So, You Want to Be a Cyclist

Road riding is a great outdoor fitness activity. But it requires some cycling savvy – and some basic safety smarts.

Learning to ride a bike is one of childhood’s rites of passage. And they say that once you learn, you never forget. But just because you knew how to steer a Schwinn in grade school doesn’t mean you’re going to be entirely comfortable hitting the road as an adult cyclist, particularly if it means riding in city traffic.

Getting into fitness or competitive cycling can be intimidating for many adults who haven’t ridden seriously in a while. But don’t let that keep you out of the saddle. All you really need is a refresher course on some basic street-cycling skills — including the ins and outs of bicycle safety.

Riding by the Rules

Driving a car is second nature to most of us, but on a bike, the road suddenly seems different: Which lane should we be in — to ride and to turn? At which intersections do we have to stop?

For the most part, the rules for riding a bike are the same as for driving a car. But there’s one important caveat: When it comes to right-of-way, cyclists should never assume they have it, even if, by all rights and regulations, they do. Why? Because when rules get broken, the consequences are almost always far more grave for the person on the bike. Who cares if you have to wait an extra 30 seconds for that truck to clear the intersection? Better slowed and safe than right and wrecked.

Knowing traffic laws will reduce your risk of a crash, but it isn’t enough. Riding well also takes experience in a variety of different riding circumstances and a healthy dose of common sense.

“Cycling without any real degree of experience can be dangerous,” says John Howard, three-time cycling Olympian, cycling-speed-record holder and former Ironman World Champion. “Many people don’t prepare properly. Nobody wants to talk about cycling safety, but far more should be said about its importance.”

To start, Howard suggests the following:

  • Practice clipping in and out of your pedals, hopping on and off your seat, balancing, starting, stopping and cornering at various speeds before you make your way out into traffic.
  • Don’t wear headphones; do wear a helmet.
  • Signal your intentions and make eye contact with motorists before you assume they’ve seen you.
  • Watch for dogs, joggers and parked motorists who might fling open their car doors.
  • Ride as though every car is out to get you.

Being a Better Biker

The League of American Bicyclists (www.bike league.org) offers a number of additional suggestions that could help you ride away from some of cycling’s most precarious situations — ideas that could save your life or a limb. If you think you’re immune to the potential dangers of biking just because you are a cautious rider, think again. Because, as Howard puts it: “There are two types of cyclists: those who have crashed and those who will crash.” That said, there’s plenty you can do to ward off avoidable dangers. Start with these tips …

How to: Cross and go
Start by obeying traffic lights. Stop on yellow (don’t try to shoot the gap) and check intersections carefully, even on green, to avoid cars that might turn unexpectedly or run red lights. Stuck waiting at a slow red? The sensors at most intersections detect metal, not weight, so your bike can trip the detectors. Position your bike over the parallel grooves or metal squares you see embedded in the pavement. Or, if there’s a pedestrian button at the crosswalk, you can push that.

When the light turns, don’t get panicked about the traffic behind you. No one expects you to go zero to 40 in seconds. Better to get a confident, steady start than to miss your pedal and take a tumble. Just do your best to be aware of traffic moving around you.

As a rule, whether you’re waiting or riding, you want to stay to the immediate right of the car traffic that’s going your way. That means if you are turning right, stay to the right side of the right-hand lane. If you are going straight, keep to the right third of the lane headed forward. If you are turning left, don’t be shy about claiming your space in the left-hand turn lane. Once you’ve cleared the intersection, just make your way back to the right side of the road.

Keep in mind that in some traffic situations, you may be better off riding just a little further to the left and claiming a bigger buffer zone between you and parked cars or the shoulder.

This encourages passing cars to wait for an opportunity to swing wide of you (as opposed to just squeezing past), thus reducing your chances of being grazed or forced to swerve. The best, safest way to get a full lane: Ride with a pal, two abreast.

How to: Merge
Joining or crossing a stream of traffic can be a little nerve-racking. But by clearly signaling your intentions, committing to your lane position and, above all, making eye contact with oncoming motorists (keeping in mind you may be in their vehicle’s blind spot), you can safely grab your piece of the road.

Prepare for crossing or merging by looking over your shoulder for a break in traffic and adjusting your speed as necessary. “Be prepared to bolt if you need to,” Howard advises. “Sometimes that means picking a hole and shooting through it. It takes power and acceleration to merge safely.”

