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Bicycle Commuter's Guide

Share the Road

Tips & Techniques:
Do you know how to ride a bicycle?

Many people realize that riding a bicycle instead of driving a car saves the noise, stinks, and congestion of the infernal combustion engine.  Do you know the personal benefits of cycle commuting?  Cycling offers pleasure, companionship (ride with a buddy), cost savings (especially if you eliminate a motor vehicle), time savings (combining workout with commuting), reduced stress, and cardiovascular fitness.  A bicycle can be a "fitness club on two wheels."  Riding is fun and makes you feel good. 

Share the Road Skills: Do you know how to ride a bicycle?  Almost everyone would say, "Of course, I learned as a kid."  But watch people riding bicycles.  You will see that only a few riders, perhaps 5 percent, show true proficiency by steering accurately, pedaling easily at a brisk cadence, and riding fast.  They have to go fast since they ride at least 2000 miles/year. 

You will also see many novice riders who weave and wobble, as they grind their pedals slowly (less than 60 rpm) to ride sluggishly (6-12 mph).  Novices usually ride less than 500 mi/yr.  Many run traffic lights, ride on the sidewalk or the wrong side of the road, ride too fast downhill and wear no helmet.  Novices have about five times the crash rate as experienced riders even though they are much less likely to ride in rush-hour traffic in foul weather or after dark. Obviously, there is more to cycling than balance.  Now, ask yourself again, do you know how to ride a bicycle? 

If you are willing to learn, consider the Effective Cycling program.  Effective Cycling, developed by John Forester, is based on the "Vehicular Cycling" theory.  The premise is "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as operators of vehicles."  This is the opposite of what Forester calls the "Cyclist Inferiority" phobia where riders are terrified of being struck down from behind by automobiles.  The fear begins in traditional "bike safety" programs which teach little more than "wear your helmet and stay away from cars."  This miseducation prompts the behavior that leads to many accidents. 

Cyclist Inferiority is obvious, intuitive and widely believed.  But at one time so was the idea that the stars revolve around a flat Earth.  Accident statistics refute the inferiority superstition:  Less than one percent of serious cycling injuries are caused by the struck-from-behind collisions feared by novice riders.  Most cycling collisions happen at intersections, the same as automobile collisions. 

The dilemma is that novice cyclists fear the least likely accidents too much and they fear the greater hazards too little.  Riding the wrong way in traffic or worse, riding the wrong way on the sidewalk, is most common cause of car/bike collisions.  Ironically, many novice cyclists think these are safer ways to ride.  For more information, see the accident study by Wachtel and Lewiston from The American Bicyclist Nov/Dec 1994 issue. 

Share the RoadVehicular Cycling involves "Five Rules for Traffic Cycling".  Excerpted from the book Effective Cycling by John Forester, published by the M.I.T. Press.  Copyright John Forester.  (There is also a video by the same name.) 

  1. Drive on the right side of the road, never on the left and never on the sidewalk.
  2. When you reach a more important or larger road than the one you are on, yield to crossing traffic.  Here, yielding means looking to each side and waiting until no traffic is coming.
  3. When you intend to change lanes or to move laterally on the roadway, yield to traffic in the new lane or line of travel.  Here, yielding means looking forward and backward until you see that no traffic is coming.
  4. When approaching an intersection, position yourself with respect to your destination direction -- on the right near the curb if you want to turn right, on the left near the centerline if you want to turn left, and between those positions if you want to go straight.
  5. Between intersections position yourself according to your speed relative to other traffic; slower traffic is nearer the curb and faster traffic is near the centerline.

I will add a sixth rule of the road. Be predictable. This means to ride a good straight line, signal turns and lane changes and generally look like you know what you are doing. If you act like the driver of a vehicle, then other drivers will usually understand what you are doing.

Effective Cycling teaches vital skills:  riding a straight line, the quick look-back, the instant turn, and hard braking.  Other skills include lane changing and being courteous on the road (sharing the lane) without being submissive.  You can see these demonstrated in the video or described in the book, but to really learn them, take the course.  You can find a list of instructors at the League of American Bicyclists web site. 

