Owning the Road Rules

Sane biking in a car-crazy world

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

There are so many reasons to ride a bike, the roads should be swarming with cyclists enjoying cheap, sustainable, healthy transportation. There's just that one hitch: Riding in traffic is intimidating. 'In [the United States] it seems cycling anywhere except in parks is dangerous,' observes the Vancouver-based Momentum magazine (Feb./March 2007), which also notes that compared to Canada, England, and a slew of European countries, the United States spends the least per capita on cycling infrastructure. And has the highest rate of injuries to riders.

There's been some stateside progress: Over the next three years, New York City is set to add 200 miles of cycling routes for urban riders, including designated lanes and vehicle-free paths. Chicago unveiled an ambitious Bike 2015 Plan, which outlines 150 strategies to make cycling 'an integral part of daily life' and reduce injuries by 50 percent. These initiatives should serve as models for other cities and towns interested in intelligent road design. Meanwhile, there are a few simple ways for cyclists in all riding environments to remain safe and undaunted.

Know the law. In the United States, cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorized vehicles, but the particulars are designated at the state level. Knowing the law helps you ride predictably (using standardized hand signals, for example) and can boost confidence. The Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition website (www.massbike.org/bikelaw) provides state-by-state legal resources.

You are likely to encounter a mandate to ride as far to the right 'as possible' or 'as practical.' Some cyclists think this means hugging the shoulder, but Bicycling Street Smarts (www.bikexprt.com/streetsmarts) describes many situations -- including parked cars, debris on the shoulder, and narrow streets -- in which 'taking the lane' is the practical, safer choice for everyone who is using the road.

Choose the right bike. 'Your bike helps you dream and escape,' Selene Yeager writes in Bicycling (Oct. 2006), 'but if you ignore the reality of how you ride, you'll never quite be comfortable, happy, or safe.' The build of a bike frame determines how it handles, and a mismatched rider will feel 'eternally unstable.'

Consider trading that wobbly 10-speed for a commuter-equipped mountain bike, a commuter-specific 'cross' bike, or a 'town cruiser,' which is a retro-looking ride with a cushy seat and an upright riding posture. Ask for help fitting your bike. A proper fit anchors you in the saddle with a low center of gravity and eliminates straining to reach handlebars or brakes, increasing stability and control.

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