About ten years ago (when I was suffering through grad school at THE Ohio State University), I went out for a late Fall ride along the Olentangy Bikeway in Columbus, OH -- a fairly mellow, scenic (for Columbus) trail that wound through the north side of the city.
I don't remember much about the early part of the ride, but as I was getting out to the more suburban neighborhoods, I overcooked a turn on wet leaves and went down hard. I popped up (the automatic "I meant to do that!" reaction), spat, and only then realized that I'd spit out something chunky. Sure enough, the reflection in my sunglasses showed a gashed-up lip and bloody gap previously occupied by two teeth. My rear derailleur was shoved into my wheel, making the bike unrideable.
So, in the Age Before Ubiquitous Cell Phones, I did what anybody would have done on an isolated trail: I started walking out. After about a quarter mile, I was surrounded by a nice suburban neighborhood -- the benefit of trails within city limits. I picked a door and rang the bell.
"Ma'am, as you can see, I've had a bit of an accident, and I was wondering if I could use your phone to call for help."
"I'm... I'm not comfortable with that." Door shut, end of conversation.
At the time, I was stunned and more than a little ticked. But looking back (and looking at myself in a mirror), I can't blame her. If you don't know me, and all 200 pounds of my bald, goateed freakshow self is standing on your porch bleeding from a toothless maw, I'm probably scary as hell. If you're a woman home alone (or maybe with just your kids in the house), ratchet that up another notch. If my wife were confronted by such a sight, maybe I'd be comfortable with her calling 911 for the scary stranger, but I'd rather she do it from behind a locked door, thanks.
I think about that day a lot when I'm out riding the trails in Iowa. There are a lot of women who ride around here. I find that simply awesome, such an improvement over the "let's compare Lycra bulges" brand of masculinity that so often marks our sport (usually by peeing on it). A lot of those women can ride my sorry butt right off their wheel with nary a pedal turned in anger. But every once in a while, I start to catch up to a female rider who's out there by herself on an isolated trail (sometimes after dark), and I'm suddenly gripped by Sensitive New Age Guy paralysis. Does she see me as just another rider back here, or am I a Big Scary Threat? The last thing I want to do is wreck someone's ride, so what next? Say hello? Hammer past with an "on your left"? Sit up and drop back?
I've ridden in some scary places (not in Des Moines, thankfully) -- neighborhoods where my Spidey-sense was constantly a-tingle -- and all I wanted to do was hustle out of there. I should probably feel more like that on my daily commute, with gargantuan SUVs passing within inches. But I don't. I'm comfortable in my skin, on my wheels, in my surroundings. If I didn't feel safe, if something as simple as a rider just a few lengths off my back wheel were enough to make me tense up, I don't know if I'd keep riding. It just wouldn't be worth it to me. I ride to make those kinds of feelings go away.
I'm probably over-thinking it, as usual. And the fact that I've been an awkard, almost-mute nerd-boy around the fairer gender my whole life probably doesn't help matters. But it bothers me. I hope my presence -- or the presence of any freaky-looking male rider like me -- doesn't trigger fight-or-flight, or an involuntary twitch toward the pepper spray. I hope I'm just underestimating the bad-assedness of our local wheeled women and that they don't give a second thought to ol' tubby-and-slow back there. If that's not the case, if I've ever spooked someone out there, I sincerely apologize -- and next time, I'll say hi.