I was starting my ride. I was excited and felt awesome. I wasn’t sure which way to go so I went for a more difficult route. I went up and over a few passes, and started down into town. I eased up and started moving to my defensive position, but before I could fully get there a car pulled out in front of me. I couldn’t stop in time and slamed into the side of the car. The next thing I remember I was on the side of the road my gear scattared on the road mixed with the shattered glass. I started to gather my gear to the small patch of grass. I felt something wet on my wrist and looked, there was a huge gash. I knew I was in trouble.
Soon the paramedics and the police showed up. My wife came. I was relieved to see her face. I was loaded on the stretcher and wisked away to the hospital. The lady who pulled out in front of me said to my wife “I thought he would be able to stop in time.” This quote embodies bicycle safety for me, that we are in an odd place where we are legally a vehicle, but the perception is that we don’t belong. The driver seemed to proceed into the intersection because she thought I could stop in time, that it was my responsibility to stop and that right of way didn’t apply to me.
I want nothing more than for there to never be another biker that has to go through that. I want to arm you with some of things I have learned to make myself a safer biker. Some things I have learned through the above experience, others I have learned through other bikers or near collisions.
Everyone is out to get you
The first lesson, the most important, is that you need to ride like everyone is out to get you. This is very similar to defensive driving. The phrase I like to use is “ride today like you want to ride again tomorrow”. The sentament is that safety is more important than anything else. Be safe!
Plan a good route
This starts long before you are astride your bike. When planning your route start by avoiding congested or busy areas, avoid narrow roads, find roads with large paved shoulder, and lower speed limits. As I have done this I have found routes that were stunning, with fantastic climbs, and low traffic. Who can argue with this:
Once you start your ride, remember you are a vehicle. You are subject to traffic laws. You must stop at stop signs and street lights, use turning lanes, obey speed limits and one way signs. Rules apply to you, and you would be really foolish to not follow them because they keep you safe.
Riding near cars
There are some really important ways to interact with cars. These points are especially important as distracted driving is on the rise. As you are riding you need to assume that the driver doesn’t see you. When you come to intersections, make eye contact with the driver, if the driver doesn’t stop you will know ahead of time. Put your hands on your breaks, and even slightly slow down getting ready to stop if you need to.
You need to be able to hear traffic and see it behind you. I only use earphones when I am riding alone and only listen to audio books because I can still hear traffic. To see traffic behind you a rear view mirror is essential. You can cars and also see other riders in your group with little head movement. Rearview mirrors aren’t allowed in races, but you’re not in a race.
When you come into busy area, towns, or around intersections, slow down. You not only need to watch out for cars you need to watch for pedestrians. With them you are the car, you can hurt them a lot, and you need to be safe around them.
Where to ride on the road
When it comes to where to ride on the road I try to stay as far right as is safe. Usually no closer than 1.5 feet away from the edge. When the speed limit is lower and the roads are more open and there are few cars, I move more to the lane of traffic. As the road gets more curvy, the speed limit goes up, or more traffic shows up I move to the side.
When in heavy traffic there are times I move to the side or integrate with traffic depending on traffic speeds. If I need to make a left hand turn I integrate with traffic early so there are no surprises and I know the drivers see me.
Sometimes the side of the road is not ideal, even when there is a bike lane. When riding in the country I have often felt nervous riding along the side of the road when there is a small drop to a field or canal, a cliff or a building, poles, curbs, or other barriers. These could be as dangerous as a car. Riding off the road is dangerous unless you are riding slow and coming to a stop. Don’t dart off the road to avoid a car, soft earth can put your face into the ground, or point you in a bad direction, faster than you know what happened.
When riding in a city or near intersections the side has some other hazards. Often cars will poke out into the side of the road so they can see traffic, this can happen without warning as the drivers aren’t thinking about things coming along the side of the road. The side of the road is more rough and will contain debris and sometime the debris is quite large, like mufflers or other car parts. When you come up to a parked car give your self enough room to clear the door if it suddenly opens.
It is important to think of yourself more like a vehicle and less like a squirrel that moves about darting in and out depending on if a car is coming or not. The overarching idea here is to be predictable and steady while being curtious.
Gear to keep you safe
There is lots of gear designed to keep you safe on a bike. That is why I was able to fully impact a car and come out still alive. I love my safety gear.
Let’s start with the top. You need a good helmet. I think of my helmet as kinda like the airbag of my bike. If I need it, I want to be sure it does its job well, but I hope to never need it. If you are unlucky enough to need it, like an airbag, it is a one time use. When I select a helmet there are four things I look for.
