Bike path cycling should be intuitive. But, no matter how seasoned a cyclist we think we are, there are always some classic pitfalls that we either forget about or assume we are immune to. Some of us are regular bike path cyclists while others might ride them only once a year when they go on holidays. If you are one of the latter, there may be one or more in your group who hasn‘t been on a bike for a number of years or is new to cycling. Unfortunately, we often expect others to be fully conversant with the challenges they may encounter and leave them to sink or swim. To ensure our group rides are pleasant and incident free, we must nurture the occasional and novice cyclists and talk them through some of the pitfalls both before we start and as we cycle along.
Bike paths are often shared with pedestrians and there is generally a road segment as most aren’t continuous. Some involve road crossings and include segments on the sides of public roads. If so, there are safety aspects associated with these that need to be reinforced.
This article has been written more for the weekend and holiday cyclist who rides a combination of roads and bike paths either alone or with a group. It also covers some basics to assist novice riders.
Foot and Head Wear
Spend some time in Byron Bay and you’ll find the trend in bicycle clothing is board shorts, a T shirt, bare feet / thongs and a peak cap. This is despite the fact that Byron Bay is part of NSW and it is illegal to ride a bike in this state without a helmet. Unfortunately, in Byron Bay, it appears to me, that looking ‘cool’ is the most important aspect of cycling and the police seem to have given up trying to enforce cycling law here.
No legislation regarding footwear that I know of but how easy is it to have a foot slip off a pedal and end up with a foot injury when riding in bare feet or thongs. If it happens to rain while you are out, thongs become very slippery when wet. What’s so hard about wearing a helmet and sneakers when you ride?
Your helmet should be as new and not have been dropped or be cracked. It should fit snugly on your head with straps straddling your ears and be firmly clipped under your chin. Your shoes should be the enclosed type and, if you wear laced shoes, the laces should be tucked away neatly so they can’t get caught up in the chain.
Also, some young ladies choose to ride in long flowing skirts that can easily get caught in the rear wheel if not tied up or tucked in. If you are a bloke, riding in baggy long pants without a chain guard, you should remember to tuck your pants into your socks or wear trouser clips just above your ankles.
Know your Brakes and Gears
If you are cycling with novice riders, take the time to explain to them the difference between the back brake and the front brake if the bike they are riding has cantilever, disc or wedge type brakes with levers on the handlebars. In Australia, the back brake is normally on the left and the front brake is on the right. Explain to them that the back brake is the slowing brake and the front is the stopping brake. Always apply the most pressure to the back brake and then more to the front brake when trying to stop completely. Never use the front brake alone and make sure the brakes aren’t grabby and are properly adjusted. Advise them that they’ll need to apply significantly more pressure to the levers if it rains as the effectiveness of the brakes deteriorate substantially in the wet.
If the gears are chain gears with a front set of chain rings (normally 2 or 3) and a rear cassette (normally 8 or more cogs), explain to novice riders that the largest diameter cog at the back (gear 1 on the left hand side lever normally) is the ‘granny’ gear and is used for climbing hills. The smallest diameter chain ring on the front (gear 1 on the right hand side lever normally) is also a climbing gear. The best mechanical advantage for hills is achieved with both these gear sets set to 1. If they are using a borrowed or rental bike, they should pedal around on a flat safe area and move the gears up and down the range to get a good feel for them before heading out onto bike paths and public roads. They also need to know that they must pedal, under light load conditions, to change gears and, when coming to a stop, to change down to a lower gear ready to start off again.
If you are a holiday cyclist and prefer to hire a bike for the brief time you intend to cycle, you should take extra care before setting off. Invariably, these bikes are in a poor state so make sure you get one in reasonable condition before handing over your hard earned cash. Some basics to check for:
Don’t Let the Lip give you the Flick
Figure 1 - Typical Driveway layback lip
When crossing a driveway layback from the road to the footpath there is usually a 30-40mm lip at the kerb and gutter. If you approach this at an acute angle, less than say 60 degrees, with skinny road tyres, there is a strong possibility your front wheel will not mount the step up and track along the gutter on the low side of the lip. Should this happen you will lose your steering and more than likely hit the deck. However, with larger diameter, noblier tyres, such as on a mountain bike or hybrid, the risk reduces substantially. Your back wheel will normally follow your line and has a much lower chance of tracking the lip in the gutter. But, even if it does, your steering will remain in tact and your risk of falling is a lot less.
