The Reluctant Cyclist Ride


It takes very little to remind you of just how dangerous cycling can be when you least expect it:

Reply by Jeff Schneider 3 hours ago

Even in a PBL you have to be ready for anything.  Today a woman driving a Jeep turned SOUTHBOUND onto Dearborn.  When she realized what she had done (the honking horns from the oncoming traffic perhaps made her look up from her phone), she swerved into the PBL, barely missing me.  Yikes.  I thought I knew almost all of the stupid ways that drivers would try to kill me, but honestly I was completely unprepared for that one.

The quote above is from a rider commenting on his commute today along the Dearborn Street PBL. We know PBLs because they are according to Ron Burke (Executive Director of Active Transportation Alliance) going to make us safer. But I had to stop and regroup on my belief that safer yet are segregated bike lanes. We Yanks call these trails. The one I was on today was along the Fox River.

At The Outset

We had grabbed our ritual weekend breakfast of oatmeal, acai toppers, coffee and pastry before heading out to the Batavia Municpal Parking Lot. I suppose I should have known it would be a difficult day as even before we got our bikes underway I discovered my rear tire had a flat. I removed the inner tube and found the offending hole and the place in the casing of the tire itself where glass (from a broken beer bottle) from along the Old Plank Road Trail had pushed through and caused a very slow leak.

After attempting a patching of the inner tube I checked once more before leaving and we had lost about 20 PSI so the innertube was a “lost cause“. After replacing the inner tube with a fresh one we moseyed over to the police station washrooms and then hit the trails.

Flowers and Cruisers

Mother and Son Cruisers Along the Fox River

Mother and Son Cruisers Along the Fox River

Along the way I spotted my Dad’s favorite flower growing alongside the trail. It was a single bloom and so I stopped and captured it purple loveliness. Then we were under way again. Up ahead a mother and daughter had four pugs on leash (two apiece) and we waved hello. Lots and lots of cyclists were rounding the corners coming in our direction. We spotted a couple of ladies one with a walker and the other in an electric wheelchair enjoying the afternoon as well. The one in the wheelchair had brought her SLR camera and was obviously doing what I do on outings capture memories.

We were going to turn around just before reaching the riverboat casino in Aurora. So I kept a sharp lookout for the parking lot where we could do a U-Turn and head back north along the east side of the Fox River. As I rounded a bend I spotted a group of African-Americans on bikes. It was a largish group of perhaps eight people or so. All of them male except an older woman and perhaps her young daughter. I waves and then spotted her nice shiny new cruiser bike and said as I passed, “I like that bike!

She howled with joy and her males companions joined in with lots of laughter. It was a fun moment. In the next second I thought boy I really should have stopped can captured an image of this group, but I decided not to be too forward and moved on reluctantly.

Heading Back Towards The Van

Our Reluctant Cycling Mother and her daughter

Our Reluctant Cycling Mother and her daughter

At our turnaround point we made a gentle U-Turn and headed back in towards Batavia. Lots of the riders we had seen on the outbound leg of our journey were passing us again. Suddenly I spotted the lead male from the group I had spoken with earlier. I waved him down and he realized that I was interested in taking a picture of him with his bike. Behind him were the others and then came the older woman.

I flagged her down and she first seemed not to understand and then I realized she was trying to brake but really did not know how. The next few seconds went by in very slow motion. She aimed her bike towards the rear of mine and would have hit my wife who avoided this by stopping short. The lady continued to plow into me and then in desperation she clung to me to keep herself from falling. I went over backwards and to the side and ended up bending my rear derailleur and having my rear wheel go out of true.

I slowly rolled over and my wife picked up my bike and placed it on its two legged kickstand, after which I handed her my camera. I checked to see if I had any cuts and bruises and then stood. During all of this time the lady who it turns out was the mother of all these young men and their sister had checked herself and was apologizing profusely. Her only injury was to her flip-flop sandal whose strap had pulled through the sole.

She explained that this was her very first ride on her brand new bike and she had not really practiced braking! It was a bike with coaster brakes. She said to me that she supposed she ought to just give up on cycling because not only had she been too afraid to ride further along the river but now she had managed to bowl me over and damage her shoe.

Connie and I both said that this sort of thinking was nonsense. We too had fallen many times on our recumbents and that she should expect to get back on the bike and learn how to ride it as best she could. I took a few pictures of the bikes and one of her reluctantly peeking out from under her arm as she covered her face in shame and embarrassment.

We tried to make sure that they knew we were going to be fine and that we hoped she would continue to ride the trail. Only time will tell.

Some Thoughts On Newbie Training

Cycling like everything else has its risks. In common parlance we would say it is dangerous. Social Engineering types would claim that this is not true. They would say that the only dangerous thing that happened to me today was that I had on a helmet which evidently made the lady on the trail so certain that she could hit me broadside without harming me that she gave it a try.


Cycling like the whole of life is a big fat bundle of uncertainty. And like Jeff (see quote above) you could be barreling along head down on the “showcase” Dearborn Street PBL and get the crap smacked out of you by a “wrong way driver“. Or you could go for a ride along a trail where there are not cars and instead have a “newbie cyclist” do the honors on your and your bike. By the time I have that rear derailleur replaced (or bent back into shape) I should have a nifty bike once again. But until then…

So here is my bold statement for today:

Expecting newbie riders to be safe while riding protected bike lanes without benefit of Vehicular Cycling Training is like expecting teenagers to be just fine in navigating their sexual awakening without any classroom training and instead receiving “morning after pills” and “condoms”.