The Effective Cycling book has many useful tips and technical explanations for how a bike works -- for example, why some brakes feel softer as you apply them.  The paperback edition costs less than $20 and it should be available through your library.  (If not, ask.  I got my library to buy it.)  Unfortunately the book has a strident, confrontational tone when the author discusses political issues.  However, the more I read Forester, the more I realize he knows cycling better than almost anyone else.  The video version of Effective Cycling gives an excellent demonstration of Vehicular Cycling technique.  Libraries should have both the video and the book.  You can get the video from the League of American Bicyclists, phone 202 822-1333 or email to Michael Klasmeier.  The much smaller booklet, Street Smarts by John Allen, available from Bicycling Magazine, also covers vehicular cycling.  The state of Pennsylvania produced a "Bicycle Driver's Manual" that is based on the Street Smarts booklet.  New! Pennsylvania's Bicycle Driver's Manual is now on the web!!

Share the Road Sharing the road works two ways.  Overtaking motorists have the obligation to wait until they can pass safely and then to allow enough room.  Cyclists have the obligation to make passing as easy as possible as long as passing is safe.  If the lane is wide enough, stay far enough right to allow cars to pass.  If not, then you must take the lane for your own safety.  Beginners often "hug" the curb because they fear traffic.  This greatly increases their risk.  If you collect a train of cars, pull over occasionally to let them by.  If a motorist gives you the right of way, acknowledge with a friendly wave or nod.  When you stop at a traffic light, don't hug the curb or right turning cars may cut around you.  Instead, where there are right turning motorists, scoot to your left and signal drivers to "be my guest" and pass on your right. 

Be very careful about waving drivers around you on a curvy, two-lane road.  Just after you signal, an oncoming car may appear ahead.  You could have a liability problem if there is an accident.  At a traffic light with a long line of stopped cars, you will have a great temptation to pass on the right.  Unless you are in a wide curb lane (such that cars can easily pass you again), don't -- it is not "fair" and it causes much resentment in motorists.  Remember, if you ride a regular route, other drivers will recognize you as "that cyclist".

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Share the Road: Going uphill at slow speed, you do not need much room and it is not reasonable to block traffic.
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Take the Lane: If you are as fast as traffic, it is neither safe nor necessary to squeeze over to allow cars to pass.


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Proper Lane Position: On a road with substandard width lanes, ride near the center of the right lane. Photo by R.Woodward

Traffic lights controlled by induction loop "vehicle detectors" can be a problem. If the sensitivity is set high enough, most will detect a bicycle stopped over a loop wire. Unfortunately, some are not adjusted sensitively enough and if the wire cuts are covered by pavement, how do you know where they are? Older simple loop detector wires usually run about 1/4 of the distance from each side of the lane lines. Newer double loop detectors have another wire cut in the center of the lane. If you cannot make it work for you, the detector is malfunctioning. Please report it to the city and insist it be repaired. The "hot spot" should be marked so cyclists do not have to guess where it is.

Share the Road Dealing with Barbarians:  A major problem for cyclists is Joe Six-Pack Motorist driving his "Suburban Assault Vehicle".  Joe, along with the rest of society, has been miseducated about cycling and thinks cyclists should not be on the road.  Joe may honk and point at the sidewalk to show where you "belong". Bikeways, especially in the absence of education, reinforce this attitude.  Some police are ignorant too.  If you are ordered off the road or in the gutter, explain why you belong on the road.  Carry a page listing bicycle traffic laws to show the officer.  (Mine is laminated in "Contact" plastic.)  If this does not work, write to the police chief suggesting that the department needs Effective Cycling training.  (There is a special police version.)  If your community has a "sidewalk law" then you must choose the lesser evil:  accept the hazard of riding on the sidewalk, ride safely but risk getting tickets, or drive a car.  (See the author's companion article, "Bicycle Commuter Issues, The Politics of Two Wheels".)

