Survival tactics for the urban cyclist
Let’s face it.
Biking may be fun. Okay, a lot of fun. But it’s a lot more enjoyable when you can arrive back home alive, and in one piece. In three decades of riding, mostly city streets, I’ve learned a few lessons about getting there and back safely — most of them the hard way. So allow me to share a few tips that could help keep you safe. And help you survive life on these mean streets.*
*Big Important Footnote: There are inherent risks to bicycling, especially in an urban environment, just as there are with any other physical activity. While these techniques have worked for me, they may not be right for every rider, or in every situation. Feel free to take advice from me or any other experienced cyclist. But ultimately, you have to make your own decisions about what is safe — and legal — in any particular situation.
Never leave home without it:
Helmet If you want to start a fight, bring up the subject helmet use in a group of cyclists (see comments below). But the simple fact is, wearing a helmet every time you ride can significantly reduce your risk of head injury in solo falls or slow speed collisions. Just remember, though, bike helmets are only designed to protect against impacts up to 12.5 mph, and will do little or nothing to protect against a high speed impact. Which means the best way to survive any collision is not to have one.
Riding glasses Look for lenses made of shatterproof polycarbonate that cover the entire eye socket to protect from falls or flying objects. Riding glasses should meet the minimum safety standards of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA); many models come with removable lenses, allowing you to adjust for lighting conditions. Over the years, my glasses have protected my eyes from countless flying objects, from rocks to bees, and may have kept me from losing an eye in a solo fall.
Gloves If you’ve ever had road rash on your hands, you know why you should never ride without biking gloves. And if you haven’t, trust me — you don’t want to.
Sunscreen It may seem silly to slather on the lather before you hit the road; I didn’t think it mattered, and rode unprotected for years. Now I know better, having learned the hard way. So get a good, sweat-proof sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more, and wear it on every bit of exposed flesh every time you ride. Because the last word you ever want to hear your doctor say is “cancer.”
Degree of difficulty: 1 out of 5 (after all, you have to buy them — and remember to wear them)
Learn to turn
Whether you like to ride fast, or you’re a charter member of the Slow Cycling Movement, you need to know how to turn before you try to ride in traffic.
And that means no handlebars.
Using your handlebars to turn your bike is a slow, unsteady process — one that doesn’t allow you to respond quickly in an emergency situation. So if you still turn the old fashioned way, take yourself someplace where you have room to practice turning, like an empty parking lot.
Then try shifting your weight slightly to the right as you ride to turn right, to the left to turn left. Notice how your bike will follow in the direction you move; to straighten out, just center your weight on your bike again.
Keep practicing, and soon you’ll be able to carve a fast turn in either direction simply by dipping a shoulder or shifting a hip — giving you the skill you need to avoid a pothole or a door that suddenly pops open in front of you.
Degree of difficulty: 3 out of 5 initially; 1 out of 5 with practice
Once you’ve mastered turning by shifting your weight, you’re ready to master an advanced technique, known as counter steering, that can dramatically improve your ability to turn at high speed or in emergency situations.
Just before you start your turn, turn your handlebars slightly in the opposite direction, then lean in the direction you want to turn. While it may seem counterintuitive, the result will be a sharp turn in the desired direction, requiring significantly less time and space than any other method.
Again, practice somewhere with enough space to turn without hitting anything. And keep practicing until it feels comfortable before you attempt it in traffic.
Degree of difficulty: 4 out of 5 initially; 1 out of 5 with practice
Use your voice
Every car has a built-in warning system. And so do you.
The problem with car horns is that they may get your attention, but don’t tell you anything specific. It could a warning, an expression of anger or someone saying hi to a passing friend.
The same is true with an air horn or bell on a bike. All the tinkling of a bell tells anyone is that there’s a bike nearby. Or that an angel just got it’s wings.
So use your voice.
