Maybe you’re commuting to work or pedaling around town, or maybe you’ve become more aware of your carbon footprint and are looking for a greener alternative to car travel. Whatever your reason, it’s time to bust out those two wheels. (And, now, the roads are emptier than ever.)
Biking in all its forms is good for your health and for the planet’s, but it does require a level of know-how to safely navigate the streets. Here’s how to stay safe and smart on two wheels.
1. A helmet and lights are the bare necessities.
A helmet may cramp your style but it keeps you alive, as do front and rear lights — front for you to see, rear so others can see you. Reflectors either on your bike or as part of your clothing are a good precaution to take, too.
Additional gear you’ll want include a transit bag or panniers that fix to the side of your bike to carry work gear, groceries, or whatever else you need to lug around; a water bottle; multi-tool; and sunscreen. And, in the age of COVID-19, a face mask is also a necessity.
2. Know how to work an air pump.
If biking is a regular mode of transportation for you, think of it just like driving: You’ll need to be prepared for emergencies. Consider carrying around, or at least owning, a miniature pump and a travel tool kit. Travel pumps like this one from Topeak are affordable and easy to pack. Spare tubes, tire levers, and a regular-sized pump are other additions to your garage to avoid depending on (possibly closed) bike shops and stops to take care of minor adjustments.
Also important, learn how to change a tire. The best way to do this is to sign up for a bicycle maintenance class at a local shop or community college. However, in a pinch, just type “how to change a tire on (bike model)” into YouTube and do your best to follow along with the video. You’ll need tire levers for this, preferably ones not made out of thin plastic.
3. Plan and learn your route
It’s a no-brainer to familiarize yourself with your city’s bike lanes; some cities even have bike-lane maps you can download. When you’re planning a route, get to know the lay of the land. You might want to test-ride it and come up with a backup plan as well, should traffic or construction hit.
Ideally, your route will follow streets with bike lanes and utilize any bike paths, paved trails, and other bicycle-specific infrastructure available. A bike path may lead slightly out of the way, but it also saves you the time of stopping at red lights, which can actually shave a few minutes off your commute.
Apps like Bike Hub and Strava are designed to plan and track rides, but if you’re not worried about compiling data from each ride, the bike feature on Google Maps should do just fine for routing — just be sure you modify the directions for cycling. Shove your phone in a holder or an armband and let it lead the way. This could help you be confident, and confident riders make everyone less nervous.
4. Stay predictable, as well as responsible and alert.
Though it goes without saying, obey the rules everyone knows and expects of you. Ride with traffic (in the United States and Canada this means on the right side of the road), use arm signals, don’t swerve, stop at traffic lights — you get it. Cyclists are also required to stop at stop signs. The fewer surprises, the better your odds of staying safe. Look for tail lights, use the bike lane, yield to pedestrians, and make noise if you feel it necessary.
It’s paramount that you’re able to hear emergency sirens, oncoming cars, and the like. If you really can’t get over this, at least leave one ear headphone-free.
5. Ride like every driver is on their cell phone with a screaming child in the backseat.
Seriously. Unfortunately, as a cyclist, it’s your job to be on the defensive — a two-ton vehicle will always best you in any altercation. Try to make eye contact with drivers when making a left turn, and feel free to wave your arms about if you’re not sure you’re seen. If there’s no bike lane, ride like you’re a car, taking up plenty of room — that way you’ll have better odds of being seen.
You’re a vehicle on the road, and you have a reaction time just like everyone else. Stay at least one bike’s length away for every five miles per hour when moving, and leave extra space between you and stopped vehicles. You never know.
Give yourself space side to side, too. Don’t hug the curb. You deserve access to the road just as cars do. Ride in single-file; to not do so is often illegal.
And, finally, leave the sidewalk for the people out walking. You’re a master of the road now.