Remember that drivers are generally looking for cars, not for a much smaller bicycle.  Always wear bright clothing and ride in or near the traffic lanes where drivers are looking.  Drivers may misjudge your speed and "hook" in front of you.  For these occasions, you need the defensive driving skills taught in Effective Cycling -- hard braking and the instant turn.  Learn to anticipate problems in order to avoid them. 

For the few bozos that try to run you off the road, here are some tips from other cyclists.  "Learning to be assertive is a good way to get rid of hate; they are trying to bring you down to their level; for your own good, you have to rise above them."  "Carry a ‘jerk book’.  When an incident occurs, write down the license number and other details, trying to make it obvious what you are doing.  The driver may watch in the mirror to see your reaction.  He will get very nervous if he sees you writing."  The notebook is also handy for turning in bad commercial drivers -- sometimes there is a "how's my driving" sign on a truck. 

Share the Road Equipment:  If you are planning to bicycle commute, obviously you need a bike.  If you already have a serviceable machine, start with that.  Buy a better one after you get experience.  Stay away from mass merchandisers.  Their bikes range from inadequate to dangerous, particularly in the brakes   Visit several reputable local shops (ask around) and don't buy too cheap -- expect to spend at least $400 (unless you find last year's model or a good used bike).  The three most important things about a bike are fit, fit, and fit.  A good bike shop will help fit you.  Beware a store where stock on hand determines what "fits" the customer. 

Common bike styles include currently fashionable mountain bikes, road bikes, and hybrids.  Avoid extremes.  A heavy mountain bike with soft suspension and knobby tires will not roll well.  A racing bike with thin sew-up tires gives a hard ride and gets too many flats.  You can see an overview in the buyer's guide in the April issue of Bicycling Magazine

When I bought a new bike, some friends advised a road bike with dropped handlebars for reduced wind resistance.  Another friend said "you can hybridize a mountain bike" (by getting harder tires) "but you can't mountainize a hybrid bike."  I settled on a hybrid with high pressure tires since I do not ride off road. 

You need at least a few accessories for commuting.  With a new bike, look for a discount or package deal.  Consider a rear rack, pump, spare tubes and tires, patch kit, tire "irons", spare brake cable, chain lubricant, some basic tools and a good lock.  You should also get either toe clips (to hold your feet in the proper position) or Clipless pedals and matching shoes.  For moderate distance commuting (21 miles/day), I use clips with my regular shoes.  For the days when I gamble it won't rain (and lose), I keep a complete change of clothes at work, including shoes. 

In addition to tools, you need rain gear and cycling gloves (to prevent "handlebar palsy").  To hold all this plus change of clothes and lunch, get panniers (packs) to hang on the front or rear racks and/or a handlebar bag.  On my bike I use a handlebar bag designed for a road bike -- I bent the wire frame to make it work on my hybrid.  I also have a small tool bag, panniers and a "trunk", a bag that fits on top of the rear rack.  (I sometimes carry lots of stuff.)  Tip: Carry only light things in a handlebar bag.  Weight up front makes steering more difficult. 

Share the Road Safety equipment starts with a helmet, which can reduce head injury risk significantly.  Newer designs are lighter and protect better than those from years ago.  To read an interesting testimonial, refer to John Allen's web site.  Other safety items include bright clothing, a rear view mirror (I prefer the type that clips on glasses) and a highly reflective safety flag that sticks out to the side, making your bike look wider and more visible.  My flag is a "Flash Flag" from Flashback.  Traffic law in most states requires a headlight and taillight if you ride after dark.  You should carry a small first aid kit as well. 

