The Six Rules for Safe Cycling

A Rendezvous With Fate - All It Takes Is A Split Second
Mike and I sat in the driveway with a backgammon board and cups of coffee between us. The newly washed ambulance next to us glistened in the morning sunshine. A slight breeze reminded us that just a week before snow had blitzed the town. Winter had been long, as it is in Maine, and a hardened impassivity to its rigors had etched vertical lines on just about everyone's face. The mood this afternoon was light, festive. The mercury was destined to reach 70o F. Everyone had spring in his step. College students had thrown their windows open and flooded the neighborhood with Grateful Dead and George Benson. Lawn chairs sprouted on door stoops and patches of grass everywhere. In front of the student dorms the chairs lay abandoned, their only company an odd tube of suntan lotion or an anthology of English Literature: "Ode to Spring" flapping idly. For who could study? In the open quad beyond, barefoot youths in shorts and tank tops hucked a frisbee.  

I had just rolled a 6/1 and locked up the bar point trapping Mike into a back game when the call came in. In ten seconds we were in the ambulance.  Jan, the dispatcher, handed us the address and details. A biker was down.  

When we arrived at the scene on Elm Street a crowd had already gathered. We made our way through the mingled voices: "What happened?" "Is he going to make it?" And the very scared, tearful voice of a young woman, "I never saw him."  

Jason, a sophomore in high school, was out enjoying the sunshine like everyone else. As he rode carefree down Elm Street, he must have been filled with giddiness and youthful vitality. When a car pulled out of a drive in front of him the panic he felt as he took evasive action lasted a mere second. His front tire collided with the curb and he was flung over his handlebars. When his head met one of those trees for which the street is named, it smashed like a dropped watermelon. Witnesses reported that he wasn't even going very fast. 

The First Bicycle
Since the invention of the wheel, legs and wheels have worked together to move and make things. The wheel, lying flat, has ground corn and sugar cane. It has spun wool and made pottery. The greatest use of the wheel, however, has been its contribution to horizontal speed and transportation. One of the most popular and historically significant applications of wheel technology is found in the development of the bicycle (see: The Bicycle Wheel, by Jobst Brandt, Avocet, Inc.,1990).  

The great artist-inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, is the most likely author of the first designs of a contraption that looks unmistakably like a bicycle. The Renaissance master's "Codex Atlanticus" is proof positive that da Vinci was fascinated by the 

From the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci from a period around 1500
powerful possibilities inherent in wheel technology - also featured in "Codex" are sketches of treadmills and waterwheels.   Some however claim that da Vinci may well have been inspired by images of two-wheeled, muscle-powered conveyances found on the walls of Egyptian tombs and under the ashes of Pompeii. 
The Modern Bicycle 
Pierre Lallement, a French expatriate who lived in Southern New England, is probably the true inventor of the modern bicycle. In 1865 he rode a preposterous contraption of his own creation several miles through the countryside near Ansonia, Connecticut, USA.  

 Lallement's bicycle (veloce) ride ended abruptly when he lost control and crashed; but, a new transportation revolution was launched that day. By the turn of the 20th Century, bicycles were a common sight in cities throughout the United States and Europe. Bicycle technology played a major role in the early automobile and aeroplane industries. Today, developments in aerospace technology influence the latest bicycle designs and components and inspire new experiments in the bicycle industry. On 23 April 1988, Kanellos Kanellopoulos, a Greek cyclist, set a world record when he pedaled the MIT-designed winged Daedalus through the air 110 kms from Crete across the Sea of Crete to Santarini.  

Pedalcyclists continue to push the limits on roads, wilderness trails, across deserts, on tracks, through obstacle courses, even on snow-covered alpine slopes.  Whether riding the "boneshakers" of yesteryear, or the full suspension rock-hoppers and sleek aero- 

The Eagle, a pedal- powered aircraft with the wingspan of a DC-9 jet flies across a California desert in proving trials for the Daedalus Project.
dynamic fixed-wheel track bikes of today, one fact remains an immutable truth: in our attempt to defy gravity and reach new speeds, we cannot forget that we are mortal beings, not gods. The fun factor can be preserved only as long as safety issues are observed. 
Bicycle Safety 
For pedalcyclists, the line between delight and disaster is very thin and can be crossed in a nanosecond. According the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "more than 44,000 pedalcyclists have died in traffic crashes in the United States since 1932 - the first year in which estimates of pedalcyclist fatalities were recorded." NHTSA has reported that "in 1997, 813 pedalcyclists were killed and an additional 58,000 were injured in traffic crashes." (An estimated 40,000 lose their lives every year on America's highways in vehicular crashes.) 

In spite of the prevailing attitude that vehicles are to blame for a majority of the cyclists killed on America's roads, "biker error" cannot be ruled out as a major cause in many of the deaths. Even though pedalcyclists cannot be held responsible for the recklessness and ignorant behavior of motor vehicle operators, pedalcyclists must always be prepared for the unexpected threat. Pedalcyclists can be held responsible for crashes that are the result of their own recklessness, exceeding limits of control or good sense. It is clear that the threat increases directly according to increases in speed. Speed can kill. Pedalcyclist safety and fun can be maximized only by way of alert preparation. If you are going to ride your bike you must be cognizant of four conditions: your bike; your physical and emotional state; others who "share" the road with you; and environmental changes - weather, time of day, terrain, locales. 

