Mountain biking is not too adventurous or risky for cyclist Kevin Brown. What really spooks him, he said, is riding in city traffic. He’s carried that anxiety around for decades, ever since enduring a couple of collisions with “crappy drivers,” including one who sideswiped him without ever even stopping, he said.
“I guess I’m still a little edgy,” Brown said.
That’s why Brown joined a free, guided, safety-oriented group ride hosted by the Vancouver Bicycle Club on Monday night.
“When it comes to safety, some things are going to be out of our control,” conceded ride leader Jan Verrinder. “But some thing are within our control, and the main thing is right up here.”
Verrinder tapped her helmet-protected head. While mastering the rules of the road is important, urban cycling always requires alertness and common sense, she said. Just because you follow the rules, that’s no guarantee motorists will do the same.
The Vancouver Bicycle Club is offering “Road Cycling 101: Stress-free Skills & Safety” every Monday night, now through May 25. It’s a free outing, intended for adult cyclists who’ve never tried to ride in traffic before, as well as returning cyclists seeking a little help and confidence while getting back in the saddle. Dropping in and coming back for multiple rides is just fine.
Each session convenes at 5:30 p.m. near River Maiden Coffee in the Tower Mall parking lot on Mill Plain, and starts with a brief orientation about those rules of the road, followed by a routine “ABC Quick check” for each participating bike:
• Air. Are your tires hard? Underinflated tires are harder to steer and quicker to damage.
• Brakes. Do they work properly? Do your tires spin freely without rubbing?
• Chain and crank. Is your chain clean and lubricated, or rusty? Do your pedals wobble, side to side?
• Quick: If you’ve got a quick-release seat or wheels, make sure those quick-release levers are set tight.
This ABC Quick check is a standard pre-ride inspection that every cyclist should always complete before hitting the road, Verrinder said. (As if to illustrate the point, one man on the ride with visibly underinflated tires had a tough time steering, and crashed into a traffic cone. He continued to decline all offers of a pump-up.)
But there’s one more mandatory thing: protecting the precious common-sense generator known as your brain. To test the fit of your helmet, put it on but leave it unbuckled and shake your head around. If the helmet swishes about, or slides back to expose your forehead, tighten it for a snug fit that truly protects your noggin. You’ll need that noggin for real-world challenges up the road.
Rules vs. realities
The Cycling 101 convoy left Tower Mall and rode east, staying single-file while traversing local streets and intersections. Verrinder led the way while another volunteer brought up the rear so nobody would get left behind. The ride was 4 miles long and took about an hour, after which a hardy, self-selected “Cycling 201” group ventured several more miles with another Bicycle Club guide.
The bike convoy paused frequently in safe, traffic-protected spaces — like Park Hill Cemetery — to discuss rules, best practices and streetwise realities, from dangerous potholes to effective turn signals.
“Communication with drivers is so important,” Verrinder said. But since cars have turn signals while bicycles only have riders with arms, what’s the best way to indicate a right turn — by raising your left arm in the traditional capital-L, or by pointing the way you’re turning?
Both are considered acceptable these days, according to Verrinder — but some cyclists said they still prefer the left-arm L because it’s more visible to a motorist on the left.
“That’s the way it was taught to us, back in prehistorical times,” agreed cyclist Jody Boyle.
Verrinder cautioned chatty cyclists about riding side-by-side in the street or bike lane. Taking up that much space is a recipe for conflict with traffic, she said.
A new state law requires cars to provide at least three feet of space when passing bikes in the street, Boyle pointed out. “They can’t kiss our patooties anymore,” she said. “I just hope they know it.”
What if a car and a bike are side-by-side in the right-hand lane, and the car means to turn right while the bike means to go straight? Whoever’s furthest right has right of way, Verrinder said; the car is supposed to wait while the bike proceeds.
But “supposed to” can be cold comfort, she added. “The cemetery is full of people who had right of way,” she said. It’s probably best just to occupy the whole lane and proceed, rather than squeezing alongside a car and creating any opportunity for confusion — and the kind of collision that’s called a “right hook,” Verrinder said.
“I am glad to have this information because I want the drivers to respect me,” said cyclist Alejandra Javez, who has been nervous in traffic ever since she took a spill and wound up in the emergency room. “And when I am a driver I want to know the rules for the bikes so I can respect them.”
Knowing the rules of the road is important, Verrinder agreed. But the most valuable thing about the Stress-free Skills & Safety Series may be providing real-world practice dealing with the messy reality of traffic.
“Always stay alert and think for yourself,” she said.