Thursday, April 3, 2008

Riding wisely

  • If there is a bike lane, use it, unless it's unusable because of glass, potholes, or parked cars. If there is a bike path, don't use it, unless it's visible from the road at all times (especially near intersections). Accidents mostly happen at intersections when car drivers watch for cars but not for bicycles when turning right. In Brandenburg, use bike lanes if possible because roads are narrow and drivers are dangerous. Also, bike lanes are usually newer than the roads and have a smoother surface.

  • Always keep at least one meter between you and parked cars. You never know if a door suddenly opens, or if you have missed one of those hydraulic platforms installed in the back of lorries that are just at eye level when raised - I have this mental image of the upper part of my skull slipping across the lorry floor while the rest of me rides on. Drivers are required to place flashing lights or red cones on the edge, but I won't bet my life on it.

  • Don't ride at the right edge of a lane. Ride in the centre or at least about one third into the lane. This tells drivers that they must change lanes and they can't just squeeze by closer than the 1.5 meters required by (German) law, recently increased to 2 meters (OLG Hamm). The rare maniac will still pass too closely but at least you'll have room to escape.

  • Don't weave into and out of a lane. If there is a gap in the line of parked cars in the right lane, don't use it and stay in your lane. It may be dangerous to return to that lane, and car drivers may not give you an opening.

  • Only pass to the right of cars stopped at a light or elsewhere (legal in Germany) if this doesn't force all these cars to pass you first thing afterwards. It'll annoy them and you don't want lots of annoyed people to shoot one ton of steel each past you. This doesn't mean that you have to play the traffic jam game that seems to please car drivers so much that they play it every day. I draw the line at about five cars; if there are more I pass unless there is a narrow stretch of road ahead. If I wait behind stopped cars I always stop in the centre of the lane, to prevent cars from boxing me in.

  • In a situation where a car might turn and cut you off because they haven't seen you, some people recommend making eye contact with the driver. I don't think that is good advice because you can't make the driver look at you - and if he did, there would be no danger. Instead, watch his front wheel. You'll notice when he slows down because the front of the car dips a little, and you'll see a turning wheel long before the car actually turns into your path.

  • It may be hard, but be friendly. Let that car that followed you patiently pass when there is a chance. If there is a whole line of cars backed up behind you, stop and let them pass at the next opportunity. Don't pass buses as they prepare to reenter traffic. In short, don't make anybody mad - they have all the kinetic energy on their side, and you are not going to "educate" anybody.

  • Use lights at dawn, dusk, and night. An LED flasher makes you more visible because it catches the eye between all those lights in a city, but it also makes it more difficult to pinpoint your position. Ideally, use both regular and flashing taillights. Very strong headlights gain you a lot of respect because at a distance, people think you are riding a motorcycle. Most of this isn't legal but I'd rather be alive than legal...

  • Don't ride on sidewalks, parks, and pedestrian zones where riding is not legal, or if you must, ride at walking speed. Pedestrians are unpredictable (especially if you ring your bell, don't even try), and you'll annoy or endanger a lot of people for a few seconds gained - precisely what we always accuse car drivers of.
  • The best front lights I know are made by Lupine. They are massively expensive but I consider my health more important, and these guys really know what cyclists need. Among other things they manage to put a three-level menu structure into a penny-sized control panel sporting one button and four LEDs that lets you program light levels and battery control. They are now called "camping lights" because they seem to violate some traffic regulation, and Cateye has sued them. One thing is certain, I won't ever buy Cateye again - a company that must rely on its lawyers rather than the technical quality of their product to push competitors out of the way isn't someone I'd trust when buying equipment!

    Bicycles have the advantage of being able to go anywhere and be parked anywhere, unlike cars. 30% of the car traffic in downtown Berlin is looking for a place to park, and the average speed between entering and leaving a car is 17 km/h (which isn't even bad as big cities go, in Paris it's 11 km/h), for example. While a stolen bicycle is usually less of a loss than the damage done when a car is broken into, a bicycle is much easier to steal unless properly locked.