How to: Climb a Hill
It’s tempting when you see a steep incline looming to anticipate the grade. But if you begin downshifting prematurely, you’ll lose valuable momentum. Instead, start your climb in your current gear and then gradually downshift in increments as the grade and your level of effort requires. Since pedaling standing up actually requires more energy, stay in the saddle as long as practical. Once you’ve gone through a few gears and feel you need more power, you can stand. Just avoid weaving or leaning your bike side to side as you pedal.

How to: Crash
You’ve stayed alert. You’ve ridden defensively. Nonetheless, here comes a ’78 Impala set on a course for disaster. In this situation, a wipeout may be your best evasive maneuver: Squeeze tight on the rear brake and lay the bike down. But remember, it’s better to slide into the vehicle rather than under it. You’re less likely to suffer injury by impacting head-on than by being run over. To help you maintain maximum cool and control in times of need, Howard strongly suggests practicing your wipeouts before trouble brews. Pad up, then head out to the alley or parking lot. Hose down the pavement, if need be. You might get a few scrapes, but the practice could someday pay off in spades. With enough practice, says Howard, skilled wipeouts will become second nature. Just like safety itself.

Bicycle Cool

Nobody wants to look like a doofus while doing his or her fitness thing. But biking can have its awkward moments. Here are some pointers to get you pedaling like a pro:

Maintain the chain. Those new to cycling are often easily spotted by the telltale imprint of chain grease across the back of their right calf. Avoiding chain contact when you swing out of the pedals isn’t hard, but if your chain derails while you’re changing gears, you’ll probably get greased. The best way to prevent chain derailment from happening is to shift to a smaller sprocket on the front chain rings before you “use up” all the gears in back. In fact, sometimes you can get the chain back on simply by shifting back to the big chain ring and pedaling a couple of strokes. If that doesn’t work and the chain falls off, stop the bike, move the left gearshift to its lowest position, and place the chain back on the smallest sprocket wheel. Pressing the derailleur pulley forward will take tension off the chain, allowing you to reset it.

Reach your braking point. Jerking to a stop feels as bad as it looks. Test your brakes so you understand just exactly how much pressure you need to apply to slow down or to stop. The lever on the right handlebar controls the back brake; the left controls the front. Unless you want to flip over your handlebars, never squeeze down solely on the front brake. This is especially important to remember when you need to reduce your speed going downhill. To come to a controlled stop, squeeze the right (back) brake and then, if more braking is needed, apply the left (front) brake. Before each ride, check your brake pads. Worn pads should be replaced. Also make sure there is just enough room between the pad and the wheel rim so it doesn’t rub either the metal rim or the tire, yet it catches quickly when engaged.

Curb your wheels. Hopping curbs isn’t nearly as tough as it looks, but it does take confidence — and momentum. To hop a curb — or to ride off one — shift your weight. Come slightly off the seat while keeping your knees bent to absorb the shock. When going down, lean forward slightly, relax and let gravity do its job. When going up, move your body weight backward and jerk up on the handlebars a bit just as you’re about to reach the curb, lifting the front wheel up onto the elevated surface as you continue pedaling.

Corner with confidence. Taking a corner badly can result in an unfortunate case of road rash (those evil scabs that form after skin has collided with asphalt). Corners are a tricky business because gravel, water and debris tend to collect there. While you need to factor in road conditions, traffic and the riders around you, there is an ideal way to corner on a bike without significantly reducing your speed: Think less about steering and more about leaning into the turn. While you’re leaning in, keep your weight on the outside pedal to stay balanced over the bicycle. For additional leverage, keep your outside leg straight and your inside leg bent, with your knee pointing toward the turn. Finally, keep your hands on the brakes — just in case!

Protect your bike. Bikes are common targets for thieves, so keep yours properly locked when you’re not riding. Your local bike shop can recommend a lock and show you the proper way to use it. Sometimes, however, a bike’s worst enemy is its owner: Roof racks are great for transporting bikes, but a low overhang can make a wreck of your riding plans even before you’ve begun. And nothing will make you feel more foolish than that.

Kara Douglass Thom is a multisport athlete and writer living in the Minneapolis area. She is the author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters With the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and a children’s book, See Mom Run (Breakaway Books, 2003).

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