Sunday, June 5

Bike Ed on the Daily Commute

Virtually nobody reading this blog would disagree that residential streets make transportation bicycle riding much more pleasant and relaxing compared with places like the Alliance Gateway Freeway. All but the most dedicated stop sign scofflaws would agree with me that this is particularly so when the street isn’t interrupted by stop signs. A less widely understood value of residential streets is that they can also facilitate the safe development and improvement of bike handling skills that can make the difference between a scary situation and something worse.

One prominent feature of bicycle school is the use of parking lot drills. For those so unfortunate as to remain uneducated, parking lot drills are structured to give a cyclist practice performing avoidance and emergency maneuvers so that “muscle memory” develops.

The Bike League course starts these drills by teaching basic bike starting and stopping, moving on to head scans and signaling, and then on to hazard avoidance. Regular riding, and particularly transportation riding on urban streets give lots of practice for the educated rider in starting, stopping, signaling and head checks (regular riding can also develop some bad habits). Hazard avoidance, on the other hand, is not often encountered in the real world (thank goodness!). If you encounter such things frequently, it might be cause to consider your riding technique, but that would be an entirely different post.

Residential streets give opportunities to practice emergency maneuvers without a special trip to a nearby parking lot. I practice these maneuvers frequently. Some of them I do daily. Since these maneuvers are being done on city streets, with no spotters present, some require “dialing back” from what can be accomplished in a parking lot with an experienced spotter.

Rock Dodge
In the Bike League rock dodge exercise, tennis balls are used to simulate a rock that the student is instructed to avoid. The purpose of this maneuver is to help the student avoid pot holes, debris, and other small hazards that are not seen well in advance. The technique is a quick “flick, flick” motion of the handlebar to steer the front wheel around the hazard without changing the cyclist’s path (I won’t get into the physics and principles today). On the street, between oil spots, local rough spots in pavement, and other references, the technique is to simply suddenly pick a spot on the road and treat it as a hazard. What could be easier? If the street is really boring and I’m absolutely sure that no motor traffic can be intruding, I extend my rock dodge practice into linked turns, using street references. This is actually fun, so my biggest problem is to avoid getting addicted into doing this in inappropriate conditions.

Quick - Miss That Pebble!
 Instant Turn
In the Bike League instant turn, the student is taught to use countersteer to get the bike leaned over and turning sharply. The situation simulates a situation where someone has cut you off and you either need to be able to turn right, right away, or you’re going to broadside the hazard. Such a bike education personage as John Forester related that he has had one collision with a car – before he learned to do instant turns. Instant turns are not quite so trivial to practice on city streets as the rock dodge, but ample opportunities exist all the same. Here’s the basic situation. Coming upon an uncontrolled intersection where I intend to make a right turn, I simply execute an instant turn. Since I’m doing this on a public road, I do extra scanning to make sure there isn’t some overtaking traffic sneaking up from behind, but that’s about it. The main reason I do the extra scanning is I have found that the pedals on my bikes are much more likely to strike the ground than when making a “non panic” turn. It simply wouldn’t do to fall over making a right turn and then have a motorist have to make an abrupt stop to avoid hitting me.

Stop Before That Little Spot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
 Quick Stop
In the Bike League quick stop, the student is taught to use various techniques in combination to stop in the shortest possible distance. Among these is moving back from the saddle and dropping down. I have found that when I do these properly, I’ll fall over nearly half the time, because I usually ride with either cleats or with toe clips. It is not easy to disengage from the pedals when stretched back down and over the rear wheel. You’ll have to trust me on this if you haven’t tried it. In what I personally consider somewhat of a cop out, many instructors do not use cleated pedals when they demonstrate the drill. That is fine, except that emergencies follow Murphy’s Law.

Clearly, riding home from work, you’d not want to simply fall over with your feet still clipped to your pedals. Here’s what I do. While riding along fairly fast, in a traffic-free situation (usually on a fairly long, downhill segment), I will apply varying amounts of front brake, while deliberately paying attention to the level of weight remaining on the rear wheel. I will then combine front brake with rear brake modulation. I will also move my weight forward and backwards to improve my ongoing intuitive “feel” for what is going on with the bike and where the limits lie. The objective is to reinforce the understanding of just how much front brake can be applied with the weight moving back - without a spectacular “endo,” and without actually experiencing any of the other bad things that can happen in such a situation. One must remember that in the real world, in a real emergency, falling over (sideways) at the completion of a stop is a victory compared to hitting the broadside of a van at speed, or even of completing the stop several feet further into a potential follow-on collision situation. This is one maneuver that I have not found a way to fully practice in all elements on public streets. Still, the elements I practice will help if I ever need to stop that couple of feet quicker than humanly possible.

Emergencies in the Real World
Rock dodge situations are something most cyclists encounter. Improved ability to dodge small debris and pot holes reduce flats without unpredictable maneuvers that a following motorist might not expect. Certainly, running over a rock and getting a flat probably isn’t the end of the world, but it is much more pleasant NOT to get that flat or bend that rim. The instant turn and quick stop, on the other hand, are something rarely needed by a proactive cyclist that is paying attention to traffic. As a result, most cyclists do NOT know how to do these maneuvers. REGARDLESS of your views about bike lanes, helmets, high visibility, “bike culture” and so on, I think we will all agree trained cyclist will be better off than an untrained one if an emergency occurs. You might be wondering if this is something you need to work on. In answer, I’ll simply repost the photo below, and note that the pilot repeatedly practiced for a situation he was very unlikely to ever encounter. When the situation came, he brought all his passengers home alive. Your bike’s passenger(s) deserve as much.

Shameless Plug
If you live around DFW and conclude that your road or bike handling skills could benefit from guidance, BikeDFW offers courses fairly frequently. Or email Whareagle, Chandra, or myself, and we’ll get you hooked up.


Chandra said...

Nice post! I love the special emphasis given to all sorts of skills taught in the Bike Ed classes. They are essential for the safety of a cyclist.

From a humanitarian POV, the Rock Dodge maneuver can also be used to avoid squishing spiders on the trail at night :)

Peace :)

John Romeo Alpha said...

These are great exercises Steve! I hope more read and learn from them.

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