Bicycling in D.C.: Part III

BicycleSPACE is proud to sponsor Bike to Work Day on May 15. It’s thrilling to see as many as 18,000 Washingtonians illustrating the power of the bicycle as everyday transportation. In this three-part series, BicycleSPACE co-owner Erik Kugler takes a long view of bicycle commuting, sharing navigation strategies gleaned over more than 20 years.

Cheers! To celebrate the beginning of Bike to Work Week, we'll gather for drinks tonight, May 11, at Zaytinya, 701 9th St NW, immediately after the "District of Change: Traffic! Metro! Bikers! How to Survive the D.C. Commutepanel discussion we're attending at 7 p.m. at the M.L.K. Library, 901 G St NW. Please join us at the panel discussion and/or Zaytinya bar. Look for our staff in a BicycleSPACE t-shirt.  

As an introduction, I’m Erik Kugler and I’ve been riding bicycles in the Washington, D.C. region for more than 20 years.  I have never once been involved in an accident.

My primary concern is to get to my destination as safely as possible, intact to carry on living and ride another day. This is the guiding frame of reference for the advice I gave in Parts I and II of this series.

Even as we use the Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute method to avoid the potentially dangerous situations, a myriad of hazards remain in our path.

What can we do?

I hate yelling all the time and therefore I don’t do it. A simple solution is to use a bell. Crane makes a great brass one which has a wonderful tone to it and it looks great on my bike. It’s a much more friendly gesture to pedestrians than yelling at them that you’re on the left or honking a horn. It never hurts to be friendly, right?

Riding Technique

Getting on and off the bike

Everyone has seen a cyclist weave as he or she starts from a standstill. You definitely don’t want this to happen on a busy street while you’re taking off from a traffic light with impatient drivers racing off to the next light. You will also note that more experienced cyclists seem to take off safely in a straight line. It’s all technique.

Good mounting and dismounting will ensure that you’re predictable while riding in stop-and-go traffic. At a standstill, stand on one leg and put the other one over your top tube with your foot on the pedal just a little bit forward from the vertical position. Do not try to straddle the bike while sitting on the saddle unless the bike is too small for you. When you’re ready to go, push off with your foot that’s on the ground like you’re pushing off on a skateboard to get you some instant velocity and stability. Simultaneously pedal forward with your other foot and use the pedal like a stepladder to climb back onto the saddle. That will give you another boost. At this speed, you’ll be instantly stable or much more so than if you had tried without pushing off.

To stop, follow the steps in reverse. Come forward off your saddle with the pedals in a horizontal position. You can practice riding like this to get a better control on your bike. Then come to a stop. Next, keeping pressure on your brakes, take your rear foot off the pedal and lean over gently until your leg is extended and your foot is on the ground. Get good at this. Another fun thing to practice is to do a “slow race.” Without touching the ground, try to go the slowest you can over a very short distance, like 20 feet. Do it both standing and sitting. You don’t need much space. It will give you a much better control on your bike and that helps.

Looking behind you

The natural reaction when riding a bicycle is for the bike to want to go wherever you are looking. This can be particularly dangerous when you look behind you to make sure that you can get out into a lane to avoid an obstacle. What typically happens is that as you look, your trajectory changes without you even knowing it. Removing one hand from the handlebars while looking over your shoulders keeps the front wheel straight when looking around. To have more control, it helps to practice in a safe, open area, free from obstacles.  Practice riding in a straight line and look behind you to see how your bike reacts. Through an initial conscious effort, you can make riding in a straight line even while looking behind you part of your riding style.

Use your peripheral senses

It will make you much more aware. Everything you hear and see out of the corner of your eyes is a clue. Use the mirror technique at corners. Practicing doing this will make you much more aware of your surroundings and you’ll learn a lot. Plus, it’s fun.

Take the lane

Don’t be timid. You’re as important as anyone else on the roads, but you need to act like it. Ride out in the middle of the lane when there are cars parked to the right or the road is too narrow for a car to pass safely. Stay out of the door zone. You’ll notice that some bike lanes put you in the door zone. Just because someone painted them that way, your primary responsibility is to stay safe and ride another day.

I would encourage anyone who finds this interesting to share your tips, and to join us on a Nice & Easy ride any Saturday or Sunday at 10 a.m.  I lead the Sunday ones.

Stay safe, even if it makes you a scofflaw, and I hope to see you soon.

Next steps: