Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Amazing Race 23, Episode 7 (FAQ: Riding Skills for Bicycle Travel)

Abu Dhabi (UAE) - Al Ain (UAE)

FAQ: Riding Skills for Bicycle Travel

This week the teams on The Amazing Race 23 “made their way” (in product-placement SUVs, fittingly for visitors to the oil sheikhdoms) from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain, and then to the mountaintop luxury resort hotel next to one of the Emir’s palaces at the end of the Emirate’s highest road. The racers’ problems in finding their way resembled those contestants on The Amazing Race have had, and that I’ve talked about, on previous visits to the cities of the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

Al Ain is the largest city in the UAE not on the Gulf coast, and the largest not to be the capital of its own Emirate — Al Ain is part of the domains of the Emir of Abu Dhabi. It’s not, in general, a tourist destination. The biggest attraction for visitors is the chance to drive up and down the mountain road to the 1300 meter (4000 ft.) summit of Jebel Hafeet, as fast as possible.

The Jebel Hafeet road is a public highway, to the extent that anything can be called “public” in a land where everything including ownership is subject to the king’s will or whim. In a land where driving is a major form of recreation, it’s also one of the the pre-eminent joyriding routes for drivers of every conceivable type of wheeled conveyance: cars, motorcycles, bicycles (go up at night or early in the morning, to beat some of the heat, or have someone drive you to the top so you can coast down), even skateboards (notice the amount of body armor the skater is wearing!).

Jebel Hafeet is often used as a location for car-ad photo shoots, and the racers had to drive up the mountain in product-placement SUVs. That left me wondering if they would show up in future advertisements for this model of vehicle. Sometimes there’s a good reason to seek out roads that show up in ads: One of my favorite roads to ride is Ridgecrest Boulevard on Mount Tamalpais, which may have been used to film more car commercials than any other road in the world.

The pavement on Jebel Hafeet looks beautiful, and the road looks perfectly built for a fast descent, but I imagine there’s a fair amount of danger from oncoming motor vehicles crossing the double yellow lines on the hairpin curves. That’s likely to hold true whether you are going up or down, in or on any sort of vehicle.

There’s also danger to bikers from their own lack of skill. Search for news reports or helmet-camera videos of two-wheeler crashes on the Jebel Hafeet road, and you’ll find plenty. Many of them are single vehicle wipeouts, as are a large percentage of bicycle and motorcycle crashes everywhere. Many of these are by inexperienced riders, or by riders who are attempting something — such as a more difficult road, heavier traffic, or a heavier bike — that they haven’t yet learned to handle.

Training in “how to ride a bicycle” typically ends as soon as someone is capable of starting, stopping, peddling, shifting gears, and staying upright without training wheels. Much more advanced training in bike handling, road positioning, and maneuvering in traffic is available, and even routine, for motorcyclists, but rarely available or even considered for bicyclists.

First-time touring bicyclists — even cyclists with extensive recreational riding experience — are apt to get in over their heads (or fall on their heads) in one or both of two ways: (1) riding in heavier and/or different traffic than that to which they are accustomed, and (2) riding a loaded bike that handles differently and can’t maneuver as quickly as a bike without a substantial load.

If you’re lucky, you can learn these things on the road. But you really don’t want to have to try out some maneuver — crossing an intersection with a limited access highway, for example — for the first time when you’re tired and it’s getting dark and starting to rain. Better to make at least modest efforts to prepare and practice under more controlled conditions, before you leave. If you are going to spend time “training” for your trip, as many people do, I think it’s worth spending some small fraction of the training time you spend on physical conditioning on learning bike-handling and traffic skills. Even a few hours of reading and practice can make a big difference in what road and traffic conditions you can safely and confidently handle.

I’m trying to convey what may seem like two contradictory messages, but both of which are consistent with my advice about independent travel in general: Travelling by bicycle is easier, more feasible for non-athletes, and much safer (and much more fun) than most people imagine who haven’t tried it. It’s also something which will be easier and safer (and much more fun) if you invest some time and effort in learning how to do some things you may have taken for granted, may regard as “child’s play”, or may think you already know all about.

You don’t need, and aren’t likely to acquire through any crash course, the bike handling or traffic reading skills of a professional rider (whatever that means). What’s most important is to have a realistic sense of the limits of your capabilities and, secondarily, those of your bike. Most bicyclists get in trouble because they overestimate their own skill, and/or because they panic when they get into a situation that calls for a level of skill that they don’t have.