The best option is to cross this lip as close to 90 degrees as possible or, alternatively, if crossing at an acute angle, bunny-hop the lip (precisely time the lifting of your front wheel as it crosses the lip).
Figure 2 - Typical bike path lip
Another classic case where ‘the lip may give you the flick’ is when crossing a grass verge onto a concrete bike path. Your first assessment may be that the grassed area is level with the path or even higher. However, if the grass is long and the ground adjacent to the path is lower than the path, the lip of the path could bring you unstuck if you don’t approach it similarly to a driveway layback (as discussed above). I can vouch for the damage it does to you when you fall because it has happened to me on a couple of occasions.
Figure 3 - Road edge lip in dappled
|Other cases of lips include the edge of a bitumen or a concrete road pavement where there is a drop off to a gravel verge. Again these should be treated similarly to crossing a layback (as discussed above) particularly if you are riding along the verge and need to mount this lip to get back onto the paved road.|
Figure 4 - Pot holes in deteriorated road pavement
Potholes, Dips, Humps and Sand / Gravel
Often we can’t predict pot holes, dips or humps in the road surface and, if we miss them while riding, either because we aren’t concentrating or riding immediately behind others, the result can be disastrous. A front wheel suddenly dropping into a deep pothole, hitting a hump or a dip in the road can jolt the handlebars from your grip causing you to lose your steering and bring you down. The best way to avoid this type of accident is to be ever vigilant, especially on deteriorated old cold mix bitumen road surfaces and in dappled light conditions. Always keep a firm grip on your handlebars. On rough roads keep your arms slightly bent at the elbows so they act as shock absorbers. Potholes will often appear in road surfaces after heavy rain where cars have worked the surface of the pavement.
Figure 5 - Sand hazard at road edge
Sand and loose gravel are also traps for unwary riders
When riding with a others, if you are on the front and spot a pot hole, hump, dip, a sand or a gravel hazard along your riding path, yell out ‘ hole’, ‘dip’, ‘hump’, ‘sand’ or ‘gravel’ accordingly to provide plenty of time for the others to avoid it.
Dips and humps are often very hard to spot, especially if you are riding downhill at speed in dappled light. A classic case of this is riding down both sides of Bobbin Head. In situations like this, slow down to a speed you feel comfortable with, keep a firm grip on your handlebars and relax your elbows slightly.
When riding bike paths with a group, you often need to negotiate bollards at the entry and exit to the path. Bollards are normally placed there to restrict motor vehicles from entering. If you are riding with a group and are at the front, best practice is to call ‘bollards’ so that those riding behind you become aware. Invariably, bollards are around a meter high or less and not visible to those riding immediately behind you because the front riders shield them from view.
Be Safe Be Seen
We’ve all heard the old catch cry – ‘Be safe be seen’ yet how many cyclists do we see riding along in black or dark coloured clothing. This is probably due to their perception that they look pretty ‘cool’. Do these cyclists ever look one step ahead of the play, to consider how ‘uncool’ they’d look lying prostrate on the road after being seriously injured in an accident.
Cyclists often assume that motorists are in perfectly maintained vehicles, intent on driving legally and are concentrating on their driving at all times. Ever had a dirty windscreen while driving with the sun directly ahead of you and realized the limits on your visibility in this situation? Ever been behind a motorist wobbling all over his/her lane, more than likely because they are using their mobile phone illegally? The more visible you are in these situations could make the difference necessary to ensure your safety.
Most cycling nix are black or dark coloured so why not combine them with a bright cycling jersey? With so many fabulous jersey designs available, there is no reason why you still can’t look ‘cool’ in coloured tops. You don’t necessarily have to wear fluro but any colour is better than black for visibility. Toss in some bright coloured sox or, at least white socks, and this further improves your visibility.
