CYCLING IS a source of multisensory pleasures: the crisp diamond-on-fire fragrance of autumn leaves, the melodies of birds, the soft peach radiance of early morning sunlight on grass in seed… Then there are the less pleasant sensory influences: the searing scents of burning trash, the ragged horizon line left by clearcuts, and that most dreadful of summertime road noises, the screamers.
A phenomenon of warm weather, increased visitation, and youthful high spirits without the benefit of complete myelination of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that gives us insight and good judgment), the screamer is a motor-vehicle passenger who sees a cyclist ahead and thinks it’s the height of
hilarity to roll down his or her window and yell. I don’t know what goes on in the swampland of these individuals’ brains—they probably think putting toothpaste on the toilet seat for midnight pit stops will impress a new partner—but their high-decibel hijinks are startling and can cause accidents.
The screamers usually zoom by too fast for me to hear what they’re shouting, but as far as I can tell, many of them just scream incoherently—sound and fury, signifying nothing. Occasionally, someone vents his or her rage at having to share the road with me by exhorting me to perform acts impos- sible with a human anatomy and while on a bike. Mostly the goal seems to be to shock the hell out of me and cause me to land in a ditch.
There’s no defense against screamers except to be aware of the situations that attract them: hot-weather weekends when people from inland want to cool off at the coast, any activity happening in the region that attracts the incompletely myelinated members of the community (such as Fourth of July fireworks: why pass up an opportunity to watch things explode?), and the traffic congestion that tends to arise at these times. Screamers often bleat out their battle cry when moving slowly enough for them to be heard, yet not so slowly that you can catch up to them and exchange choice words. The more frustrated people get at being stuck in traffic (and watching a cyclist breeze by next to them), the more likely these delightful individuals are to take it out on the handy target.
With all of this in mind, keep alert to vehicles that come close to the shoulder so they can fire off their verbal missiles, as well as for erratic, speedy driving and the other lapses in judgment common to Homo screamaticus. These folks are probably already tailgating the elder in the land yacht in front of them, brawling over the choice of radio stations, and tossing beer cans onto the shoulder. If you see that kind of thoughtless stuff happening in your rear-view mirror, brace yourself for potential misbehavior toward you.
Should an approaching driver bellow at you, try not to let your alarm translate into movement until they’re past so you don’t end up in a car’s path or a culvert. Then you can defuse the startlement by doing what animals do when they escape a frightening situation: shake off and do a little screaming of your own (as long as this doesn’t endanger you). Alas, as long as there are obnoxious people, there will be screamers, but you can protect yourself from being injured by staying alert to approaching vehicles and keeping in control of your own, even as your temper flares at this nasty act.
Then again, maybe you can toss at them the myelin they so desperately need.