Active Outdoors: Basic bike safety and road alternatives

  • This road biker has everything going for him: bright light, bright colors and he’s riding well off the traveled portion of the road. That’s as safe as you can get. TIM JONES /

  • You don’t have to worry much about car traffic when you ride on gravel roads such as this one in Quebec’s Easter Townships. TIM JONES /

For the Monitor
Published: 6/9/2019 6:44:02 PM

This being prime biking season, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves what it takes to have fun and be safe while cycling alongside cars.

On one of the few sunny weekend afternoons we’ve had this spring, I was heading home from a whitewater paddling excursion. The busy two-lane road I was driving generally has wide shoulders and is a very popular biking route. I was following another car and we’d already passed groups of cyclists, most riding in single file well to the right of the white line.

Occasionally you’d come upon two cyclists riding side-by-side, but they’d normally pull into single file as the cars passed.

Going into a sharp corner, where the road narrowed with guardrails on both sides, I caught a glimpse of another line of cyclists ahead, grinding up the steep hill. The driver in front of me saw them, too and started drifting toward the center line to give them more room. As he started passing the back end of the line of bikes, another group of cyclists appeared coming fast downhill in the opposite direction, with a very large truck alongside them.

At that point, I was able to slow down and stay behind the cyclists on my side, but the driver in front of me was caught in a squeeze play. The truck was also hugging the center line to pass the cyclists on his side which forced the car in front of me toward the center of our lane which brought him uncomfortably close to the cyclists he was passing. It wasn’t really a close call, but it was close enough get me thinking.

I want to make it clear here that no one was doing anything wrong. Neither the car in front of me nor the oncoming truck were speeding. The cyclists on both sides were riding responsibly in single file to the right of the white line, the car in front of me and the big truck were both trying to give the bikes as much space as possible, but at that particular point there just wasn’t enough space for everyone to avoid feeling squeezed.

If the vehicle in front of me had been another big truck, it would have been even tighter. And, if you’d added an aggressive or inattentive driver or cyclist to the mix at that moment, well, it could have gone badly.

While serious bike/car accidents are still rare enough to make the news, the potential is always there.

On the other hand, if everyone just pays a little bit more attention to safety and sharing the road, there could be even fewer mishaps.

Cyclists: legally, you have equal rights to use the road. But it’s also a fact that you are the one who are going to get hurt if something goes wrong.

My suggestions for safety include:

■Use bright flashing front and rear lights to alert drivers to your presence. Hopefully, you’ll never encounter a driver who is texting or adjusting the music or reaching for a coffee cup, but the more visible you make yourself, the less likely you are to have an accident. I’ve only had one serious encounter while riding a bike on the road: a driver pulled out from a stop sign right into my path and I collided with the car’s front quarter panel. If I’d had a brightly flashing headlamp, it might not have happened, although you have to wonder if someone who missed seeing two people dressed in neon colors on a big red tandem bike would have seen a flashing light.

■Always ride as far to the side of the road as you safely can. Sometimes roads have no shoulders or broken pavement so it’s not always easy to stay out of the way of motor vehicles, but it makes sense to take up as little space as you can for your own safety.

■Always ride in single file. Yes, it’s fun to ride side-by-side and chat, and you should be able to. But, again, you are the one who pays the price if something goes wrong. You are safer in single file.

■Always wear a helmet. For some unfathomable reason more and more cyclists don’t wear helmets. Maybe is messes up their hair. But given what we are discovering about the long-tem impacts of brain injuries, not wearing a helmet is just plain foolish.

■Ride predictably. Obey all traffic rules. Don’t make sudden moves when there are cars approaching.

■This counts as a personal pet peeve: Don’t wear headphones as you cycle. Yes, even deaf people can ride safely, but why deprive yourself of one of your important senses if you don’t have to. If you are talking on a phone, or listening to music or a podcast, you aren’t devoting 100% of your attention to the world around you, and constant attention and awareness always help keep you safer.

Drivers, I’m guessing you don’t need me to remind you that it only takes a moment of carelessness or anger to create regrets that will last a lifetime. It’s bicycle season. Keep your eyes on the road as you drive and give cyclists as much space as you can.

Road alternatives

I have to admit, I ride my bikes on roads less and less often these days. Ever since I had a friend killed by a distracted driver, I’ve gravitated more to dirt roads and rail trails. I’ve even traded in my road bike for a cyclocross frame with knobby tires ideal for riding on gravel roads. I can still take it on pavement, of course, but I almost never do.

This past weekend, my sweetheart Em and I had our tandem bike down on Cape Cod. For our first ride of the season we did about 15 miles on the Shining Sea bike path in Falmouth and Woods Hole. It’s paved, flat, scenic and, literally, the perfect warm-up ride. If you’ve never ridden it, it’s a beauty.

More rail trails ahead this summer.

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