(Smarter cycling in the smartphone age.)

Having talked a bit about bike riding in my last post, Cycling For Justice, I want to share some risk mitigation tips I have learned training for and struggling through long organized rides since 1996. Note that I am not using the words “safe” or “safety.” As with anything worth doing, cycling has a number of risks. Although they can’t be eliminated (even by the most zealous helicopter parents), here are some tips for reducing them:

Wear a helmet!!

This should be page one, line one in the cycling instruction manual. I am still amazed it needs to be said at all. A February, 2017 study found (not surprisingly) that wearing a bike helmet reduces the risk of serious head injuries/fatalities significantly.

So, dig your helmet out of the back of your closet, and get it checked at a bike shop. Even a very small crack can make a helmet unsafe at any speed (and a helmet you were wearing in a crash should be chucked.) Wear the helmet every time you get on the bike. Without exception. If it is hanging from the handlebars when you crash, it may help your bike, but it won’t help you. If you are towing your kid around in a mini-trailer, you have to wear a helmet too. If you crash and become incapacitated, you better hope the wee laddie or lassie is learning first responder skills in pre-school.

I put the helmet on after posing in these cool biking clothes…

Ride defensively.

It is a worrisome world for cyclists, full of distracted texters behind the wheels of big Maserati SUV’s. Cars don’t kill people. But idiots sure do when they stray into wide bike lanes whilst checking Facebook. What’s to be done?

Memorize the preceding section about helmets.

Turn on your fore and aft lights (with charged batteries) at night and during the day.

Don’t ride on sidewalks or against traffic.

Don’t assume that a driver or another cyclist who hasn’t read this post sees you.

When a Lexus Leviathan is waiting to turn left in front of you, even if you have the right of way, try to make eye contact with the driver to be sure he or she sees you. If not, and the monstrous SUV is moving slowly, stop! The fact that you had the right of way will be small comfort when you are waiting for the paramedics.

If possible, ride on lightly traveled roads (they all seem to be in the time of the pandemic), or better yet, on bike paths. You will find there are more than you thought. Depending on how crowded the path and the road are, consider taking the path when you have a choice.

Glance back to your 3, 4, and 5 o’clock regularly to see what is catching up with you. (If you haven’t seen the movie “Twelve O’Clock High,” imagine you are in the center of a clock looking at the number 12.) You could install one of those little rearview mirrors on your helmet or your left handlebar instead. I would use one but I think they look dorky. That is stupid vanity on my part. I’m working on that.

When you cross an intersection do these things all the time:

As above, glance to your left and backwards to be sure that no one is about to turn right and side-swipe you.

Look both ways at every intersection. If you cross a one-way street, look both ways. If you cross a street on the greenlight, slow down and look both ways.

To paraphrase Johnny Cash, “I ride the line.” When you are riding in a straight line don’t wander to the right or left until you need to make a turn. If you veer off your line, you are at risk to being sideswiped by a car, or an idiot cyclist who hasn’t learned the proper passing etiquette. (See below.)

Do a pre-flight check.

When I was a kid, I hopped on my Schwinn Sting Ray with a banana seat and a spoiler. As Bicycle 😉 playing cards clacked away in the spokes, I raced off in search of adventure (without a helmet). It took me 10 seconds to launch. Those days are gone. Heck, it takes me awhile just to get all those cool-looking biking clothes on.

Jets that fly 50 times faster than bikes are much safer, in part because flight and ground crews always do a comprehensive check before taking off. You should too:

Be sure your bicycle has been tuned up in the last year. Find a cool old bike shop with good mechanics that is not part of a chain (no pun intended).

Before every ride, check to see if the tires have good tread, and are inflated to the prescribed pressure.

When did you last replace the tires and tubes?

Always carry at least one spare tube and the tools you will need to make basic repairs and adjustments during a ride.     

Are the brakes working?

Are the quick releases that hold the wheels to the bike fork/rear frame closed down tightly?

