, in shorts and a short-sleeved biking shirt. Wheee! To be honest, there aren't many Seattle days, or nights anyway, that allow just that. But let's start out that way--the way you start out with only underwear on the dress-up refrigerator magnet. Then, bit by bit, week by week, you add, with approximate temperatures in parentheses, the following:
- Long-sleeved biking shirt (60s)
- Biking jacket (high 50s)
- Slicks or long biking pants (50)
- Zip-up, woolish jersey for underneath jacket (high 40s)
- Long gloves to replace the fingerless kind (45)
- Cap for underneath helmet (low 40s)
- Long-johns beneath slicks (35)
- Thicker gloves (30)
- Fleece vest (25)
- Scarf (15)
I've never done the scarf in Seattle, only in Minneapolis. Last week I added the long-johns, Monday the thicker gloves. Each layer is a drag, a kind of mummification. The worst for me is the beneath-helmet cap. I hate that.
So in real terms and in biking-clothes terms I've about reached my winter solstice, which is itself a kind of relief, a Lennonesque rejoinder to the McCartneyesque optimism of “Gettin' Better”: Can't get much worse. I now look forward to the true joy of shedding each layer as the light returns and the weather warms.
It's the Day After Labor Day: Has Everyone in Seattle Forgotten How to Effin' Drive?
I mean more than usual.
My bikeride home from work, lower Queen Anne to First Hill, takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Today's trip was bookended by two trucks, the first on Thomas and Queen Anne North, the second on 9th and Madison, both making right-hand turns from the left lane. I must see this a couple of times a week but rarely twice during the same ride.
But those drivers were the smart ones. In-between, a woman in an SUV half-ran a red light on Denny and Second and nearly ran into a motorcyclist. She squealed to a halt halfway through the intersection, then decided to go ahead until I yelled at her to watch out for me coming through the intersection. When I was safely past her, she kept going through the red. Her son was in the passenger's seat.
Continuing on Second, another woman, this one in a sports car, roared past close to the bike lane. Second Avenue is one-way heading south, the bike lane is on the left, and when the light turned green at Battery, she roared ahead of the cyclist ahead of me, forcing him to brake, dismount, curse, give her the finger. I was heading the direction she was, so I saw her at Battery and 3rd, stopped at another red, 20 feet from the intersection, absorbed by a mobile device. When the light turned green it took her 10 seconds to realize it and bolt ahead again. I saw her again on 5th, continuing to drive recklessly, one hand on the mobile device.
More People Don't Bicycle Because of ... Bicyclists?
While we were visiting Portland in June I noticed a few people riding bikes, slowly—almost purposefully slowly—in everyday clothes. It reminded me of a European city more than an American city. It seemed pretty cool.
I didn't know it was a movement.
Yesterday on his blog, Andrew Sullivan quoted both Celeste LeCompte (Special to the San Francisco Chronicle) and Felix Salmon (a Reuters blogger) praising the slow bike movement. Both believe it encourages other people to ride. Both insinuate that the reason there are not more bike-riders is the bike-riders we already have.
For some San Franciscans, seeing slow-riding folks like Logan and Stockmann out on the road can be a refreshing encouragement to hop on two wheels for a daily commute or a quick trip to the farmers' market. ... Being a Slow Bike Rider may mean being left behind by the pack of spandex-wearing cyclists in the mornings, but it also means getting to know more about the rest of your community.
If you live in a city where women in wedge heels are steering their old steel bikes around their daily errand route, there’s really nothing intimidating or scary about the prospect of getting on a bike yourself. If it’s all hipsters on fixies, by contrast, that just makes biking feel all the more alien and stupid.
I'm sure this is part of it. No one wants to join a group in which they'll feel unwelcome or unhip.
At the same time, I've had quite a few people ask me, often shyly, about biking to work, and what it's like, and how long it takes, etc. etc., but whenever I suggest they do it themselves and they beg off, the main reason they give is their perception of how dangerous it is. They're not fearful of “spandex-wearing cyclists” or “hipsters on fixies”; they're fearful of cars. They don't want to be exposed in traffic. They don't want to die.
To ignore this in any discussion about cycling is to ignore the SUV in the room.
My Bike Ride: Imitating Big Papi and Nomah
At what age do I stop imitating baseball players?
I'm 48 now and I find I'm still doing it. While biking, no less.
