I am by no means an expert cyclist, and in fact, you could say I’m the opposite. So when I decided to start riding my bike to work on the streets of San Francisco, I did a bit of research (and a fair amount of trial and error), to make my commute comfortable and, most importantly, safe.
Here’s a quick list of things I’ve learned:
- take a cycling class (or at least read the road rules) to keep yourself safe
- take an on-road class if you’re a new, or timid, rider
- don’t push yourself past your own comfort-level, other riders might be more skilled (or just really stupid)
- always wear a helmet, and be sure it’s adjusted correctly
- a bandana over your ears keeps the wind and cold out (and also helps against helmet-hair)
- you’re going to get snotty, so keep a tissue handy (especially if it’s cold outside)
- wearing leather gloves (or half-gloves) will protect your palms if you happen to fall
- your shirt is going to ride up in the back when you lean forward, so layer for this
- you can get cold and hot while riding, easily changeable layers of clothing are great
- make sure your shoes stick to your pedals–if your pedals are plastic, sticky-rubber soles are the way to go (I’ve found Vans are the best, Keds are slippery)
- just like riding a horse, push your heels down and you’ll feel very connected to your bike
- when riding downhill, push your heels down and keep your weight over the rear axle
- if you have a front basket, the weight will cause your handlebars to turn, so keep the weight evenly distributed
- using rear baskets is best for heavy loads, since the weight will be over the rear axle
- use a bungee cord to keep your items in your basket (they take flight when you hit a big bump!)
- if you’re wary of thieves at red lights, a bungee cord over your items provides peace of mind
- carry a bike tool (special wrench you can get at a bike shop, or a pair of pliers) in case you need to adjust anything when you’re out
- get a good Kryptonite u-lock (thieves can’t cut through these)
- “if it can be stolen, it will be stolen”–you can get special bolts for tires and seats, that thieves can’t undo
Safety Is Up to The Rider!
The most important thing to remember about cycling is that safety is up to the rider. The more you do to educate yourself and learn the rules of the road, the safer you will be. The best thing I did was take an Urban Cycling Class prior to ever riding on the streets. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offers a free classroom workshop, which basically taught me that the instincts I thought would protect me on the street would actually have the opposite effect and be the things most-likely to get me injured.
In the SF cycling class, I learned things like… cycling on the sidewalk is the best way to get hit by a car; riding as close to right as possible to let cars pass you is a great way to be injured, and there’s no need because cyclists have the right to use the full lane; breaking the rules of the road like the other cyclists out there is a great way to put yourself at risk, and you know better than that.
Do a web search to see if your city has any cycling courses.
San Francisco: http://www.sfbike.org/
Berkeley, Oakland, East Bay: http://www.ebbc.org/
Los Angeles: http://la-bike.org/
Long Beach: http://www.southbaybicyclecoalition.org/
Wear a Helmet!
The other thing I can’t stress highly enough is the proper use of a bike helmet. It doesn’t take much to hurt your brain, and giving it some extra protection can literally save your life. One thing I see on the streets all the time are riders who have helmets on, but they’re not worn properly so they’re kind of useless. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions on how to fit your helmet properly, and look in a mirror to make sure you look just like the picture in their diagram.
If you’re not convinced, I’ll tell you the story of a friend who didn’t wear a bike helmet. He was around forty, riding his bike without a helmet in traffic. He didn’t get hit by a car, didn’t swerve to avoid anything scary–he did happen to randomly lose his balance, fall towards the pavement, and land on his forehead… which shattered into 400 pieces along with his eye sockets and nose. It took three years of invasive surgeries to remove all the bone fragments, several plastic surgeries to reconstruct his face, and he now has a plate where part of his skull should be. All of this literally would have been prevented by simply wearing a correctly-fitted bike helmet. See? Safety is up to you!