Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Driving As a Cyclist

Pickup Truck Reflections
Until last week I had not been behind the wheel of a car since 2007. But I knew this day would come - the day I would want to drive again. 

Over my years as a driver, the cars I've owned have always had automatic transmission - I never learned how to drive manual. When I mention this to an Irish friend, he shakes his head and roars with laughter. "Automatic!" He says it as if the word itself, used in relation to cars, is amusing in its absurdity. "Automatic?! Okay, so you never learned to drive properly in the first place. Well come on - I'll learn ya!"

And just like that, I am in the driver's seat. I feel ready for this, looking forward not only to being behind the wheel after such a long time, but specifically to trying the manual gear-shifting. And the funny thing is - this enthusiasm comes from being a cyclist, not in spite of it. 

The 8 mile stretch of Benone Beach is like an unpaved extension of the road. Cautiously I maneuver the rickety Saab along the sand, my left hand on the gear shift knob, my senses heightened, trying to listen to the engine's sounds and feel the give in the clutch.

Things do not go as badly as I thought they might. I am not stalling out. I press the correct pedals. My hand is getting used to the positions of the gears, so that I can shift without looking. Operating the gear box makes sense, having gotten used to the concept and feel of gears on the bike. When the gear is too high, the car makes a straining noise - not unlike a cyclist grinding along at a painfully low cadence. When the gear is too low, the car feels as if it is spinning out, unable to pick up speed efficiently. It is not a perfect analogy by any means, but it is just enough to make sense. And I can feel that with some practice this will become intuitive.

I think of driving now differently than I did 5 years ago. Cycling is a very physical activity, and it has made me more viscerally aware of the mechanics involved in operating a vehicle. I think of driving as a serious skill, rather than a perfunctory action. When in the passenger's seat I now find myself more aware of the driver's technique and degree of control under different road surface conditions and speeds. Having worked so hard to learn how to handle my bike on winding mountain roads, I appreciate the handling skills involved in operating all vehicles - be they motorcycles, tractors or cars. Some of the people I know here are extremely skilled drivers, and I must admit that riding with them is exciting. I am impressed with the smoothness and precision with which they operate their complicated, heavy 4-wheel motorised vehicles. And if I do drive myself, I aspire to aim for the same degree of proficiency.

33 comments:

  1. Amen to that!

    If you at all warm to the notion of sporting driving, I would highly recommend a Skip Barber or similar car control course. Or even some time at F1 Boston in Braintree. I love my bikes, but I get just as much joy out of my car. Not an appliance in the lot.

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  2. "In United States a manual transmission is your car's best anti-theft device."

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  3. When I owned cars, they all were manual. Certainly agree shifting gears leads to enhanced driver involvement.

    My appreciation for personal automobile use since returning to cycling as an adult is the mirror opposite of yours, however.

    Riding a bike makes me only to aware of the obscene amount of resources poured into making a single automobile, fueling it, not to mention the massive amount of resources devoted to driving, parking and storage infrastructure. In a world of decreasing resources I just cannot understand why we tolerate such an awful, inefficient and terribly primitive waste.

    As much damage as auto-centric lifestyle wreaks on sprawling, relatively sparsely populated U.S. things are only so much worse in crowded Europe and Asia.

    When I travel in Rome I stay at a friend's flat near Via del Corso. The transformation of the street in the evening when vehicular traffic is closed off is simply remarkable.

    I fear I am well ahead of the times. Auto use even in crowded horridly polluted China continues to grow geometrically.

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    1. Ditto! The more I cycle for transportation in addition to recreation and racing, the less time I want to spend in a car and the more conscious I am about the waistfullness (pun intended) of autocentricity.

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  4. I also never learned manual, and the only, ONLY thing that interests me in doing so is the enthusiasm for and sensitivity to friction shifting that i have acquired over the years.

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  5. You were definitely not developing torque.

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    1. BTW learning how to spin the engine while the clutch is in is equivalent to standing on a bike.

      Uh... better not do that in the Saab tho...

      Where's Spin...