    Forget spoke locks, cable locks, combination locks, or simple chains. I prefer motorcycle locks by Abus or Trelock that consist of a steel cable protected by interlocking rings. The idea is that you need two sets of tools, a saw for the rings and a bolt cutter for the cable. Of course, you need to lock the bicycle to something that is at least as solid as the lock. Some of those bike racks are ridiculously easy to disassemble. Those motorcycle locks reach around most lampposts, and they can comfortably be worn around one's waist. U-lock holders rattle. The keyhole of the lock should face down if it's on one side to make it harder to reach for people with drills, and it should not lie flat on the ground so that a hammer could be used.

    Riding Long Distances

    The key to long-distance riding is preparation. You will need:

    • A repair kit, at least one spare inner tube, a pump, tire levers, allen wrenches, a spoke wrench, a cellphone or coins, and money to take the train if all else fails. Riding long distances means that it is impractical to walk home.

    • Plenty of food and water. Don't under-estimate this. You need to eat and drink all the time, before you feel hungry or thirsty. If you don't your thighs will feel like they are on fire and in the worst case you may get tunnel vision and collapse. People normally never reach the point of running out of fuel in their daily life but it's a real danger on long bicycle rides. I will fall apart after about 80 km without food, so I eat and drink at least every 20 or 30 km. Don't start in the morning without breakfast either.

      I take plain water (anything else gunks up the bottles) in one or two large (0.75 l) clear-plastic bottles, Power Bars or similar energy food, plus some whole-grain sandwiches. Do not take chocolate or other sugar-based food. On seriously long rides also take some salted nuts because sweating depletes minerals. Plus, of course, the staple of bicycle riding - bananas.

    • Maps, of course. If you ride in a group you may get separated, or you might take a wrong turn and lose your bearings. The best scale is between 1:100,000 and 1:250,000. A compass is necessary in foreign countries. I now always carry a GPS receiver too, and skip the maps if I have the right one loaded into the unit. Of course I carry spare batteries.

    • Clothing. If there is a chance of rain or cold weather, wear neoprene boots (imho, Adidas are best). They don't hurt if you don't need them but they'll keep you warm and dry. Since you don't normally move your toes while riding, cold feet are much more of a problem when riding than when walking. Also bring a raincoat and wear layers of clothing that let you adjust to the weather (Odlo shirts, for example, are very thin and lightweight but warm if worn underneath). Multiple or thick wool socks have never worked for me, they just make the shoes fit poorly.
    Another key to long-distance riding is to deliberately ride slowly. It's enough to ride two or three km/h slower than you would ride normally. This takes constant conscious checking because your legs will want to go back to your "regular" speed. It's surprising that such a small speed reduction makes such a big difference, but 3 km/h less than normal extends your range enormously while 3 km/h more than normal will render you comatose.

    Riding in a Group

    With group I mean a peleton, a tight group of riders that follow some rules to optimize efficiency. A group achieves a much greater speed than a single rider with the same effort. It does require that all riders are in roughly the same shape. Small differences can be compensated by letting stronger riders spend more time in front, which takes the most strength because they are the only ones who feel the full force of the headwind.

    When I ride in a group we ride in two columns. Everybody keeps a distance of about 1/2 wheel diameter to the rider in front to catch as much of the draft as safely possible. When the riders in front get tired, they accelerate a bit, go to the sides (one a bit ahead of the other to avoid having four bicycles side by side), and let the group ride through the gap. (Obviously this works better if there is an even number of people.)

    Some groups regulate how long people stay in front, and some use a rotating peleton where the left column is slightly slower than the right. The right rider in front shifts over to the left column after a (very short) time in front and falls back. This makes it hard to talk though.

    • The key to riding in this way is keeping the speed absolutely constant. A gap of 30 cm at speeds of 40 km/h does not leave a lot of room for error. This means that

      • you watch the rider in front of you while keeping your eyes on the road ahead; never stare at the wheel.

      • never, ever brake without announcing it with the agreed-upon hand signs well in advance, it's better to break out of line than to brake in emergencies.

      • accelerate and decelerate very slowly if the terrain changes; remember that the group doesn't reach the incline or dip all at the same time.

      • don't suddenly stand up because that shifts the bicycle backwards as your centre of gravity moves forward.