The first is helmet type. For most of my riding a standard helmet with lots of ventalation. These are the ones you see
most often. If you are looking for something more Aero, there are several types of helmets for gaining just a little advantage in your races. Some are full on aero with a fin in the back to place the air gently down your back, and there are sort of a mix between the ventelated and smooth helmet, I am seeing a lot more of those in races. For most people, and for first tris you won’t want a special helmet. Your day to day riding helmet will be fine as long as you follow the rest of the items below. As a general rule, I wouldn’t go under $100 for a standard helmet and aero helmets will start around the $250 mark.
Once I have selected my helmet type I make sure it has a Safety certification. In each helmet there is safty certification sticker. If you are choosing a name brand helmet in the price ranges mentioned above, they most likely have the safety certification. You need that sticker in your helmet for races because it is a requirement. I also prefer to have the mips system integrated into the helmet. Mips is a system that protects against rotational forces on the head caused by indirect impact. According to their research most impacts are not direct and rotational force causes the most damage to the brain. There are three different safety certification systems, The US, Europe, and Austrailia systems, US being the most relaxed. If you are entering a race in another country you will need to have a helmet that is sanctioned by their testing authority. In the US it is the U.S. CPSC.
After I have been assured of the type and safety of a helmet I look for the color and the fit. I look for bright colors. If the helmet is dark, I look for another. This is the highest point of visibility. If I am coming down a road with parked cars I want to give the person coming to an intersection the best possible change of seeing me coming. I will always have bright colors on my head.
I have purchesed all of my helmets online and have come to rely on two things that have given me a perfect fitting helmet. The sizing tables and using the same brand. I have loved my Giro helmets and I love how they fit. What I would recommend to start out is to go to a bike or sports shop and look at all the helmet brands. Try the top end helments and mid range, just be sure to stay above the $100 range. Your head will thank you for that. Find a helmet brand you like and then you can be confident with the sizing of the helmet.
When measuring for helmet size you should use a flexible tape that wraps the head just above the ears. Find the measurement and use that combined with the fit guide. Giro uses several head models to mold their helmets and I have always loved their fits. Maybe my head just happens to be one of their models. When measuring it is also good to consider winter and summer riding. you will want to keep your head warm, so having something that would allow for a small head covering or ear covering would be good, but should never compromise a well fitting helmet. Almost all helmets now come with the roc-loc system and makes a well fitting helmet easy to get. If you are in the right price range that will always be present.
Second in importance is a good set of lights. If the helmet is like an airbag your lights are like the seatbelt, never pedal without turning it on! When looking for your best bike lights you want to first consider lumens. Lumens are the measurement of how bright a light is. You want a front bike light to be at lease 1000 lumens. They need to be visible during the day and give high visibility to you at low light situations. And yes, you will be running your light during the day. Along with lumens considering a blinking pattern of the light is important. During the day I use a pattern that has a lower steady light with high bursts of flashing light. This insures constant visibility with attention grabbing flashing.
Secondary to lumens and blinking patterns are considerations for weight, aerodynamics, and battery life. Never compromise lumens and light patterns for these secondary considerations. Being at the race instead of in the hospital on race day is far more important that a little more drag on your bike during training.
The rear light is just as important as your front light. Be sure it is around the 100-200 lumen mark, a little more is good, less is not. You want it to be bright enough to be see during the day, but not so bright that you blind the person behind you in a group ride. Mine is around the 250 lumen mark and has several light patterns that include always shining patterns.
You need to have glasses. Don’t ride without them. I can’t tell you how many bugs I have had plastered on my face and glasses after a ride. You need to be able to see to be safe. This also includes being able to see road conditions in changing light conditions.
You don’t want glasses that are too dark that you can’t see in the shade. My pair has a good mid tone shade that is polorized. This helps to see the ro
ad even when the sun is glaring off the surface, and when riding through trees that have stark shadow and highlight strips accross the road. My wife has a system that allows for interchangable lenses and she can use the lens that is best for the type of ride we will be doing.
You also want glasses that give you a large range of sight, especially up as you need to be able to see up the road when tucked into your more aero positions. Try them on with your helmet and make sure the top sits well under the helmet and doesn’t press on your nose. Aero helmets will come with an integrated lens system and enhances the aero preformance of the helmet, they have a high range of sight, but isn’t typical on an average ride.
Dress to be seen
The pros look awesome as they round the corner in their amazing new kits (The jersey for the biker). It is very tempting to want to be as good looking as they are, decked out in their dark colors.
You want to feel like you are flying along in the pack at a gran fondo, but you have to remember, they are racing closed course, no cars and no pedestrians. They only have to worry about running into other bikers. You on the other hand, are on the open road. You need to be seen.
Bright colors are always more visible than dark colors, always. In low light, reflective gear is more visible. So I try and look for bright reflective gear. I am not saying every cyclist should wear emergency yellow everything. There are many bright colors that are not yellow. The most important thing to remember is safety is more important than fasion, every time.
