And that,” I told Oliver, “is what you call an asshole.”

Although my business card says “writer, printer, developer,” a more accurate description you could give to me, given my myriad pursuits, is “reverse engineer.”

My only skill, really, is being able to look at systems, understand their moving parts, and rearrange, reconfigure, adapt, interject, extend, explain.

By lucky happenstance this happens to be a good skill to have for helping to interpret the world to an autistic son: over my parenting years I’ve been able to help him understand complicated systems like “friendship” and “small talk” and “personal space.” Often, in helping him, I come to understand these systems more myself.

This summer the complicated system I’ve been helping him parse is bicycling, and today he leveled up more than once, sometimes on his own, and sometimes with my help:

  1. He figured out on his own that if he shifts in to 6th gear he can go really, really fast. But that this takes more effort and requires more frequent water breaks.
  2. He learned, with my help, that if you are approaching a stop sign it’s better to stop pedaling and slow down by coasting for a bit (as opposed to slamming on the breaks at the very last moment).
  3. He realized, at my urging, that it’s possible to cycle in the rain. At least light rain. And that you can dry your seat off with a paper towel to avoid getting a wet bum.

His final learning for the day came after we turned right from Sidney Street to Prince Street at the very end of our morning cycle. Prince Street is a busier street than most, and so I cycled along side him to be able to guide him in and to provide a little bit of a buffer between him and vehicle traffic. Shortly after we made the turn an SUV came along behind us and the driver got frustrated that he couldn’t pass us right away.

Philosophically I’m very much of the “the road belongs to bicycles and we allow other vehicles on as a courtesy” school, which, I realize, is not an approach shared by everyone.

But, still, we delayed this SUV by perhaps 5 to 10 seconds. And yet the driver decided that this was a good time to vent his frustration and lay on the horn.

And that,” I told Oliver, “is what you call an asshole.”

Assholes are an important thing to understand when learning about bicycling–and about the world in general–for they confound the understanding of systems as predictable. As such they are among the hardest of phenomena to explain and to understand: if we assume that everyone is an asshole, we’d never leave the house; if we assume that nobody is an asshole, then we’re in for trouble.

The best we can do is to cycle–and live–boldly, to greet adversity with love, to assert our right to take up the road, and, when things get really hairy, to retreat and let the assholes go on about their assholing.


Jarek's picture
Jarek on August 24, 2019 - 13:21 Permalink

Maybe Toronto drivers are more asshole-y than Island ones (actually make that "almost certainly") but I always get unnerved when I get honked at. Heart rate up, adrenaline in. There's just something very disturbing about someone controlling a 2 tonne block of steel being angry at you and angry enough to message it to the world. Just how far are they from running me down? It's hard to write it off as only "oh it's just an asshole" when it's an asshole that can very easily maim me.

Not to mention the impact on 8-80 streets. Do you want your grandma to be honked at for having the temerity of existing in front of someone? Sigh.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on August 24, 2019 - 13:25 Permalink

I had never heard the term “8-80 streets” — what a great concept:

We believe that if everything we do in our cities is great for an 8 year old and an 80 year old, then it will be great for all people.

See here for more details.

When I was learning how to sail as a child, I remember very clearly the concept of “right of way” being expressed, in general terms, as “the craft with the most power and flexibility gives way.” We should adopt the same philosophy for our streets.


Todd Gallant's picture
Todd Gallant on August 24, 2019 - 14:11 Permalink

I’ve had years of sporadic riding with motor vehicle traffic, and the occasional asshole still rattles me. This summer I began cycling regularly to and from work, and the more kms I ride the odds of encountering one increase.

They’re an unfortunate reality and it’s good that you’ve taught Oliver this valuable life lesson.

Barbara Henry's picture
Barbara Henry on August 25, 2019 - 10:53 Permalink

Love this. ........ thank you for sharing!!!

Laurie Murphy's picture
Laurie Murphy on August 25, 2019 - 12:22 Permalink


Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on August 26, 2019 - 05:07 Permalink

"when things get really hairy, to retreat and let the assholes go on about their assholing"

Did you explicitly offer that to Oliver as a rule of thumb regarding what is to be done about assholes? Or was it more just the implication of this particular object lesson in assholery? BTW it made sense to me instantly that bicycling and traffic would be the occasion for this lesson. I can't think of another context in which diagnosing assholes is so straightforward. I guess it's that "right of way" business, and that it's so clear so often as a cyclist among cars. People defiantly refusing you your right of way are assholes

Elmine's picture
Elmine on August 26, 2019 - 09:23 Permalink

Laughing out loud while reading this. The Dutch equivalent of an asshole would be a person that steps on the gas really hard when passing you to let you know you were in their way for too long.

(About the wet bum (which most people accept as a temporary burden around here (including myself)), saddle covers have become quite popular over here. You can: 1) store it under your saddle and put it on when saddle is wet or 2) put it on when bike is parked and take the cover off before stepping on your bike)

Lee's picture
Lee on August 26, 2019 - 10:32 Permalink

Loved this post. The term also applies when you are a pedestrian and the winter snows etc have washed away the cross walk lines and you decide to cross anyways - because how else do you get across - and you inconvenience a driver who then honks at you. The Island has a driving culture. I'm a person who likes to engage in their right to preambulate. But sometimes I think perambulating will result in ambulancing.

Larry Jones's picture
Larry Jones on August 28, 2019 - 08:38 Permalink

Peter - a fair minded individual would also realize there are assholes (or perhaps there is assholery a.k.a. arseholery) among bike riders as well as drivers. While driving home after dark the other night I watched as a father and young son were bike riding in the middle of the street. No lights, no reflective gear, no helmet. I was lucky as I made a stop at an intersection and saw the shadow otherwise the drive could have been much different. I think that becomes arseholery!

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on August 28, 2019 - 08:51 Permalink

You are so right, Larry: one of the great enemies of the regard in which cyclists are held is other cyclists who behave as you describe.

The issue here is not “drivers are evil, cyclists are righteous” as much as it is “the success of the road-sharing system depends on respect, rule-following and predictability.”

Cyclists who ride on the sidewalk, who ride the wrong way down one-way streets, who don’t have a bell and lights, can be as dangerous to other cyclists as cars can.