I almost wasn’t

Yesterday was warm.  It was nearly 90 degrees when I left my downtown Seattle office to go for a ride at 5:10 PM. There was an abnormal amount of traffic due to a Seahawks game.  I love the Seahawks.  I am not a football fan but I am a Seahawks fan.  I’ve even sought out Seahawks bars in other cities to be able to watch the game.  But this isn’t about the Seahawks.

I am in the process of retiring from (letting go of?) a five year professional cycling career.  I still love to ride my bike. I still love to ride my bike hard, to go fast, to push myself.  Yesterday I went down to Lake Washington Boulevard to squeeze in some quick intervals before I lost the daylight. Lake Washington Boulevard has been lauded as one of the best roads to ride on in Seattle.  There are signs reminding drivers that cyclists have the right of way.  It’s flat with good pavement and gentle curves that you never have to stop pedaling through.  The speed limit is 25 miles per hour, exactly the speed I tend to average for these particular intervals.

There was a remarkable amount of traffic on the Boulevard, maybe due to the Seahawks game, maybe not. I waited for breaks in traffic to safely do my intervals.  I did my best to ignore a few overly-aggressive and obviously irate drivers. It was warm.  There was a lot of traffic.  I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a car either.

I was inside the last minute of my last interval heading north on the Boulevard.  There was a line of cars heading in the opposite direction.  I’d timed it perfectly.  I would finish the effort just a few hundred meters before I would turn off to head back to my office and grab my backpack.  I was riding 1 foot from the right edge of the road.  For just one short second I glanced down at my Garmin to see how much time I had left in the effort – 30 seconds.  I was going 25 miles per hour.  I looked up.  I was less than 15 meters from the grill of an SUV speeding down the wrong side of the Boulevard passing other southbound cars.  I swerved off the road, the driver dove back into his or her lane.  I was alive, but I almost wasn’t.

I’ve spent the better part of the last eight months creating a junior women’s development team.  I want to provide opportunities to young women who I believe have a future in the sport.  I want to help all young women learn about and embrace the freedom and beauty of the bicycle. I want to grow the sport and increase opportunities and pathways to success for female athletes.  I don’t want the bike to be scary or intimidating; but yesterday, for me, it was.

Yesterday, I was almost killed.  I don’t scare easy.  Yesterday I pulled over on the side of the road and sat down shaking and crying.  I was relieved that I was alive but distraught over the actions of a complete stranger who almost killed me.  I started thinking about the health and safety of the young women that I work with.  I felt so helpless.  I don’t know what happened to the social contract where we agree not to kill each other for no reason.  I want to open pathways for young women but yesterday I worried that I was putting them into danger by simply encouraging them to ride.

Nothing has ever made me question what we’ve created with NWCX Project and I still don’t but yesterday, my faith wavered just a little. Please look out for each other. Please don’t kill cyclists.

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About Jess Cutler

35 year old pro road and cyclocross racer. National Champion. Generally nice person.
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9 Responses to I almost wasn’t

  1. I saw your post showed on my Facebook feed. I feel bad for what you had to go through yesterday. Something similar also happened to me yesterday while commuting home northbound on Lake Washington Boulevard after completing the 5:30pm Seward Park race. A SUV was overtaking some cyclist going southbound and it took more than half of my lane before veering back just meters in front of me. My heart must have skipped a few beats. After that, I switched on my race camera, not that it’s going to prevent another impatient driver from attempting the same thing again. Take care Jess!

  2. Why I run a headlight day or night, and why I stick to the center of the lane on Lake Washington Boulevard to stay conspicuous to drivers.

    Even distracted, aggressive drivers occasionally glance straight ahead for conflicting cars, but it’s too easy to not see an unlit bicycle, or one off to the right edge of the road.

    If it’s not an entirely separated facility (I-90 Trail, BGT away from intersections), my #1 defensive-cycling strategy is to be where a distracted driver will be looking for conflicting traffic straight ahead. It’s not perfect, but in my experience it eliminates the great majority of conflicts with cars, and it leaves me more maneuvering room for avoiding the incompetent drivers who still don’t see me.

    • clive pursehouse says:

      C’mon Josh she’s not some recreational rider, this woman knows what she’s doing, and has countless more hour on a bike than you do. The victim blaming or what you would have done? Save it. I’m glad you’re okay Jess will suffice.

      I’m glad you’re okay Jess. Hope to catch you at the cross races.

      • The desire to avoid analyzing contributing factors to crashes is one thing that clearly separates human-powered cyclists from motorcyclists. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has spent decades doing after-incident analysis, not to blame victims but to reduce the risk of future crashes. It’s not about whether the victim did anything wrong, but whether they could have done something better. That sort of analysis has led to a very robust motorcycle safety curriculum that goes well beyond obeying the law — it’s a focus on defensive riding.