Instead of just announcing your presence, tell people you’re passing on the left or right. Shout a warning. (In my personal experience, a loud “Yo!” works best to get a driver’s attention, while “Look out!” works best for panic situations. For pedestrians, try the old playground favorite “Head’s up” to get attention and “Look out!” for emergencies.) Or tell people what they should do, like “Go ahead” or “Keep right.”
Just be careful which words you use. Short words work best.
And oddly, swear words don’t work at all.
Degree of difficulty: 2 out of 5
Wear bright colors.
Dark and earth-tone jerseys may be fashionable right now, but they can also make you blend into the background — and dramatically increase the risk that a driver will fail to see you, and cut you off or turn into your path.
When I ride, I always wear a bright colored jersey, usually yellow, red, or white with bright insets. (You might note that these are the same colors they paint fire trucks. And for the same reason.) Oddly, bright black seems to work well during the day, while any light color works at night.
Experience has taught me that most drivers are more likely to see — and as a result, avoid — me in colors like that. And the same goes for helmets — I had far fewer close calls when I used to ride with a bright red helmet than I do with a jet black one.
That doesn’t mean you have to dress like a circus clown. It’s your obligation to make sure you can be seen; it’s up to the drivers you share the road with to actually see you.
Degree of difficulty: 1 out of 5
Position yourself to be seen at red lights
Intersections are dangerous places. In fact, 45% of all collisions between cyclists and drivers occur at some sort of road junction. And where you position yourself at a red light can make a big difference in whether or not you join that statistic.
Once again, the key is to make yourself as visible as possible. While some respected sources suggest stopping behind the car ahead of you, in my experience, that’s exactly the wrong place to stop in most cases. Any cars coming up from behind will be focused on the vehicle ahead, and may not notice you waiting there behind it.
Meanwhile, if any of the vehicles ahead of you are trucks, SUVs or minivans — which is pretty likely these days — you will be completely hidden from view of any oncoming traffic, greatly increasing your risk of a left cross collision. And if you are more than one or two cars back from the corner, you’ll probably be hidden from any cross traffic, as well.
So work your way up to the front of the intersection, being careful to watch for turning cars and opening doors. Then position yourself in crosswalk just ahead of the through traffic, while leaving the right lane clear for turning cars. That way, you can be seen from all four directions, without blocking any traffic capable of moving before the light changes.
If any pedestrians are in the crosswalk, just smile and politely move out of their way. Then once the light changes, move slightly to the right while you cross the intersection, allowing the first few cars behind you to pass, before you take your place back on the right side of the lane.
Degree of difficulty: 3 out of 5
Watch out for the dips (and not just the ones behind the wheel)
So there you are, cruising along in heavy traffic, when suddenly up ahead you spot a big gaping maw in the face of the road — a gigantic pothole looming right in front of your wheel. The natural inclination is to swerve out into the traffic lane to go around it. Which isn’t a bad idea, if you know there aren’t any cars coming up behind you.
If not, you’re going to have to just suck it up and ride through it.
So try this. Loosen your grip on the handlebars, so you’re holding steady, but not tightly, and bend your elbows slightly to absorb the shock. At the same time, raise up off the seat to cushion your rear, keep both knees bent, and shift back a little to place more weight over your back wheel. Pull up slightly on your handlebars as your front wheel hits the far side of the hole and let your arms and legs absorb the initial impact, then rock forward to take pressure off the back wheel, using your legs as shock absorbers.
Do it right, and you’ll sail through with nothing more than a bone-jarring shock; get it wrong, and you might pinch a tube or crack a rim, or possibly risk serious injury by sailing over your handlebars. But it beats the hell out of what could happen if you swerve in front of oncoming traffic without any warning.
Degree of difficulty: 4 out of 5 initially; 3 out of 5 with practice
Don’t let the bastards get you down
We’ve all been there. You’re having a great ride, when some jerk cuts you off or nearly runs you off the road. And that’s all you can think about for the rest of the day. So don’t let them get to you. Instead of focusing on the one or two rude drivers you encountered, focus on the hundreds, if not thousands, of others who shared the road safely and courteously.