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  6. When I had my (err, first) learner's permit, my dad took me out to practice driving. I remember him gently pointing out that in a car you do not need to lean into turns or lift yourself out of the seat when you go over a pothole.
    Although I had three learners permits that I barely used, I never did actually get around to getting a license though, I just couldn't be bothered to follow through with it. Maybe someday... :P

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    1. Conversely riding has somewhat screwed up my ability to use the opposite bolster.

      Such is life.

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    1. Saabs too get old and rickety; plus I meant that endearingly

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    2. ah, this one looks neither...but it does look fun to drive, though it be hard to learn to shift with the left hand. are the gas, brake and clutch pedals also reversed?

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  8. I've not owned a car for 10 years but recently bought a Mini Cooper Countryman. The Countryman has available a specially made bike rack and I picked mine up yesterday. Is it ever great. In typical Mini fashion, it is designed out the wazoo. They really didn't miss a thing. Thrilled with it. Definitely a car to consider for cyclists.

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    1. couple of weekends ago I tagged along with a friend to a vintage Mini convention that you might have enjoyed! - it was not to be believed (check out this pickup truck!)

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    2. That is great. Wouldn't need the rack if I'd gotten that model.

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    3. Both are fun but they have as much in common with each other as a Seven and Raleigh Sport.

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  9. OK, well, it sounds like you're now ready to learn how to double-clutch! The Irish roads have got to be a perfect raining ground for that...

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  10. Manual transmission - is that what you yanks call a stick shift? Not sure what I'd do with my left hand if it wasn't there.

    I like to think that bike riders, pedal or motor, are safer car drivers, if not 'better' ones, if only because of the habit of only going where their own eyes tell them there isn't something already there and their more honed appreciation of their own mortality but I can't back that up with statistics

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  11. I never learned how to drive standard either. My sister did only because she was given a standard car and had to figure out how to drive it. The technical aspect scares me as does the possibility of wrecking someone' drive shaft thing! My mom came to visit and rented a car so 12 days with a car. It was nice to go to some places I never get to, and swim in my favourite lake that would take four hours to bike to. I do enjoy drivin in the country on technical terrain, long distances. I loved the bmw I had for a couple of years. it's a bit of a guilty pleasure given my environmental stance! Given the pollution, the waste of resources etc I am not keen to get into vehicle ownership unless I can afford it and find an older diesel vehicle I can run recycled fry oil or straight canola on!
    I was always a careful driver, took it very seriously and did not get my licence as soon as I was 16 as was tradition because I knew at that point I would never have enough access to a vehicle to practice and learn. I knew to ALWAYS keep my eyes on the road, not get distracted, not pay too much attention to blethering passengers. My duty as driver requires that I be on the look out for anything out of the ordinary, pay attention to pedestrians, cyclists, animals etc.. As a life long cyclist I was very aware of giving cyclists space. After my car accident years ago(I was a passenger), I was terrified, absolutely terrified of being in vehicles, thought I'd never drive again. But I took some serious driving training and forced myself to drive all over north america. Although after a few years of road trips I was still scared. I only owned a car for a few short years and only drive a bit here and there once every year or two years anymore. For me driving a vehicle requires the upmost care and attention. I will not get into cars with most people and is also why I prefer to bike most times. Even the bus can be nerve wracking for me.
    One thing I noticed while driving the last week is that cyclists need to be aware of what they are doing too. The highway in my area is very twisty and narrow. The shoulder isn't great, lots of gravel, but I have always been careful biking on this highway, slowing down at gravelly patches and staying as far away from the road as possible. I recently encountered many guys on road bikes who insisted on holding their position on the road, even when it is unsafe. Because I am a cyclist I just slowed down and gave them room, but with impatient people tailgating me, it could be heart in mouth. I would never assume that most drivers will slow down and give me, the cyclist space on a highway road. Please take care.

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  12. Yes, by all means learn to drive a clutch -- I think it makes you pay more attention to what you are doing, as you seem to be inclined to do. I am appalled at the casual ineptitude of so many American drivers and I believe we make it far too easy to get a license and take driving far too much for granted.

    That said, as I rapidly spin toward senility and decrepitude, I must say that I appreciate automatics for the convenience in the sort of clogged, stop-and-go traffic that infuriates me (I am much calmer on a bike) where a clutch and stick would simply add to the annoyance.