        Many very experienced racing cyclists actually don’t have particularly good defensive traffic cycling skills — competitive cycling inherently involves a voluntary assumption of risk by violating many safety guidelines that apply in non-competitive traffic.

        That doesn’t mean it was her fault — clearly the blame belongs entirely to the reckless driver.

        But peer-reviewed public health research from bike-friendly European countries shows a clear and significant safety benefit from daytime running lights on bicycles, even when ridden in cities where drivers are all trained to watch for cyclists. And inattentional blindness and narrowed focus are both well-documented deficiencies for drivers.

        So, sure, of course I’m glad she didn’t get hurt, but I’d also like to point out a couple of simple techniques that could help reduce the risk of this sort of incident in the future. You can call that “victim blaming” if you like, but I’d rather avoid creating victims than blame them.

      • Jess Cutler says:

        Joshua, thank you for your note. To be clear, I was a bicycle messenger, car-free bicycle commuter, and recreational touring cyclist well before I ever raced a bicycle. While as a racer I have to put aside some risk aversion, I personally am an extremely defensive cyclist who is very cognizant of my surroundings. While it may be easy to assume that I have little defensive riding skills, it’s simply not the case.

        So why was I riding so close to the right edge of the road? In many circumstances such as this I would choose to take the lane. For example I ride 10 blocks down a hill every morning when I commute. I can travel the speed limit on this road so I take the lane rather than riding in a dangerous bike lane that runs up against parallel parked cars (a cyclist was killed while riding in it about 8 years ago). I would rather a driver be mildly irritated with me and be seen than be dead. So I’ll return to my original question of why I chose to ride close to the edge of the road yesterday. Well, the incident occurred at about 6:30 or 6:40 PM. At the time, there were several cyclists heading south on LWB to Seward Park for a weekly training race that begins at 7:00 PM – I do it often, yesterday I chose not to because I hadn’t brought lights and wouldn’t be able to race and make it home before dark. Additionally, despite being a bike-friendly route, on this particular portion of LWB between Colman Park and Stan Sayres Park, there is no shoulder and the road is at its narrowest. I had seen several drivers already passing cyclists with little regard to oncoming traffic (hence my note about other irate drivers) crossing half-way into the oncoming lane but not all the way to the far edge of the oncoming lane where I was riding. There was little traffic headed in my direction – northbound – so I wasn’t overly-concerned about drivers headed in the same direction trying to squeeze past me. Additionally, since I was riding at or just below the speed limit, my chance of being passed in a dangerous manner by a northbound driver was, given the circumstances, lower than being hit head on by a driver passing a southbound cyclist.

        What I hadn’t prepared for was a driver who had become so irate that he or she would try to pass other cars by swerving completely into my lane up to the edge of the road. I don’t believe anyone could prepare for that.

      • I certainly didn’t mean to say you in particular don’t have good traffic skills, that was meant as a general observation of why I sometimes comment on potential defensive alternatives.

        I haven’t raced since the ’80s, but looking back, it took me many years and tens of thousands of miles to get beyond some of what seemed normal while racing, and a good part of that evolution was advice from practical cyclists I used to look down on when I was in matching kit and they were in cargo shorts and Birkenstocks. Somehow over the past hundred thousand miles I’ve become the slow guy in cargo shorts. (But not Birkenstocks.)

  3. Lisa says:

    You are one of the smartest, most aware riders I know and I am so glad you reacted quickly. It might be confirmation bias on my part, but I have noticed a LOT more impatience and road rage on Seahawks game days 😦 I’m sad that our city isn’t safer to ride in because biking is such a wonderful sport and outlet. I’ve never been able to completely relax on the road here.

  4. Alyssa says:

    I’m glad you’re ok Jess. I was almost hit right there last month – a guy took a left turn right in front of me with no blinker. It was completely unexpected – like the guy had realized he was missing his turn as the last second and panicked. Another time I was on the sidewalk (which doubled as a bike trail) and two passing cars collided, causing one of them to jump the curb and barrel straight at me. I definitely was crying and shaking after that! My point is, there are just things out there on the road you CANT prepare for and can’t control no matter how good of a rider you are. I know this every time I put my butt on my saddle. But I love to ride. It is my joy. And despite the inherent risks, I still smile every time I see a little girl on a bike. So I stay alert, avoid riding after dark, and ride defensively, and then hope for the best! Lol

  5. Pingback: Bike News Roundup: Dodging bullets on an Olympia mountain bike trail | Seattle Bike Blog

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