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Close call shows how hard biking to work can be

It was the perfect evening for a quick bike ride after work: sunny and cool, with a gentle breeze to keep the gnats from gathering in vibrating balls that leave little insect parts plastered on your face when you ride through.

I'm not the most coordinated of bicyclists, either in clothing or skill. There is no Spandex or chartreuse in my closet, and I don't have a Specialized, Cannondale or GT logo on my jacket or a T-shirt that says "Gutter Bunny." I'm one step up from a DUII case: street clothes, but with a helmet.

If you see a rider wobbling in the bike lane, trying with some difficulty to stay within the lines even on a straight stretch, that'll be me. Once, when I thought I'd built up enough confidence to jump a curb, I found myself with a dent in my pink helmet and a chain tattoo on my leg.

So it's not my first inclination to climb on two skinny wheels and ride on Medford streets after slogging through a 10-hour workday. I'd rather just plop on the couch and eat Doritos. But it was the start of Bike to Work Week (a dubious concept in Medford, really, when you consider the ratio of bike lanes to big trucks). I wasn't biking to work, but I felt a kindred spirit.

The whole purpose of Bike to Work Week is to promote cycling as a healthy, environmentally friendly way to get around, and to raise awareness among drivers to be careful when sharing the road with cyclists. I was being healthy, friendly and helpful.

I hopped on my trusty, mismatched steed and rode up my short little street to its intersection with Delta Waters, which turns into a speedway when school lets out and the flashing lights turn off. I waited as cars flew by for a chance to turn left onto the road, ride up two blocks, then exit into a quiet neighborhood street to wobble at leisure without fear of speeding cars or moving curbs.

Then a van turned onto my street.

It was making a sharp turn, but I thought surely the woman driver would see me and correct her angle accordingly. I was in a bright blue windbreaker and dorky pink helmet on a bike at the top of the lane, in plain view.

The van started turning even sharper.

What the? Is she trying to kill me?

"Hey, hey, HEY," I screamed.

The van loomed toward me, its flank about to collide with my left side. I dragged my bike to the right just in time to miss the van's back tire.

"HEY!" I screamed again.

The van stopped. The woman raised her arms in disbelief as if I were the idiot. Then she drove on, apparently satisfied she'd made her point.

My neighbor, who was mowing his lawn, confirmed I was not to blame.

"This is a very dangerous corner," he said, and went back to mowing.

I know cycling can be a risky business. We write about cars colliding with riders every year. But stopped on my own street, barely 50 feet from my own home?

The utter vulnerability of cyclists sunk in deeper than ever before. I'm not sure what else I could've done to make myself visible to that woman, who likely was either on a cell phone, screaming at her child or just wanting to get home after a bad day and plop on the couch with a big bowl of Doritos. I could only hope that maybe, in the quiet of night, she realized what she'd almost done and will be more careful next time.

I wobbled on, grateful to be alive with all parts intact.

Cathy Noah is city editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 776-4473 or cnoah@mailtribune.com.