Riding Safely on the Road

I find that when I talk with people about riding around town, everyone is quick to remind me to be careful or tell me how crazy I am for trusting drivers enough to ride alongside them. Unfortunately, this is a very real concern for many cyclists. More often than not, getting hit is out of the cyclist’s control, but there are a few things that can give you an edge and decrease your chances.

These are a few rules that I try to follow every time I roll out of my driveway. This is definitely not an exhaustive list, and other people may have a different mental list they keep in their mind when riding in traffic. Anyway, here we go.

1. Be predictable. This one is one that is always on my mind when I’m riding and is a rule that develops over time with experience. It basically comes down to this: the more likely a driver can predict where you’ll be and what you’ll do when they’re around you, the better suited they are to handle the situation and prepare for it. This includes following all traffic laws (stopping at stop signs/lights, riding the same direction as traffic, etc.), riding in a straight line, signaling your intentions, and so on. In regards to signaling your intentions – I find that many motorists don’t really remember learning the classic arm signals. You know, “turn right = form an upwards L with your left arm”. I’ve started just pointing directly where I’m going. If I’m turning right, I point right. If I’m turning left, I point left. It’s hard to misconstrue my turn when I’m pointing directly at it. Stopping is a bit trickier, but if a car is right behind me and I’m slowing down, I very obviously unclip one foot so they can tell I’m not going to be pedaling again soon.

2. Always carry lights. You don’t always have to have them on, but try to always carry a front and rear light (more than one of each if you can swing it in case one dies). This is easier to remember if you have them mounted to your bike. You never know how your day is going to unfold – whether it be needing to stay late at work, needing to do “just one more lap” at your local dirt trail, or grabbing dinner with a friend. Always having lights on you allow you to be flexible with your schedule and, most importantly, have a safe ride home at the end of the day.

3. Take the lane (when it’s appropriate). This is another one that is sometimes hard to judge when first starting out. As a general rule of thumb, if the road is narrow enough (single lane) that you’d feel uncomfortable with a car passing you – ride in the middle of the lane or “take the lane”. Warning: some drivers will definitely not like this. When it comes to your safety, though, they can F right off. Assuming you’re riding on lower traffic residential streets (see below), most of your commute will be on a single lane road with parking on the side — at least in Iowa. In this instance, I usually ride in the parking lane when it’s available. This allows drivers to safely pass in the traffic lane, and I only need to pop out when there’s a car parked in the lane. When doing this, just be sure to double check there aren’t any cars coming in the traffic lane, cut out into the middle of the lane (take the lane), and cut back into the parking lane when there’s another reasonable gap in parked cars. This is a good time to mention that when you’re riding next to parked cars, make sure you’re wide enough into the lane to avoid the “door zone” or the zone where you’d get hit with an open car door. It sounds easy enough, but people get doored all the time and generally people aren’t looking for cyclists when flinging their door open after parking.

4. Try not to react or be an asshole. Let me tell you, this one can be tough some days. When you’re riding on the road, you’ll inevitably be honked at, cursed at, revved at, passed closely on purpose, etc. This is almost always done by someone who is unfamiliar with the laws regarding cyclists on the road. They’re probably also mad that you’re enjoying your day, and they may also hate everything fun in the world. Regardless, things usually shake out better when you totally ignore them. Like the bully that took your lunch money in grade school, they’re looking for a reaction from you. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll get bored and probably speed off into the sunset. If you feel like they’re driving recklessly and attempting to hit you, get their license plate number and report it to the police. Some larger cities (LA, for instance) even have cyclists’ anti-harassment laws. We’ll get there, Des Moines.

5. Plan routes around bike lanes and low traffic roads. This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you’re fortunate enough to have bike lanes (even just the painted ones), by all means use them. Using bike lanes can really serve two purposes: 1. you feel a bit safer in your dedicated lane, and drivers are at least somewhat more aware that you’re there and 2. it lets the city planners in your city know that improvements to cycling infrastructure are well used and in high demand (so hopefully they’ll add more). Bike lanes don’t go everywhere, though, so that’s when choosing a road with low traffic and a low speed limit can make your commute safer and more comfortable. Stay away from the 4 lane roads with 45mph speed limits, essentially.

6. Wear a helmet, for Christ’s sake. You might look less cool, but you’ll probably live.

Obviously, there are plenty of things running through my mind when I’m out riding (man, that Thai food, though), and I could probably make a list of many more things to consider for being safe in traffic. These are just some things that I feel are important when riding around vehicles.

What about you guys? Do you have a list of your own? Is there a gaping hole in mine? (most probably, yes).

An Introduction

As a daily commuter and recreational cyclist, I can talk about all things bicycle all day. What I’d like readers to get out of this blog is a place to talk about bike happenings, any tips and tricks I’ve discovered, stories, and hopefully some real world cyclist interviews.

A bit about me

Cycling has been a large part of my life since the beginning. I grew up riding my bitchin’ Huffy with a coaster brake – shredding tires in the alley behind my house. I started commuting by bike in 2010 during my sophomore year in college when I sold my car and bought my first road bike. When I moved to Des Moines in 2012, I started commuting every day to my new job and have been ever since. Iowa weather is an interesting beast. Over the course of a year, I’ll encounter 100+ degree days in 90% humidity all the way down to the negative double digits with ice and snow. My current trusty steed for all weather is a 2013 Raleigh RX cyclcoross bike with fenders and rotating tires (knobby vs slick) depending on the weather. Aside from commuting, I spent a few years racing cyclocross (ok, “racing” is a strong word) and I’ve done one official mountain bike race — that’s a funny story that I’ll dive into below. When not commuting, I spend most of my recreational riding time on my mountain bike – a 2007 Gary Fisher Rig with an Origin 8 carbon fork.

I hope that you find something on this blog somewhat useful or, at the very least, amusing.

Oh yeah, I promised a story about mountain biking. I’ll caution you ahead of time – I’ll be including pictures that are not for the faint of heart. Scroll at your own risk.

My first, and only, mountain bike race was held in Boone, IA at Seven Oaks. I had raced bikes before, and I ride my mountain bike enough that I decided to give mountain bike racing a go. It was kind of a rainy morning, but the event had already been postponed a couple of times so they decided to hold it anyway. If you’ve never been to the Seven Oaks course, it’s not what one would call “single speed friendly”. Perfect day for me to bring mine.

By about the second lap, I was already gassed and the course was getting sloppy. I was taking the switchback corners and downhill sections slow and easy, just trying to stay vertical on the bike. There was one section, however, that was flat, flowy, and fast. I was drilling it through this section, feeling more confident than I’d ever felt on a bike at that point in my life.

Then my rear tire slipped on a wet root. Before I could turn my handlebars, I was already face deep in a tree. After brushing off my body and my pride, I continued onward. On the next lap around, I took it easier in the section, but noticed something weird and fuzzy was attached to the tree I was pretty sure I had hit (foreshadowing). Not thinking much of it, I went ahead and finished the race – complete with a bloody jersey.

After the race (and a few bandages and hydrogen peroxide later), I decided to go check out the tree. Mistake.

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My friends and I had a good laugh, and I always enjoy sharing the story and picture with people. It also gave me a reason to rock a sweet mustache for a while. Maybe one day I’ll get a full face helmet. Probably not.

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Maybe one day I’ll get a full face helmet. Probably not.