How can you (safely) improve your skills at riding in traffic and handling a loaded bike, before you set out? Reading, practice, and learning from other riders can all be helpful, as discussed in the rest of this article.

Most books and resources on bicycle riding, unfortunately, focus on cycling as an athletic activity, and not on cycling as a means of transportation. It should be easy to tell these books apart: the Dewey Decimal classification system divides the subjects of bicycles and bicycling between two widely separated call numbers, 796.6 (as a subset of “outdoor sports”) and 388 (“ground transportation”). But all the books on riding I can find, even the few guides to riding in traffic for bicycle commuters, utility cyclists, and touring bicyclists, are misclassified and shelved in 796.6 under “sport”, along with the books on bicycle racing and cycling for physical fitness.

When I describe myself as a former professional bicyclist, most people assume that I must have been a bicycle racer, and must know how to ride fast. But I’ve never raced at any level, and professional racers are a tiny subset of the world of professional bicyclists.

The overwhelming majority of the world’s professional cyclists are tricycle rickshaw-wallahs in South (and to a much lesser extent Southeast) Asia. Closer to home, far more people earn their living peddling delivery bicycles for restaurants in New York City alone than earn a living as bicycle racers in the entire USA or quite possibly the world.

Even among professional bicycle racers, things aren’t as Americans or Europeans may imagine. The world’s best-paid bicycle racers aren’t those who compete in road races like the Tour de France, but fixed-gear sprint racers on the Japanese keirin velodrome circuit. Keirin racing is one of the biggest-money Japanese legal gambling sports, second only to horse racing. More than a trillion Yen (10 billion US dollars) is bet on keirin races each year, and riders in the highest category are compensated accordingly, as part of extreme measures to counter match-fixing.

Anyway, the expertise of bicycle racers is in riding in the peloton, surrounded (very closely) by other bicyclists, and not in riding in a real-world traffic mix that in the First World ranges from pedestrians and bicycles to automobiles, trucks, and buses, and in the Third and Fourth Worlds may also include a sizable percentage of animal-drawn vehicles, beasts of burden, handcarts, herds of livestock, etc.

Bicycle messengers have a reputation for riding in ways that endanger themselves and others. Some of the blame belongs on the piecework pay system and on management pressure to cut corners (literally and figuratively) and run lights to speed up deliveries. The same dynamics are implicated when workers in other industries remove safety guards and disable interlocks to speed up production, often with the implicit approval of management. “Time is money” is a better recipe for profits than for safety. In addition, bike messengers are often victimized by their own overconfidence, tending to overestimate the extent to which bike-handling and traffic-reading skills can substitute for patience and caution. In spite of all this, there’s an element of truth underlying bike messengers’ sense of being above the need to comply with the rules that apply to other road users. The best messengers have bike-handling skills equal to those of the best racers, and far better ability to read the mix of city traffic than any “civilian” or than racers whose professional riding is done on a track or a closed course, and who “train” on roads with as few intersections and as little traffic as possible. Amateur cyclists, including novice bicycle tourists, can learn a lot from bicycle messengers without trying to emulate everything they do.

Your goal should be a combination of 360-degree situational awareness and the ability to anticipate the flow of traffic. That means riding further ahead in both space and time (without overlooking potholes right in front of your wheel!) than amateur riders typically do.

What fixed objects and road features are you approaching? What course, with what acceleration or deceleration, are you and each other moving object (dog, pedestrian, car, other bicycle, donkey cart) within striking distance in any direction following? Which of those objects are likely to change their course, and how? What will you do if any of them behave other than as you expect? Where in their cycle are any traffic signals ahead of you, and when and how are they likely to change? Two or three reaction and stopping times into the future, where will you be positioned on the road, and where will each of those other road users be? Which will pass in front of you or each other, which behind, and which alongside? At what distances? Are there any clues to potential hazards that aren’t yet in sight? For successful professional cyclists in heavy traffic, this process is continuous and automatic.

A mirror on your handlebars, helmet, or eyeglasses is a useful supplement to the ability — which you should cultivate — to turn your head and look back over your shoulder while continuing to ride straight ahead. Handlebar mirrors on touring bikes often break off if the bike falls over or gets bumped from the side, so look for one with a mounting that will swivel inward rather than snapping off.