When I'm about to begin a ride I find myself clapping my gloved hands together. Took me a few weeks before I figured out what it reminded me of: David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, Big Papi, who spits into the palm of both gloved hands and claps them together before each pitch. (Parodied in this SportsCenter ad.) Sometimes I'll even mime the spitting before the clapping. One time, I believe, I forgot the mime and brought the spit. Ick. This is a recent innovation, by the way. Not sure why I began doing it. Maybe as a way to kick myself in the ass? A here we go, about to ride! kind of thing.
Then in the middle of the bikeride, particularly at stoplights, particularly in the less harsh months when I'm wearing fingerless gloves, I'll often fiddle with the velcro around the wrists, tightening each glove. Yeah, exactly like Nomar Garciaparra used to do between every pitch. That's two Boston Red Sox. What the hell, right? I'm a Twins/M's fan. But I've been doing this one for a while. I think because both me and Nomar are a little OCD.
Finally, lately, at the end of my ride, I'll take off my helmet with both hands and bend down to touch my toes in one smooth (or its close proximity) motion. Reminds me of when a player, say, grounds out to end an inning, and takes the helmet off and reaches down to unstrap, say, shin protectors at the same time.
Now if for the rest of the ride I only imitated Lance Armstrong ...
Quote of the Day
”(A) This is a good thing because it’s greener and healthier for people to ride their bicycle, or
(B) This is a bad thing because it leaves less room for cars which increases traffic.
“(A) wins, 54-39. ...
”Anti-bikism never rises above fifty per cent in any age, ethnic, political, or geographic category of New Yorkers—except one. That’s right. Republicans. By 59 to 35 per cent, they say that bike lanes are a bad thing.
“I’m sure there are many decent, sensible individual Republicans. But as a category, Republican appears to have absolutely no positive qualities whatsoever. Am I wrong about that? If so, could someone please tell me what I am overlooking?”
My Bike Ride: the 2nd and Broad Intersection
I live in the First Hill neighborhood in Seattle, work in lower Queen Anne, bike almost every day. Not a bad ride: 15 minutes. Bit hilly on the way back but hills are unavoidable in Seattle.
Case in point. At the beginning of the ride home, one-way streets and busy streets basically force me to go up that hill on Thomas near the Space Needle, only, a block later, to go down that hill on 2nd Avenue, just before Mercer. So: go up only to go down. That's Seattle.
When you bike up to 2nd and Thomas, you always get a glorious view of the Space Needle.
The true drag is the traffic light at the bottom of 2nd. It's long, and rarely green when I need it to be green, so increasingly I find myself stopping halfway down the hill and hanging by the curb for the green so I can get some benefit of the hill. So I can go: fooosh!
Or so I can go fooosh for a block. Then I run into the mess at 2nd and Broad.
Second Avenue, a one-way street heading south, is the only downtown street with a bike lane, which is cool, but this leads to its own problems. Whenever a car turns left on 2nd it's essentially turning into the bike lane, and 2nd and Broad is a popular left-turn intersection. Worse, the stoplights are timed so that, with or without the foosh, that light seems to turn green when I'm about 10-20 feet from the intersection. Which means I have no idea if the cars in the left lane see me as they're about to turn left. So invariably I have to brake and lose my foosh.
This would be less of a problem if people in Seattle actually used their turn signals. But many refuse to, almost stubbornly, as if this passivity is part of what makes them Seattleites—just as the passivity of pedestrians not crossing against the red when no cars are in sight makes them Seattleites. Too often I've had to stop completely at 2nd and Broad because a car, gloriously oblivious and turnsignalless, began its turn into my lane. As a final insult, it often turns on its turn signal then. When its intentions are obvious. When it does nobody any good.
On the plus side I'm still here.
Even the Google Maps photo at 2nd and Broad shows a turnsignalless car turning left. (And at evening-hour rush hour, this intersection is always busier, and, invariably, rainier.)
Incident on 1st Avenue
I was biking to work the other morning, my usual route, and was riding up 1st Avenue North, near Key Arena, which is a one-way, two-lane street with an extra bike lane on the right-hand side.
(As an aside, this street has one of the more amusing road surfacing markings I've ever seen. Two lanes, right? But as 1st approaches Thomas, a road surface marking in the left-hand lane lets drivers know they can only go straight or turn left, while a road surface marking in the right-hand lane lets drivers know they can only go straight or turn right. I suppose the markings are there to remind drivers in the right-hand lane not to turn left, and drivers in the left-hand land not to turn right. Or maybe they're there to remind drivers not to go backwards.)