Everyone and I mean everyone on the roadway needs training. I would venture to guess that cyclists are more in need of training than even motorists. I say this because it is somewhat rare to meet a person who does not know how to drive. Or if not a driver has not spent considerable time inside an automobile piloted by a capable driver. So when it comes time for them to get their license they have a reasonable idea where the turn signals, brake and steering wheel are located and can proceed without too much trouble.

Obviously it is the behind the wheel training in a parking lot and then on street which will make all the difference. But as with any automobile drivers experience the classroom training will introduce them to how the shapes and colors of the various traffic control signs will help them negotiate steep roadways or icy roadways or avoid bounding deer.

Bicyclists come to the streets with far less training that the average 3rd grader in Amsterdam. Over there training on how to ride on streets begins early in their school years. It is ingrained in their culture that bicycles are part of your everyday life as a citizen. People ride the bikes to and from the store for groceries. They go out on Sundays to parks on bikes to have picnics. They travel to work on bikes virtually year-round.

Vehicular Cycling Must Be Taught

It is these behaviors and not the paint on the pavement which really makes them safer riders than most Americans. That is a lesson that is going to have to be learned the hard way. Or in my case was re-learned the hard way today. A person on a bicycle may be moving along at 8-10 MPH and have absolutely no idea how to stop the bike.

In fact think back to the last time you yelled out “on your left” to announce that you were passing and the rider up ahead moved to his left and then looked over his right shoulder. What most Urban Cyclists today do not realize is that this practice of calling out your intention to pass is ingrained into your subconsciousness during a Vehicular Cycling Class. People devoid of that training are clueless as to what your voicings even mean.

It is more than likely that 1 in 10 folks on the bike even know how to signal with a free hand. I say this because a Hispanic family on today’s ride approached me just before I encountered the African-American family I wrote about earlier. I was waving as first the mom and then the kids and finally the father each passed in succession.

What struck me as noteworthy was that none of them even knew how to steer their bikes with one hand and then wave with the other. This means that during a ride from their home to the trail none of them would have been able to safely signal a turn or a stop or a lane change to one another or a motor vehicle.

We take it for granted that these Protected Bike Lanes are safer than streets without them. But I claim that no street is safe so long as other humans are using it alongside you. You have to be taught to first recognize and then avoid the “Door Zone” when riding in a bike lane. This is not something that is self-evident. And obviously even seasoned riders are clueless about how to avoid getting “doored” since some of the ChainLinkers openly confess to having been doored more than once!

Training Must Also Include In-The-Field Repairs

Until there are emergency service trucks (or cargo bikes) that will come at a moment’s call to pick you up and fix your flat tire or busted spokes or dropped chain, you are likely to be the only person you encounter on a lonely trail or road late at night that can get you home safely.

I have spent nearly 20 years perfecting the art of wheel building and ordinary bicycle repair. It paid off yet again today. After the crash I discovered that my shifting had gone “wonky“. At the same time I noticed that my rear wheel was “severely out of true“. Connie and I have a ritual set of actions we take in such cases.

She fishes out the tools I will need and I get the bike up on its kickstand (or vice versa) and we begin the process of asking what are the symptoms of the bikes behavior and what could be going wrong. Then we apply the solutions we know and hope that they are good enough to get us home. I got back to the car and packed away the bike.

Once home I took the wheel off the bike and true it up on a truing stand I own using a professional set of spoke wrenches. This makes for a much nicer working environment than a bench (if you are so lucky) alongside a trail in failing light.

Now all I need to do is figure out why my patching effort failed. Actually I know why. I got impatient and tried to hurry along the glue drying step. I know better. But after taking at long look at the inner tube it was clear that it was in need of being retired late last fall.

Stay Safe Out There!

The Key to Ending 'Door Zone' Collisions

The Key to Ending ‘Door Zone’ Collisions

The question one writer raised the other day was whether we could put aside the squabbles between the Vehicular Cycling proponents and the Protected Bike Lane proponents. The answer to that is probably.

We really need to stop being Social Engineers first and thoughtful learners second. Pretty green paint simply will not supplant classroom training anymore than thoughtlessly dispensing “condoms” and “morning after pills” could ever replacement training by a sensitive and caring teacher who understands the emotional aspects of growing up as well as its physical consequences.

The same applies for bicycle training. This is not just about feeling safer. That is only the start. You need to know how to stay safe and how to ride predictably and how to keep your bike ion good working order and what to do if something goes wrong.

You need what both groups have to offer and you need them in a carefully wedded mixture that makes sense. Otherwise you are going to have people like this mother who had not been on a bike since she was a child decide that one scary situation is enough to keep her off the bike for good.

The next time an Urban Cyclist asks which direction the Chicago Critical Mass Ride should go (North or South or West) tell them instead need to go inside for some training and then back outside for some practice of what they have learned. And once these two are mastered then head out to the PBLs along the streets of Chicago with an eye towards finding ways to improve the sorry mess that many of them are in just now, and that includes Dearborn Street itself.

Cyclometer Information

Distance: 12.3 miles
Time: 1h 33m 07s