You can’t be looking in every direction at once, and sometimes there is too much going on around you to pay constant attention to everything. So part of the skill of reading the traffic flow is figuring out which things to focus how much of your attention on at each moment.

A few, but only a few, of the many books about bicycling actually focus on the skills of riding in traffic. These are less about how fast you can sprint, brake, or turn, or how precisely you can follow your chosen line through an intersection (racers and bike messengers alike tend to overestimate the value of bike-handling skill, valuable as it can be in getting out of trouble), and much more about how to chose what line to follow to avoid getting into trouble in the first place:

Each of these books offers fundamentally similar advice, and all three of their authors explicitly acknowledge each others’ expertise and contributions to cyclist education.

John Forester’s Effective Cycling is by far the most comprehensive of these handbooks. Unfortunately, Forester mixes his excellent (and generally uncontroversial) advice on how to ride in traffic on existing roads with idiosyncratic and in many respects obsolete advice about bicycle hardware (Sheldon Brown’s Web site is a much better resource on bicycle hardware and mechanics) and sometimes strident (and irrelevant, for someone who just wants to ride on the roads as they are) arguments about how streets and roads ought to be engineered to better accommodate bicycles (also the subject of Forester’s other book, Bicycle Transportation, A Handbook for Cycling Transportation Engineers).

John Allen’s Bicycling Street Smarts is concise and available online, for free, in versions for countries where they drive on either the right (as in the USA) or the left (as in the UK). I find it overly prescriptive in tone, with not quite enough explanation of the reasons for some of its advice.

John Franklin’s “Cyclecraft” — also available in both UK and North American editions for those who ride on opposite sides of the road — is, to me, the happy medium, with just enough detail to motivate why it gives the advice it does and without being overly preachy. Franklin actually shares some of Forester’s most controversial ideas about street and highway engineering for bicycles, but wisely avoids those topics entirely in this book:

“This book makes no attempt to excuse the bad behavior which is sometimes evident on today’s roads, nor to excuse those road designs which can be particularly difficult…. Priorities are changing and conditions for cycling should improve, but in the meantime it is necessary for anyone wishing to cycle to come to terms with present circumstances…. Cyclecraft therefore concentrates on how to deal with the existing order rather than lamenting the fact that conditions could be better.”

Many local cycling groups offer classroom and on-the-road riding classes, almost always based on one of the three texts above or on secondary sources derived from one or more of them.

Without meaning to slight the huge contributions that Forester, Allen, and Franklin have made to articulating fundamental principles of bicycling in traffic, much of what they teach is derived from collective wisdom that bicyclists have accumulated over more than a century. That cycling lore and wisdom has been passed on through cycling clubs and advocacy organizations including the League of American Bicyclists (originally the League of American Wheelmen) in the USA and the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) in the UK. Both of these organizations date to the first bike boom of the 1890s, and LAB/LAW provided the model for the later American Automobile Association as a mutual support and advocacy organization for motorists.

Group rides with the right sort of club can be invaluable in learning how to ride better with other bicyclists and in the traffic mix. The difficulty is usually in finding a riding club that emphasizes skill sharing and collaboration rather than speed and competition. For me, years ago, that was the Boston-area Charles River Wheelmen. Ask around at local bike shops or bicycle advocacy groups or the local bike repair collective, if there is one, or look for a local group affiliated with LAB or CTC, although that’s no guarantee that it won’t turn out to be a racing or “fitness” club.

Some Hostelling International chapters organize group bicycling trips, camping or from hostel to hostel. Joining the Warm Showers hospitality exchange network is a way to meet other bicycle travellers and learn from their experiences. One thing you’ll quickly learn is that no two parties of travelling bicyclists travel or set up their bicycles and gear in exactly the same way.

As a bicycle messenger, I rode my own lightweight 12-speed in Boston (although not, I must confess, through a Boston winter) and a single-speed coaster-brake cargo bike with a front basket (like a French porteur rack) year-round in San Francisco for a delivery service that accepted shipments up to 23 kg (50 pounds) and sometimes twice that. (In each of those cities, I was the first bike messenger to regularly wear a helmet, which I decorated and did my best to popularize as a “cool” fashion statement rather than a “dorky” statement of cowardice.) At other times, while doing other sorts of work, I’ve commuted by bicycle as much as 50 km (30 miles) a day, both from the inner city out to jobs in the suburbs and vice versa.

