Expert Conversation: John Brooking from Cycling Savvy

by Heather on June 9, 2014

Source: SunriseGuide

Photo credit: Jeff Scher

Photo credit: Jeff Scher

John Brooking is a nationally-certified bicycle educator with CyclingSavvy, a traffic cycling curriculum in Southern Maine.

SRG: What is the mission of Cycling Savvy, and how do you carry it out?
JB: The mission of CyclingSavvy is to give cyclists the knowledge, skills, and techniques to be confident using their bikes more often and in more situations. The biggest focus is on dealing with traffic while biking for transportation, since that is most peoples’ biggest concern, but our skills session, which may be taken by itself, is also applicable even if you’re only interested in riding on paths.

SRG: Your tagline is “Empowerment for Unlimited Travel” – can you share a little more about what that means?
JB: Many trips around town can be done mostly on quiet streets, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid crossing or traveling for a short distance on a more major road, which many cyclists understandably find daunting. We aim to give cyclists the knowledge, skill, and techniques to deal with those situations when necessary, so that people truly can ride with confidence anywhere they need to go. We are not about making people into “road warriors”. It’s not about speed or power, it’s about understanding traffic flow and using it to your advantage.

SRG: What are the different programs you offer, and who are they designed for (i.e. do you need prior experience)?
JB: We offer a 3-part course, roughly 3 hours each: classroom, skills session, and a group ride where we put it all together. The classroom and skills session may both be taken by themselves, but both are required to go on the “tour”. The courses do not require that you have a lot of prior experience, but we assume you can at least balance and steer, and have a working bike. The course is designed for adults, or older teenagers if accompanied by an adult.

SRG: How do people sign up for your programs, and when are they offered?
JB: You can go to our website,, and click the “Find a Course” button. I try to offer the full 3-session course in Portland twice each summer, and the first one for 2014 is coming right up July 11-12! I’m also planning on doing it again in late September or October, but I haven’t set those dates yet. To register, you’ll need to create an account on the website, then purchase credits towards the session(s) you want to take.

SRG: What are some of the most important bicycle safety tips you can share?
JB: Without having the space to go into detail (that’s what the course is for), I would say there are three very important general concepts. The first is to follow the same rules of the road as other drivers, as that puts you where others are already looking for traffic, and makes you much more predictable. Ride on the right side of the road and obey traffic controls. Use lights at night.

Secondly, counter-intuitively, you are sometimes better off in the travel lane for better visibility and vantage, and if the lane is too narrow and there is no usable shoulder or bike lane, ride further into it to discourage unsafe passing. Lane use can be scary at first, and we spend a lot of time talking about it in the classroom session.

Thirdly, communicate! Communication is probably THE most useful thing that most bicyclists never do. Cyclists make motorists nervous, and that’s partly because they don’t know what you’re going to do. If you communicate with them, many of them will even help you out! Make turn signals, make the stopping signal. We teach an unofficial “stay back” signal, arm diagonally down with palm back, for use when you need them to not pass right now, and it works so well that when you use it, you often have to “release” them with a friendly wave afterwards! (Obviously, keep it friendly! Don’t escalate incivility.)

SRG: We’re excited to see more cyclists on the roads these days, even in the cooler months. What do you think the reason is for this?
JB: Yes, I was one of 4 cyclists right behind each other on Spring Street between Westbrook and the mall just last Friday, and that hardly ever happens! And I’ve certainly seen more winter cyclists even in the latest harsh winter than I did years ago when I started. I don’t have any unique insight, but I think it is probably related to the increased desire to make a health-conscious and environmentally-friendly choice. Many reports are coming out saying that fewer young people are choosing cars as their first transportation choice, for whatever reasons. Among people of all ages, other factors are probably rising gas prices in the last decade, and the awareness that cheap gas may never come our way again, coupled with the economic downturn. Many cities are making efforts to accommodate cyclists more comfortably with infrastructure. It’s unclear to what extent the cause and effect runs each way between more cyclists and more infrastructure, but it certainly indicates a rising awareness.

SRG: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about?
JB: Most people learn to ride bikes when they are 5 or 6, but unfortunately, most people don’t learn anything more about it after that, even as adults. So it’s no wonder many adults don’t know exactly what they are supposed to do riding in traffic, and some feel more comfortable sticking to sidewalks and crosswalks like they did as kids, or even ride facing traffic (very dangerous, actually!), and above all just try to stay out of the way. The message we get from the culture is that bicyclists are not real drivers, so it’s no wonder that many bicyclists don’t act like it. What successful traffic cyclists have always found is that when we act more like other drivers, we tend to get treated more like drivers, and that riding that way is really much easier and safer. That’s ultimately what we are trying to get across. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about CyclingSavvy with your readers!

John Brooking is a nationally certified bicycle educator with CyclingSavvy and the League of American Bicyclists, as well as a Bicycle/Pedestrian Safety Educator with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. He also serves on the BCM Board of Directors, and on its Legislative and Policy Committee. He started the Portland Bicycle Commuting Meetup in 2006, and has been bike commuting to work year-round since 2002. He lives in Westbrook with his wife Mary and two teenage sons.