There’s a saying in aviation that’s been around since before I was born that goes, “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there aren’t any old, bold pilots.” I’m of the opinion that you can apply that saying to cyclists too. Using your head, be it in a plane, driving a car, or riding a bike, should be the first step in any safety program.
And since we’ve mentioned our heads, let’s start at the top – in this case, the top of your head. A bicycle helmet is usually the first thing everyone thinks of when we speak of biking safety and that applies to any age. I won’t argue at all about that helmet being the most critical piece of safety equipment for any cyclist. Like many things in life, I learned my lesson there the hard way – by going all the way through the rear window of an automobile, head first, and living to tell about it.
Unfortunately, when you ask the average bicyclist about safety, they quickly mention that all important bike helmet, and then sort of give you this blank look. They know there should be more to it than one thing, but they can’t think of anything else.
That’s why, with beautiful spring weather upon us, I’ve put together Bicycle Safety 101. A safe bicyclist begins before he or she ever gets on the bike, by using their heads and thinking ahead, planning their ride to their ability.
Ride within your limit. A few trips to the store are not sufficient training rides to do the “MS150” or some “Bike to the Beach & Back” event. You don’t want to be that person that gets so tired they’re pedaling awkwardly, swaying on the seat, and weaving out into the traffic lane.
Ever been lost? In a bad neighborhood that you didn’t know existed until a gang of home-boys started eyeing the spiffy new ride you just plunked down more than a grand for? I live in the inner city of San Antonio and use a bike for everyday transportation. My hock-shop beater doesn’t draw any attention and I can take it anywhere in town (in the daytime) and not have to worry much. However if you’ve got a fancy set of wheels, you better have a very good idea of where you’re going before you ever leave the house, or plan to ride in the country and even then, it’s always a good idea, for several reasons, to have at least one person riding with you.
Not only is there safety in numbers, there’s the comfort of knowing that if something were to happen to you or your bike, you’re not stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Don’t count on that cell phone, although I consider that an important piece of safety gear too. Road rash is embarrassing and uncomfortable, but in most cases you can make it back okay. However a bent or broken bicycle, or worse, a bent or broken body, means you need to call in help. If you’re by yourself when it happens, you can be sure a corollary of Murphy’s Law will apply. Your accident will occur within the only dead spot for your cell phone. Ride with a friend.
Aside from that helmet, there are other items of clothing to consider. Competitive cyclists, and the wannabes, get themselves tricked out in all the gear, from head to toe. They wouldn’t be seen in a helmet that cost less than a hundred dollars. They have to have a team jersey of some sort, plus the ‘in’ brand of shorts, and bicycling shoes – you know – the kind that clicks on to the pedal receptacles. But for us boomers and above that are more interested in having fun and getting some exercise than we are in our image to other cyclists, about the only thing we have to worry about is getting a pants leg in the bike chain. When the weather is too cold to wear shorts, I keep reflective garters in my backpack so that my pants cuffs don’t snag on a bottle holder or shifter or get hung on the ring gears.
Get a helmet that’s rated by the CPSC. Check out the website of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute at www.bhsi.org. They’ve done research that shows that the cheap helmets and the expensive helmets have near identical impact results and in most cases, the cheaper helmets, without the fancy flares and protrusions, are less likely to cause rotational stress. I happen to think that a good pair of bicycle gloves, with the gel palms, is also important. The first time you hit the asphalt without them, you’ll agree too. As to the rest of your attire, suit yourself.
That does however bring up visibility. If you’ve ever had the desire to dress like a peacock, riding a bike is your best excuse. Loud, bright, colorful – it’s all good here. If idiots behind the wheel of a car, usually with a cell phone in their hand, can’t see big red stop signs, or even bigger, shiny automobiles, anything you can do to make yourself more visible is fine by me. I’ve ridden a couple of recumbent bikes and loved them. But there’s no way I’m going out in traffic riding something that’s already below fender height – I don’t care how many flags you hang on one.
As to riding at night, my advice is: Don’t! I have yet to see (and that’s not a pun) a bicycle lighting system that I’d feel comfortable with. At times I have to ride my bike before dawn and after dark and I’m super cautious at when I do. Reflectors and reflective tape and clothing help more than those blinking lights that are supposed to be so good. What they look like to a motorist (that isn’t paying attention) is a warning light of some sort way off in the distance. However reflectors on your pedals, and reflective strips on the pedal arms, show up as an unusual pumping motion that gets a drivers attention – sometimes.
Another dangerous time is when the sun is low on the horizon. If the sun is ahead of you and there are drivers coming up behind you, there’s a very good chance they can’t see you. The same applies if the sun is behind you and someone is waiting to pull out in traffic or make a turn in front of you and they’re looking into the sun at the same time.
The rule of thumb that will save your life is to assume you can’t be seen. I don’t care how nice the day is, or how perfect the visibility, I ride with the assumption that every driver on the road cheated on their drivers license eye exam and should be declared legally blind, and has had enough to drink to melt down a breathalyzer. That’s why I ride a mountain bike in the city. If they have the attitude that it’s their road, I’m not going to argue; I’ll get off. They’re driving a two-ton automobile and me and my bike together might weigh 175 pounds. Do the math. I don’t know any of this ‘New Math’ but I do know that on the roadway, 175 can definately be divided by 4000.
Now a few words about the bike. Make sure it’s in good working order before you take off. Even if it’s brand new, you want to carry a spare tube and a hand pump. Between a saddle pack and a fanny pack, you can carry first-aid essentials (new skin, sun block, lip balm, etc), and enough small tools and stuff to fix a flat so that you won’t have to walk home. If you haven’t been on your bike in a while, or if it’s been some time since it was last in the shop, I heartily recommend you take it in for a spring tune-up. A bike mechanic can find things like loose spokes, cracked tires, worn brake pads, or shifters out of adjustment that you might not notice – until another of those Murphy’s Law corollaries bites you in the butt a million miles from nowhere.
Another thing a bike pro can help you with is making sure your bike is fitted and adjusted for your body and that you have a saddle that won’t leave you walking bowlegged following your first moderate ride. A badly chaffed crotch has dissuaded more would be bikers than anything else I know of.
The last thing I want to mention about bicycle safety is something I rank up there 2nd only to that bike helmet and that is hydration. In the heat of summer, you’re thinking about water before you begin. However in the spring, when the urge to get out and about on a beautiful day makes you assume it’s not that hot yet, think again. Just because you’re not sweating like a horse, it doesn’t mean you’re not loosing body fluid. If you wait until you’re thirsty to replace those fluids, you’ve waited too long. In the spring, a person is more apt to get a muscle cramp before they have any other symptom.
So get some good, stainless water bottles (please – no disposable plastic water bottles) for your bike, use them and refill them often, and enjoy your ride!
Additonal safety tips can be found at www.bicyclesafe.com