(The company cargo bikes I rode had only limited adjustability for fit, and were poorly maintained. But this was the only bicycle courier service in San Francisco, from among at least a dozen at the time, that had its riders on salary as employees. We were paid barely more than minimum wage, but at least we weren’t under piecework pressure to cut corners or run red lights to save time, and those riders who were injured on the job got workers’ compensation. It was impossible, however, for any half-way honest employer to compete with companies that treated their riders as “independent contractors”. My career as a messenger ended when workers’ compensation costs put the company I worked for out of business.)

Riding a heavily loaded bike, whether a cargo bike or a touring bike, is different from riding a bike without a load. The load on a touring bike, even with full camping gear, can’t usually be that large a percentage of the rider’s weight (rarely more than 45 pounds or 20 kg). Going straight ahead on the level, you can stop about as quickly with a well-balanced load as unloaded. (Only with practice on a specific bike will you figure out the optimal fore-and-aft weight distribution.) A well-balanced bike, with the load low and towards the centerline, secured so it can’t sway or bounce, will track more easily and stably, with less need for constant corrections, than an unloaded bike. You can’t accelerate as quickly with a load, though, so you need to wait for longer gaps to pull out into traffic, and allow more space in situations where without a load you might rely on sprinting to avoid a hazard.

With practice, you can lean a loaded bike into a surprisingly tight turn, even at speed. I feel as much in control of my touring bike coming down a mountain at 45 mph (70 km/h) fully loaded as I do on my lightweight “road” bike at the same speed. Of course, if you aren’t sure you are well within the limits of your bike and your skill — especially if you aren’t sure where those limits are — you should slow down!

However, any load on the front wheel (front panniers or even a heavy handlebar bag) adds angular momentum around the headset that makes it slower to turn the handlebars, effectively decreasing your ability to react quickly. With less maneuverability, you are more likely sometimes to need to “take a lane” for safety on a loaded bike, but you are also more likely sometimes to have to dismount and cross an intersections as a pedestrian. With a wide load and less ability to swerve quickly, it’s even more important to wait your turn behind other vehicles in the line of traffic and not to try to squeeze past to the right of, or between, lanes of stopped or slower-moving motor vehicles.

If you have a chance before you set off on a trip on a new (or new-to-you) bike, put on a sturdy long-sleeved shirt and long pants, fill your panniers with a dummy load of realistic weight, and take your bike to an empty parking lot or the like. Practice starting, riding straight, stopping, turning, and riding off the edge of the pavement at a shallow angle into deep loose gravel, soft sand, or soft dirt. This skill is essential when a highway shoulder you are riding deteriorates or disappears unexpectedly, you flinch or wobble as a truck passes and your wheel goes off the pavement, or you deliberately steer off the pavement to give a passing vehicle more clearance.

Going off the edge of the pavement is a common cause of crashes. If you are afraid that motorists might force you off the edge of the road, you probably should be riding further into the road, away from the edge, so you have room to flinch or swerve away from a motor vehicle that gets too close, without going off the edge of the road. Most roads in the USA have at least a slight shoulder, but there are other countries where even major roads may have no shoulder whatsoever. The edge of the travel lane may be defined by an abrupt and immediate transition to mud, soft sand, a vertical rock wall, or a hedgerow faced with thorns or stinging nettles.

Even if you are riding on tires too narrow to give any traction on loose gravel or sand, you should be able to steer with the skid, keep your bike upright, and bring it to a stop on an unrideable shoulder or in the ditch without falling over. Trying to swerve back onto the pavement, while instinctive, is likely to exacerbate the skid and cause you to fall back into the road — the last thing you want, unless the alternative is to go over a cliff.

You don’t want to count on being able to recover from a skid. But better bike handling skills and some low-speed practice can give you a better chance of recovering from a small skid or from having one wheel deflected by loose gravel or other debris in the road.

Try to figure out what the limits are of how quickly you can stop and how sharply you can turn, at various speeds, without feeling like you are close to panicking, falling, or losing control.

Next, if you feel ready for it (and if you aren’t, are you ready for a larger trip?), take a trial ride with your bike fully loaded through the central business district of the biggest nearby town, through some difficult intersections (including an interchange between a major road and a limited-access expressway), and onto some roads at the limits of your tolerance for traffic.

