* * *
It's time to go home, so Bill Medcalf yanks on black tights, several layers of insulated clothing, a bright red windbreaker and gigantic black gloves. He clicks on his helmet. Ready for the afternoon commute.
He rolls off Offutt Air Force Base, where he works as a civilian contractor, and soon veers onto Highway 370, where he joins that speeding, swerving, honking, crushing mass of Fords and Chevys and Toyotas commonly known as rush hour.
Bill's top speed is somewhere around 20 mph. He has no heater, no gas tank, no seat belt and no air bag.
Bill's car is a bike. There are thousands of SUVs and trucks and semis on this highway, but Bill is the only one pedaling.
And there are thousands of other Omahans who get to work via bike, but not one of them — not one — is willing to regularly ride this crazy-busy stretch of Highway 370, like Bill does.
“Nice day for a ride,” Bill says, grinning, before he takes off.
He is the Lone Wolf, the Lone Ranger, a 50-year-old retired Air Force officer with steely determination and steely eyes and steely abs and ... Bill, watch out!
Here comes a Mack truck, an actual, real-life Mack truck, barreling west on Highway 370. It is moving way too fast. It is way too close to the shoulder.
I am following behind Bill in a car — Are you crazy? Do you think I'm going to ride a bike during rush hour? — and I flinch as the Mack truck steams toward our hero.
Bill hears the oncoming truck, tightens his grip on his handlebars and moves his body slightly left and then right to counteract the two distinct gusts of wind from the truck rumbling past. He does this without even thinking, so much so that when I ask him about the Mack truck later, he says he barely noticed.
Bill has been riding this exact route — 14 miles in the predawn darkness to Offutt and then 14 miles home to Papillion — almost every day for 16 years. He has ridden in rain, snow and ice, Sahara heat and Arctic cold, and everything in between. He rides his road bike in the summer and a mountain bike in the winter.
He pedals up and down slopes that you don't even feel in a car. He pedals through sand and debris and broken glass that you don't see from a car. He pedals straight into 30-mph gusts — it's 30 degrees on this particular day, but the wind makes it feel like 15 — that make no difference to a driver.
He does things as calmly as if he were in a car, but he is not. Like when he's in the right-hand shoulder of Fort Crook Road, nonchalantly lifts his arm to signal and then crosses three lanes and turns left onto Highway 370 as cars hurtle toward him like menacing mechanical beasts.
I turn left in my Volkswagen Jetta and say silent prayers that I won't be writing an obituary.
This is how it goes for 45 terrifying minutes.
Bill's on Highway 370 now, and here comes a Bellevue Public Schools bus.
Whoosh! He says later that he can generally hear bigger vehicles coming and adjusts accordingly, so the force of the wind doesn't pull him into traffic.
Here comes a semi. Semi drivers are the worst, Bill says, and the feeling seems mutual. Sometimes they blast their air horns when they are right behind Bill. You haven't been truly afraid, he thinks, until you have pedaled through that.
But Bill's hearing again comes in handy. A semi's diesel engine is recognizable maybe 15 seconds before it reaches him, so Bill scoots as far over on the shoulder as he can and braces himself. Whoosh!
He rides this route because it is the most direct one and because he grew comfortable riding in cities when he was in the Air Force and living in Germany. Quite unintentionally, he has become a one-man test case for how Omaha's commuters react to a cyclist on a highway where the car is the undisputed king.
The vast majority of drivers are courteous, he says, or at least tolerate his presence. He emphasizes this point over and over: Most people are nice.
But there are the others: They roll down their windows and yell at him. “Buy a car!” they scream. They flip him their naughtiest finger. They lay on their horns even though he's on the shoulder, obeying all traffic laws and pedaling as fast as he can.
Once in a while, they throw things.
“It's a good thing that they make Coke bottles plastic now,” he says.
Today he rolls by a Jeep Cherokee that is preparing to turn right onto 370 and waves his hand frantically so the Cherokee's unaware driver doesn't turn into him. Turning drivers often look past a slow-moving bike as they scan for other cars.
I see a couple of cars and trucks blow past him while practically driving on the white line, so there's only a foot or two between his left leg and a couple thousand pounds of metal going 60 mph.
Maybe they didn't see him. Maybe they don't care.
“Think about if my car broke down, and I was walking down the shoulder of the road. Everybody would give me room, right? But not always when you are on a bike.”
Bill turns left on 72nd Street — again crossing from the right shoulder to the left turn lane — and rolls into his Shadow Lake neighborhood. Now he's driving on a residential street with no shoulder.
A woman in a white SUV gets right on his back wheel. I see her face as she passes by me. Frustration. Fury. Rage.
Maybe she was in a hurry, Bill thinks. Maybe people are so used to not having to wait, even for 15 seconds, that it drives them batty.
“I think we need to learn to slow down a little bit,” he says.
This is actually why Bill rides, he says after he hangs his bike on his garage wall and we retire to a nearby Starbucks.
He bikes for exercise, sure, and he is fitter at 50 than he was at 25.
But he also bikes because it allows him time to think or unwind after a hard day's work.
It sounds weird, he knows, but cycling down Highway 370 is relaxing to him. The most stressful bike commute I can imagine in Omaha is a stress-reliever for Bill.
So is there any place in Omaha he won't cycle?
“Dodge Street,” he says. “Those people are angry.”
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