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Practical bike riding: A book review and more

A review of “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike” by Grant Petersen.

I’ve got bike riding on the brain, I admit it. How could I not? About three weeks ago I read a really nice little book about bicycling called: “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike” by Grant Petersen. If that’s not enough to provoke bike thinking I also just got back from a trip to Portland OR (The Twin Cities biking nemesis).  I tend think about bike riding more than I’d like to admit anyways but this double barreled shot to my brain has me reeling on all four pistons and mixing metaphors like a chef with a new Cuisinart.

Grant Peterson is former racer who’s apparently known for his somewhat retro-attitude about biking. He argues that the American bicycling culture has been warped by its preoccupation with racing, and I completely agree, in fact I think that preoccupation may well account for a significant number of bike accidents (I’m writing a separate blog about that).  In his book Petersen advocates riding for pleasure, wear normal but appropriate clothing, ride a durable and trouble free bike, don’t worry about speed or distance, and don’t worry too much about wearing a helmet.  The book is filled with all kinds of practical advice about how much to spend on a bike (98% of us do NOT need a $1,200+ bike), how to tune it, whether or not to have fenders, and what kinds of bike bags to use.

There’s a nice little chapter on why you don’t need more than six or eight gears, and some good advice about how to shift gears, and even how to peddle.

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One of my favorite elements of the book is Petersen’s thorough debunking of the toe clip myth. For decades manufacturers have been putting toe clips on bike pedals, and bikers have been wearing special shoes that clip into the pedals. The idea here was that when you’re clipped in you push and pull with your legs thus maximizing efficiency and getting a little more speed. I’ve never bought into this, the first thing I do when I get a new bike is remove the toe clips, and like Petersen, I put a kickstand on my bike.  Petersen actually debunks the clip-myth by pointing out that several physiological studies of bike racers have shown that while they are efficient peddlers, they don’t pull up, they’re just very efficient on their down strokes. Petersen does however credit the clip myth with producing millions of dollars’ worth of fancy bike shoe and special pedal sales.

With few exceptions Petersen’s book describes my personal attitude very closely. I’m a practical rider, I’m not training for anything and I don’t want people to think that I am. I like to ride, I like to see and hear the world around me when I am riding, and I don’t want to suit up with special gear when I do ride. I get the idea to ride and five minutes later I’m on my bike.

I do have two points of contention with Petersen however. The first trivial but it involves something near and dear to my heart, flashy lights. Petersen has a chapter with the title: “Warning: That Blinky Light Will Kill You”. Petersen claims that if you have your lights blinking it triggers target fixation, people will fixate on the blinking light and run into you. Actually a flashing light interrupts target fixation, the British figured this out when they started bombing Germany at night during WWII. Their planes kept running into each other until they made the lights flash. This is why the lights on tall buildings and other possible obstacles flash. Bikes and traffic are a different deal but I seriously doubt that a blinking light increases you chances of being hit. In practical terms it probably doesn’t matter whether or not your light is blinking.

A more serious bone of contention is Petersen’s “safety swerve”.  This gets into an area of bike safety that is very weird. I’m a bike rider but I’m not a biker guy, so there are whole areas of bike culture where I’m completely out of the loop. One of those areas is: “vehicular riding”. We’ve all seen these guys for decades, usually helmeted spandex would-be racers riding like idiots in traffic when a bike path is ten feet away. I’ve always thought they were just idiots reducing their time on this mortal coil but it turns out there’s actually a biking philosophy behind this! Back in the 70s a guy by the name John Forester took a single ride on a new bike path in Palo Alto California and somehow concluded that bikers are something like 2.4 times more likely to get injured on a bike path then they are on the road in traffic. Forester then went on to advocate “vehicular riding” or “Bike Driving” as safer alternative to dedicated bike paths.  Simply put, the idea is to stay off of bike paths and ride on the streets as if your bike is a car. Forester doesn’t just want you to ride like a car, he wants you to it aggressively so car drivers have to deal with you and learn how to share the road with bikes.  Forester apparently went so far as to oppose the construction of separate bike lanes and paths.