A few cyclists have a strong prejudice against mirrors.  Some feel a mirror is a "crutch" and cite a freak accident 30 or 40 years ago where a rider's eye was blinded by a shattered mirror.  The real issue is the limitations of a mirror.  A mirror provides only a narrow field of view, takes getting used to and needs proper adjustment.  You should use a mirror to supplement the "look-back", not replace it.  When you are about to change lanes, the look-back provides communication with a motorist and is a way for you to "ask permission" for your move.  (When you change lanes, you do not have the right of way.)  However, unless your neck is as flexible as an owl's, looking back to see straight behind is very difficult.  This is just where a properly adjusted mirror works best. 

Share the Road Night riding:  Don't even think of riding after dark without a headlight.  Bright clothing does not work at night.  You need lights and reflectors.  A strobe (flashing) light on the back of the bike may help motorists notice you but is not good for depth perception.  Forester recommends replacing the small, red, standard rear reflector with a 3" SAE amber auto reflector that is eight times brighter.  If you mount the reflector off to the side it is less likely to get caked with mud thrown up by the wheel.  The Effective Cycling video shows a rider (Forester) with a large off center reflector. Reflectorized clothing and a "Flash Flag" (see above) are also good attention getters. 

Bicycle headlights cost from under $20 to over $200.  If you ride off road in the dark, you need an expensive, multi-beam, high-power system.  For commuting on smooth, well-lit roads, 3 watts may be adequate.  If a handlebar mount light cannot not "see" over a handlebar bag, you can rig another mounting system.  A small flashlight is handy for repairs in the dark and can serve as a backup headlight.

I have used a Union generator set (2.4 w headlight, 0.6 w taillight) for several years.  The headlight mounts to the top of the fork tube, under the handlebar bag.  Recently, I bought a second Union set, partly to have a spare generator but also to have a second independent light system.  I mounted the extra headlight assembly on my left fork, connected through a push-button switch to a rechargeable lead-acid battery that goes in my water bottle cage.  The battery (6 volt, 4 amp hour) was designed for emergency building lights.  I bought it at a home supply store for $11.  It works well although it is rather heavy. 

Share the Road Tips:  Most beginners pedal too slowly, often under 60 rpm, thus get tired quickly and strain the knees.  It is better to spin easily at 80-100 rpm.  However, if you find yourself bouncing on the seat, you are cranking too fast.  To prevent injury, take it easy the first 10 minutes or so, until you warm up.  If you use toe clips for commuting, don't tighten the straps.  This makes it easier to get feet in and out when you stop but you still get the foot positioning benefit of the clips.  Tuck the shoelaces into your shoes so they don't get caught in the chain. 

If you use a mountain bike, replace the soft, knobby tires with smooth, hard (~80-psi) tires with much less rolling resistance.  Keep your tires properly inflated.  Besides rolling easier, you will prevent pinch flats (also called snakebite).  A soft bike seat comfortable on a 10 minute "test ride" may be excruciating halfway through an all day trip.  You need a seat that supports your weight on the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) rather than the perineal area.  Adjust the seat height by raising it until your hips start to rock when you ride.  Then lower it slightly until the rocking stops. 

Lube your chain every couple weeks, after a rain, and especially when it "sings".  Learn simple repairs such as repairing flats, adjusting and cleaning bearings, etc.  A good reference is Bicycling Magazine's Complete Guide to Bicycle Maintenance and Repair.  You can find much more cycling information online, for example, Internet discussion groups and a Cycling Forum on Compuserve.  While most online information is reliable, be a little wary.  I have found good cycling articles and links to more on web pages of Sheldon Brown, John Allen, Ken Kifer, and here on Bicycling Life.

Many people ask about needing a shower after riding to work.  The need depends on the temperature (lower in the morning) and the level of effort and distance for the ride.  On  hot days, rather than shower at work, I take it a bit easy on the ride in, then soak my face in a cool, wet towel, and wait to change my shirt (from the T-shirt used on the ride) until I've cooled, 30-60 minutes later.  I have not worn a tie since I started riding regularly (but keep one in my desk for the rare occasion).  In cooler weather, I wear my "work" shirt. 

