I have been bicycle commuting for a few years now so I thought it was about time to learn how. Andrew and I took an Urban Cycling Safety class offered by Sacramento Transportation Management Agencies and taught by a certified League of American Bicyclists instructor. The class was $15 and 6 hours.
We got off to a rocky start as the classroom that had been arranged for us to begin in was locked. We could not even get in the building. That was ok, we just went across the street to a park. There the freeway noise and the sun glare made the brief power point presentation less effective than otherwise, but each of us received a handbook "Smart Cycling: Traffic Skills 101" with all the power point information and more, so we followed along in the book as well as squinted at the computer screen.
One of the first and recurring themes was referring to cycling in traffic as "driving". This is an important mindset, because bicycles are considered vehicles with the same rights, laws, and responsibilities (but, it is well to remember, not the same power). Bicyclists are to obey the traffic laws. If you want to enjoy the privileges of pedestrians - sidewalks and crosswalks - you should dismount and walk your bike. (I am just telling you the rules here.)
One of the other main things I learned that I have often been doing wrong was lane positioning. We tend to think the bike should always ride on the right near the curb. Not necessarily so. In the absence of a bike lane (and sometimes when there is one), the cyclist should ride on the right side of the lane going where he wants to go. If there is a dedicated right turn lane and the cyclist wants to go straight, the cyclist should NOT stay on the far right near the curb, but - after carefully scanning to make sure the way is clear - should shift into the right side of the lane that is continuing straight. If the lane is for either straight or right turn, the cyclist should move to the center of the lane. Or sometimes to the left of the lane, allowing right turning vehicles to proceed. If the cyclist wishes to do a left turn, he should shift lanes until he is in the right side of the left turning lane (if there are multiple lanes) and upon making the turn, move to the right side right lane going his direction. If there is only one lane, the bicyclists moves to the left of the lane to do a left turn. If the traffic is too heavy to do this safely, or as in my case, the cyclist is just a bit slow, one makes a box turn - proceed straight across the street, then, on the other side, turn and get in the lane going the direction you want to go and cross with the traffic going that way.
We talked a little about the basic rules. We learned ABC check. Before you ride - every time if you don't ride often; once a week if you ride daily, check A - air. Do the tires have the proper air pressure? B - Brakes - are the brakes working? Are the brake pads too worn? C- Chain, Crank, something else that starts with C, oh yeah, Cassette. Is the chain too loose or the crank wobbly? Are the pedals loose? Is the cassette (the gear sets) clean and moving smoothly? Q - check your quick release - make sure the wheels are clamped in securely and it's nice to have the quick release lever facing back so that it doesn't catch sticks and such. One thing, I noticed, if you have your bike worked on at the shop, you might check and make sure you CAN release the quick release, because sometimes they torque down too tight for me. Another thing they didn't mention in class, but I have had a problem with is check the various bolts around your bike. They sometimes loosen up with riding.
Next it was helmet check. The helmet should sit down straight on your head with about two finger clearance above your eyes. Each of the straps come down from your helmet in a V which should go on either side of each ear and come to its point below the ear - no strap on or rubbing the ear. That could get old. The strap should fit under the chin with room to fit two fingers - snug, but not too tight to breathe!
Soon it was biker's up for a short ride over to a large empty parking lot for skills practice. But wait! Not more than a couple of blocks into our ride, one of the bicyclist's tire blew! And blew good. or rather bad. So we had our tire changing session early. Although this was a very loose fitting tire compared to some, for the purposes of demonstration, the instructor, Dennis, showed how to use tire levers. We used the pump I was carrying to show how to pump up the tube and look / listen for the whole. This was a big one. Too big to patch. And we learned why is always a good idea to carry a spare tube. Which this person was not. Andrew and another student rode to the parking lot where Dennis' partner had driven and got her to come back and take the hapless student to a bike shop to buy tubes.
Always good to carry - spare tube and patch kit, tire levers, pump (that's a must!), multi-tool. And it's nice to have some wipes to clean your hands off afterwards. I also carry thin dish washing gloves to try to keep my hands clean, but they seldom last the whole change out. And I carry a chain breaker (which Dennis said was not a good one) but have not yet learned to use it. If my chain breaks, my bike will become a scooter. I also learned that some biking shoes are comfortable to walk in. A friend had his bike break down in the country and had to walk miles in biking shoes which was NOT Fun. A couple of gals in the class had bike shoes that were more comfortable than tennies. I bike in hiking boots. Which also work for walking. Not so good for dancing, but then neither am I.