The Other Guy
We can’t do much as cyclists regarding our fellow road users. Vehicle maintenance and driver concentration is so variable that we just have to keep our fingers crossed that we aren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. What we can do however is be predictable and ever vigilant of motorists in our immediate vicinity. Anticipate what they intend to do. Tradies in a hurry between jobs, buses stopping or pulling out from a bus stop enforcing their right of way, motorists driving with dirty windscreens or partially concentrating, motorists running red lights or not giving you adequate clearance while passing and motorists opening their driver side door before checking their side mirrors to name a few. Just as we do when driving a car, we need to use our peripheral vision to ensure we are constantly aware of the ‘the other guy’.
Rear bike light
A rear red flashing bike light is, to me, an essential piece of bike kit to use both day and night. A rear light is sometimes considered a nuisance by road cyclists riding in a peloton as they believe themselves to be highly visible as a group and therefore have no need to light themselves up. Some become annoyed when riding behind a cyclist with a flashing rear light, especially if the light is one of the super bright rechargeable LED types. In my view, the compromise solution in this situation is to use a standard non rechargeable battery light that is less intense in a low flashing light mode when riding in a peloton and use a high intensity rear light in high flashing mode when riding alone. It’s not hard to mount one of each on the rear of your bike. While driving your car, have you ever looked along a long straight road in varying light conditions to see a range of flashing bike rear lights in the distance? If your windscreen is dirty how much easier is it to identify these cyclists and prepare you to take evasive action as you pass them. My view is that a bright flashing tail light when cycling alone on a busy public road is a no brainer especially in dappled or overcast daylight conditions.
Front bike lights
Car doors opening and vehicles turning across your path in front of you are the two main arguments for having a strong front light flashing both day and night on your bike. With the low cost of rechargeable LED front lights these days, there is no excuse for not mounting one on your bike or your helmet. Generally it’s not the fault of the cyclist in a collision with a car, it’s more than likely that the motorist just didn’t see the cyclist.
Before alighting from a parked car, the driver should do a quick check in the car side mirrors before opening his/her car door. Ideally, not further than the first stop. If a cyclist is approaching with a bright flashing front light it would be so much easier for the driver to spot the cyclist approaching and take the relevant care. Cyclists refer to running into a car door as ‘dooring’ or ‘getting doored’. A mate recently referred me to a safety practice used in the Netherlands where motorists are required to use the arm furthest from their driver side door to open it. This way they can be looking over their shoulder at the same time as opening the door to check for cyclists approaching. (Ref 3).
While driving a car, have you ever looked up a long road and barely noticed a cyclist coming towards you? It is not only difficult to see the small silhouette of a single cyclist approaching it is virtually impossible to estimate his / her speed. A bright flashing front light would make the drivers task of seeing an approaching cyclist so much easier.
I’ve been traumatised recently by a cycling fatality that occurred at the intersection of Woodlands Avenue and Mona Vale Road in the northern suburbs of Sydney. This intersection lies between St Ives and the Pacific Hwy at Gordon. Not going into specifics, I’ll just say that a young lady in her early 30s was cycling down a long downhill section of Mona Vale Road when a car coming up the hill turned in front of her leaving her no time to avoid a collision. It’s my understanding that the man in the car turning across her path just did not see her. This section of road is 3 lanes wide and it was a Sunday morning around 10am when there would have been minimal traffic so I can only assume that the motorist just didn’t see her. It is also the same route that I travel every Tuesday and Thursday morning at around 11am when there is a lot more traffic to contend with so this accident was particularly poignant for me. At the location where the accident occurred, I’m normally rolling down this hill at around 50kms per hour (a 70km/hr road). I assume this was a similar speed the young lady was travelling when the accident happened. Over the years, on the odd occasion, I have had buses slow in front of me, car doors open and vehicles turn in front of me on this very road. But I have been fortunate enough to have sufficient time to take the relevant evasive action (often with the odd expletive expressed at the time). Since this accident I am now totally committed to a bright flashing front light on my bikes both day and night when riding on a public road, particularly during the day in overcast or dappled light conditions.
