Ward Rubrecht is not your typical cyclist. Armed with two cameras, an air horn, baton and a mirrored face-shield, his cycling kit is more akin to that of an extra in a Neill Blomkamp film, than that of a daily commuter. But, after myriad crashes and close calls the Minneapolis man decided to stop riding defensively and start calling out drivers, both in person and online, when they do something he believes to be illegal, and potentially dangerous to cyclists.
It’s clear that Rubrecht knows the rights of cyclists and rules of the road better than most, including some police officers. So, when he is riding and observes someone pass too close, make an illegal pass, or parked in a bike lane, he will often try to catch up to “educate” them. That education can include handing the driver a card listing pertinent laws, yelling, and even swearing, which he is unapologetic about. “You should count yourself lucky if the only consequence is that a bike nerd cusses you out and then posts footage of your preposterously irresponsible behavior to a YouTube channel watched mostly by a handful of other bike nerds,” he explained recently in an email.
While some might consider his tactics to be too confrontational, it is clear that cyclists face very real dangers every single day. Rubrecht himself has been struck more than a dozen times by motorists and has permanent injuries to his shoulder and thumb as a result. More than three years ago he decided to change his cycling habits, opting for “more assertive lane placement, more assertive maneuvering, and basing my risk-minimization strategies… around protecting my own skin.” Since then he hasn’t been struck by a single car. “I’d rather a driver be aware of me and angry than calm and not even know I’m there,” he explained.
In just the past year, Rubrecht has posted hundreds of videos on his MPLS Bike Wrath Youtube and Facebook pages. Most are around 1 minute long and show a motorist making an illegal pass, or driving too close, followed by Ward shouting an obscenity and the license plate number. But, he’s had more than a few notable encounters as well.
In August 2016 he posted this video, showing a black SUV passing him on a residential street. Rubrecht noted the driver didn’t signal, and believed he did not afford him the three feet of distance required by state law (MN Statute 169.18, Subdivision 3). When he caught up to the SUV at a stop light he began to scold the driver, who turned out to be none other than Police Chief Todd Axtell, St. Paul’s top cop. I think catching a glimpse of the uniform caused Rubrecht to tone down his usual profanity-laden tirade, but he still confronted Axtell about the three-foot rule, later asking for his badge number. The chief pulled over into a nearby parking lot, giving Rubrecht his card and shaking his hand. Not all of Bike Wrath’s encounters end so pleasantly.
In an incident earlier this year a driver passes very close to Rubrecht after they had both been waiting at a green light. The cyclist was taking the entire lane, having moved over at the semaphore to allow motorists turning right to do so on red. Rubrecht can be heard (in the video) swearing at the driver, who quickly brakes and rolls down the window, leading to a confrontation that included swearing and a threat of violence by the driver. “You can throw a punch at me sir. I’ll take it, just to see you go to prison,” Rubrecht explained, following scolding the driver for his actions. After spitting on the cyclist, the driver, Steven Syndergaard, speeds away. According to Ramsey County court records, Syndergaard was ticketed for unsafe passing of a cyclist and careless driving. He has yet to pay the fines and was recently issued a late notice by the courts.
Rubrecht himself has never been cited for any cycling-related traffic violations. But, he hopes to someday be ticketed for filtering, the practice of advancing between lanes in slow or stopped traffic. He believes the practice to be legal. “I’d love an opportunity to go to court, make my argument, and hopefully cement filtering-as-legal firmly in case law.”
As you can imagine, not everyone is happy with Rubrecht’s antics. Comments on his video posts are mixed, from supportive to critical. And, police say that his confrontations could be dangerous. “Stopping and arguing on the street is not safe, nor legal. We would advise people to call 911, provide detailed information about the incident so police can handle it,” explained Minneapolis Police spokesperson Corey Schmidt in a recent email exchange.
But, don’t expect Ward Rubrecht to change his methods. He wants motorists to take notice: “If you act irresponsibly while driving, a RoboCop-looking mother*****r yells at you and that’s unpleasant, so maybe next time [you’ll] do something different.”