Last week we talked about how to work with your bike. This week, we get into how to make your bike effectively and safely work for you!
In case you missed it, here’s part 1.
Getting Around by Bike
As a bicyclist, you may use any public roadways that are not explicitly off-limits to bikes, such as freeways. However, if you’re an inexperienced bicyclist, you may feel more comfortable avoiding busy roads and sticking to neighborhood streets. As you gain confidence and experience, you can move up to bigger arterial roadways in order to get where you’re going faster.
Try mapping out a route on Google Maps, then go test ride it on a weekend. You’ll get a feel for how best to navigate those roads, and you’ll find out about how long your ride will take. If you test ride your route, I guarantee you will find some important helpful detail you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of!
Staying Safe on Your Bike
Bicycling, statistically, is a very safe form of travel, even accounting for all the people who always ride in an unsafe manner. Bicycling becomes radically safer as you learn to ride on the road safely and predictably as a part of traffic. Doing this does not require speed, bravery, or any special skills. If you understand the principles of traffic and the rules of the road, the same ones you follow when driving a car, you already know how to do it on a bike!
You need to be proactive and take responsibility for your own safety, because nobody else will. As a bicyclist using the public roadways, you have all the same rights and responsibilities of any other driver on the road. Think of yourself as the driver of your bicycle- that’s what you are! You should ride, or drive, in a way that other drivers expect. This means you need to follow all the same rules you would as if you were driving a car: ride in the same direction as traffic, stop at stop signs and red lights, signal and yield when changing lanes… that sort of thing.
There is one exception to this equality though: in many US states, bicyclists are subject to a law that says some variation of “bicyclists must ride as far to the right as practicable.” (I’m most familiar with California traffic laws, so that’s what I’ll refer to here, but if you live somewhere else you should check your local laws for variations.) However! It’s important to remember that “as far right as practicable” does not mean “as far to the right as possible!” The law actually provides several exceptions to the requirement to ride to the right. These include: when passing another vehicle, when traveling at about the same speed as the rest of traffic, when preparing for a left turn, when the lane is too narrow to safely share side-by-side with a car, or when any “hazardous condition” exists that makes it unsafe to ride at the road edge.
In fact, there are many “hazardous conditions” that you would be subjecting yourself to by hugging the curb or riding as far to the right as possible. By hugging the right edge of the road, you put yourself at much greater risk of the three most common types of car-bike collisions. To avoid being hit by an opening car door, ride at least 5 feet away from parked cars. (This area near parked cars is called the “door zone.”) Also, debris or other rough, slippery road conditions tend to gather along the edge of the road where cars don’t normally drive. Not only can that put you at a higher risk of flat tires, it can even cause you to lose control of your bike and crash. These road hazards that are so apparent to many bicyclists are not necessarily obvious to someone driving a car, or to someone who is inexperienced at cycling.
The best way to avoid all these hazards is by using, or riding in the middle of, a full travel lane, just as you would when driving a car. By riding in the center of a lane, or just to the left of center (which is where other drivers expect to see traffic), you communicate to those other drivers behind you that they need to change lanes, giving you plenty of space, to safely pass you. When it’s safe, you may move to the right to allow easier passing by other vehicles. Behave like the driver of any other vehicle and people will, subconsciously and by default, treat you as such, unless they specifically go out of their way to harass you. I personally use this technique every day. It can be intimidating to ride a bike in the same lane as other traffic- but, trust me, it really does work very well! You can read more information about these techniques here.
Some roads include bike lanes or cycle tracks. These can be useful to cyclists, but be cautious when using them. Don’t ride in a bike lane, path, or track just because it’s there. Check to be sure it’s actually safe and free of hazards before you ride in it. Many bike lanes are actually not safe to use because of poor road planning or maintenance. You are never legally required to ride in an unsafe bike lane. When you do use a bike facility, be aware that you’re still a part of traffic, subject to the same rules as other drivers, and that using the facility does not mean you’ll be isolated from traffic. Take special care at intersections, where cars will be turning and often will not be looking for inconspicuous bikes.
Remember those hand signals they taught you in driver’s ed for when your car’s turn signals don’t work? Those work for biking too. You should signal whenever you want to merge or turn left or right, just as you would when driving a car.
If you don’t feel comfortable riding on a particular road, don’t ride there. Find an alternate route. Later when you’ve gained more experience and confidence riding as a part of traffic, consider taking busier arterial streets. They’re usually faster than neighborhood streets. You’ll still meet the occasional jerk who is very vocal about not wanting you on “their” road, but they are few and far between. Act like any other driver, confidently and predictably, and the vast majority of drivers will treat you like any other driver. It really is driving your bicycle.
Next time you’re driving your car and you see a cyclist riding in the middle of the lane, you’ll know that they’re positioned there for their own safety, not to annoy you. It’s easy to just pass them safely as you would pass anyone else.
Bicycling Safety Gear
The defensive driving techniques discussed in the last section are the primary and most effective ways to stay safe on your bike, but you’ll often need additional equipment to stay safe.
It’s always good to have lights on your bike, even if you don’t plan to ride after dark. This will give you the peace of mind to not have to worry about being stranded after dark. Your lights’ primary job is to help other drives see you. If it’s very dark out, your headlight will also enable you to see the road. If it’s foggy, rainy, or if other visibility problems exist, lights will help other drivers see you more easily. You should have a bright white headlight and at least one or two bright red taillights, as well as a red reflector facing rearwards. Buy the brightest head and tail lights you can afford. Detach your lights from your bike when you park, and take them with you. If you do plan to ride at night, or around dawn or dusk, lights are absolutely essential!
Riding a bike after dark with no lights is illegal and very dangerous. No, really- please use lights at night. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen cyclists at night wearing all black with no lights, and the only way I could see them was when they were silhouetted against lights in the background. Even if you stay to the edge of the road (which is less safe for the reasons discussed earlier), there are still plenty of potential conflict points that become much more dangerous when nobody can see you.
The very last line of defense you have on your bike, if all else fails, is your helmet. Depending on your age and where you live, riding without a helmet may or may not be legal, but it’s always a good idea to wear one. A helmet, properly worn, can greatly improve how you fare in what may otherwise have been a serious or fatal crash.
If you are in a crash and you are hurt badly enough that you can’t tell other people your medical information, a medical ID that gives paramedics access to your emergency medical and contact information can also help save your life. Probably the most popular medical ID for cyclists is the RoadID.
Go do it!
So that’s about it! Based on my personal experience with using my bike for transportation, these are the first things I would tell anybody considering doing the same. I find cycling for everyday transportation quite fun and rewarding. The best part is, I get to ride my bike just about every day. How great is that?
This 2-part article is just a first primer though- there are countless additional resources out there for everything biking related. If you want to read more, here are a few of my favorite websites related to bicycling. Be careful clicking on any of these links- you may end up spending hours there!
Links From This Article:
- Every tool you could need for your bike, plus instructions
- Lots of technical articles on everything bike
Joy of Biking:
- Comic by a Boston woman on her experiences commuting
- Blog of an excellent randonneur, covers many topics
- Popular parts for modern bikes, good selection of clothing
- Hard-to-find and specialty parts for all bikes
- Small selection of quality parts for distance riding
- Quality parts importer and builder for commuting- especially wheels and lights