Sexism, Gender Bias, or… Chivalry?

How and why menacing motorists heckle female vs. male cyclists – or not.

“Don’t you know that it’s different for girls?”

Harassment or heckling of cyclists by manic motorists on the roads of the world is a hot and seemingly inexhaustible topic in the cycling community.  Tragically, a number of these encounters result in injury or death of the cyclist.  For most, thankfully, the result of car vs. bike is more often an emotionally frustrating experience that drains a blissful bike ride of all its inherent joy.  The concerning part of that equation – and the reason why we all get in such a lather over these merely verbal taunts – is that any time an angry motorist veers toward a cyclist the potential for tragic physical injury is clear and present.  Any driving instructor will caution you that all but experienced stunt drivers will automatically and gradually point the car toward whatever the driver is looking at.  Essentially, if a driver’s attention is focused on you, he or she is going to get too close whether or not their intention was to endanger you… even if that attention is considered generally “positive”.  And that is where my perspective comes in.

I have been riding bikes for…  a long time.  I have been reading the accounts, blogs and articles concerning harassment, written almost exclusively by men, in the cycling community with increasing puzzlement.  I’ve been pondering this issue out on the pavement for some months, as car after car gives me a gracious and WIDE berth on the quiet, rural roads I’ve been riding on of late.  I think back at the seeming lack of negative encounters I’ve had even on urban and suburban routes.  Sure, I’ve been passed too close, but rarely has it seemed intentional rather than absent-minded.  The only menacing taunts I’ve ever received have been from rambunctious children in the backseat of SUVs screaming “Ride like Lance!” “Boo!’ or some other silliness.  It makes me jump out of my skin sometimes but it doesn’t oppress my soul or destroy my bike buzz.

I have been cat-called, wolf whistled and AAA-WOOed.  Like most cyclists of any age I pack fabulous back and men often voice their approval.  No harm, no foul.  There have been a few, very few, encounters that have gotten ugly.  Muscle cars with tinted windows have cruised me, passing and circling the block until I finally pull into the driveway of a lighted house or business and wait for them to lose interest.  It’s the silent ones who are really terrifying.  The worst by far are the three instances in which some moronic driver in an open car pulled up alongside me and cheered his moronic passenger on as he reached for a handful of my ass – this is a compliment no woman needs.  Ladies, if this ever occurs to you get the license plate number, stop as soon as it’s safe and call the police.  Grabbing someone’s ass without their consent is called sexual battery and when it’s done from a moving vehicle it’s a felony.  If the halfwit succeeds in his stunt with you, egged on by his bros, guaranteed he’ll keep doing it until some unlucky, nerve-wrecked girl wobbles and goes “crunch” under his wheels – when it becomes third degree murder.  Call the cops; they will take you seriously.  All three of my assailants and their drivers were caught and charged.  As unpleasant as that was, one knucklehead per decade is not that bad considering the frequency of ride-ruining run-ins with road-ragers that my male counterparts suffer through.  Are there more women out there fielding equal amounts of grief and they just aren’t writing as much?

For the most part my encounters with motorists are polite, complimentary or, overwhelmingly, blissfully non-existent.  So what’s up?  Do angry men behind the wheel recognize the curves and leave us be?  Does a guy pass me hurriedly only to see a fair face in his rear view (impinging on his right-hand turn) and think ‘oh, it’s a chick’ and cool his jets instead of yelling “Get out of my way, you stupid bitch!”?  Are men reluctant to scream at a woman in the street because they recognize it as a form of violence against women?  Do guys on bikes simply bring out the worst in guys driving cars?  Do men, already fuming over a bad day, think another bloke on a bike (protected only by a thin skin of lycra)  is a safe target on which to unload their angst, whereas hurling obscenities at a woman would just be Wrong?  Is it all ego and testosterone, rivalry versus chivalry?

I read a statistic that male cyclists killed by motorists outnumber females 7 to 1.  You could answer that simply by saying, ‘well, there are more men out there on bikes’.  Not that many more.  The majority of the men who were fatally injured were between the ages of 50 – 54, so you can’t say that it’s because men engage in riskier behavior.  What’s going on out there, boys and girls?

I think it’s a topic worthy of discussion.  Please weigh in!  Comments encouraged!