A couple of weeks ago, while I was waiting in the bike lane at a red light in Williamsburg, a fellow cyclist passed me and ran through the light just as it turned green. The driver of an SUV, who had been waiting at the same light, edged up to me. “I saw what that guy did to you,” he said. “Do you want me to hit him?” He didn’t seem to be joking. Terrified, I assured him that I didn’t want revenge.
The SUV driver probably was joking, of course, and as is often the case, I was slow on the uptake. But I suspect that beneath his joke, the rage he felt on my behalf may have been in earnest, because I’ve sometimes felt a similar rage when I’ve been passed while driving. Which set me wondering: Why don’t I feel the same rage when I’m passed on a bike?
A moralist might answer that bicyclists, as people, are more humane and ethical than car drivers, but I don’t think that’s true. In general, bicycling may be more ethical than driving, because the carbon dioxide in car exhaust raises the world’s average temperature, but bicyclists aren’t more ethical than drivers, in their essences—or so I believe, mostly because I myself happen to switch between the two kinds of vehicles. The rage must have something to do with the nature of cars.
A more plausible answer is that cars are bulky. If you’re driving, and another car passes you, there may not be an opportunity to pass it in return, even if it slows down, for several blocks. In a narrow street, if a car in front of you suddenly decides to double-park—to pick up a passenger or make a delivery—you’re stuck behind it for the interval of the errand. To be passed by another car aggravates your chances of delay; something has in fact been taken from you. I understand that in bicycle races, bicycles can obstruct one another, but this almost never happens when cycling merely for transportation. If a fellow bicyclist passes you and then slows down or stops, you simply pass him again, no hard feelings. On a bicycle, passing doesn’t usually involve the possibility of blocking.
A somewhat subtler explanation, however, may lie in the different forces that power the two kinds of vehicle. If a fellow bicyclist passes me, he’s going faster than I am, either because he wants to or can. If he wants to go faster, then it’s probably because I don’t feel safe going as fast. Since speeding bicycles don’t kill nearly as many people as speeding cars do, I’m not likely to resent his speed. I just prefer a lower level of risk for myself. In such a case, the most hostile sentiment I could summon up would be something like, “Hope you don’t wipe out, guy.”
More likely, though, he’s going faster because he’s able to go faster. In other words, he passes me because he’s in better shape than I am, because he has more energy at the moment, or because his bike is more efficient. And these are factors that, even if I’m not happy to have to acknowledge them, I have to respect, because they’re more or less the same limits to motion that I, as a human animal, have had to be at peace with since around the time I learned how to walk. I can’t simply will my bicycle to go as fast as any bicycle that passes me. Or rather, I can will it to, but I then have to work to make it happen—work that I’ll feel in the ache of my muscles and the flow of my sweat. If that sounds a little sexy, that’s because it is: I’m not likely to rise to the challenge unless the exertion it will require strikes me as pleasant. If I don’t have the energy or the appetite for it, I won’t mind letting the challenge go, because I’ll understand myself to be reserving my energies and appetites for something else. It’s all about my pleasure.
The case is very different behind the wheel of a car. As a matter of physics, cars are fueled by the controlled explosion of hydrocarbons, but as a matter of psychology, they are fueled by mere will. To make a car go, you don’t have to work up a sweat, tire out your muscles, or burn off calories. On a racetrack, one driver passes another to show off the superiority of his car, but off the racetrack, most cars are capable of driving faster than the legal speed limit, and are therefore practically identical, give or take negligible differences in acceleration time. In daily life, therefore, the decisive force behind the passing of one car by another is mere cussedness. As is well known, the supply of cussedness, in general and in any single individual, is limitless. Compounding the problem, cussedness does not dispel itself, when exercised, in happy-making endorphins. It breeds more cussedness, in oneself and in the person it is directed against. The reason that it is so infuriating to be passed and cut off by a fellow driver is that nothing finite is at stake. The action of passing costs a driver no energy and proves nothing about his strength. It expresses no more than a wish to get in front of you; all he did was dip his right toe a little faster and a little harder than you. It isn’t easy for the cut-off driver to find within himself the greatness of spirit needed to say, “Yes, behold, you are a little more cussed than I.” For one thing, such a statement isn’t likely to be true. One is almost always as full of cussedness as the next guy. In such circumstances, fresh supplies of cussedness well up from deep within one, unbidden. Or rather, bidden—by the next guy’s cussedness.
The cycle of resentment doesn’t even occur to a cyclist, unless it spills out of one the automobiles on the road beside him. So I was startled by the SUV driver’s rage, and he was nonplussed to discover I didn’t think myself aggrieved. The difference is part of what makes cycling so lovely, though I wonder if it’s harder for cyclists and motorists to communicate with each other from such distinct states of mind.