      • it helps to put a hand on your neighbor's shoulder when turning to look back to avoid swerving.

    • Similarly, it's important to always ride in a straight line because the front wheel of the rider behind you might overlap your rear wheel. If you make a sudden move to the side, you could kick his bicycle out from under him. If the rider in front of you does this to you and your wheels touch, steer into him hard - the worst that can happen to him is that you displace his wheel, but the alternative is crashing and having the rest of the group run over you.

    • If you are in front, use hand signs. Otherwise, immediately duplicate the hand signs of the rider in front of you even if you can't see the obstacle yet. We use the following signs:

      • point with your index finger at potholes or other obstacles, even if they seem harmless because they might surprise riders behind you. Remember, they usually can't see much of the road in front of them. Call out "hole", "glass", or "tracks". Railroad tracks are dangerous.

      • if you need to shift the paceline because the road narrows or you need to pass bicycles or parked cars, wave your palm behind your back towards the side you want them to go.

      • raise your hand if you plan to stop or brake. Never brake without announcing it first.

      Remember that when you are in the front position you take responsibility for the entire group. You are their eyes, and you have to think ahead for all of them. For example, don't blast through yellow lights because the last riders will be forced to run a red light.

    • Before getting seriously tired in the front position, accelerate, move to the side, and wave the following riders through. Always wait for a wide stretch of the road. Don't do this at a dangerous or difficult place such as a steep incline, dip, or curve. Don't wait until you are completely wasted - you will have to accelerate to catch up when everybody passed you, and the following riders are rested and may want to go faster than you did.

    • If you are in the second row and the front row begins to fall back, do not accelerate. Maintain the previous speed until the group has reassembled into two columns.

    • Always stay abreast with the rider next to you.

    • Don't ride too closely to the edge of the road or parked cars. If you miss an obstacle or a car door opens, there will not be enough time for the entire group to react.

    • Choose the rider you will be riding next to - if he is stronger than you he'll give you hell when you are in front; if he is weaker than you he will want to leave the front just as you begin to enjoy yourself.

    • Also choose the rider in front of you carefully. If he can't keep his speed constant you'll be on full alert all the time to compensate his speed changes to keep the entire paceline from fluctuating. Also you will need to keep more distance for safety which reduces the advantage of drafting; you'll feel more headwind. It's best to choose the most experienced rider. Riding in the right column is slightly easier, but riding in the left column offers room to escape in emergencies.

    • In my experience, if the group splits for any reason when some riders race ahead or others fall back at a difficult section such as cobblestones, always stay with the front group even if it's much harder than staying with the slow group. The reason is that the slow group will have to catch up while the front group takes it easy to allow them to catch up, and when the group is back together there will be those who just got a chance to relax and those who had to catch up, and guess which one is better. Having to catch up for any reason takes more strength than anything else, especially because you usually won't have the benefit of drafting somebody to avoid or reduce the headwind.

    • Speaking of cobblestones (we still have a lot of these here in Brandenburg): ride as fast as you can without bottoming out on the rim. Your forearms may go numb, but riding slowly will make for a bumpier ride. If there is any risk of cobblestones, choose a steel bike - our group always gets divided into the steel riders in front and the aluminium riders in the rear. See previous point. This assumes road bikes; fat-tire riders won't have a problem.

    When I started riding I was always puzzled how good riders seemed to be completely unaffected by short hills - they just kept riding at the same speed while I was slowing to a crawl. Today I know how it's done: riding longer distances is done with low effort, leaving plenty of reserves for short sprints. Low effort can mean only a few km/h or mph less than usual because wind drag increases so sharply with speed.

    Finally, we must address the important question why some cyclists shave their legs (but not their arms or head). This has been vigorously discussed to death on various lists and newsgroups. The conclusion is that there are three reasons:

    1. The official one: it significantly reduces air drag by a factor X, where X is very very close to 1.

    2. In case of a crash, no hairs will mess up and infect the wound. (The infection will be taken care of by the dirt on the road instead, or by the unshaved arm wound.)

    3. Elitism. That guy with the hairy legs is obviously an amateur who cannot be taken seriously. He sticks out like an AOL address on a Linux kernel mailing list.

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