By the way, in the decades since Forester’s proposals dozens of studies have shown that it is in fact safer to ride on bike paths and or dedicated bike lanes than it is to ride in traffic with cars. Furthermore this should not be confused with the Critical Mass movement.

I’ve been thinking about “bike driving” for a couple weeks and no matter what direction I approach it from the only conclusion I reach is that it’s just plain stupid for soooooo many reasons. Now to be fair, Petersen doesn’t advocate “bike driving” in his book, in fact he endorses the use of bike paths and lanes when available.  Petersen does however describe something he calls a “safety swerve” which I think is a throwback to bike driving mentality. The idea is that you mimic an inexperienced rider by executing carefully timed swerves into the traffic lane. Presumably this will startle car drivers and teach them to keep their distance from bike riders. Petersen gets this idea from a British study by Ian Walker et al. This is a really good example of bad amateur scientific thinking. Petersen is looking at a study that has absolutely nothing to do with collisions and extrapolating into a completely inappropriate conclusion about reducing collisions. Peterson mistakenly concludes that predictability is a factor in collisions from a study about proximity and predictability. The study itself actually contradicts Petersen’s advice by point out that the further out in the traffic lane a rider is the closer they are to traffic:

The riding-position effect suggests drivers simply do not change their overtakingpaths very much as a function of where a rider is: if a cyclist rides furtherinto the road, they will on average be closer to passing vehicles as a result.

In other words all will you do if you swerve into traffic is close the distance between yourself and the passing traffic, you will NOT modify the passing cars path. Furthermore you have to look at the actual distances we’re talking about here, the difference between the kind of rider Petersen says you should mimic and other riders is only about 14 inches (1.2 meters vs. 1.35 meters). Of course another problem with Petersen’s “swerve” is that is assumes that the drivers who are watching bikers are one’s who are colliding with bikers, obviously a dubious assumption. The driver who doesn’t see you is the one most likely to hit you, and they’re not going to notice whether or not you’re riding unpredictably. Predictability is likely not a factor in collisions one way or another. The theory that riders will somehow modify car behavior and reduce collisions is throwback to Forester and is dubious at best. Cars have been “sharing” the road with other cars for over a hundred years, have they stopped colliding with each other as a result? On the contrary, what we know is that the more cars we have on the road the more collisions we have.  Why would you expect car drivers to share the road better with bikes then they do other cars? Finally when you are riding a bike you yourself should not be distracted, you need to pay attention to where you’re riding. Anyone who’s performing Petersen’s safety swerve is by definition distracting themselves while performing an unnecessary, ineffective, and probably dangerous maneuver. Besides, Petersen’s swerve is simply impractical if you’re riding in traffic where a car is passing you more than every five or ten minutes. In any real traffic I think you’d be so preoccupied with your serves that you’d likely run into a parked car.

Here’s my advice: Since injuries and fatalities are a result of collisions, avoid collisions. Traffic is inherently dangerous so avoid riding in it as much as possible. If there are trails, use them, if there’s a bike lane, ride in it, and if there’s a parallel street that less busy, ride on that instead of the busy street. Pay attention to your riding, be alert, watch where you’re going, and always ride as best you can.  Don’t put yourself in front of a vehicle that can hit you unless you have a clear indication that the driver sees you. Yes, you have a right to use the roads but if your rights meet a car’s bumper at 30+ MPH you’re going to have a bad day and the Bill of Rights will be of little comfort. Don’t delude yourself that bikers are going to “teach” drivers how to share the road. Yes, bikes and cars can coexist, but that’s a complex issue that has little to do with predictability or assertive riding. Remember, the world does not revolve around you, or bike riders. By and large drivers don’t give a crap about your experience level, what you’re wearing, or what your attitude is, so none of those things will save your life. Staying out of collisions is what saves your life.

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In my next blog I’ll weigh in on the helmet issue and look at how some bike designs may be contributing to collisions and bike accidents.

This post was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.

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