How fast is fast enough?

On a 25-mile bike trip through the center of Portland, I kept thinking about how fast is fast enough. These meditations were prompted by Dave Moulton’s recent blog on the virtues of slowing down, stopping, and losing momentum when the circumstances call for it. Dave tells of one San Francisco cyclist who didn’t do it. He hit a pedestrian who was crossing the street with a green light and she died of her injuries.

During my 40 years as an urban cyclist, I haven’t hit anyone whether they were walking, cycling, or driving. There have been close calls, and honesty requires confession. Often, I’m the one who was at fault, and the alertness of the other person was what prevented the impact. This despite the fact that as a general rule, I try to cycle according to the recognized rules of the road that motorists are supposed to follow.

So what causes hits and near misses? Dave’s answer is the cyclist’s desire not to lose momentum, to keep going at close to full speed regardless of the conditions. I recognize the tendency even though I know that I can’t keep up with younger, better-trained cyclists who zip past me. Riding home on Williams Avenue, I mingle with other cyclists. Here I am in fancy attire, riding an expensive bike, and some guy whistles past me even when he’s mounted on a knobby tired clunker, with single pannier tilting his bike a little to the left. You just can’t let that happen without challenge, can you?

Some cyclists don’t drive up the desire to keep up. Like one guy on this same trip through town who rode up onto the sidewalk back from the intersection to wait for the light to change. Anticipating the change he hit the pedals hard and virtually catapulted over the curb and bolted through the intersection as though he were the only person in the world.

Doing stupid stuff like that isn’t what gets me into trouble. Rather, it is pushing faster than I can manage while traveling through city streets. On this day’s ride, I realized that when cycling at a reasonable rate of speed, I’m in control of myself and of my bike. I can see and hear what’s happening all around me and take defensive actions as may be called for. Pushing to go beyond that speed, however, and I’m no longer in control. I can’t swing out of the way of trouble or stop. I miss the cues of what may be about to happen. I might not notice a stop sign coming up or a jaywalker, or a road hazard. That’s when trouble is likely to come.

How fast is the right speed? It will vary depending upon the cyclist. I think that the right speed is a percentage of what the same cyclist would be doing on the open road when going at the speed that he or she could keep up for hours. Maybe two-thirds to three-fourths of the road speed. On the open road, I ordinarily do 17 to 19 mph. In the city today, I seemed to be fully aware of everything when I was traveling at 12 to 15 mph.

Instead of covering the ten miles from home to downtown in 33 minutes, it is likely to take 40. The life I save may be my own—and that’s worth a lot more than seven minutes.

3 Responses to How fast is fast enough?

  1. eirenetheou says:

    Ah, the temptations of “speed.” . . .

    Ever since the invention of the wheel — one of those great, undocumented moments in human history — human beings have made wheeled vehicles to transport themselves and their burdens faster than they could walk or run, for longer journeys in time and space. For more than one of us, “speed” has been an end in itself.

    It is amusing and enlightening to see the confession of an elite “cyclist” who is challenged when “left behind” by a clapped-out “clunker.” i think of a Mustang left at the light by a Model A. That’s why some of us are hot rodders. Our competitive impulses aside, speed has many attractions for humankind, although many of Those From Whom God Is Receiving Daily Guidance disapprove of it. As always, such disapproval inflames our desire.

    i’ve never been able to ride a two-wheel vehicle of any kind, but speed on four wheels has been a passion for all my life. These days my two daily drivers are a 2000 Honda Insight and a 1949 Studebaker pickup. Neither of these vehicles could be said to be “fast” — one of them is built for economy and the other to bear burdens and pull stumps out of the ground. Yet, returning from a trip to California in May, i saw 100 miles per hour in the Insight out in New Mexico, while it was logging just over 60 miles per gallon on the same leg of the journey. That was a moment to be savored toward the end of a driving life.

    God’s Peace to you.


    • For a time I owned a 1995 Mazda RX7, purchased for $3,500 when it had 92,000 miles of previous use. I enjoyed the car although at almost all times within the posted speed limits. Its rotary engine provided smooth driving but it was difficult to keep running during Indiana winters and miles per gallon were modest. As we downsized, we sold the Mazda.
      On a Sunday at First Christian Church, Salem, Oregon, I talked with a deacon after worship who, it turned out, was a hot rodder. When I asked if some other kind of engine could be put in a Mazda of the kind I had previously owned, his face lighted up. With considerable animation, he described the Acura engine that would fit nicely in the old RX7s. “Put that engine in that car and you can go 200 miles an hour!”
      Even if it had been my desire to follow his lead, my wife who prefers to drive below the posted limits would have resisted mightily.
      Just once, when we lived in Arizona, the Mazda moved up close to the 100 mark on an open road with only coyotes (four-legged) to observe.

      • eirenetheou says:

        The Deacon was only exaggerating by about one-third, depending on which Acura engine he had in mind. . . . Installation of a conventional engine in place of the rotary would not be simple, but he, no doubt, would have enjoyed the process — and the result.

        The Wankel rotary in the RX-7 and later RX-8 is an interesting engine with an interesting history, but only NSU in Germany and Mazda in Japan have produced automobiles that employed it. The Wankel rotary is lightweight with very few moving parts. It offers smooth power with almost no limit to how many revolutions per minute, but not much torque at low speeds — which is what most people feel as “power” in a passenger vehicle. In production it has not been noted for fuel efficiency. Had you been given to the pleasures of speed — with the grudging approval of Supervision — then the RX-7 might have offered you some satisfaction as long as its rotary seals lasted.

        Still, on two wheels, you can waste an occasional Schwinn if the wind is right and find a little pleasure in a little speed. I’m sure you can outrun my Studebaker pickinuptruck until the overdrive kicks in.

        God’s Peace to you.


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