So I'm biking up 1st Avenue in the left-hand lane when a car zips past me and the driver yells something I don't quite catch. He has to stop at the traffic light on Harrison, which is where I catch up with him. His window is still rolled down and he's obviously exasperated. He points over to the right and says the following:
“How come you're not using the bike lane?”
His subtext is obvious. Look, dude, we've given you an ENTIRE LANE of your own. So why are you clogging up legitimate traffic with your bike?
I have some sympthy—but only some—and I point to the Harrison intersection and say this:
“I'm turning left.”
Do I get an apology? Not really. I can see that he sees the logic, but the logic only makes his exasperation worse. At which point the light turns green and he drives on.
Again, I have some sympathy with the dude. But only some. A cyclist has to turn left now and again.
Correction: R.I.P. CounterBalance on Roy
Back in June I wrote the following about the closing of the bike shop, CounterBalance, on Roy, in lower Queen Anne:
More than one million gallons of oil a day are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico and yet we keep driving and driving. We should be riding and riding. Places like CounterBalance should be opening shops rather than closing them down.
My friend Vinny, a stickler, argued that he'd seen a study on Publicola (“Seattle's News Elixir”) showing walking and biking rates were up, not down, both nationally and in Seattle; then he sent me a link to the study. I glanced at it, poo-pooed it. Walking was certainly up, bicycling just a tidge. And it didn't explain CounterBalance. “What about CounterBalance?” I asked. “Why did that close?” Vinny had no answer.
Now I do. I ran into someone who used to work at the CounterBalance on Roy and he told me the shop had been financially solvent. There had, in fact, been two shops, one on Roy and one in University Village close to the Burke-Gilman trail, as well as two owners. The original owner opened the shop on Roy. And when the original owner decided to call it quits and move (back?) to New Zealand, the second owner closed the shop on Roy. It was, according to this guy, a wholly unnecessary move.
In the end, though, that's a double shame to me. It's a shame someone closed a bike shop that apparently didn't need closing. And it's a shame, given the general unhealthiness of 1) Americans, 2) the environment, and 3) our dependence on foreign oil, that more people don't walk and bike. A tidge ain't gonna do it, people.
Movie Review: Breaking Away (1979)
In June 1979, when I was 16, my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, picked me up from the DMV in south Minneapolis where I’d been filling out paperwork to get my first driver’s license, and asked if I wanted to go with him to a critics’ screening that night. I forget if he handed me a movie pass or a presskit but I remember the image on it: a diploma in a garbage can. I also remember the name of the movie: Breaking Away.
We saw it in one of the small critics’ screening rooms above the now-defunct Skyway Theater in downtown Minneapolis with about a half-dozen other critics in attendance. When you go to movies you generally go knowing first-act plot points (it’s about a down-on-his-luck boxer...), and, increasingly, second- and third-act plot points (...who fights for the heavyweight championship and goes the distance), but I went into this thing knowing nothing but the diploma in the garbage can. As a result, the movie unfolded for me in a way few movies have before or since.
Afterwards my father asked me what I thought and I responded warily. My father was not only a professional movie critic but my father—the man I’d been losing arguments to all of my life—but I told him I thought it was a pretty good movie. He tilted his head and sucked in a discontented breath. “Yeah,” he said. “But it begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies.” During the car ride home I turned this sentence over in my head. Why was this bad? Because it meant the film wasn’t consistent? Because Rocky itself was bad? Couldn’t you say that Rocky begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of boxing movies?
A month later, Breaking Away became the “sleeper” hit of the summer. Six months later, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and it won best original screenplay for Steve Tesich, but today the movie is mostly seen the way my father saw it. It’s a liked movie. It’s sweet. It’s always in the mix whenever anyone talks about great sports movies. When the American Film Institute counted down its 100 greatest movies in both 1998 and 2008, it didn’t make the cut, but when the organization counted down its most inspiring movies, there it was at no. 8—four behind Rocky.
I think it’s more than that; I think it’s one of the greatest American movies ever made.
The film unfolds almost lazily. We see a quarry, then the woods around a quarry, then we hear someone singing with a country twang about the local A&P. Finally the singer and his three buddies, aimless 19 year-olds, wander into camera frame.