    OTOH, one of the most enjoyable cars I drove recently was a briefly owned 1984 Citroen Acadiane, a small van based, basically, on the famous 2CV. 602 cc horizontally opposed air cooled boxer, 29 hp, four-on-the-dash shifting -- supine "L" -shaped gear shift lever that you pulled/twisted to shift; wonderfully easy to shift between the most-used 3d and 4th to stay happily cruising between 50 and 60 mph: just in and out (60 was close to the top speed, though I once hit 75 on a long flat with a tailwind). 1750 lb, 1100 lb load capacity, carried 4 un-disassembled bikes alternated back/front in the high, boxy, rear compartment -- even carried my 58 cm Ken Rogers BRT without removing the seatpost or wheels. Very like this but alas unrestored: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrHBW_bz1pY

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  13. Perhaps the most telling line in your interesting post: "I think of driving as a serious skill, rather than a perfunctory action." I had been an avid cyclist from around the time I started primary school. And as you suggest, that led me naturally into taking to "driving as a serious skill". (Perhaps related to that, I have always owned manual transmission cars - and friction shifting derailleurs.)
    Don't you wish all drivers had such regard for the task? Wouldn't it be safer for those of us on bicycles? Or on foot, maybe on our way to the bus stop? A young English woman I met told me that long before she was old enough to drive herself, she knew that the worst thing a driver could do was to endanger the more vulnerable pedestrian or cyclist.
    Mathew J. is right on target with his comment about the obscene waste of our car-centric transportation and city planning. I have had much enjoyment from motoring, but that is just why I look forward to their use for recreation, not dependence for daily transportation. Bikes for transport, cars for recreation!

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  14. As an aside, south of the border the bicycle is making a comeback gradually as a mode of transport in Dublin. An number of new and interesting businesses have emerged out of this. Here are two very different examples - http://www.georgiaindublin.com/ and http://www.rothar.ie/ On the research and analysis, http://cyclingindublin.com/ is worth a look too.
    I recently returned to cycling as a convenient way of getting about the city after a number of minor fractures and injuries over the last few years. As a younger man, I used do a bit touring at home and in northern Europe. So I got the 20 year old hybrid fixed up and dusted down the neglected less old Brompton. I forgot about the freedom that bicycle gives you in a city. Hardly used the car or bus recently.
    Enjoying your refreshing and very informative blog Velouria.

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  15. Yes, driving is a serious skill.

    I drive a manual, or stick, and never owned an automatic but they are getting increasingly rare in the US. I heard only 15% of cars sold in 2001, when I bought my last car, had manual transmissions.

    I do liken shifting a bike to shifting in a car. Badly timed shifting has similar short term effects.

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  16. Everyone on this blog knows I love cars(and Planes and Fire-engines and Off-Shore Powerboats and lawnmowers with aircraft engines and all sorts of loud shiny stuff) with a white hot intensity that makes me say and do stupid things. So thanks for the opportunity to "share" some more.

    Manual transmissions are analogous to so many other things that make us concentrate a bit on the things we do, friction shift bikes, film photography, tail-dragger airplanes, or lace-up shoes(for some of us). If you have the time and surplus mental brain function to indulge in them they can add a bit of interest and fun to something that can otherwise become mundane and dreary.

    Modern cars leave you cold and feeling like they just want you to shut up and do what it tells you to? Do you resent that as much as me?(Hmmm. "as much as I do" I mean, I don't want to know how much you resent me actually) Find some old fart with a T or A model Ford and ask them to teach you how to drive it. Man, the satisfaction that comes from getting in sync with something like that. It'll makes your fixie seem a bit less magical, I promise. They seem belligerent and slow til you catch on and then they suddenly become like (I said LIKE) a living thing that rewards intimacy with co-operation and enthusiasm. Maybe like a Horse or something without the sweat, the farting and the back-biting(though I know some old Fords that should be avoided because of all of those). As old cars become less old, they get "better" and less lively but any old car will give you some of this. I love it. I've seen a 81 year old man climb a Model T 6 feet up a giant Sycamore on his farm that he first climbed when he was about 15 and it was merely a big Sycamore, both he and the Ford were giggling like idiots the whole time. Bet it didn't feel "slow" or "boring" going up the side of that tree. Try that with your Prius( really, try that with your Prius, please. Take pictures). Anyway, I betcha' anybody who can control a machine well enough to do that would be a better driver in modern penalty box cars than someone who merely operates them.