When you’re travelling by bicycle, you are likely to end up on more bicycle-unfriendly roads than when you are out on a purely recreational day ride. If you’re riding purely for fun, you can choose to avoid most bad roads and unpleasant intersections. When you’re trying to get somewhere, and the alternative is an additional 20 mile (30 km) or more longer (and perhaps not certain to be any better), you’re more likely to choose to run the gauntlet of an expressway interchange or narrow bridge, or ride on the shoulder of a high-speed truck route for a mile, as the lesser evil.

Highway shoulders, by the way, can be better or worse places to ride than you expect. If traffic is heavy, some cyclists prefer multi-lane roads with wide paved shoulders to narrow two-lane roads with minimal (or no) shoulders. In the USA, it’s legal to ride on the shoulders of many Interstate highways, especially where there’s no other road or none with services at close enough intervals. But even wide shoulders may be crossed at frequent intervals by jarring expansion joints (often these are filled in or smoothed across the traffic lanes but open across the shoulder). Worse, there may be large cracks, seams, or ridges parallel to the direction of travel that you have to watch out for. Especially on roads with high-speed truck traffic, shoulders are wont to be strewn with debris including chunks of broken metal and pieces of shredded truck tire bristling with the sharp ends of frayed-through steel wire belting. Fine but strong fragments of tire belt can be among the more difficult sources of flats to locate and remove from bicycle tires, and among those more likely to cut your fingers when you find them while running your fingers along the inner surface of the tire.

You can expect to make more bad route choices bicycling abroad than in even an unfamiliar part of your own country, as I’ve found while driving rental cars. Unless you are familiar with the typical layouts of towns of different sizes, it will be harder to interpret maps and know what conditions to expect to find along the route you choose. Foreign visitors to the USA, for example, can be taken by surprise at how far it is between towns and services on many rural roads, even in the eastern part of the country. A road that looks the same on the map, and that was a pleasantly untrafficked byway between towns, may without warning turn into a nightmare strip of automobile dealerships and shopping malls as it approaches a large town or small city but before it begins to be paralleled by any more bicycle-friendly alternative streets.

Downtown traffic is scary, but at its heart often moves slowly enough to be fairly manageable on a bicycle if you keep from panicking. Narrow high-speed rural roads without shoulders can also be frightening at first. Once you get used to them, they can be quite pleasant as long as visibility is good and traffic is light enough for there to be plenty of room for the occasional motor vehicle to pass.

Cycling conditions tend to be worst getting through the carcentric rings of malurbia (mall-urbia?) around big cities. These are the routes on which segregated car-free bicycle commuter expressways — often along watercourses, current or former railway lines, and the like — can be most useful, if they exist and you can find them. Commuter trains may provide another alternative way to get in and out of big cities, if you are allowed to bring your bike on board.

If you think of “traffic” only in terms of pedestrians and motor vehicles, think again. Bicycle traffic is light to nonexistent on most roads and even many dedicated bike paths in the USA. You may think nothing of stopping your bike in the middle of the path or the bike lane, without warning, to admire the scenery or chat with a passer-by. Drivers do the same thing on rural roads in many countries where meeting up with another vehicle is a rarity.

But this is a dangerous habit to get into. Anywhere there’s a dedicated bike lane or bike path, you should expect the possibility of bicycle traffic at any moment. Riding in a stream of bicycle traffic is different from riding in a peloton or paceline, or by yourself.

Always assume that there is a bicyclist about to come silently around the corner towards you from in front, and that another has silently pulled in behind you and is riding on your rear wheel. (Mirrors are most useful for checking how closely behind you other bicyclists are following.) Signal before you slow or stop, and do so only in places where there is adequate visibility from both directions. Except in an emergency, stop only where you can pull entirely off the bike lane or path, or at least far enough over that there is ample width and visibility for bicyclists going in opposite directions with wide panniers to pass you simultaneously. Before you begin to push your bicycle back onto the path or out into a bike lane, look for approaching bicycle traffic. Treat the maneuver the same way you would treat pulling out into a general traffic lane. You may have to wait for a sufficiently long gap in the passing stream of bicycles for you to get up to speed and merge in without forcing others to stop or slow abruptly.

Bonne voyage, et bonne randonnée!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 17 November 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Hello Edward,

One of the membership benefits of the LAB is a discount of 20% for insurance and roadside assistance from Better World Club. What are your thoughts on buying this service for while bicycle commuting or touring within the US? Have you ever used it?


Posted by: Ryan, 5 April 2014, 15:03 ( 3:03 PM)
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