When these rules are forgotten, disregarded, or otherwise broken, and the pedalcyclist is involved in a crash, chances are the pedalcyclist will be the loser. The best lessons in life come from the mistakes we make. Mistakes made while biking could result in death. I've had my close brushes - most of them have been the result of a lapse of concentration and, fortunately, they have all been fairly inconsequential. Each event, however, left an indelible mark on my memory, if not a scar on my body. I hope you will not need to have a close brush with death or suffer serious injury in order to learn these rules of general pedalcycle safety. 

Protect your head. This is the first and last rule of bicycle safety. A good helmet may save your life even when you violate the other rules. Furthermore, a good helmet may be your only defense against variables you cannot control. Be sure you wear a helmet that is carefully fitted to your head - and fasten the strap. A helmet that flies off in a crash will provide no protection. It only takes an average of 12 pounds (5.5 kilos) per square inch (6.5 square centimeters) to break the human skull. Don't skimp when buying your helmet. 
Pedalcyclists who ride like highway renegades seem to encounter problems more frequently that those who follow traffic rules and regulations. Just as automobiles and other vehicles on the road must follow standard operating procedures designed to ensure safety, facilitate the flow of traffic and maintain order on our roads, pedalcyclists, if they are to share the road with motorized vehicles, must cooperate accordingly. 
  • Ride with the traffic.
  • Plan and signal well ahead.
  • Make no sudden moves - except in self-defense or in an emergency. It is absolutely critical that as your speed increases you look farther ahead. It is much more difficult to stop a bike moving at 25-30 m/hr (40-50 km/hr) than it is to stop a car traveling at the same speed. As you ride, that inner voice of self-preservation should be constantly asking, "what if...?" Collisions with dogs, children, car doors, balls, runners, a pothole or bump in the road surface, a branch or automobile part (e.g., a piece of tailpipe), sand or water (or ice), may shorten or put an abrupt end to your [pedalcycling] days.
  • Stop and wait at stop signs and red lights when in traffic or in towns or cities. Maintain your place in the right lane and let everyone around you know what you plan to do.
  • Give others on the road plenty of time to adjust their speed and position to accommodate you.
  • Avoid surprising others on the road.

    The young man on Elm Street violated rules 1 and 2. The crash that took his life may have been avoided had he been riding carefully rather than carefree. Spaces are not static. And empty space can be filled in the blink of an eye. Always ride envisioning potential disasters. Don't ride too close to vehicles - they may not see you, they may block your view of approaching hazards. Leave plenty of space between you and parked cars or pedestrians so that you can accommodate unexpected moves. Beware the individual who just got into his car and closed the door - that door may suddenly open again. As you pass a line of parked cars check each car for occupants as you approach.Check the direction of the front wheels on cars. Look at the drivers, note where they are looking. Don't challenge vehicles - they are bigger, heavier, faster than you are. Always check intersections before crossing roads - even if you believe you have the "legal" right of way. Check early and keep checking until potential danger is behind you. Be alert to what is approaching you - in front, from the sides and from behind. 
  • Expect the unexpected.

    Your ride will be safer, more comfortable and more fun if your bike is in excellent operating condition. Have a bicycle technician check your bike to make sure it is the right size for you. 
  • Adjust the seat and handlebars to the proper height and position. 
  • Tires should be in good condition and properly inflated. Carry a spare inner-tube and a pump - learn how to change a tire.
  • Your brakes should be properly adjusted with plenty of pad.
  • Check all cables every time you ride. Replace frayed cables immediately.
  • Your chain and gears should be free of dirt and grease. Most people put too much lubricant on their chain.
  • Tighten all loose screws and nuts. If you can hear a rattle or rub while you are riding you need to stop, isolate and correct the problem. You don't want a piece of clothing or bike part to fall off or get caught in your wheels or chain. If something is rubbing you are probably working much harder than you need to.
  • In low light conditions you should have reflectors - on your bike and on your clothing, helmet. At night you should have lights - in front and behind.
  • Keep your bike clean and check it each time you ride.

    Are you physically prepared for the ride ahead? Do you know where and how far you are going? Are you dressed properly? Are you prepared for changes in weather? Have you had enough to eat? Do you have enough water with you? 
  • Feed and water yourself regularly.
  • Protect your eyes. Wear sunscreen.
  • Always carry a laminated ID card with the following information: your name, address, telephone, contact person, blood type, allergies or medications, resuscitation directions (if applicable), insurance.
  • Know your route. If you are on a long ride let someone know where you are going and give them an itinerary.
  • Give yourself plenty of time.

    Life's most valuable lessons are served to us every time we make a mistake. If we go through life carelessly we will continue to repeat past mistakes. The first-time mistake, survived, is a blessing. To repeat the same mistake a second or third time is worse than foolish, especially where personal safety is concerned. Stay sober and be aware of the mistakes being committed by yourself and others around you. Even if you are blameless, you can learn from these incidents and avoid similar pitfalls in the future. Experiential learning can only enrich your repertoire of life-saving insights and skills if you are willing to participate and take note, learn and improve your performance.
    These six rules are easy to remember and can be applied to other life adventures.

    Have fun. Help others have fun.

    The Unanswered Question
    Choreographed by Eliot Field Music by Charles Ives
    New York City Ballet American Festival Production 1988

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