We don’t know it yet but the film’s major themes have just been introduced. The quarry is where working-class jobs were. The A&P is where working-class jobs have gone. But it’s a shit job and that’s why these four guys are aimless.
A year out of high school and they’ve already lost their identities. The tallest of the four, Cyril (Daniel J. Stern), all adenoidal voice, big, clumsy feet and pop-cultural references, once played basketball, hoped for a scholarship, and had a girlfriend named Delores. He didn’t get the scholarship, gave up the basketball, lost the girlfriend. Cyril tends to deal with pain through humor, so, by the quarry, he takes up a mock detective stance. “It was somewhere right along here that I lost all interest in life,” he says. “Ah ha! It was right here.” That’s where he saw Delores making out with a guy named Fat Marvin. Then he shouts into the void, mocking his own heartbreak: “Why, Delores, WHY!?!” His words echo but it’s the shortest of the four, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), who answers. “They’re married now,” he says quietly. Their peers are moving on. Life, for which Cyril has no professed interest, is already passing these guys by.
The unacknowledged leader of the group, Mike (Dennis Quaid), a star quarterback in high school, knows this and talks about getting out. He suggests road trips to Terre Haute and permanent trips to Wyoming. He knows life is bigger than their hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, but he’s too scared to go it alone. He’s like a Springsteen character without the guts. That’s why he told Cyril about his girlfriend Delores. And that’s why he gives Moocher shit about his girlfriend Nancy. Girls represent domesticity and Mike needs these guys free to help him get out. He knows the dead-end that awaits him if he stays. He articulates this as they watch the university football team practice:
You know what really gets me, though? I mean here I am, I gotta live in this stinkin’ town, and I gotta read in the newspapers about some hot-shot kid, new star of the college team. Every year it’s gonna be a new one. And every year it’s never gonna be me. I’m just gonna be Mike. Twenty-year-old Mike. Thirty-year-old Mike. Ol’ mean ol’ man Mike! These college kids out here are never gonna get old, or out of shape, cause new ones come along every year. They’re gonna keep calling us “cutters.” To them it’s just a dirty word. To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be.
At this point we’ve heard the term “cutter” once, from one of the college kids, but it’s only later that we find out its meaning: townie. Specifically: the post-World War II generation that cut the stones that built, among other things, the university. Those jobs have dried up, but the term has become ubiquitous for anyone in town; anyone who’s not getting out.
What do you do if you’re a working-class kid in a university town that has no need for the working class? You wind up in the service sector. You work at the A&P, or—and this is the great fear—you directly service the university. You sell cars to the college kids, or you wash the cars of the college kids, or you police the squabbles between the townies and the college kids. Cutters are basically the niggers of Bloomington. These are the people who do our dirty work, and as a result we fear them, and reduce them to this epithet. Our guys know this. But it’s the fourth guy, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who discovers an ingenious way out.
We watch movies, in part, to get away from ourselves, to hear about someone else for a change. And if the story is good enough, or wish-fulfillment enough, we want to be that person. That’s the exchange implicit in most movies. You give us your money and we’ll let you sit in the dark and pretend to be someone else for two hours.
Dave is both our own and his own wish fulfillment. He’s ours because he’s really good at something we’d like to be good at: bike racing. He’s his own, and humorously so rather than tragically so (cf. Billy Liar), because he’s pretending to be something he’s not: Italian. One imagines, as he got good at bike racing, as he became a fan of Team Cinzano, he adopted the rudiments of the Italian language and culture. Bravo! Bellissima! One also imagines a weight being lifted off him as a result: the weight of being himself. He’s the happiest person for most of the movie because he’s not Dave Stoller; he’s not a cutter. For centuries, Europeans escaped to America and forged new identities, but Dave is part of that generation for whom the American dream contracted and dried up. So he escapes to Europe—in his mind anyway—an idealized Europe. The situation is played for laughs but serious issues lie beneath it.
Breaking Away doesn’t have much of a plot (“I'm not a plot writer,” Tesich told The New York Times in 1982); instead it has tensions between individuals and groups. The most obvious of these are the tensions between the cutters, represented by our four guys, particularly Mike, and the college kids.
