Don't Be Scared, Ride a Bike

Cycling For Everyone

Saturday, 5 Mar 2011, 2:30:00 AM

Santa Monica Spoke

Pedestrians and Bicyclists mingle on the bike path along Santa Monica Beach.
Photo by Parimal Rohit
Pedestrians and Bicyclists mingle on the bike path along Santa Monica Beach.

Editor’s Note: This column is the first of a series,written by Santa Monica Spoke, a bicycle advocacy group in Santa Monica, as well as other cycling advocates. This group plans to contribute occasional columns to the Santa Monica Mirror’s Health and Fitness section.

This is written for all of you who have wanted to try cycling to get around on those errands where parking takes as long as the actual drive. Maybe you’ve gone to the market and waited to find a spot in the parking lot while someone rode up on a bike, and locked it right in front of the electric doors. But you’re scared, both of riding in traffic and of looking like an idiot. Well, here’s some simple advice that might help you overcome at least some of your fears.

First of all, some basic psychology: many of us are too shy to be comfortable riding a bike in public. We’ve gotten used to our identities being tied up in our cars; and we’ve also become used to thinking of bicycles (like buses) as being something only for the poor.

It takes a certain courage to get on a bike and ride, especially when you don’t look like a fitness model, or the bicycle racer types in lycra covered in logos. But if you just get on and ride, you’ll be amazed first, at the positive response you get from neighbors and friends. And if you give it a chance, you just might enjoy it so much that you’ll want to ride. The shyness will disappear because you’re having so much fun. But start slowly, taking tiny rides, just a few minutes on quiet streets. Don’t think you have to leap in and go on big rides – just learn to enjoy little ones.

After you’ve overcome your initial reluctance by just getting on the bike and riding, take the next step and plan a short trip to someplace nearby to which you’d usually drive. But make some smart adjustments in your mentality. For example, don’t think that just because you usually would drive down Lincoln Boulevard you should go that way on the bike too. Unlike cars, bikes do well on slow, stop-sign-filled residential streets, and if you plan out a trip using such off-the-beaten-path routes, you’ll get to know your neighborhood better and have an enjoyable ride all at the same time.

I have two mental route maps for all over the area: one for bicycle travel, the other for motorized. They are very different. Driving on residential streets frustrates drivers and slows cars down; but bicycles suffer less from frequent stop signs and narrow, quiet streets.

Since it’s hard to avoid completely, when you do leap to riding in traffic, learn some strategies that keep you safe. Some of these are psychological, and some are behavioral. First, bicycles are smaller than cars, and don’t register on the senses of drivers in the same way cars do. To become a safe cyclist you need to get used to making sure you are seen while riding. Part of this happens when you learn to cycle predictably and visibly, instead of ducking in behind parked cars, then popping back out when another batch of parked vehicles gets in the way. While this “stay hidden” strategy feels safer, it’s not, because you are not continuously visible to drivers coming from behind, and your behavior is less predictable. If you pop from behind a row of parked cars, drivers have less time to react to your presence.

Just remember that paradoxically, a certain amount of assertiveness as a rider keeps you safe, because it keeps you visible and predictable. And don’t worry that you don’t feel assertive; as you get more experienced, you’ll discover that you become healthily assertive as part of your growth.

Finally, consider signing up for a class on urban cycling for support. Some local REI stores offer a class called “How To Ride A Bike.” Other institutions offer bicycle skills classes. There is a new Westside group called Grand Masters Cycling. Duncan Lemon, the group’s cofounder said it was formed based on the idea that "cycling is for everyone, at all ages." They have programs to support beginners of whatever age, but especially those over 50, and call it "cycling for the rest of your life." Grand Masters Cycling welcomes new riders jumping on the bike for the first time.

If you start slowly, you will find that cycling to get around adds to your enjoyment, and makes it so that you no longer need to plan your exercise. Instead, because you ride a bike to get around (and have a blast while doing it), exercise becomes a simple part of life.

Just remember that you didn’t acquire your driving habits (or any other set of habits for that matter) without it taking time. Give yourself time, work yourself up, and look for support from both individuals and organizations in what can become a lifelong change.

Over the next few months, this column will develop more fully the ideas in the preceding paragraphs on safe, sensible, practical cycling in an urban setting. I hope that you find them helpful. And if you have questions or comments, please send them on!

Finally, keep an eye on this occasional column for information about bike-related events from Grand Masters Cycling and other local groups.

This column was written by Peter Moore, of Santa Monica Spoke. For more information about cycling, visit smspoke.org, the website of Santa Monica Spoke, a local bicycle advocacy group.

Copyright © 2011 by Santa Monica Mirror. All rights reserved.