Paulo Chiquito was not trying to start trouble when he attached a note to the windshield of the car that had nearly hit him.
During the five-mile morning commute between his south Durham home and his office at IBM's Research Triangle Park campus that he's made most every day for the last 13 years, Chiquito was pedaling in a right-turn lane when a sporty white sedan broke his reverie. The speeding car cut across the lane and cut Chiquito off, missing him by a few feet but still too close for comfort on his exposed recumbent tricycle.
"Dear IBMer," the note began, as polite at the start as it would be at the end. "I'm the guy that ... you passed in an unsafe manner on a non-passing zone doing a right turn. What drove you to do that passing? I sincerely want to learn what is the motivation, so I can avoid that in the future."
Chiquito continued for about 200 words, explaining that the stakes are higher for a cyclist and that the margin of error for a commuter not surrounded by a steel cage is nearly nonexistent. In case the driver of the car had forgotten the incident or the circumstances, Chiquito included a link to a 13-second YouTube clip that replayed the entire incident—the car, veering into Chiquito's space, shooting right and then speeding off in the wrong lane into the distance, like nothing had ever happened. Chiquito used the video to identify the car. He then walked across one parking lot at IBM, where he works as a network security specialist, found the right ride, affixed his letter and waited.
"The guy actually sent a note to me, apologizing and saying that he felt like a jerk," Chiquito says, smiling. "He said you're the better man here, that he bikes and gets upset at people that cut him off, too."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
In the last several years, Chiquito has become something of a one-person commuter advocacy campaign in both appearance and action. Mention the man on the blue recumbent trike with the kite-like rainbow flag fluttering overhead to other RTP commuters, and they often nod knowingly. And each morning, when Chiquito puts on his helmet, it doubles as a surveillance device, with a 32-gigabyte camera anchored at the top. It can record 15 hours of footage before automatically rewriting its archives, so Chiquito can capture the unsafe moves drivers make and, he hopes, teach both parties a lesson about what they can do better. So far, he's only uploaded two videos for safety concerns, but they've both been effective, even inspiring a training course at a nearby trucking company after a driver edged into a bike lane.
"I was able to find the manager of the branch here, and I sent him a message with the link," Chiquito says. "He sent me a letter to say they were going to do a safety training with all the drivers. Well, that's good."
Chiquito, 47, started taping his daily rides for less altruistic reasons. A native of Brazil, he moved to Durham in 1996 and soon started working for IBM. For the first six years, he would drive to his office every day, but he soon realized that maintaining a regular workout schedule took too much time. He decided to integrate his needs. He donated his car to a nonprofit that supplies vehicles to immigrants and began cycling—first with a mountain bike, then a hybrid and then a road bike. He found that the high speeds and low profile of the latter made him something of an easy target for drivers. It was as if they suspected that riders in sleek Lycra outfits on a fancy bike should be able to protect themselves.
"People were very aggressive against me, always cutting close," he remembers. "It was getting scary. At that point, I started thinking, 'In case something happens to me, I need to have evidence of exactly what happened. If there is a bad accident, my family has recourse, and I don't die for a lost cause.'"
But last year, not long after Chiquito began recording his road bike rides, he developed intense shoulder pain, likely a symptom of his hunched position on the handlebars. He didn't want to start driving again, so he started exploring more comfortable options. He tried a recumbent trike and found that it was like sitting in a recliner. Pushing with his legs, he could still get his exercise and, with three wheels, make sharper turns than ever. Suddenly, getting to work felt a lot less like work itself.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
What's more, Chiquito found that the odd sight of a recumbent trike, with its wide and low profile, gave drivers pause, making them slow down to stare or simply give him space. He initially worried that its negligible clearance and open design would make him more vulnerable, but he says this is the safest his commute has ever been.
"When people look from behind, they have no idea what they are seeing. They say, 'Is that a guy in a wheelchair, riding in the road?'" Chiquito says. He wears glasses and cargo shorts, and his salt-and-pepper hair is thinning. But he youthfully bounds about as he discusses the experience.
"The amount of people who are jerks in the road reduced immensely," he continues. "People stop on the road for me to cross, and that never happened. I don't know if it's because they don't know what it is or because they think I'm disabled or an old guy. I decided to stop with the Lycra and just dress like an old guy."
Instead of investing in cycling clothes these days, Chiquito has invested in Trident Trikes, made in the small town of Lincolnton, just northwest of Charlotte. He recently purchased one for his wife, Lea, and added a small electric motor so that she can match his pace. His own bike is chockablock with accessories, from mudguards and a rechargeable light and horn to large bags and a pedometer. He wears a cranial headset, too, which sits just beside his ears and vibrates the bones of his skull; he can listen to music even while hearing cars approach. And there's his camera, of course, perched on top of his helmet and recording in case a reprimand is required.
"I consider biking a continuous improvement process. You've got to learn from your mistakes and from others' mistakes, so you can avoid them," he says. "That's what I'm trying to do—recording, refining my route, refining my behavior. I didn't expect it, but this has been very effective for safety."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Work to do"