But the cutters have their own internal tensions. They may quit the A&P in solidarity with Mike, and they may follow him onto campus and into fights, but they’re already breaking away from him. Moocher gets closer to Nancy: at first denying she’s his girlfriend, then standing up for her, then quietly marrying her at the Monroe County Court House. Dave, in his head, is already gone, while Cyril is never quite there. Mike constantly tries to rally the troops but he resents having troops that need rallying, while they resent being rallied.
Then there are generational tensions. Cyril’s dad “understands” his son’s failures, while Moocher’s parents flee Bloomington for the promise of jobs in Chicago, leaving their son to sell the house by himself. But we only hear about these parents. The only parents we actually see are Dave’s.
Dave’s dad, Raymond (Paul Dooley), is a former stone-cutter who owns a used-car lot that services the college kids—he gives the cars cheesy, collegiate names like “Magna Cum Laude”—and after work he brags about how he schnookered this one or that one; how these college kids ain’t that smart after all. Of course he can’t abide his son’s Italian’s fixation but that’s not the real source of tension between the two of them. Hell, the real source of tension isn’t even between the two of them; it’s within the one. Raymond has internalized Bloomington’s class issues—us vs. them—but he knows that for his son to succeed he needs to become them. The situation is, again, played for laughs, but serious issues lie beneath it. Here he argues with his wife, Evelyn (Barbara Barrie):
Raymond: He used to be a smart kid. I thought he was going to go to college.
Evelyn: I thought you didn’t want him to go to college.
Raymond: Well why should he go to college? When I was 19, I was working at the quarry 10 hours a day.
Evelyn: Most of the quarries are closed.
Raymond: Yeah, well, let him find another job.
Evelyn: Jobs are not that easy to find.
Almost everyone in the film has a monologue. Dialogues, like the above, may be comedic but monologues are serious. Mike’s “Mean ol’ man Mike” speech best represents the younger-generation dilemma—the epithet we’re called is the job we can’t even get—but it’s Raymond’s monologue, representing the original cutters, that is the speech of the movie. No one looks at countries and cultures with fresher eyes than foreigners: de Tocqueville on America, Hemingway and Baldwin on France, and, yes, I would argue, Steve Tesich, born in Yugoslavia and an immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 14, on the America of Bloomington, Indiana. Here, father and son go for a stroll through the university campus:
I cut the stone for this building. I was one fine stone cutter. Mike’s dad, Moocher’s, Cyril’s. All of us. Well, Cyril’s dad, never mind.
Thing of it was, I loved it. I was young and slim and strong. I was damn proud of my work. And the buildings went up! When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings was too good for us. Nobody told us that. Just felt uncomfortable that’s all. Even now I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone... I just feel out of place.
Yes, Breaking Away is sweet. Dave romances a pretty co-ed named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), whom he calls “Katerina,” and serenades her beneath her sorority window with “M’appari Tutt Amor,” from the Italian opera “Martha.” Yes, Breaking Away is inspirational. Dave’s heroes, Team Cinzano, come to Indiana, and he trains for the race on the freeway, memorably drafting behind a truck at 60 miles an hour. Yes, his dreams come crashing down when a member of Team Cinzano, unable to abide this American upstart with the bad Italian accent, sticks a bike pump between his spokes and he loses the race (“I guess you’re a cutter again,” Mike tells him afterwards); but the movie ends with the Little 500 bike race, where the underdogs, the cutters, take on the college boys, and, against all odds, win.
Inspiring. At the same time, I can’t recall a more profound admission about the American class system in a Hollywood movie than the one Dave’s dad makes above. This country was built by people who aren’t welcome here.
Each time I watch Breaking Away I fear I’ll see the movie through my father’s eyes, but each time it only gets better. Each time, too, I fall in love with a new scene. This summer it was the scene after Dave meets Katherine. He’s biking through the woods, and light is shining through the trees, and we hear the instrumental strains of the song, “M’appari Tutt Amor,” with which he’ll serenade her later in the movie. It’s an aimless scene but you get the sense of things beginning. Dave is young and slim and strong, and he’s good at what he does, and he’s in love. And he spreads his arms wide to take in the world.
In the most basic sense my father was right. Breaking Away begins like a character study, and it ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies, because Steve Tesich’s script was originally two scripts: one about cutters, the other about the Little 500 race. He couldn’t sell either script. So he combined them. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Strawberry Fields Forever” began as two songs and that turned out pretty well.