Basic Bike Maintenance
Ever stopped to think how much trust we place in our bikes. Not much we can do about equipment failure due to poor quality equipment or fatigued bike components but there’s a lot we can do to ensure our bike are in good nick before we set off. These simple checks might just be the difference between a safe ride and a stint in hospital. When you think of the speeds we get up to down hills and riding in close proximity to traffic, other cyclists and parked cars, its pretty easy to imagine how badly banged up we’d be if we had some form of critical equipment failure in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m not suggesting we need to check our bikes before every ride, but I recommend the following basic checks from time to time if you ride regularly.
If you have had your bike serviced, do some quick checks of your own. Bike mechanics are human too and I’ve known cases where they have incorrectly set new brake blocks and not fully tightened handlebar alan bolts. If brake blocks are not set correctly to engage the rim only and, are touching the tyre, the friction on the tyre can cause a heat build-up in the tyre that causes it to burst.
Knock Knock – Who’s there?
Knock Knock - Who’s there? - Isabell – Isabell who – Is a bell necessary on a bike?
The answer is ‘yes’ from a legal perspective. However, you may not agree with this requirement as you know you can easily call out to alert pedestrians / other cyclists you are approaching on a bike path. Call out ‘Passing on your Right’ or something to make them aware of you presence. If you are riding with a group on a bike path and you are in the lead, you might also alert them verbally that there are others following you eg say ‘3 more riders following’ as you pass.
If you use your bell to warn pedestrians of your presence, ideally do this from a reasonable distance back rather than when you are just behind them. Ringing your bell in close proximity could startle them and cause them to move hastily in the wrong direction to avoid you. Also, some may take exception to you ringing your bell in close proximity, especially if you startle them, and perceive this to be arrogance.
Look before you Leap
When approaching an intersecting road on a bike path always look to your right over your right shoulder and scan to your left with your peripheral vision for cars approaching. Please note that cars turning from a main road across your path, into the street you are crossing, are looking ahead along the main road for gaps in the traffic before making their turn. When they spot a gap they will invariably proceed quickly and not necessarily expect someone to be crossing the side road. Don’t assume motorists automatically know you are about to cross the road. Remember, on a bike, you are travelling much faster than a pedestrian walks so a motorist has a lot less time to react if you charge out. Unless it is a pedestrian crossing, motorists have right of way in this instance. When crossing at pedestrian crossings or over major roads it is best to hop off your bike and walk with it
For the significant portion of cyclists who use bike paths and roads, I hope this article has added some value. If you ride with children or less experienced cyclists, points raised in this article should be imparted to them. The best way to learn, in my view, is incrementally so perhaps mentioning one or two of the points raised in this article each time you ride with them may be enough to avoid them learning the hard way.
To find bike paths in a location near to you or at your holiday destination, simply go to a bike shop in the region and ask. Quite often you can pick up a brochure that maps various routes and you can make a choice from there. Alternatively, do a Google search on bike paths in your city or town. If taking novice riders, I’d recommend no more than 15kms as a distance to start with and if they have a penchant to do more, work up to 25kms. It’s a good idea to have a coffee shop close to the end of the ride to help give the jaw muscles a work out as well. Normally, less experienced riders using bike paths will average 10 to 15kms per hour to give you some idea of a ride time frame.
It is always good to carry a bottle of water, hand pump, spare tube, 2 to 3 tyre levers and a puncture repair kit. Make sure you have a good long drink of water before leaving and use your water bottle from time to time to ensure you remain hydrated.
Pick your time of day carefully. Early mornings or late afternoons are always the best.
About the Author
The author is currently a member of Ku ring gai Rotary Club and the Marketing Team for the Bobbin Head Cycle Classic 2017. He is a regular group cyclist and cycles 3 to 4 days a week with 2 different groups in Sydney’s northern suburbs. As well as his weekly routine of cycling he has completed numerous intrastate, interstate and overseas social cycling events. He rides essentially for pleasure and fitness