Well it’s that time of year when temperatures here in Twin Cities edge above freezing and that means hoard’s of people will be digging out their bicycles and hitting the roads and trails for the next few months. Of course there are a surprisingly large number of intrepid riders who kept peddling all winter and those riders put the Twin Cities on the map as the #1 or #2 bicycle cities in the United States. It’s actually amazing given our climate that we can have the largest cycling population in the nation. But there you have it… I salute you intrepid winter riders!
Cycling may be incredibly popular in the Twin Cities, but our fine metro area like the rest of the country is still experiencing growing pains and culture clashes between cyclists and everyone else out on those roads and trails. For now this is just kind of an American thing, we’ve had an explosion of people riding bicycles in a country that for decades was designed around automobiles. We’ve also had an explosion of exercise in the last couple of decades. Millions of people started walking and running and cycling in communities that were largely designed or redesigned around automobiles. There is some “tension” out there… to say the least.
The idea of sharing our roads, sidewalks, and trails, is kind of an afterthought here in the United States so we have a lot of catching up to do with places like Europe where cycling has always been a major part of the transportation mix. Of course all of this makes safety a dodgy proposition at times so every year as a cyclist myself, I like to dash off a refresher blog about safe cycling.
As usual some of my advice is a little controversial, but that’s actually a reflection of the culture clashes and infrastructure deficiencies we’ve been experiencing for almost three decades. Some riders will disagree with my suggestions but that’s OK, they’re suggestions, all I ask is some consideration.
To begin with, we do have laws in MN, and here’s a link: https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=169.222
The basic requirements are that you follow all the traffic laws, obey signs, and ride as far to the right as is “practicable” when riding on streets with traffic. You’re also not supposed to ride side by side unless it won’t crowd others on a trail or impede traffic.
A lot of drivers get frustrated with cyclists who seem to ignore traffic laws, and that contributes to some of the tension. I personally get frustrated with cyclists who ride so far out in the street that they slow down or otherwise impede traffic. Some cyclists do this deliberately as an attempt to “defend” their lane, or “calm” traffic. This was actually a theory of bike “driving” or vehicular riding that was popular in some circles a few years ago. The philosophy of vehicular riding was based on possibly fraudulent research that no one has ever managed to replicate. The claim was that riding on the streets in traffic, and riding assertively, challenging traffic, was safer than riding on bike trails. That was simply a false claim, subsequent research has shown that the safest way to cycle is to stay out of traffic and use dedicated bike trails and lanes. I’ve discussed this in more detail in previous cycling blogs, you review that here.
The problem is, and many auto drivers don’t appreciate this, we don’t have dedicated bicycle lanes and trails everywhere. This means cyclists sometimes have to ride in traffic on streets that aren’t designed to accommodate bicycles. This means that a cyclist has to make safety decisions on occasion that can be contrary to the rules that car drivers must follow. I’m not endorsing anything- but in a given intersection, under certain circumstances, it can be safer for a cyclist to get through that intersection when there’s no traffic moving, even if it’s still a red light. Left hand turns in busy intersection can be quite dangerous and cyclists can sometimes feel like they either have to risk their life in traffic or ride through when they can see that it’s safest to do so. A cyclist has certain advantages that driver’s don’t have. We’re not enclosed in a cabin surrounded by blind spots and we sit up higher than people sitting in a car. It can be easier to reliably survey an intersection on a bicycle than it is sitting in a car. Until our streets and intersections are better designed to accommodate bicycle traffic, cyclists sometimes will face the dilemma of following traffic laws to the letter or deploying the safest maneuver under the circumstances. Of course other times cyclists are simply ignoring the law, and that’s just annoying, and maybe even dangerous.
One thing you may have seen more recently around the lakes (Cedar, Isles, Calhoun, etc.), is cyclists riding on the LEFT side of the one-way parkway. If a cyclist needs to go the opposite direction of the bike path, they have to ride on the street going the other way, so that’s why they’re on the street instead of the bike path. Technically it’s illegal to ride on the left side of the street, but the problem is that all the parked cars are on the right side, and this presents certain hazards because cyclists are more difficult to see (and hear) than automobile traffic. People will fling their doors open, pull out, or even step out from between parked cars right in front of a cyclists without seeing them. I’m not saying I like the idea of riding on the left side of the street, but I can see the logic behind it. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen at least two near collisions with other bikes or pedestrians at the lagoon bridge on Lake of the Isles because speed demon cyclists riding on the left ignored the stop sign at that crosswalk. If you’re going to ride on the left, you need to obey the signs Mr. speedy, you’re not on a race track. Personally I think all of those bike paths should be two-way so people can go whichever direction they need to safely without having to mix with traffic.
