April 25, 2008

Blinded by the bike light.

The snow has melted enough for me to dig my bike out from under the deck and, judging by the swarms of other cyclists on the roads, I'm not the only one who's happy to be on two wheels again.  

I'm not much of a road biker.  I don't like it when cars whip by me at 100 km/h, kicking up rocks and dust and belching exhaust.  I don't think Nanuq likes it much either.  For that reason, we tend to stick to the trails and seldom-used dirt roads.

Since there's still snow in the trees, I wait until late evening when things cool off and the ground freezes again.  Riding on a nice  hard layer of crusty snow is so much easier than riding through slush.  Last night, other than a few large icy puddles, the riding conditions were perfect.

Because I left so late, it got dark while we were out riding (the sun sets at 21:46, but it stays light for a good while afterwards).  I turned on my bike's headlight, which is not something that I would normally do.  I've got good night vision but I figured, "I've got the light, I might as well use it."

I turned off the trails and onto a dirt road.  Riding downhill, I was now moving at a good speed.  I focussed on the spot of light ahead of my bike, looking for potholes and ruts.  Suddenly, a small discrepancy in the pattern light shining on the road appeared.

My brain fired quickly.  It didn't know what it was, but it knew enough to realise that it was dangerous.  Simultaneously, it asked what the object was and gave the command to my hands to apply the brakes, hard and fast.  My brain answered the question before it was even finished being asked - it was the chainlink gate they erected to block off the road back in the Fall.  The gate, which had been open the last time I saw it, was now closed again.  It barely showed in the bike light because the wire of the chainlink didn't offer much of a surface for the light to shine on.  As that answer was being given, my brain registered that my front brake had failed from the quick application of force.  The fence was less than my body length away and I was still moving at a fast pace.  I was going to collide with the fence.

Rather than give in to what seemed like the inevitable, my brain, like it often does, decided that defeat wasn't an option1.  I turned the front wheel to the right and attempted to kick out my back tire, aware that this action could still send me flying off my bike and into the gate with the bike following right behind.  I was also aware that it was still going to be better than hitting the gate head-on.

The desperate maneuver worked, and I stopped a mere inch from the gate.

All of this happened in the course of a few seconds.  Afterwards, I realised that I had been lulled into a false sense of security by my bike light.

If I'm walking in the bush in the dark, I never, ever, use a light.  Why?  Because it ruins my night vision and limits my field of view.  Instead of being able to see a little bit of everything, one can only see a clear, small patch of brightness when using a light.  In relation to the bright patch, everything else becomes dark and practically invisible - but that doesn't make everything hiding outside of the light any less important.

I guess this applies to a lot of things.  We live in a world of such specialization that I am hard pressed to think of any recent discussions (in person and in the media) where people are looking at and attempting to address the bigger picture.  Instead, everyone wants to focus in on little bits.  But aren't solutions that are developed using a small field of view less likely to be real, useful solutions?  Something akin to stopping to tie ones shoelace in the middle of a battle?

As for me, unless I'm biking on a road that has car traffic, I'm going to go back to biking without my light on and focussing on the bigger picture.

1 My brain dislikes defeat so much, that you can only find them at the opposite end of my body - sorry, a lame pun but I couldn't help it.

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