    As far as all the Haters who want to equate cars with all the evil in the world, I get it, I'm conflicted about some of it too but to say all cars gotta' go is like saying Sex is stupid and something we should get over because of overpopulation, the exploitation of Human Beings and all the other bad things that come along with it. I promise to behave well enough not to make your life worse but I'm still going to screw around with (and in if I get a chance)cars till they stop being interesting.

    Spindizzy



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    1. I sometimes get mistaken for a car-hater but that's not the case, I'm an ardent petrolhead who's loved cars from a very early age and likely always will.

      What I do think though is that we are misusing them. To extend your analogy, sex is a great hobby and a delightful way to spend the weekend but do it on your commute to work and I'll complain. Especially if you are doing it solo...

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  17. I've always owned stick shifts. In normal driving conditions I don't think my skills are superior to automatic drivers. Snow and iced covered roads are a different situation. I love being able to downshift as opposed to breaking.

    People who can successfully drive rear wheeled vehicles in the winter amaze me.

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    1. Check out any racing sanctioning body where front wheel drive cars and rear wheel drive cars compete on the same course, Drag racing, circle track, autocross, dirt and snow Rallies, Whatever, the rear wheel drive cars are always faster(with a few interesting exceptions that pertain to ultra-light weight rather than power/configuration), for the same power/weight. Partly because they are EASIER to drive than FWD. You also aren't just a passenger when tires start to slide like in front wheel drive cars where you just have to give up till they slow down enough to start gripping again and let steer again. You just have to learn to drive em'. Most people have learned to drive in FWD cars for 30 years now.

      It's easier to get a FWD car moving in the snow and ice than RWD but once over a crawl it's all advantage to the rear wheel drive car, (if it's not a piece of crap obviously(not to say there aren't any neat FWD cars out there(I really miss my old VW Sirocco for instance))).

      Spindizzy

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  18. Love my car, love my bike. Diversity! Only downside is that my main car doesn't have a stick. Driving manual is tons more fun, not to mention safer if you know what you're doing.

    Wish I had a sticker that said "My other Soma is a Charger," and another one that said "My other car is a Soma."

    One other thing: I thought I was a fairly careful driver but I definitely became more mindful of bikers after I got back into it in middle age. Seems like the shared-space culture benefits from more bikers driving, not fewer.

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  19. Cycling has made me a far better driver. And driving reminds me of how much more fun cycling is.

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  20. Always have driven a stick (first was "three on the tree"), which got me truck driving job in high school and bus driving job in college. Both paid better than average for p.t. work. Taught my kids to do same.

    A good thing about sticks is ability to power up with a small engine by staying in lower gear longer and the nice feeling of control when downshifting on turns. I like to be driving the car; I think using a stick makes one more alert, as one has to be more engaged when driving with a stick. My clutch has 152k miles - a bit worn but still in there and when I eventually have to fix it, it will cost much less than fixing an automatic transmission.

    And, with seats folded down, it fits my bike.

    On a related note, it is important to experience bicyclists as motorists do. I spend far more time biking than driving and when I do the latter and drive past cyclists, it can be revelatory to get the motorist's perspective. I wish most motorists would try biking, if only for the same reason.

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  21. You didn't mention that in Ireland as in most of europe "driving a stick shift" isn't some separate weird alien thing like it is in the US, it is simply "driving" , automatic transmissions are practically non-existent. Someone said that about only 15% of cars in the US had a manual transmission, over here it is probably about the opposite

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  22. Driving manual transmission is like an art, the car talks to you and you respond to its every need through changing gear and balancing between brake, clutch and accelerator. Much like cycling, with manual transmission you are one to one with the machine. Since moving to Toronto from the UK most cars here are automatic, yawn.........

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