Stay out of traffic as much as possible. If you’re riding for fun or exercise use the bike trails or dedicated lanes. If you’re commuting, and have to ride on streets without dedicated bike lanes, plan routes that minimize mixing with traffic, better to take a little extra time on a safer route with less traffic than get banged up on a busy street. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ride on the street on the parkways unless you have to because of the aforementioned one-ways. The parkways are too narrow and curvy, use the bike path; it’s only ten feet away (or less). If you want to be Mr. Sirspeedalot ride somewhere else.
The majority of collisions happen in intersections so enter all intersections with caution, prepared to brake. Never assume anything in an intersection no matter what color the light is, or what any sign says. And by intersection I mean any kind of intersection, not just those on the streets.
Speaking of breaks, keep your hands in the proper position. If you’re riding a road bike with swept down handlebars your hands should almost always be on the break hoods.
I still see people riding with those “aerobars” on the streets and bike paths (specially the Cedar Lake Bike Trail and Greenway) and that’s a really bad idea.
Those bars are only allowed in time trials for racing because they’re so dangerous, you can’t maneuver and you can’t reach your brakes in an emergency. None of our bike paths or streets are safe enough to ride with those handle bars. I would almost support a law of some kind banning aerobars I think they’re so dangerous.
Speaking of aerobars, other kinds of extensions are also a bad idea. People will fit their handle bars with all kinds of funky extensions because their wrists get sore but the problem is the bike fit, not the handle bars. Buy the right bicycle, don’t buy the wrong bicycle and try to make it fit. Just think about it, can you reach your brakes in an emergency when your hands are up on those extensions?
Keep your bike tuned. Bikes are very simple mechanical devices, they’re not difficult to maintain. For the most part a tune up is simply inspecting the rims, repacking the bearings every so often, and adjusting or inspecting your brakes and derailleur. Specialized tools aren’t that expensive, there are a million how-to videos on YouTube, and it doesn’t cost much to have a bike shop do it for you. A malfunctioning bike can be dangerous and distracting.
If you feel safer wearing a helmet, wear one; but helmets are not essential safety gear for EVERYONE. Better to ride safely and avoid collisions than gear up for a collision. The vast majority of cyclist never have a serious crash, and if they do crash, they don’t hit their heads. It may seem odd but there’s actually no evidence that requiring helmets is even a good idea. I’ve written about this more extensively here. I’m not telling anyone not to wear a helmet, but I am saying it’s OK to ride without one. The important thing is to ride, and ride safe.
Light up and vis-up. One of the biggest causes of collisions is failure to see a cyclist in the first place. Make yourself visible. Lights are cheap, and hi-vis gear has gotten much cheaper. For instance if you want to wear a helmet, make it a high-vis helmet, the increased visibility may be more important than the Styrofoam.
Sound off. Always exercise a little extra caution when in close proximity to pedestrians. You’re supposed to make pedestrians aware of your presence when you pass them, and oblivious pedestrians are a standard feature on our bike paths and streets. I prefer a voice warning because I don’t think American pedestrians know what to do when they hear a little bell ring, but if more people use bells maybe pedestrians will learn. Maybe bells combined with a voice warning?
Slow down. A lot of bikers are simply traveling too fast for the conditions they’re riding in, and that’s easy to do with modern bikes, you can easily coast 15 mph on even a slight downward slope. Don’t pretend you’re in a race when you’re riding on city streets or bike paths. In races, streets and intersections are blocked, and pedestrians and bystanders are cordoned off. In the REAL world, traffic and pedestrians are all over the place and you have to share the streets and trails. You want to race, enter a race. Don’t jump onto our streets and trails with thousands of other people and pretend you’re racing.
Little known facts about cycling in Minnesota:
- a) In Minnesota you do NOT have to walk your bike through intersections or crosswalks. You can (and I think should) ride rather than dismount and walk through an intersection. Just give any pedestrians crossing with you plenty of space, maybe ride next to the crosswalk rather than inside it.
- b) If there is no approaching traffic you can proceed through an intersection against a red light as long as you come to a complete stop. Minnesota lawmakers realized that a person on bike won’t trip the mechanism that changes the light, nor can the crosswalk button be reached from the street. You don’t have to sit there and wait for an unreasonable period of time, you can go. https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=169.06 ( Subdivision 9)
All this talk about safety can sometimes obscure the fact that riding bike is one of the safest things you can do, and it’s certainly one of the healthiest things you can do. For the most part safety is common sense, ride with some caution and courtesy, and be aware of your surroundings. It’s a slow process but Americans are getting more and more accustomed to the new mix of transportation, and we’re starting to design and redesign streets and trails with Bicycles in mind. Riding a bike is safe, and it’s getting safer every year, so go out and have fun.