Dueling Tactics - Off Idle

Remember that movie? Steven Spielberg's very first attempt at thrilling theatergoers in the early '70s? The one where the mysterious driver of a menacing tractor-trailer stalks Dennis Weaver in his Plymouth Valiant? It was freakishly horrifying, wasn't it?

I've been thinking about Duel a lot recently...using the movie as a way to compare a few similarly unsettling duels I've experienced lately between bike and car. You'd guess I've been "chased" by angry motorists because I'm an in-your-face kind of rider, right? But that's not me sporting the straight pipes, or cutting through freeway traffic at 120 mph, or wheelieing out of control toward your wife and kids. I'm an aggressive rider, true. I feel that when you light out on two wheels, you need to stay in control, be slightly defensive and never, ever passive. And with increasing skill you should be able to use your machine to stay out of harm's way. For example, I prefer to travel just slightly faster than the flow of traffic in any situation. Not wildly faster. Just a step ahead so that it's me negotiating my way through traffic, not traffic negotiating its way around me.

So yes, as we all know, getting in front of people, whether you're in line for coffee, on the moving sidewalk at the airport, or riding your motorcycle down the road, presents an opportunity for resentment.

But still, the three life-threatening chase scenes that have played out in my life recently are unprecedented. I'm not sure what's going on. Maybe it's a sign of the times. Maybe gas prices are eating at those car-driver's nerves, and knowing I'm traveling on pennies to their dollars just causes them to snap. Maybe it's just a fluke that I've suffered through three encounters with maniacs in five months even though my riding style is the tamest it's been in 20 years on two wheels.

So, here's how they went and how I survived (without causing my opponents to drive off a cliff, as Weaver does in the flick). It doesn't matter how macho you are, by the way. In this day of gun-drawing, rear-ending, poodle-tossing drivers, confrontation is rarely the best answer.

The first duel took place at night in the Sierra foothills on an incredibly winding road I know very, very well. It's six miles of nonstop 25- and 35-mph blind benders and huge elevation losses and gains as it dives into a big river gorge and works its way up the other side. I wasn't speeding, or wanting to speed, because this was deer country and it was already dark, but I was coming up on a short but useable turn lane, and so I downshifted in preparation to pass the couple of pickup trucks doddering along in front of me. The first truck in line swung left as it should while the second passed, but then the second truck didn't yield to let me pass even though there was lots of room. I wasn't happy, of course, and I did give him a little honk to let him know what a dork he'd been. I wish I hadn't. Midway through the next blind corner the idiot flips me off and then slams on his brakes in front of me. The only choice I have on this road leaves me in the oncoming lane (instead of in his bumper). So, once out there in the blind corner and already halfway around him, I continue to pass. And so, the duel begins.

I don't know what kind of day this guy had or how many beers he tossed back trying to erase it, but he seemed to think killing me might improve his mood. Of course he couldn't catch me when the road was clear, but as soon as I'd get behind a stack of vehicles, he'd race up my tail. I felt there was only one thing to do in this situation: Run.

Here's why. I knew the road like the back of my hand. Even in the dark I knew the sections where you could see the corners coming down the hillside. So after a couple of searing but relatively safe multicar passes over the double yellow, I was gone.

The second duel of late was a similar situation in that it involved a winding canyon road at night, a drunk and a pickup truck. But this time I didn't know the road. And, I didn't instigate the situation by honking. But I did pass the guy, pretty casually I thought, and he didn't like it. Duel again. This guy is swerving all over the place though-I watch him trying to catch me in my mirrors and his truck is all over the road. At one point he loses it and spins onto the shoulder. Relieved, I slow, because I'm overriding. It's dark and I've never been on this road before. But there he is again, just totally out of control and literally barreling toward me. Solution: Retreat. I see a paved turnoff I know I can handle at fairly high speed, wait till he's right on me and exit the roadway using the light weight and superior brakes of my vehicle to make a move his ratty old pickup could never perform. I turned it around and rode at a good clip the other way, back into town for a little adrenaline-cleansing break.

The third duel was in the Colorado Rockies a few months back. It was another situation I instigated, I'm sure, by wanting to pass-but it was a mini-van for crying out loud- and broad daylight! We were going through a succession of stop signs, and at each, this van would wait...for like a minute. So at one sign I came up beside her-oops, him-stopped, and then proceeded to sneak around the van. The honk was deafening, and caused me to flip the guy off. Oops number two. I didn't know he'd just just been kicked off the Little League field. And so we began a slow-motion duel into the quiet little town of Crested Butte, which is, I found out, a dead-end.

He dogged me up and down through the town, yelling out the window, "Pull over you m'effer! I'm gonna kick your sorry ass!" And on and on. The guy was inches from my bike that whole time and I was just bracing for a knock-down. I knew he didn't know I was a chick by the kinds of things he was shouting. On the road, hardly anyone knows I'm a girl, since I wear a full-faced helmet with a baggy Aerostich suit and always tuck my braid in when I travel on a bike. But in this situation I knew the fact might actually aid me. So on my second loop through town I pulled into a busy parking lot, let him come up beside me, and pulled off my helmet. Solution: I'm a girl. This totally confuses him and he drives off without saying a word.

Yeah, yeah, I know that one won't work for most of you. But confrontation is the only other option, and you can usually always find a way to defuse the situation if you aren't too proud or angry. Those are the only three options: run, retreat or confront. Just remember if you choose the latter, that the other person is probably even crazier than you are.

Sooner or later, whether it's our doing or not, we all find ourselves in Dennis Weaver's seat.Duel wisely.

Tell us your dueling tactics at Jamie.elvidge@primedia.com