The movie never really answers its fundamental question. What does the working class in a post-industrial society do? In the aftermath of their Little 500 victory, the cutters simply do what the downtrodden have always done. They lay claim to their epithet. Dave’s dad changes the name of his used-car lot from “Campus Cars” to “Cutter Cars,” while Dave, who embraced one false identity (Italian) to overcome another (cutter), winds up where he was meant to be: at college. But we never see Mike or Moocher or Cyril again. We can only guess what happens to them.
When Tesich arrived in this country in the late 1950s, he learned English through television, through sitcoms, and you can argue the film has a sitcom quality to it—particularly its ending. On campus Dave meets a pretty French girl and soon they’re biking, talking the Tour de France, and he’s using Frenchisms as he once used Italianisms. When he sees his father, he shouts out, happily, “Bon jour, papa!” and the father looks back, startled, horrified, and the camera freezes. Cue rimshot. At that point, though, we begin to hear the Indiana University fight song, and the freeze-frame fades into a shot of the Monroe County Court House, and a graphic informs us: FILMED ENTIRELY IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. No shit. The film is steeped in the place. It also uses obvious locals for bit parts—the postman, the stone cutters hanging at the plant, the old woman on her porch—but nothing says “Indiana” like this ending, which refuses to take itself too seriously. There’s something very Midwestern, very American, about that.
Breaking Away was released more than 30 years ago but it’s never felt more relevant. Moocher can’t sell his parent’s house, jobs aren’t easy to find, there’s trouble in the Middle East. One can argue that jobs are never easy to find and there’s always trouble in the Middle East. But it’s more. I spent the summer of 2010 looking for a car, and many of the car salesmen I met hadn’t been salesmen long. This one had been an event planner but jobs dried up. That one had been a professional photographer but in the digital age he was rendered irrelevant. Then there’s me.
I first saw Breaking Away with my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, in the summer of 1979, a time when journalism and movie criticism seemed like stable occupations. No longer. Newspapers everywhere are folding. Movie critics are being let go. We thought Breaking Away was about them but it’s really about us. We’re all cutters now.
I think my friend Brenda, a competitive cyclist, told me about it first, and last week I saw it with my own eyes: the CounterBalance on Roy in lower Queen Anne is no more.
I've been going there since I moved back to Seattle in Sept. 2007. I work just two blocks away, so whenever I had a biking problem—flat tire, shitty brakes, odd sound, seasonal tune-up—there it was. Easy peasy. Guys were cool, work was fast. I'd bought my bike in August 2000 and ride every day, in all kinds of weather, from 5 degrees to 103, so problems always cropped up. It was the guys at CounterBalance, in fact, who told me last February that the frame on my bike had cracked. Gregg's confirmed it. I wound up buying a whole new bike. A new bike needs less work, of course, so I hadn't been back. First my bike goes, then the CounterBalance on Roy.
Shame. More than one million gallons of oil a day are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico and yet we keep driving and driving. We should be riding and riding. Places like CounterBalance should be opening shops rather than closing them down.
“Breaking Away” Lesson of the Day
Cyclist "doored," ticketed
While doing research for my day job, which just had this nice (or, to be precise, extremely factual) write-up in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, I came across this article in Ismthus, the alt-weekly of Madison, Wisconsin.
It seems that recently a Madison cyclist got “doored” (biking along, car door opens, splat), went to the hospital with multiple contusions and a fractured vertebra, and was then given a $10 ticket for violating — to quote the article — “a little-known state law that requires bicyclists passing a parked or standing vehicle to allow ‘a minimum of three feet’ between themselves and the car.”
Of course, allow the minimum three feet and you’re in the entire lane and you’ll hear it from the cars behind you. I just got into a rather acidic back-and-forth with an acquaintance who, responding to my earlier post about cyclists vs. motorists, made this exact point. He said he was sick of cyclists taking up lanes and slowing traffic. I said traffic slows traffic: the reason why cars go slowly, most of the time, is because there are too many cars. I also said that, in downtown Seattle anyway, cars slow me up. It’s not even close. I zip, they clog. Then he made the argument — so odd for a lawyer — that cars own the road and cyclists should just bike on the sidewalk where they belong. Nice. And illegal.
