By Morgan Denny, DPT
I love to ride my bike. It is one of the most convenient, fun, healthy ways to get around the city and stay fit. I ride in the sun, the wind, the rain, the sleet and sometimes even the snow. I’m nearly as reliable on my wheels as the postal service! As a physical therapist and bike advocate, there is a phrase I hear all the time: I would really like to ride my bike more, but I just don’t feel safe on the road.
So, this post is devoted to safety tips, planning strategies, and awareness elements that will keep you safe and confident while riding your bike. These tips are geared toward both the novice biker who is currently dusting off his wheels in preparation for the spring AND the experienced cyclist, who is just waiting for the day she can remove her fenders and gortex shoe covers!
The main elements we need to address are: visibility, comfort, and respect for the road and all those who use it.
Tip #1: VISIBILITY!
There is no better way to be safe on the pedal than by being seen. This doesn’t mean you have to sing opera with wild hand gesticulations or wear only neon colors head to toe, though neither would hurt. It does mean that you should avoid wearing dark colors at night. It also means using appropriate lighting. When cycling at night, during dusk, or when it’s raining, bikes should have at least one white headlight in the front and one red tail-light in the rear. Law requires this at night, but remember the goal is to be seen, so use them whenever visibility is compromised (eg. when it’s raining and people’s windshield wipers may not be perfectly clearing each droplet from their windshields).
Be sure to place your blinkers in visible areas. Often lights attached to back pockets or bike bags can be covered accidentally by clothing or placed to far to the side, making them less visible to cars directly behind you. Additionally, a light on your wheel spokes, so that you are visible from the side, is quite helpful. And while you can also wear reflective vests, a cheaper and more creative solution is to decorate the back of your jacket, pants, bike, or bag with reflective tape. This cannot be underestimated; reflectors are magic when car headlights are applied!
Another aspect of visibility is awareness of whether or not you are seen. Attempt to always make eye contact with drivers, other cyclists, and pedestrians before proceeding to turn or making your way through intersections, even when you have the right of way. Making eye contact establishes the fact that both commuters actually see each other and takes the guess work out of making a safe crossing.
Lastly, be aware of your surroundings; this includes the type of road you’re on, whether or not you are in a bike lane, and what type of other people/vehicles are around you. Most cyclists who are injured by vehicles are hit when cars are making right turns and do not see the biker.TIP TO REMEMBER: when proceeding through any intersection, ALWAYS position yourself at least a few feet
behind the bumper of the car in front of you. Though they may not have a turn signal blinking, they may
intend to make a right hand turn or decide to at the last minute. If you are next to them, you will be
in their blind spot and in a dangerous situation. If you are behind them, you will be able to see their
intentions more clearly and hit your brakes to slow down if you need to. This positioning also places you
directly in front of the car behind you (VISIBILITY) so that they are aware of your presence.
Tip #2: COMFORT
…ahhh yes. Many times I have heard people say, I would like to ride my bike, but it’s uncomfortable and the weather isn’t always great. Numero Uno: Welcome to the Pacific Northwest. But moving beyond the fact that Oregon (and many other states) does not provide windless sunny days with the consistency some might hope for, there are heaps of ways and strategies that will keep you comfy on your bike, no matter what the circumstances!
First of all, if your bike is uncomfortable, you may simply need to have changes made to your bike’s set up. It could be as simple as moving your seat, changing the angle of your handlebars, or learning the correct position on your bike. Luckily, there are skilled physical therapists (and you might know a few) who are trained to do cycle fits and can make changes to your bike to appropriately fit your anatomy or teach you exercises to improve your position, comfort, or efficiency when pedaling!
If you are pedaling frequently, the importance of having a good fit can not be overstated.
Preparing appropriately for the weather, or the possibility of weather, is another key factor in being comfy cozy on your bike! First and foremost, dress in layers! Nothing beats the elements of hot and cold like variety. It may be 10 degrees cooler in the hills than it is in the valley and you should plan accordingly.
Secondly, purchase, borrow, or find in a free box some good rain gear. It’s truly amazing how impervious to wet Gortex can be; and how much easier it is to get your pedal on in the rain when you know you’ll still be dry once you strip off your waterproof layer upon arrival. Additionally, you can bring extra clothes with you to change into or leave a spare set at your common destinations. For example, I leave my work clothes at work, along with an extra pair of dry shoes…never mind that half the time I opt for barefoot status…but that’s another story.
Being comfortable on your bike also includes an amount of confidence in yourself on the road. If you feel hesitant to ride your bike amidst cars, there are simple steps you can take to be sure you have a comfortable and safe route. For one thing, improving your visibility to cars (see above) will give you confidence that everyone knows you’re there. Also, take bike routes or side streets anytime it’s possible. If you live in lovely Ptown, you’ll find no shortage of preferred marked bike routes and bike lanes; most outdoor or bike shops sell maps that specifically detail these. Mapping your routes accordingly will dramatically decrease the number of cars you get close to while pedaling and you will get to see more fantastic bike commuters like yourself!
If you don’t feel confident about your balance on a bike, particularly at intersections when a stop is required, try these tips:
- When you stop at an intersection, DO NOT try to continue sitting on your seat with both your feet touching the ground on either side. This is a precarious position full of terrible teeter totter possibilities. INSTEAD, bring your seat off your saddle and place one foot (or both) on the ground. Lean your bike slightly down towards the foot you have placed on the ground (the other may be on the pedal still). This will give you a more stable gravitationally affected triangle AND it will have you in the ready position to push down on your pedal and restart when that light turns green!
- Practice your starts and stops around your neighborhood (that’s right, where everyone can see you). This will help you gain confidence in going at different speeds, stopping appropriately, and restarting…without any other cyclists or cars to worry about.
Tip #3: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
find out what it means …for you…sing with me now!
No matter where you’re going or what kind of bike you’re riding, you should always always ALWAYS respect the road. Remember that it is a very hard surface and fairly unforgiving to your amazing flesh covered body. I could rant about wearing a helmet, but I will assume that if you’re smart enough to be reading this blog, you likely R.E.S.P.E.C.T your brain and the way it currently functions, so I will not address its importance specifically in this article.
Respecting the road also means adhering to the rules. Stop at signs and lights that involve the color red, use appropriate signals for turning and indicating a change in direction, and just say no to agro! Remember, you have nothing to prove out there and in a fight between you and a heavy metal box with wheels, you will always lose. Keep this in mind.
Some of these tips go back to visibility and communication. Just because you’re wearing that superstar helmet does not mean that cars or other cyclists can read your mind. Tell us what you’re going to do before you do it! Biking on the street is like having a relationship, the more open and forthright you are, the less likely that anyone will get hurt.
Riding a bike is one of the funnest, bestest, most awesomest ways to get around. Making every pedal a comfy cozy happy safe ride can only help! More power to the pedal!
Morgan’s commute to New Heights is 30 miles round trip. This is the view from her bike during the February snow storm.
Happy Trails: Bike Safety Tips! in Portland OR and Vancouver WA
Seeing Patients in the following Portland and Vancouver areas: