Bike Commuting

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Bike Commuting

Post by Admin on Sun Sep 16, 2007 5:50 am

By CHRIS HRENKO

A common complaint of new or infrequent road cyclists and commuters is
that they feel exposed and squeezed by auto traffic. In the absence of
an extensive system of bike paths and lanes, sharing the road is
something that we all have to get used to. That means mastering the
fear of auto traffic, and knowing how to ride safely and predictably
as it flows around you.

Fortunately it's easy, though it may not seem to be at first. There
are times when the real dangers of bicycle commuting become all too
evident, most often when you are first starting out, and not yet
desensitized to being among a bunch of 3,000-pound projectiles with
nothing but a piece of foam on your head to protect you.

In the worst cases, an afternoon ride down a country road can begin to
feel like a game of Russian Roulette.

The feeling of imminent disaster that ruins the experience of
recreational riding or commuting for many starts the first time a
vehicle (usually some kind of large truck) overtakes you without
moving all the way over into the left lane. There's the wall of wind
that hits you from the passing vehicle that physically pushes you over
to the right, an unmistakable reminder of the overwhelming speed and
force to which you have made yourself entirely vulnerable.

Every time you hear a car approaching from behind, you might start to
tense up and hold your breath while fearing the worst. A moment of
inattention, a slight twitch of the wheel, and you're no better off
than all the other dead things stuck in that car's front grill (or
laying along the shoulder). You can let yourself be pushed further and
further to the right by each passing car until finally you're pushed
all the way onto the soft shoulder, struggling to maintain control and
not fall into the ditch.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

I remember having similar fears when I started learning to drive a
car. It seemed insane that I was expected to drive 55 miles per hour
with only a yellow painted line separating me from cars going equally
fast, but headed right at me. Just a twitch of the wheel or a moment
of inattention at that speed can easily lead to disastrous head-on
collisions.

Yet I knew that driving was an important step towards becoming a
functioning member of society, and learned simply to accept the
inherent risks of driving, just as almost everyone else does. As long
as everyone knows and abides by the rules of the road, the risks are
manageable. The benefits of driving outweigh the negative impact of
the occasional accident.

The same holds true for bicycle commuting, which also carries the
added incentives of reducing emissions and car maintenance costs, as
well as being a healthy and fun activity. Overcoming the fear of being
run over by a careless or inattentive driver is not much different
than mastering the fears that many people face while learning to
drive. There are inherent dangers, but sticking to the rules of the
road will greatly reduce the chance of a mishap.

Aside from all the normal traffic laws that apply to both cars and
bicycles, there are a handful of good riding habits that help
experienced cyclists keep the rubber-side down while riding in
traffic. A good general rule is to be highly visible and predictable.

This means keeping it smooth and not swerving around, or darting out
into the road to avoid obstacles. Loosening up that death-grip on the
bar will make it easier to ride in a straight line, and keeping an eye
up the road will allow you to plan a predictable, more gradual path
around any obstacles that you can't ride through or over.

Whenever possible, you should ride on the shoulder. It may seem
counterintuitive, but when you can't, you should ride slightly to the
left of the white line. Drivers use this line as a point of reference,
and if you are clearly inside it, they will plan ahead to give you
some room when passing. Riding right on the line encourages them to
try to squeeze by without moving over, leaving you no room to move
over since you are the extreme edge of the pavement already.

When riding next to parked cars, always be on the alert for opening
doors. Don't be shy about riding a few feet out to the left to avoid
being taken out by a suddenly opening door. Drivers who don't
understand may become annoyed, but it is easy enough for them to pass
you. If there are unoccupied parking spaces, avoid the urge to swerve
over into them, then back out into traffic. Keep it steady and smooth.

Watch for oncoming cars making left-hand turns and cars pulling out
into traffic. Drivers approaching from behind usually see you, and
they shouldn't present any problems unless you or they are being
unpredictable or belligerent. Oncoming cars and those entering
traffic, on the other hand, may misjudge your speed, or may not see
you at all, so try to anticipate problems before they arise, and make
sure that these drivers have acknowledged your presence.

More bike lanes would be nice, but how can we justify them without an
already healthy flow of bike traffic in the first place? You don't
have to be a victim of fear, constrained to closed paths and driving
your bikes to the place where you can ride them. Once we all become
comfortable riding on the road, the inevitable expansion of bike paths
and lanes will be icing on the cake.

Chris Hrenko is a bike mechanic at Onion River Sports in Montpelier.
During his free time, he rides his bike for the Kenda/Raleigh racing
team.

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