When did you last replace the chain?

Is your bike reasonably clean? It should be! A dirty drive train can cause the chain to slip when you are struggling up a hill out of the saddle. Show some respect and care for this lovely machine, still one of the most elegant, efficient modes of human transportation ever invented.

I might leave this rust bucket behind.

Before and during long rides, get and stay well hydrated and well fed. It is very hard to catch up when you get behind the curve and start to bonk. The maxim “eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty” is correct. I try to eat a Kind bar and drink a bottle of watered down Gatorade at least every hour on a longer ride.

Learn to ride your bike again (Um…what?)

I’m not kidding. These days you need to have a lot more skills than the six-year old you had when Mom let go of the handlebars and watched you cruise off under your own power. So, what am I talking about?

A lot of people use cleats that click into the pedals. I like them because they transfer leg power to the pedals more efficiently, and you don’t need to think about keeping your feet on them. But they are also hard to get used to. On a flat, isolated expanse of road, practice quickly clipping in and out of the pedals. Embarrassing, sometimes serious injury can happen if you can’t clip out, even at 1.5 mph. I know from personal experience that this is true.

Learn to descend properly. Go online and watch a tutorial. Fast descents on rainy days, especially when cornering, are dangerous. Roads are particularly slick within the first 15-30 minutes of rain because the grease and oil on the roads rise to the surface of the rainwater.

Slow down a bit on dry, sunny days too. The faster you go, the greater the force, and the worse you will be injured in a fall. Einstein proved that to be true.

Don’t try to keep up with fitter cyclists. No amount of egotism will make you ride faster than you actually can. That’s a law. Be patient. Fitness will come brick by brick. See my post on exercise.

Your smart phone should be off and at home in a drawer. (And not just while you are biking. More on that in an upcoming post.) If you must bring the bloody thing, turn it off and put it in your back pocket.

There is some difference of opinion about whether riding and listening to music on a phone (which would have to be in airplane mode) is acceptable. My cycling coach of 24 years has good reason to forbid it: You can’t hear noises made by potentially dangerous things, such as horns honking, approaching Tesla’s, crop-dusters in rural areas, and polite cyclists who say “on your left!” as they pass you. (Which you need to do when you pass other bikers.)

With respect (and much is due), I have a different view. I ride on roads with very few cars and bikers, and generous shoulders and gentle curves. Even if I hear some hopped-up twerp in his Ferrari coming up behind, there’s not much I can do if he swerves into me as he posts a driving video to Instagram. Plus, I like listening to the Classic Vinyl Sirius XM music channel.

Both of your hands should be on the handlebars. When you descend, put your hands in the drops (the lowest, curvy part), not on the brake hoods. When you are not using the brakes, curl your thumbs around the bars. Otherwise, you risk having your hands slip off when you hit a bump or tangle with a GMC Giganotosaurus.   

  Play nice in the asphalt-box.

Cyclists, drivers, and motorcyclists are known to treat each other as dogs, cats, and rats (in that order) sometimes do.

Be convivial. As my coach says, “Make friends with every motorist who encounters you on the road.” That means to give helpful hand signals when they try to pass on a narrow road. That means you shouldn’t yell at or flip off drivers who break a traffic law (especially if you cycle through red lights yourself.) For all you know, they will become enraged. Or you may see that cyclist on the other side of the desk at tomorrow’s job interview.

If you are in a large group of riders, try to ride single file within the bike lane so motorists can pass you.

Be courteous to other cyclists. If you are overtaking another biker, announce you are passing. (“On your left!”)

So, now you know a little bit more than you did about how to be careful out there….


MOVIE: Slaying the Badger (Greg LeMond’s historic win in the 1986 Tour de France)


“Mindful of the Mundane. (Paying attention to whatever you are doing right now.)”

1 thought on “IT’S THE HELMET, SILLY

  1. Pingback: Exercise shouldn’t be the “E” word. | Light at Sea

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