But the article and the back-and-forth do clarify the larger issue. Sidewalks are built for pedestrians. Roads are built for cars. Nothing is built for cyclists. Occasionally you get the bike lane, which, as I’ve said, is yours until someone bigger wants it, and it often just ends after a few blocks. Complain, and you’re made to feel like Oliver Twist: “MORE? You want MORE? That painted bike lane that ran two blocks ain’t good enough for the likes a’ you, is it? You wif your fancy ways.”
The solution, for me, lies in creating more roads specifically for bikes, and I would do it on existing roads, possibly with a concrete barrier between bikes and cars. Let’s face it: The safer you make it, the more people will use it. The more they use it, the fitter they’ll be, and the less oil they’ll burn, and the less pollution they’ll create. All of which are good things. The other side? Gas, pollution, fat. Bad things.
It’s not even an argument. You burn fat (and become stronger) or burn gas (and make the country weaker).
Let’s get on this. Because this shit in Madison? That’s gotta stop.
Cyclists vs. Motorists: How The New York Times Ain't Helping
One thing you can say about Jan Hoffman’s nearly 2000-word piece in the Sunday New York Times on the growing battle between motorists and cyclists: It probably won’t lessen any tensions.
I’ve been biking to work for 15 years now and couldn’t find myself in it at all. Talk about reporting. Or as Hoffman might write: Talk about reporting!
This is the money quote for me. It comes about halfway through the article and lit me up:
There’s a whiff of class warfare in the simmering hostility, too. During morning rush, the teeth-gritting of drivers is almost audible, as superbly fit cyclists, wearing Sharpie-toned spandex and riding $3,000 bikes, cockily dart through the swampy, stolid traffic to offices with bike racks and showers.
So cyclists are the rich ones now? Where’s the stats to back that one up? But you gotta love the flowery language. We cockily dart? Through swampy stolid? In Sharpie-toned? On our $3,000? Pity the poor souls who can only afford SUVs.
The next graph, in true journalistic fashion, gives us “the opposite end of the class spectrum”: Migrant workers cycling in pre-dawn hours without headlights. So both extremes are represented. Another job well done.
I’m among the unrepresented between these two groups: commuting on my $350 bike, without the spandex and no waiting shower. But there is a bike rack in a nearby garage. I’m living large. No wonder I’m hated.
This hatred for cyclists is the big unanswered (possibly unaddressed) question of the article. Most of the anti-motorist anecdotes end with cyclists bloodied or dead, while most of the anti-cycling anecdotes end with pedestrians and motorists “startled” or with a “pounding heart.” Yet motorists are the ones who are white-hot with anger? What’s up with that? Maybe this discrepancy should’ve been pointed out. Maybe further investigation was needed instead of, you know, flowery language. But who am I to say? I’m not a professional journalist.
How about this graph on biking irresponsibility?:
A pandemic of obliviousness — earbuds, texting — further ramps up the tension. Recently, Scott Diamond, ride coordinator for the Morris Area Freewheelers, a New Jersey cycling club, saw what he called a trifecta of irresponsible cycling: “A guy riding his bike without a helmet, talking on his cellphone, with his kid in the bike attachment behind him.”
Oddly, for a he said/she said article, there’s no correlating graph on the distractions for motorists: radios, CDs, DVDs; coffee, make-up, kids. Those texting cyclists — what percentage are we talking about? As opposed to, say, cellphone-talking drivers? I don’t want to make excuses for an idiot who bikes without a helmet and with a cellphone, but that trifecta of irresponsible cycling? That’s a normal driver.
Listen, there are assholes everywhere, and I’m often one of them (both on a bike and in a car), but everyone knows the entire system is set up for cars. Bike paths are rare, and even when you get one it’s like the weakest kid’s lunch money: Yours until someone bigger wants it. And someone bigger always wants it.
I have my own anecdote to add to Hoffman’s bunch, and it’s not about the number of drivers who have yelled at me over the years — sometimes with reason, most of the time insanely out of nowhere — and it’s not about the overwhelming obtuseness of most drivers (the powerful can afford to be stupid), and I won’t even bring up the whole gas/oil thing.
Here it is: Over the last three years, about a dozen people have asked me, almost shyly, about cycling to work, and I tell them it’s fun and easy and I feel better afterwards. I tell them they should do it. And every one has backed off. They think it’s too dangerous. They’re too worried about being hit by a car.
Now does anyone know one person who has quit driving because they’re worried about being hit by a bicycle?
There is no he said/she said here. There is just “startled” vs. “dead.”
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard