KC/DC Cycle

Ride to live... live to ride

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where to ride in the road and what to look for is my topic today. This idea is a question of safety. While we all ride in a variety of situations there are some long held lessons I have that could provide some help in choosing your route.

I'm a claim the lane advocate. 

My background is that of a suburban and urban rider. I grew up in a relatively well-planned suburb outside of Washington, DC. There are parks and trails and bike lanes in our county. I mostly ride on the road and feel safe doing so. From my communications with fellow cyclists in other locales there are some ways my area is better and worse than 'average'. We have heavy traffic in our area. I'm not sure what the vehicle per hour count is on our arteries, but the DC area has some of the worst traffic in the US. From what I've seen of Northern Virginia we have better alternatives for bike riding than they do.

Advantages of Trail riding

If there is a trail that goes in the direction you want to go take it. This is often the preferred way to go. The only time it is not is when there is too much pedestrian traffic. A lot of multi-use trails have strollers, people walking dogs, and other hazards to sharing a trail. If you're not going anywhere and just want to cruise and chat and site see this is great. If you have to get to work, you may want to avoid the busy times on the trail. The trails in this area are in relatively good shape. The downside is they are windy and hilly.The pathway design is very foot speed oriented. You don't get to use your momentum after climbing a hill. There are some poor banking areas that will make it difficult to corner. A huge advantage of one major trail in the area is that it is closed to motor vehicles on the weekend. Many Rock Creek Park roads are closed Saturday and Sunday.

Disadvantages of Sidewalk Riding

Sidewalks can be downright treacherous from their uneven pavement to the design of roadway intersections. Sidewalks can end abruptly. They can be narrow and edge you off the curb. The sidewalk may have a sudden series of telephone poles to navigate.

The main problem is the roadway intersections. Each time you come to an intersection you have to beg traffic to let you in. When you ride in the street you're already part of traffic and you continue to act as such. Being on the sidewalk makes you separate from traffic and allows motor vehicles to treat you differently. Often crosswalks are 5-10 feet or more away from the corner. In this location you are invisible to turning traffic from the roadway. When you are on the sidewalk you can encounter oncoming pedestrian or cycle traffic that makes it impossible to easily pass. It can be very dangerous if the sidewalk is right on a major road. When you're on a sidewalk you have to choose which side of the roadway you'll proceed on. It is best when you take the sidewalk that is consistent with the direction of the roadway traffic.

What to look for when riding

The obvious things to look for are holes, railroad tracks, sand, rock, debris. Those are impediments to maintaining balance. Other examples are drainage grating, metal construction covers, overhead branches and signs which also affect balance. There are also sharp, smaller objects that can deflate a tire including scrap metal, construction material like nails, metal road material like expansion joints. There is the category of narrowing shoulders, objects like trees or signs that are uniquely close to the road. In other words, we don't have a standard in road surfaces from the cyclists perspective. While most roads have fairly universal design and we are prepared for reasonable changes thru signage when motoring; we are not notified of changes affecting the cyclist. For instance, I may be cruising along a 5 foot wide shoulder on a busy country road going down a hill with motorists traveling 60 mph next to me and suddenly there's no shoulder and I'm supposed to share the road. Consistently there is no notice for the cyclist. This is an example of what to look for.

Wet leaves in the fall is a typical hazard that is not known to most novice riders. Wet leaves are very slick as they break down. Deep water puddles can hide holes. They can also make braking difficult and steering impossible. I typically ride the same route to work and back. So I know where that rough spots are and where the pavement is breaking into potholes. If I ride a new route I have to be extra vigilant. 

Find a good route. I will always scan a route using Google Maps when planning a ride to a new area. I found this very helpful recently in Northern Virginia near DC. I could not find a safe bicycle route to a location I wanted to get to. There were piecemeal bike trails, but I didn't find enough roads that were safe in my estimation to bridge between the intermittent multi-use trails.

In the DC area there is a lot of traffic. Busy roads with no shoulder are something that should be avoided if at all possible especially for the novice cyclist.There has to be a strategy if you take on such a road. My strategy tends to be:

1) use it briefly
2) claim the lane
3) get off the busy road as quickly as possible

It's no fun to ride where noisy motor vehicles like buses and truck are hurdling by you within inches. There is a tendency to give as much of the lane as possible to the scary traffic. I find it counterproductive to do so. Motorists try to squeeze by and are more or less successful. If the squeeze is not a fit the motorist may not be a good judge of the distance. You lose! I will claim the lane in any situation where there is doubt. I ride at least in the dead center of the lane. If I still find a motorist trying to squeeze by at least I have some lane real estate to escape into. When you're already at the edge you're out of options. I may make the motorist angry by being 'in the way' but I maintain my safety margin. When it's difficult for a motorist to pass I make every attempt to help get them past me. I'll signal when I see clear traffic pathway ahead. I'll wave them around when I feel safe. I'm not trying to obstruct, I'm just trying to maintain control of the right-of-way.

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