I wear shorts or running pants rather than dress pants to avoid a "chainring tattoo" on my pants leg.  Cycling shorts usually have a "chamois" pad to prevent chafing on long rides.  For this to work, however, the chamois should be next to your skin, which means no underwear.  This can make for an interesting experience if you are caught changing behind the bookcase in the office.  On a commute, you likely do not need chamois shorts anyway. 

You need a safe place to park.  Some of us enjoy ultra close-in parking right in the office.  Why not try it?  A local cycling club may find a mentor to give you tips on road positioning, routes, equipment and clothes.  You might also find a "riding buddy" at work.  A buddy provides another set of eyes to watch for problems, deters troublemakers and can help with repairs. 

Share the Road Time cost:  A bicycle is usually slower than an auto.  Thus there is a "time cost" of cycling.  Let me put this in personal terms: I live 9-12 miles from work (depending on route).  It takes about 20 min. to drive or 40 to ride (shortest route).  Therefore, my time "cost" for riding is 20 min.  But I get 40 min. of healthful exercise in this time -- much more efficient than driving to a gym. (See Also: No Time To Bike)  For the ride home, I choose a 12 mile scenic and shady route mostly through the park (on the road, not the "All Purpose Trail" with its "Stop, Walk Bike" signs).  The ride home takes about 50 min.  Surveys of cycle commuters show that many consider 10 miles one way to be a maximum reasonable distance for regular riding.  Those living further may drive part way and ride the rest.  In a few communities public transportation accommodates bicycles. 

An ideal bike route is fast, convenient and direct.  It will be free from dense, high speed traffic and have a wide, smoothly paved outside (right) lane without hazards (like parallel bar sewer grates and chuckholes).  You may have to choose between fast but busy arterial roads and side streets where you face delays at main road intersections by stop signs or traffic lights. 

Share the Road Winter cycling:  Winter brings new challenges -- keeping hands and feet warm while not overheating elsewhere.  One secret is wearing layers of clothing (ventilating zippers are a must).  A breathable wind shell over a wicking fabric works well.  To protect both yourself and the bike from splash thrown up from wet roads, get fenders.  If fenders do not extend low enough, add homemade flaps made from a plastic milk jug.  ICEBIKE is an interesting web site for winter riders. 

In winter, I exchange my shorts for flannel lined nylon running pants with leg zippers.  I sewed elastic on the right cuff to keep it away from the chainring.  An ear band helps keep my head warm.  If you have a more a sensitive thermostat you may prefer a balaclava under the helmet.  Below freezing, I wear mitts and liner gloves.  I seldom wear fancy cycling clothes. 

A special winter hazard is black ice.  My worst fall was in a place where the road looked clear except the blacktop was just a little "too black".  Another problem is visibility. You are often riding in the dark.  In the early morning or late afternoon you may be invisible to a motorist dazzled by low sun. 

Share the Road BUGs:  Consider starting a Bicycle User Group (BUG) where you work.  At Cleveland's NASA/Glenn Research Center "GO-BIKE" performs bicycle advocacy, helps the Safety Office to host events like "Ride to Work" days and works to improve the cycling environment.  NASA loans the Effective Cycling video and other materials (free) to employees. 

My goal for this article is to help beginners get over initial hurdles and avoid common mistakes.  You can find much more information in the sources mentioned in the text.  You do not need to learn it all at once.  Expect it will take time to get used to riding in traffic -- perhaps 10,000 miles to learn by yourself; 5,000 miles if you get help or 2,000 miles with an Effective Cycling course.  Find a buddy if you can, start riding and have fun.  The best time to start is now. 

A companion article, "Bicycle Commuter Issues, The Politics of Two Wheels" discusses problems caused by our society and what we might do about them.  If you have questions or comments, please direct them to Fred Oswald.  The opinions in these articles are the author's.

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Fred Oswald


Washington State Bicycle Commuting guide ((pdf)

Utah Bicycle Commuter's Guide (pdf)

Effective Cycling

Finding an ECI


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