After a few weeks more than a year-long hiatus from road cycling prompted by a fourth bicycle/car accident, I returned to road cycling because mountain biking alone simply never fulfilled the reasons I have been a cyclist for over thirty years.
In that time, several local cyclists’ lives were lost and many had been injured by negligent motorists—all of which had transformed the cycling community I had enjoyed for decades. Local cyclists had begun to work in earnest toward greater cycling safety, including most cyclists now using day-burning tail and head lights as well as shifting to hi-visibility cycling kits.
My hometown bicycle club, the Spartanburg Freewheelers, launched a safety initiative also.
However, despite the lights and hi-vis kits, despite the increased rhetoric around safety, I have to admit that the actual cycling I witnessed upon returning to my road riding has not changed much; it remains too often punctuated by unsafe practices, and notably by veteran cyclists, some of whom are on the cycling club’s safety committee.
In fact, a recent Ride for Safety on July 4 highlighted for me that too much of what is happening in our cycling community is rhetoric without action*.
While the increased use of day-burning lights and hi-vis kits are important, I remain concerned that too many cyclists fail to acknowledge what exactly safe cycling looks like, and thus, here are some recommendations:
- Obey traffic laws governing motorists and cyclists. In my home state of South Carolina, cyclists are mostly bound to the laws applicable to motorists, but some cycling specific rules apply—a few of which, such as riding two-abreast, are actually antagonistic to motorists who are unaware of the laws.
- When joining posted or organized group rides, know the plan and expectations for the ride, and then conform to those expectations. In short, do not turn a posted or organized ride into your event or training session since the other cyclists will be expecting the posted ride. If you prefer a different ride or need a different training session, organize that yourself.
- Cycle predictably; hold your line, maintain even accelerations and decelerations, and use verbal and hand cues. Know the norms of group riding, or sit on the back of the group until you do. How to do a paceline, for example, is an essential skill for joining rides and riding safely.
- Safe cycling requires each cyclist to have a bicycle in working condition, including safe tires and the needed items in case of a minor mechanical (flat tire, etc.).
- Safe cycling also means being prepared with fluids and food that match the intended ride. A bonking or cramping cyclist is not a safe cyclist.
- Know the cycling route and help the entire group navigate that route by stopping completely at stop signs, calling out and pointing directions for all turns, and checking on and communicating the status of the group regularly (for example, if the group ride is a no-drop ride, confirming the group is together). Great rule to follow: If you do not know the route, do not ride at the front.
- Ride at your ability level, including monitoring your effort (such as taking pulls) relative to your fitness and experience. If you are a beginner or your fitness is lacking, the group will appreciate you skipping pulls so that you are able to maintain the group pace and complete the ride.
- Use verbal cues and hand signals to identify potholes and objects in the road. All cyclists in the group, not just the lead riders, are responsible for identifying dangers in the road and for moving the pack safely and calmly to avoid them.
- Communicate forward and backward. Pass up and back any verbal cues from other riders.
- Be careful not to use a group ride to socialize, but if you wish to chat with a friend, move to the last two riders so that your focusing on the discussion doesn’t interrupt the group.
- Virtual socializing also creates unsafe cycling; just as using your smart phone while driving endangers motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, your urge to take pictures and selfies while cycling probably should be reserved for stops or pre-/post-ride. At the very least, do your smart phone gymnastics at the back of the group.
- Drinking, eating, and clearing your throat and nose are all behaviors that must not interrupt your safe cycling or impede other cyclists. Learn how to use your water bottle and eat while cycling safely, and drop off the back of the group to spit or clear your nose. Do not cross the yellow line to create that space, however (see below).
- Remain two-abreast (or conform to the laws of your area) except when rotating off the front. Do not initiate wider than two-abreast during climbs or at stop signs/lights.
- Do not overlap wheels or wedge into or overtake other riders who are riding safely two-abreast. If you want to take a pull, work through the group in a safe manner as people rotate, or wait for a stop sign/light and ask to move to the front.
- Don’t cross the yellow or center line of a road**. This is the ultimate unsafe and inconsiderate cyclist move since it endangers yourself, the other cyclists on the ride, and motorists.
This last point hits as the larger concept of safe cycling: Always ride as an integral part of a community of riders recognizing that any action you take (or don’t take) impacts other cyclists.
Cyclists are extremely vulnerable on open roads, but for many of us, that risk is worth the huge benefits to group cycling. As is common in life, those most vulnerable carry the brunt of responsibility—unfairly.
Unsafe motorists are far more dangerous for themselves and everyone else than unsafe cyclists. None the less, cyclists must take it upon ourselves to model good stewardship of the open roads.
Safe cycling also helps foster the sort of community awareness that would serve us well in our full lives as workers, family members, and citizens.
I am glad my local cycling community has sought ways to be seen better, but I worry now that we are more visible are we in fact showing others what it means to cycle as if our lives depend upon it.
* This reminds me of when I first joined my university where the campus was blanketed by flags stating “Engaged Learning,” but when I walked the halls, all the classes were silent, attentive students in rows listening to their professors lecturing, often from notes.
** How many of us have crossed the yellow line to avoid a dog, or to avoid a crash? I have. Certainly, emergency situations create the necessity for emergency maneuvers, but far too often, crossing the yellow line while cycling is just careless bicycle handling and negligence. Yes, we can distinguish between the two, but in normal safe cycling, we should not cross the yellow line.