Something creepy happened this past weekend.
I went for my first group ride of the year over the weekend. It was a gathering sponsored by Women Bike / BTA Oregon. It was a ride to helpwomen become more comfortable in winter weather. Lauren from Portland Pogies was there showing her wonderful hand warming bar mitts, pretty awesome.
We cruised down the Springwater Corridor at a conversational pace, looped around in Sellwood and then headed back. Most of the group opted to go to and grab lunch, but I decided to say goodbye and head north to accommodate the rest of my plans for the day.
I cruised up the Esplanade for about a mile or so from where we split off. The day was beautiful. Absolutely majestic. I decided to stop at some empty benches on a platform near the Burnside Bridge, overlooking the Willamette River to have a kind-bar-and-banana snack with a great view of the White Stag / Portland, Oregon sign. I communicated with my partner, and posted some content on Snapchat while I was waiting for her reply.
The Esplanade passes along behind these benches. I usually don’t like sitting with my back turned to anything. In a restaurant, I like to see the door. My family says that’s an Italian thing. Maybe there’s something to the idea that trauma can be inherited in your DNA. But, I was feeling great, and on a well-traveled path such as the Eastbank Esplanade, in the light of a late morning in January that felt like Springtime, I was just enjoying life.
For the first time I saw a benefit to my perpetual distraction and maybe-genetic-paranoia: I turned my head and saw a man walking across the platform (south-to-north) behind me. We made eye contact, but he kept walking. A lot of folks on the EE at that time of day are often joggers or cyclists in athletic gear – but not everybody, there’s lots of folks from all walks of life, including people who are part of Portland’s rather large homeless community. This guy was non-descript, he didn’t look like he belonged to either camp. I didn’t think much of it. People look at people.
Maybe it was joggers that got my attention, or maybe it was a cyclist but when I turned my head again the man was walking up from the other direction (north-to-south) with his eyes trained on me.
I feel very lucky that the pair of joggers or the cyclist, maybe it was all of the above, which got my attention had actually gone in between us, and I think that moment was significantly in my favor.
He had circled back, and it looked like he had something in his hand, and it didn’t look like a phone. It looked thin and blue, and my instinct tells me it was a knife handle. I can’t be sure, but I knew in that moment, with my iPhone in my hand and my nice bike leaning against the railing, that I had to get out of there quickly.
My pannier was still attached to the rear rack on my bike, I threw the banana peel and wrapper, phone, everything right into the open pannier, and in the same motion pulled my bike away from the railing, spinning deftly on the rear wheel, slinging my leg over the top tube, and pushing off down the ramp.
I flew down the ramp quickly, thankful of gravity working with me on this one, when I got far enough that I felt like I was a minimum safe distance I dismounted and looked back.
I was scared.
It’s not often that I get scared like that. In fact I’d say it’s pretty rare, but I was really freaked out and if you believe in instinct and you believe in the Spidey senses that we have within our guts, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. I re-situated my things, closed up in my pannier, communicated with home and was back on my way up to North Portland.
But it made me think about personal safety in a way that I haven’t in quite a while due to the privilege of being of a larger build and gender-non-conforming presentation. Typically I look less like someone a dude would choose to victimize.
Here are four things to think about in relation to your personal safety when you’re riding solo:
Bike Handling & Exit Strategy
How quickly can you mount your bike? Is it easier to approach from one side or the other? For me, it’s easier to mount the bike with my left hand on the bar, swinging my right leg over. I’m awkward the other way around. I’m thankful that I leaned my bike in a manner that I was able to swiftly mount it and fly away. I didn’t think about, but I’m glad it worked out this way, and I’ll think about this intentionally in the future.
Did you know that your bike can be used as a shield or a weapon? Some people carry pepper spray or mace, but it’s legality is different from state-to-state, and if you’re fumbling, or there’s a breeze, you could be in serious trouble. This article seems like it’s goofing on some told school self-defense tactics against, but the idea of using your bike as a shield or a weapon is legit. Take some time to understand and most importantly practice how you can use your bike for protection.
Be Aware & Trust Your Instinct
It is so easy for people, especially the generation below mine, to be stuck in the phone and solely focus on that screen 1-foot away from your face, but there is a whole 360* world out there around you. Awareness is key. Put the phone down, learn to look at peoples faces, eyes, and hands. The more you practice this, the more you will develop your instinct.
Also, don’t feel bad about feeling unsafe or creeped out by someone. We have THOUSANDS of years of intuition baked into our cells, don’t let the politically correct movement – which is important and has a crucial place in dismantling systemic racism in progressive society – convince you that your instinct is wrong and you’re obligated to wait and find out if someone is out to harm you. Fuck that. Take care of yourself.
Captain Obvious says: If you’re going out solo, tell your family, roommates, or close friend your estimated route and how long you think you’ll be out, and check in with them along the way or when you arrive.
Did you know that you can share your locationvia your smartphone? This service is available on both the iPhone and Android. Share your location with your family or other interested parties and they can keep an eye on you. I’m now in the habit of sharing my location to my partner when I go out into the world.
I didn’t do this, and I should have. I should have called Portland Police to report the incident. I also wanted to report it via social media for others in the area to be on the look out. It’s possible if this guy was looking for a victim, that I could help prevent him finding one unaware, but honestly I was afraid of being called racist. To be clear, my guts would have reacted to any dude of any skin color in exactly the same manner. I realize now that at an absolute minimum I should have contacted the police, and I urge you to act where I have failed.
Question: How safe, or unsafe, do you feel on a bike? Why? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below and discuss.
*Quick note: Do you want to ride a bike but you’re hitting a roadblock? I’d love to hear what’s holding you back in this brief, 20-second survey. Survey is only open until Jan. 31. Your feedback would be awesome, and a big help.*