Saturday, July 23, 2005

Drive-By Mocking: Inside the Psyche of a Cyclist Heckler

I'm sure every cyclist who has spent more than a couple of hours on public roads has his or her own stories of rude motorists. While some simply try to run you over, many attack in a more insidious manner...verbally. Just what is it about happening upon a random stranger on a bicycle that makes people feel the urge to hurl all manner of colorful epithets at them? I have formulated some opinions, which I will share with you now:

While riding on public roadways in the Corbin / London / Barbourville area, the vast majority of people I have encountered have been respectful and courteous to me as a cyclist. Although many can't seem to extract their right foot from the gas pedal, most will give a wide berth while passing. The only time they attempt to communicate with me is to either warn me of their presence or, yes, mock mine. Mocking takes two basic forms, although both forms are frequently used together: horn and voice.

Horn mocking is a subset of general horn use toward cyclists. I have learned to identify three different hornblows during my years on the road:

1. The staccatto beep beep beep. This sounding, the most benign of the three, is used by motorists who want to warn you as discreetly as possible that they are coming up from behind. Mostly employed by the elderly and the occasional white-knuckled soccer mom in the minivan with five screaming kids.

2. The angry blare. A solid blast lasting 4 to 5 seconds, this horn sounding is usually emitted by cars travelling at a high rate of speed just as they are passing. Its purpose is not so much to warn as to curse the cyclist for impeding the rightful progress of said vehicle on its way to Wal-Mart, McDonald's, or the weekend tractor pull. The angry blare is occasionally accompanied by an obscene gesture and/or verbal accentuation to the tune of "git awff tha rowwd."

3. The woo-hoo honk. Various permutations, but usually two or three more leisurely syllables, shorter in duration than the angry blare. This beep serves secondarily to the main communication toward the cyclist, the verbal taunt. It is almost always used to preface the taunts, as a sort of attention-getter as it were.

So now we get into the taunts themselves. I have tried my best to note the variables that accompany the taunts I receive, but few patterns have emerged.

One theorem I postulate thusly: a person's likelihood of heckling you is inversely proportional to the likelihood of that person subsequently having to face you in a more balanced situation. This is a corollary of the social psychology of anonymity...the more anonymous a person perceives him- or herself to be, the more likely he or she is to engage in aggressive behavior toward other people. Just being in a car increases this likelihood immensely. They're in a vehicle that can go more than three times as fast as the person they're attacking, plus the cyclist has a hard time even seeing them. Couple this with the "this would be a good way to impress my boyfriend / girlfriend / friends" psychology of the teenage set and you have an apple ripe for the picking.
(As a side-note to this theory, I will draw parallels with my work, in a way that will doubtless be familiar to others in careers with similar working conditions...in all of my years working in pharmacy, the most aggressively rude and demanding people I have encountered have been, you guessed it, drive-through customers).

I'm not saying that we should denigrate these petty aggressors while coddling our poor bike riders. Cyclists themselves share some of the blame in this, if for nothing else for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Number one in most people's minds is surely the outfits. Even the hard-core roadies would have to admit that those little helmets and spandex look more than slightly ridiculous on anybody. And here they are puffing away, sweating and tongue-wagging, out on some country road in the middle of nowhere...why don't they just drive a car like everybody else? Is their '82 Camaro in the shop? Is their four-wheeler "tore up?" I mean I realize that other than recreational cyclists, the only people around here who ride bikes are either a) kids, b) bums, or c) people who have lost their driver's licenses for whatever reason. Not exactly a respectable group of people to implicitly call your clique.

Finally, what are the demographics of the bicyclist heckler? This one is more difficult to pin down. I can only speak for myself on this, but virtually all of the whistles, "woo hoo"s, "hey baby"s, and "yeeeeaaaahhhh"s that I've gotten have been from teenage girls. I'm still not sure if I should take this as a compliment.

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