didn't feel safe


About three weeks ago on May 10, Transition Guelph, along with Bike-Friendly Guelph and GCAT, hosted an “Introduction to CanBIKE” workshop on cycling survival skills for urban riding. The tag-line for the workshop was “I don’t feel safe on my bike!” and the accompanying promotional material went on to explain that this was the primary reason most people gave for not riding their bike in the city. In particular, cyclists often cite lack of respect or awareness on behalf of car drivers for their trepidation around riding on city streets.  Let’s face it, while awareness is high around the health and environmental benefits of cycling, this can be somewhat mitigated by the attendant awareness that getting smacked by a two-ton automobile being driven by some guy more intent on texting than on the road can somewhat compromise at least the health benefits.

Certainly, that tag-line had some personal resonance for me. My anxieties notwithstanding, I still do bike as much as I can, preferring to reserve my car for situations where I am transporting stuff that can’t possibly be moved around on a bike, like loads of lumber, or my stack of guitars and amps (which damn near doesn’t even fit in my car!)

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of situations in which I am far from calm while peddling; biking up Edinburgh Rd, for example. Should you not have had the exquisite pleasure of riding up this road for yourself, allow me to explain. First of all, while the lane width is perfectly adequate for Smart Cars, Austin Mini’s and Isetta’s, your average Canadian car occupies virtually the entire lane. When you add Hummers and Escalades, the situation is rather like trying to cram a hippo into an outhouse. They don’t fit! So where does a bike go?  you ask. Well, you could try cozying up to the curb, but most the curb on Edinburgh is in such bad shape, and so riddled with four-inch deep ruts, gouges and sewer grates that you might as well just fall off your bike deliberately and get it over with.

So anyway with all this in mind, off I went to the May 10 workshop, which was facilitated by certified CanBIKE trainer and biker extraordinaire, Evan Ferrari.

The workshop was… er, “sparsely attended”, probably since we didn’t do a great promotional job, and also because a couple of confirmed registrants bailed at the last moment. Still, that was fine by me; it was great to have that level of personal attention!

The first part of the course was a bit of classroom instruction, in which we looked at the circumstances and reasons why we tend not to feel safe, and looking at some overall strategies for handling some of these basic situations. We looked briefly at biking in other countries, chiefly for the contrast: there are many countries where biking is an incredibly popular method of routinely getting around; Canada and the U.S. are something of anomalies in this regard. Finally, the classroom instruction touched on some brief, but highly effective! demonstrations of why biking is such a great idea, not just for the environment and personal health, but also for the overall structure, tone and people-friendliness of the city itself.

Then, on to a nice picnic lunch, and the on-bike portion of the day. We rode up to Central Public School and worked on some bike handling and control exercises in the schoolyard that started out simple, but became increasingly complex and challenging. Evan coached us on some excellent tricks for control and handling, which went a long way, just by itself, to increase our confidence. Many of us found ourselves doing things that previously would have scared us off or seemed completely impossible. A great confidence booster!

Finally, on to the roads. We started out on quiet residential streets and gradually worked our way up to arterial roads, heavy traffic and taking the lane in busy situations. Evan insisted on letter-of-the-law observance of all rules of the road. No rolling stops at Stop signs, no failure to signal a turn or a stop, and no two-abreast. And no skimming by parked cars! It doesn’t matter that you “don’t see anyone inside.” Suppose the driver’s bent over to pick up a dropped cell phone, then starts to get out of the car without looking? You could win, as Evan calls it, the door prize.

I came home with two big takeaways – both of which have made a huge difference in my confidence on the road.

The first of these is: don’t hug the curb! My previous response (and a quite reasonable, if incorrect, one) to riding on narrow, busy roads without bike lanes was to get as far off to the side as I can, trying to stay out of people’s way. If a car or truck squeaked by me so close I could feel the breeze from the side mirror on my arm, this would simply prompt me to get even closer to the curb, until all my concentration was focused on not hitting it with my front wheel. Guess what? That doesn’t work. All it does is make it easier for drivers to ignore you. One to one-and-a-half meters from the curb: that was Evan’s rule. So what if drivers have to go around you, mumbling obscenities under their breath? At least they’re giving you the room you need to ride safely. After all, you and your bike are a vehicle. You have every bit as much right – legally and in every other way – to occupy that lane as any car.

The second takeaway was: always signal! This is not necessarily about letting drivers know what you’re about to do – although that can be a useful side-benefit. It can also be about simply mystifying drivers as to your intentions, which is a good thing for you. Quite a few drivers are not very familiar with bike hand-signals, or at least, they have to sift through their rarely-used memories to try and dredge up what they mean. Thus, when you signal, it definitely lets drivers in your vicinity in on the fact that you’re about to do something. Just what that is may not be entirely clear to the driver, but when confronted by that uncertainty, they’ll damn well slow down until they figure it out! I saw this at work several times when biking downtown as part of the workshop, and several times since. It’s almost magical. Stick out your arm, point it up, point it down, whatever, and the vehicles around you halve their speed until they figure out what you’re up to. It’s even half-tempting to just make up a few hand signals in order to confound everyone! (But, that would be wrong…)

Anyway, the bottom line is, the course was totally worth the investment of time and money, and it’s helped to completely transform my urban riding. I feel a whole lot more confident. I bike Edinburgh, Speedvale and even Woodlawn (a bike death-trap if there ever was one) with a lot more self-assurance than I ever had before.

And here’s the best news. We’re doing it again! Back by popular demand, Transition Guelph, GCAT and Bike-Friendly Guelph is offering the same one-day introductory course Saturday, June 21. The cost is the same, $60, and bear in mind that all revenue over and above cost is donated to Transition Guelph!

So check it out; come out on June 21; improve your skills, improve your confidence, and improve your abilities. I highly recommend it.