When looking for bright gear, think carefully about white. When wet, and that includes sweaty, it is completely see through.
Training with tri (or aero) bars
A tri bar, or aero bar, is a type of handle bar setup that lets you get narrow and long and shifts your pelvis to get strong strokes for going fast through the air. They can come in a unified handlebar setup, think very expensive, or a clip on set that can be attached to most handlebars.
Ok, so you are stoked, you have your tri coming up so you put on your aero bars. Please, don’t put yourself in stupid situations like I did. When on your aero bars you don’t have brakes! Keep that always in the front of your mind. Sometimes it still haunts me what could have happened. A few times I went bombing down a steep hill because I wanted the exhileration of going as fast as I possibly could down a hill, but it is not a closed course. A car could have pulled out, a deer could have been on the road, there could have been a sketchy bit of road, all of which, at the kinds of speeds you can hit bombing a hill, would have you pretty mangled, or not breathing anymore.
Now I don’t touch my aero bars as often on a ride. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, and I actually am more comfortable on them then off of them on the bike, but I only use them in certain situations and I plan those situations into my bike route so I get the training on them I need.
In general those situations are as close to a closed course as I can get. Which includes situations that are low traffic and pedestrians, no or minimal road instersections, clean and smooth road surfaces, high visability of the road, and flat or slightly up or down hill. If any of those conditions change I pop up to my hoods with my hands on my brakes, then pop back when the conditions imrove.
These routes don’t have to be devoid of varying conditions, have tight and round courners is fun and necessary to practice cornering with them, but be sure there can’t be surprises around the corner.
When I am not on my aero bars, I can mimik the position from my hoods and my drop bars while still keeping my hands on the brakes at all times.
On the hoods I can move my grip towards the top of the hoods with my forarm along the remaning section of the handle bars. I move my head down and flatten out my back causing my arms to take around a 90 degree angle. I have immediate access to my brakes. The difference from this stance and my aero stance is the width of my arms which does allow the wall of air to hit the body under the chest, but is effective, trains your seat in the right position, and is a safe alternative grip to the aero bars.
The drops offer a very similar riding stance with the same differences, but gives a slightly different feeling position.
The road itself is also a very important safety consideration. When driving a car much of this doesn’t matter as much except for bumpy or smooth rides. On a bike it is a different story. You need to be aware of what you are riding over. A small patch of gravel, especially around a turn, can slam you into the ground. The same with wet metal, especially train tracks. If you need to hit them, hit them perpendicular even if they are not perpendicular to the road. Watch out for large potholes and especially watch for cracks that are parrallel to your direction of travel, they can swallow your wheel and throw you to the ground.
Riding in groups
One of the joys I have of riding is being with some great people and enjoying the time together. The scenery always seems a little more beautiful when you have some friends to share it with. Riding in groups is also safer. You have higher visibility and can help each other if something happens. There are, however, a few things that you have to do a little different in a group than when you are riding alone.
When riding in a group of two or more it is good to ride side by side, but you shouldn’t ride more than two abreast. When the road narrows or if traffic increases you should move to a single file. Plan a little ahead of time so you know who is going to fall back or speed up during the transitions. Communication is important when riding in a group so that everyone can know what is going on. The quickest and most effective way to communicate is through hand signals.
When you are riding in the front of the pack and see some bad road conditions point them out. With loud gestures point at large obsticals or pot holes. If there is gravel, sand, or other loose debris on the road indicate with a closed to open hand motion kinda like you are throwing the gravel there.
When making a left hand turn or slowing down, the standard bike signals work well, except I usually point with the hand on the side I am turning instead of doing all signs with the right hand. If I turn right I point right with my right hand. If I am turning left I point with my left hand. For emergencies and more immediate reactions I use a large quick gesture of my hand sweeping accross behind me trying to show with my motions it is an emergency. Don’t forget, you can use your voice too, talk or yell if you need to.
When you want to fall back and get some nice drafting after being in the front signal by sweeping you are back to front, like you are indicating to someone to come up in front of you.
Enjoy your ride
I truly hope that you never have to hear the sound of crashing glass, crunching metal, and a bouncing bike. I hope you never have to feel the sensation of black lifting from your sight and not knowing how you got where you are sitting on the ground and not on your bike anymore. With these guidlines you will be able to ride and really enjoy it. Remember:
- Plan an awesome and safe route.
- Always wear your bright, certified helmet.
- Turn your front (1000+lumens) and rear (~200 lumens) lights to a solid and blinking mode.
- Wear your bright kit.
- Only ride your tri bars when you wouldn’t need your brakes immediately.
- Watch the road conditions.
- and Enjoy your group rides.