Actually, Dennis said he rarely patches on the road because it can be a pain. I can testify to that! I carry both patch kit and tube. There have been times I have done a very successful patch. But other times, especially in the dark or bad weather, things have not gone so well. What many cyclists do is change out the tube, take the bad one home and patch it there. Dennis saves them up and has a patch party when he has a bunch of them. Makes sense because the patch glue, like super glue, is seldom usable more than once. Then it glues itself shut or dries out. On the road, you get one tube patched from a tube of glue. Dennis has patched as many as 25 tubes with one thing of glue in one of his patching sessions. Once you have patched your tube, you can carry it as a spare. Another cyclist once told me that after he patches, he blows up the tube pretty full and leaves it overnight to see if it is a good patch, before letting the air out and packing it as a spare. Dennis said that (either he or his partner) once had a tube with something like a dozen patches on it.
Eventually the people with the new tube came back, we continued our tire changing lesson, and hit the road again.
In the parking lot we started with very basic skills. Starting, riding a straight line, and stopping. One thing that he mentioned which I think most bicyclist do naturally, is that when you stop in traffic, like for a light, stop in or adjust to the power position - one pedal up with your foot on it ready to push down and the other foot on the ground ready to shove off. This not only helps you off to a good start, I find it comfortable and restful for my legs. What you do not want is to slide off in front of your bike seat and stand flat footed astride your bike. You are not ready to go.
We practiced gear shifting, controlled avoidance weaving - remember, riding in traffic, you just cannot go all over the place! quick stops, sharp little rock dodges, and instant turns. The instant turn is for when some careless or thoughtless driver suddenly turns in front of you and if you don't do something you will crash right into the car. You may not have time/space to stop, so you turn sharply in the direction the car is going. That way if you do hit, it will be a glancing blow. Strangely this instant turn begins with you turning your front wheel the wrong way - toward the car - usually this is left because usually the problem is a right turning car. By turning your front wheel left you cause your bike to lean right. The moment you have started the turn and lean, you turn sharply right and you will be making a much tighter than usual right turn, putting you parallel to the offending vehicle. We practiced each maneuver several times and although I made some fairly sharp turns, only once did I successfully stay within the guidelines. We also practiced looking back over our shoulder to scan for traffic - while maintaining a straight ride. Must practice both sides, because sometimes you are riding on the left side -as on a one way street.
It is a good idea to practice each of these maneuvers frequently so that they will be instinctive when you need them. I think the instant turn is the hardest and therefore, I really should practice.
I think we spent a couple of hours practicing these skills. When we returned to the school we were able to get into the classroom. While we ate the lunches we had packed, we watched a little movie about driving (remember? driving) a bicycle in traffic.
Thing to know which I did not - if the street is not wide enough for a bike and a car to travel side by side, it is the bicyclist's right and it is safer if the bike "claims the lane"(Although, not all car drivers know or appreciate that) Don't go over to the side where the car might try to pass you and either run you into the curb, hit you, or have problems with oncoming traffic. Ride near the middle of the lane. Thing to watch there - road oil and such. More of that in the middle of the lane. So claim your lane, but sort of side middle. Don't be intimidated. But if you get a string of cars behind you, pull over just as you would if you were driving a car on a narrow road and collected a string of faster cars behind you. Now this is great for most bicyclists, but I cruise at 8-10. If I get up to 12-15, I think I am pretty hot stuff. I think the fastest I have gone is 17 down hill. This would not make me popular with motorists. Fortunately, most streets, most of the time, there is room.
Use good sense. Don't tell the coppers, but if the traffic is tight and heavy and maybe there is debris on the side of the road and there are no pedestrians, I ride on the sidewalk. Doesn't happen often. One thing my son David taught me, is if you are riding on the sidewalk, if there is not clear visibility for any reason - bushes, buildings, whatever, ride at a pedestrian pace - no one is going to be prepared for you to suddenly appear and accidents can happen.
Remember! BEWARE the door zone! Try to ride 3 feet or more from parked cars. Frankly, I distrust parked cars more than moving ones. MOST drivers are paying SOME attention and most drivers are considerate. People getting out of cars open their doors without a thought. It can be really bad to have a door open right in front of you! (Try to remember to always look before you open a car door)
Finally, we rode out through midtown. Traffic calming circles, stop signs, left turns, railroad tracks. Classmates dropped off one by one as we reached points closest to where they turn for home. Andrew and I dropped off at a bicycle shop because he needed new tubes. I forgot that I wanted to look at mirrors. A lot of cyclists like them a lot. One thing, though. Even if you get a mirror and don't NEED to turn and scan for traffic, it is a good idea to turn your head anyway, because that helps drivers know that you are looking to change lanes.
An important principle of traffic safety is to be predictable. Don't play games, do tricks or mess around when driving in traffic. Let your position and body language, as well as hand signals - yes we talked about and demonstrated them, too - help the car drivers know where you are going to be and what you are likely to do. You will all be safer and more comfortable.
A lot of the class was probably basic good sense, but I found it useful.