Incident #1: I am working behind the counter of a café on a popular, historic road in Boston. I like looking out the large picture windows at the red brick buildings and, sometimes, the snow. One day, I see a jolly cyclist coming down the street just as a woman, on a cell phone, swings open her parked car door right in his path. He flips and sails clear over the door. He is stunned, but unhurt. The woman apologizes, then continues her phone conversation.
Incident #2: Walking home from work in Chicago, a driver revs his engine in impatience as I cross the crosswalk. I give him a dirty look. Once on the other side, I hear a thud. The aggressive driver had rolled right into the street and knocked over a passing cyclist, who gets up, smooths his clothes, remounts his bike and continues on his way. The driver peels off.
Incident #3 (Hearsay): Many of my coworkers at the library bike to work and swap stories about angry Chicago drivers. I ask one if he's ever been hit by a car. He responds: "Yes, five times." Curiously, he does not seem traumatized.
Incident #4: Well, I have to tell you more about Incident #4…
These days a lot of big cities have bike-loan programs, in which you rent a bicycle at one location using a credit card in a machine and drop it off at another. A brilliant idea for non-vehicle-phobic members of society, especially tourists. It's a cheap, quick, low-hassle way to explore large stretches of a new city.
Many years ago, pre-bike-loan programs, I traveled to Munich. A friend of a friend, a kind native of the city, had agreed to show me around, and we would start by lunch in a beer garden at the famous public park, the English Garden (so named for its style of landscaping), which is larger even than Hyde Park or Central Park.
"Wilkommen to the Englischer Garten!"
At the food stalls he ordered me a stein of cold beer, sausage with strong mustard and delicious warm, vinegary potato salad. We carried our trays over to a wooden picnic bench and began planning my city itinerary: "You must see the Deutsches Museum and Marienplatz, of course. But, first you should see more of the Englischer Garten. It's a beautiful day."
"It all sounds great!" In the fresh air, after this cozy meal, I would be content anywhere in this welcoming city.
"I have an idea. Let's go for a bicycle ride through the park!"
"Oh. Well, okay. But… too bad, I don't have a bike. Shucks. Guess we'll have to make it a walk instead. Don't worry, I wore my walking shoes!"
"Nein. You must see the park by bike. It's no problem. You can borrow one from my neighbor."
A little tipsy from my afternoon beer, I agreed to the plan, and we walked to his apartment building and knocked on his neighbor's door. My German was just good enough to understand that she wasn't keen on lending her bike to a stranger. And, plus, she hadn't used it in awhile. We would have to check the tires.
Reluctantly, she gave the key to her persuasive neighbor, and we unlocked a small, sad-looking bike outside. Already, I could see that my tall American body was much too large for its tiny frame. Out of his garage my host wheeled out his own impressive bike, and I secretly hoped that he would notice our disparity in height and offer me his obviously superior, larger bike.
He inspected the loaner bike thoroughly, squeezed its tires, and then trotted out his own pump to ensure maximum oomph.
Finally I swung my leg over, clearing the seat easily, and felt immediately awkward. My knees almost brushed the handlebars.
"Are you sure it's not too small?" I asked.
"It's fine," and he took off down the street. I pedaled vigorously, trying my best to keep up with him. He glanced back and I thought I read annoyance behind his round spectacles.
"Wait for me!"
He extended his arm out in a turn signal and glided gracefully through the park's entrance on pale crunchy gravel. I followed with pumping knees, my face squished in concentration and effort.
The harder I pedaled the smaller the bike felt. The park was Wonderland and I was a growing Alice on a shrinking bike.
I called out to him, "Could we slow down? I really think my bike is too small."
He slid his bike to a stop and looked back. "It's not too small."
"I think something's wrong with it. It's too old. Or, I don't understand the gears. Sorry!" I chided myself, Bad, Bad American, can't ride a bike or handle a daytime stein.
"It's perfectly fine. My neighbor rides it all the time."
"I think maybe I'll just walk it awhile," I declared, my discomfort aiding my stubbornness.
"Look, we'll switch bikes for a bit, and I'll show you that your bike is perfectly fine. Here, take mine. But, be careful. It's a very nice bike."
"Oh thank you!"
He looked immediately regretful and repeated, "Just for a bit."
Climbing onto his fancy bike was like slipping into a Ferrari after riding around in a Twingo.
"It's perfectly fine!" He shouted for the third time, and he took off with more force and vigor than before, clearly determined to show me how trusty the bike was. He looked just as awkward as I must have, with his knees splayed out to the sides.
Meanwhile, I liked the feeling of my new tall ride. Yes, this was much better.
He pedaled harder and harder, his hair flying. He was handling the pathetic bike as if it were a suped-up dirt bike in a road race. Ahead of us I saw a small hill, and he gunned it, standing up to full height on the pedals, his butt in the air, flying over the hill.
Then, in midair, the bike seemed to explode. A chain flew in one direction, random pieces of metal in another. The moment of the bicycle's last shattering paroxysm seemed to swell, the rider bucked off, until they both crashed down to the ground in a dusty heap.
I did not know how to say "I told you so" in German.
We cut short our tour of Munich's English Garden on that fine day. I relinquished his nice bike, and he rode slowly home beside me as I walked back the mangled remains of the other.