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It’s National Bike to Work Day! (Did You?)

It’s National Bike to Work Day! If you haven’t biked to work in a while and you’re a little intimidated, or you just need a quick refresher, here’s a handy guide to get you started.

The following is an excerpt from Biking to Work by Rory McMullan. It has been adapted for the Web.

As the old phrase goes, “It’s like riding a bike”: once you learn you never forget. Most of us had bikes as children and can still ride one. Is there anything that adults need to learn about riding a bike?

There are more cars on the road than ever before, and surveys show that the biggest barrier to taking up riding a bicycle is the perception of danger. Confident cyclists who have good road position and excellent control of their bikes are the safest. If it has been several years since you were last on a bike, and the prospect of riding on a busy road is daunting, then a few hours of training with experienced riders will do wonders for your confidence and safety.

Before you ride on the road

Before jumping on the bike and launching yourself onto the open road, here are a few tips:

Have a roadworthy bike A bike bought from a bike shop should be ready to ride. If you already have a bike, seek the advice of a mechanic at a bicycle shop or use the checklist below:

  • Brakes Look to see if the brake pads look worn. Lift the front wheel, spin it, and pull the front brake: the wheel should immediately stop turning. Repeat with the rear wheel.
  • Tires Test with your thumb to see that the tires are firm, if not, pump them up.
  • Wheels Check that the wheels are true: lift the front wheel and spin it to make sure it is not impeded, and repeat with the rear wheel. Check that the wheels are clamped securely.
  • Handlebars Hold the front wheel between your legs and wiggle the handlebars to ensure they are tight and aligned correctly.
  • Saddle height You should be able to sit in the saddle and touch the ground with your toes.
  • Test ride Before venturing onto a road, the final check should be a test ride. Find a safe, car-free area and take a ride, operating the brakes and gears, and making sure the bike is comfortable. Do not ignore strange noises or jumping gears, as they probably indicate a problem.

If you have any doubts about the mechanical safety of your bicycle, seek help from your local bike shop.

If you have never ridden a bike before, consider starting with a ladies’ bike with a low, step-through frame. Stand with legs astride the bike, hold the handlebars, put one foot on a pedal, push forward with the other foot and start pedaling. You may wobble a bit at first, but the faster you go the less you will wobble.

Steering To get used to steering your bike, try practicing maneuvering between some obstacles, and making U-turns.

Signaling and communication Probably the most important part of riding on the road is good communication with other road users. Before you take to the road you should practice riding with one hand, and looking behind while signaling. Before you maneuver, make sure there are no obstacles in front, and then look behind you and try to make eye contact with approaching drivers. Always clearly signal what you are going to do.

Braking There are two brakes on a bike, front and back; the back brake is usually operated by the left hand and the front brake by the right hand. Both levers are on the handlebars. These are the most important part of the bike, so get used to the brake setup and to operating it.

Practice in a car-free area, and get used to riding with your fingers on the brake levers. If this is very uncomfortable, or if you find the brakes are not working well, seek the advice of a mechanic at a bike shop.

Use the back brake to slow down, and both front and back brakes together to stop.

Emergency stops To stop quickly, simultaneously pull hard on the back and front brakes, shift your weight backwards, moving your posterior toward the back of the saddle while stiffening your arms. It sounds more difficult than it is; practice a few times.

  • Avoid skidding Pulling the back brake hard will lock the rear wheel, which will cause you to skid. Like ABS in cars, brakes work most effectively when the wheels are still turning. If you start to skid, release the brake lever slightly.
  • Do not pull the front brake on its own suddenly as this could throw you over the handlebars. When using the front brake, shift your weight toward the back of the bike.
  • Never turn the handlebar while pulling hard on the front brake—the front wheel will skid, and you could lose control.

Operating the gears Many bikes have gears, which make it both easier to climb hills and get high speeds on the flat. Unless you live in a very hilly area you are unlikely to need more than a few gears for everyday use. Most gears are controlled from the handlebar either as grip shifters or as EZ-fire (buttons that are pressed by thumb and forefinger), or incorporated into the brake levers.

There are two main types of gears—derailleur and hub—which are operated differently. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

With derailleur gears, you change gear while pedaling forward. The front derailleur is controlled from the left-side shifter, the rear derailleur from the right shifter. Different gear speeds are achieved from combinations of the front and rear derailleurs.

On the front, the largest sprocket is the highest gear, while on the back the smallest is the highest gear. A 27-speed bike will have 3 speeds on the front and 9 on the rear, giving 27 possible combinations. However, try to avoid the gears that make the chain cross over at an extreme angle; these “criss-cross” gears are bad for the chain and sprockets. Especially bad is to combine the inside (small) front sprocket with the outside (small) rear sprocket; this combination is noisy, inefficient, and causes the chain to wear out prematurely.

With hub gears you briefly stop pedaling to change gear. A hub gear only has one external cog, and the speed is controlled through cogs inside the hub of the wheel. There are fewer gears, usually between 3 and 7, but this system is easier to operate and the ratio between the highest and lowest gear is usually the same as a 27-speed derailleur system.

Be visible

Before you enter traffic you should ensure that you are visible: wear a reflective jacket or vest and have lights on your bike if you might be cycling in the dark.

On the road

Once you have learned to control your bike, and are confident with turning, braking, and changing gears, you are ready to ride on the road, but before you do you should be aware of the basics of road position.

There are two main positions for on-road cycling. You can ride in the traffic stream (the primary position) or to the right of it (the secondary position).

Primary position If riding in the middle of a lane you are part of the traffic, and are very visible to drivers because you are right in front of them. This position should be adopted in residential streets, especially when parked cars on either side may mean there is not enough room for safe passing. You are also doing drivers a favor by removing the decision from them as to whether or not there is room to squeeze past you.

Secondary position Riding to the right of the traffic stream, in the secondary position, is a concession to road users coming from behind at higher speeds, allowing them to pass. This position is usually adopted on main roads.

The distance from the curb depends on the width of the road, but as a rule of thumb leave at least three feet between yourself and the curb.

Inexperienced cyclists often ride too close to the curb. This is dangerous, because if you hit a bump, or a car door opens, or a pedestrian or pet runs out in front of you, you can only swerve into the traffic stream. But if you are further away from the curb and someone passing gets too close, you still have room to move back toward the right. Generally, cars will give you as much room as you give yourself.

Passing parked cars When passing parked cars, always be aware that a car door could open, so look to see if the cars are occupied.

Taking the lane There are occasions where you should move from the secondary to the primary position. This is called “taking the lane.”

Places where you should take the lane include:

  • passing parked cars
  • approaching and moving through an intersection
  • riding in a bus lane
  • moving through a narrowing road

—in fact whenever you want to ensure you are not going to be passed. To do so, plan well ahead, and look over your left shoulder to see if it is clear. If it is clear far enough behind so that no one will be affected, move left into the traffic stream. You may have to wait. Good communication and signaling should enable you to negotiate your way into the traffic stream.

Intersections Approaching traffic lights or an intersection where you must give way, position yourself in the primary position in the center of the lane. If when approaching an intersection there is a line of traffic, the least safe option is to pass on the right, so be very cautious and never pass a truck or large vehicle on the right. It is best to either wait your turn or consider passing on the left to get to the front, where there is often a reserved area for cyclists.

Clearly signal your right or left turn, and look behind to check that drivers are giving way. Then when it is clear, or the lights are green, move through the intersection maintaining your primary position in the center of the lane.

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