There are dozens of highway memorials along the roads we have taken across Canada, fading memories to those who have died in crashes along the way. In some cases, the locations of these mishaps seem so benign, the tragedies are inexplicable. One often wonders, how could someone lose control at this place?
Bicyclists are given pause every time they pass one of these memorials because we feel so vulnerable. We are not surrounded by two tonnes of steel, we don’t have airbags or computerized crash avoidance technology. All we have are rear view mirrors, helmets and our wits.
If it were just up to us, no cyclist would get hurt on the road. Because the potential consequences are so high, we are meticulous about checking and double-checking before we make a move. We work hard to ensure no driver is caught by surprise by anything we do.
There are, however, two circumstances in particular that are beyond our control: the road itself and the drivers who travel on those roads.
This has been top of mind as we made our way over the top of Lake Superior. It is a part of the cross-Canada tour that is at once among the most scenic, most physically challenging and in some cases also the most dangerous. In the particular, there are sections between Thunder Bay and Nipigon that feel like death traps.
Much of the road between those two communities is two-lane, and absent of shoulders for bicyclists to ride on. That means cyclists have to sort of balance on the white line at the edge of the road, hoping that passing motorists will give them respectful space. The shoulders are typically loose gravel that could send a bike out of control.
The other bad thing about this section of Highway 17 is the bridges. Many of them are extremely narrow, with no room of any sort beyond the payment. It’s on one of these bridges that I had the biggest scare of our cross-Canada ride.
I saw oncoming traffic as I approached this particular bridge, but carried on because there were no cars behind me. About the mid-point of the bridge, however, one of the oncoming cars pulled out to pass the traffic, even though it was on a double line. I looked up and saw a dark red Charger in my lane coming right at me. Had there been a gravel shoulder, I would have taken it, but I had nowhere to go.
The driver of that car must’ve seen me in my bright clothing but, instead of pulling back in, he continued on coming right at me. I had no option but to get as close to the side the bridge as I could and hope it would be enough.
The Charger missed me by inches and within seconds was gone. Behind me, the other members of the ConnecTour team had seen the situation developing and stopped before entering the bridge. Once past the bridge, I stopped to compose myself and let the others catch up.
Reflecting on this close call, I concluded that there is no doubt the road is not designed for safe cycling. I also concluded, however, that the biggest danger wasn’t the road, but rather some of the drivers. There is no way that driver should have been passing anyone on that bridge, and it is almost criminally irresponsible that he carried on when he saw me there.
After this experience, we agreed none of us will enter a narrow bridge if there is traffic coming from either direction.
In a previous blog, I commended the drivers of Saskatchewan who are almost universally considerate and respectful of cyclists. I can’t say the same for motorists in Ontario. Yes, some do slow down and give us a full lane when passing. Large transport trucks, by the way, are the among the most courteous. Others, however, seem to treat us like we have no right to be there. Worse, they are content to play Russian roulette with our fate.
Damn those people. I wish they could see the world from a bicycle seat. Perhaps it would make them reconsider their recklessness.
Curiously, I discovered that when you stick an object out to your left drivers give you more room. I am now riding with a bright orange flag sticking 50 centimetres into the lane. Drivers give us a wider berth because, apparently, they don’t want their cars to get scratched.
Much of the rest of Highway 17 now has beautifully paved and roomy shoulders. It is a joy to ride. If only the government could find as easy a solution to those reckless bastards who are toying with our lives.
The ConnecTour crew has arrived in Wawa, ON, and is heading into the last challenging section of northern Ontario, along the stunning Lake Superior to Sault Ste. Marie. Watch for more adventures from the road.