- Published: Thursday, 24 July 2014 00:00
- Written by Mon Fernan
(This multi-part article examines the complex issue of safety in bicycling on city streets. This is the second in the series.)
When cycling advocates say they want to increase the number of people bicycling, they don’t usually mean recreational cyclists who only ride in the controlled environment of a park or a bicycle path but rather people who ride their bikes for really going places, that is, for transport. This usually means riding a bicycle on the road in traffic because even in the most advanced places for bicycling, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, you still have to ride on the roadway, which means having to ride in traffic among motorized vehicles.
Bike Skills and Riding in Traffic
Figure 1 rock dodging
Make your wheels weave around the rock while riding in a straight line - the rock-dodge maneuver. Just as you reach the rock, steer quickly left, then right to correct your balance, then straight again. Don’t worry if your rear wheel hits the rock, just don’t hit it with your front wheel. (source of illustrations: http://www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/usa/chapter5a.htm)
Sharp instant turns are done by counter-steering. The quick turn is based on the principle of being able to lean the bike quickly in the direction of the turn by first steering (turning the handlebar slightly) in the opposite direction. To make a quick right turn, push (with your right hand) or pull (with your left hand) the handlebar slightly to the left, which causes the bike to lean right, allowing you to turn right. Counter-steering works best above a certain minimum speed, about 10kph. As usual, practice first in a safe environment. Consciously being able to counter-steer is the only way to avoid getting hit by cars, particularly at intersections, as illustrated below.
Figure 2 Quick turn to avoid a car running a stop sign
Figure 3 Quick turn ahead of a left turning car
Figure 4 Quick turn to the right to avoid a right turning car
The two fundamental requirements for riding safely are: one, a bicycle that is operating properly, and two, a cyclist who is in full control of that bicycle. The first, a properly working bicycle, seems too obvious to point out, but there are many people, particularly beginners and occasional riders, who, without realizing it, use faulty or poorly adjusted equipment that causes them problems and that can lead to serious accidents. The second requirement is less obvious because it is not clear what “full control of a bicycle” entails. It is on this second requirement that we will focus on for now, saving consideration of equipment for a future article.
It is a fact that a number of the participants in mass cycling events, such as the annual Tour and the monthly Critical Mass Rides, pose a potential threat to themselves as well as to other participants because they are unable to control their bikes properly. Sometimes this is caused by faulty equipment and at other times it comes from lack of skill. Participants have had to stop riding; worse, some have had to suffer falls and collisions. Control of the bicycle, therefore, is crucial and it means having the proper skill and experience to maneuver the bicycle in a way that is predictable, to take the proper action when confronted by a risky situation, and to avoid putting the rider and other cyclists and road users in harm’s way when a mechanical failure occurs.
The Science and Art of Bicycling
To say that riding a bicycle is a science and an art is a cliché because it is such a common experience that it almost seems trivial. Yet, the best cyclists, professional cyclists who ride with such grace and form, learn their craft by studying its science. To ride in traffic with confidence, you have to first learn to be a good cyclist.
The most basic maneuvers—balancing, starting, stopping, and steering—are learned by most anyone quite quickly. Many learn them by just doing them, by trial and error. A more systematic way is by reading how to do them from books and from instructional articles and videos on the Web. Good books are the best sources since they also explain what is happening and how best to deal with the physical forces that act on a moving bicycle—the science. I’ve found that being able to understand why something is happening makes it easier to deal with it.
Having these basic skills, however, does not make one a good or competent cyclist. It is common to see an inexperienced cyclist wobble when he or she starts to ride, and continue to ride shakily while underway, particularly when something unexpected appears—perturbations, small obstacles, water puddles on the roadway—things that may cause the cyclist to alter the line of travel. Good balancing is a matter of keeping those wobbles to a minimum. (They cannot be completely eliminated because slight wobbling is part of the balancing act.)
A cyclist who wants to be a competent rider, therefore, works on developing these basic skills to a higher level of competence. This is usually done by practicing, first on an empty road or facility (such as a parking lot) and then on a roadway environment with light traffic. A good way to hone these skills is to go on group rides with more competent cyclists. That is why joining a club which organizes regular rides for cyclists of different skill levels is a good idea because the not only teach you good riding skills but also challenge you to improve those skills.
Many cyclists may not bother, but learning “advanced” skills will enable you to deal with emergencies such as dodging deep holes (common in many streets) and avoiding large obstacles such as rocks, making sharp, instant turns by counter-steering, jumping over obstacles you cannot steer around, and making emergency stops (by nearly locking the front brake while feathering the rear brake so it doesn’t skid). To this list I would add being able to accelerate hard because stopping is not always the best way to get out of a potentially dangerous situation. Another handy skill is balancing on your bike while stopped, called a track stand. These skills help you deal not only with constantly changeable road conditions but also with bad drivers who operate their vehicles erratically. As mentioned earlier, a good cycling book will not only help you learn these skills but also tell you why and how they work. A particular skill that some, even experienced, cyclists have trouble with is looking behind while riding without steering away from one’s line of travel (meaning straight ahead). This is a basic skill that all cyclists need to develop as it can mean the difference between safely changing the direction of travel and riding into somebody (a fellow rider) or something (a passing motor vehicle). The ability to look behind is really part of being a cyclist who is constantly aware of what is happening around him or her. To be always aware is more difficult than it sounds because for whatever reason, our mind tends to wander, to ponder on the many things that tend to intervene in our daily existence, and to lose focus on our immediate surroundings.
Adding to your skills in controlling a bicycle makes it an even more exciting and fun experience. This is true when out on a fun ride but also when commuting daily through traffic. The Firefly Brigade routinely holds clinics on riding in traffic.