And enjoy yourself. Seriously.
Degree of difficulty: 5 out of 5
Learn how to fall
Sooner or later, everyone hits the pavement — no matter how good you are or how carefully you ride.
For most people, the natural instinct is to use your hands to break the fall. Unfortunately, that can be exactly the wrong thing to do. But I’ve found it’s possible to use today’s clipless pedals to my advantage, and roll with the fall to minimize the risk of injury.
Falling forward If you find yourself going over the handlebars, it’s natural to let go of the handlebars and put your hands out to break the fall — which means you’re likely to break an arm, wrist or hand bone, dislocate a shoulder, or land on your face or chest, resulting in facial or chest injuries, or a broken collarbone.
Instead, this what has worked for me: I try to remain clipped in the pedals, grip the handlebars tightly, and tuck my elbows into my body. At the same time, I tuck my head down between my shoulders, and round my shoulders to shape my upper body into a ball. My momentum will continue to move my body forward, rolling me over the handlebars, still attached to my bike, which helps me maintain my curved position. So now, instead of flying face forward, I’m likely to land on my shoulders and can roll with the fall to release momentum.
Falling sideways I suffered three broken arms before learning this technique. If I feel myself falling to the side, again, I remain clipped in the pedals, grip the handlebars tightly, and tuck my elbows into my body. At the same time, I tuck my head down between my shoulders, and lower my shoulder in the direction of the fall. Then I try to land on my shoulder and roll with the fall to release momentum.
Of course, every accident is different, and it’s still possible to get badly hurt. But since I’ve learned these techniques, I’ve also walked away from accidents that could have been serious.
Degree of difficulty: 5 out of 5
California law requires a bright headlight after dark, a red rear reflector, reflectors on each pedal, shoe or ankle, and additional reflectors on the side front and rear of your bike.
In real life, you need at least a front light and a red tail light anytime you’re out on the streets in partial or complete darkness, from roughly half-an-hour before sunset and after sunrise. The purpose is more to be seen than to see, even though the latter is important, as well.
I ride with a flashing light up front and in back; while the flashing annoys some people, I’d rather be annoying than not noticed. I also have a second red flasher on my messenger bag, as well as reflective straps on both ankles, and on my wrists to ensure my turn signals are visible.
I always carry a light set with me on late afternoon rides in case a mechanical problem keeps me out later than planned; many riders insist on using high intensity lights during the day as well as after dark.
Degree of difficulty: 1 out of 5
Be more defensive
It’s not that drivers are actually out to get you. But if you ride that way, you’re more likely to make it home in one piece every time.
The key to defensive riding is to assume that anyone on the road will do exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. Assume the car approaching in the opposite direction will turn across your path, or that the car coming up from behind will pass too close or right hook you after passing.
Prepare for it — mentally and physically — and you’ll be ready for whatever happens. Even it nothing does.
Degree of difficulty: 5 out of 5 initially; with practice, 2 out of 5
Stay out of the swing
The same thing goes for car doors.
Dooring is one of the leading causes of bike collisions. While it’s rarely deadly, it’s likely to result in some seriously painful injuries that will remind you to never ride that close to a door again.
To avoid it, always position your bike at least three to five feet from any parked cars, even if that means riding in the middle of the lane in front of oncoming traffic; it’s a lot better to make drivers go around you than risk getting trapped between a swinging door and a car trying to squeeze by without changing lanes.
Then watch for any signs that the driver may be about to open the door or pull away from the curb, such as turn signals, brake or back-up lights, or front wheels angled away from the curb. Also watch for any sign of someone in the driver’s seat, whether through the back or side windows, or in the driver’s mirror.
And always be prepared for a driver throw open a car door immediately after parking.
None of that means a door is going to fling open or a car lurch away from the curb. But any of those should serve as a warning sign that something could happen. And the more prepared you are, the less likely it is to happen to you.
Degree of difficulty: 4 out of 5