Getting Cautious

The comment by Blackpearl in the last post triggered some resonant thoughts in my mind. He’s concerned that road riding is losing its attraction for him, because it’s just becoming too dangerous. I’m not there yet, but I do think I’m getting more cautious out on the road than I used to be.

In Blackpearl’s case, it was a near miss at some distance from home that upset him. He started wondering about what could have happened if the incident had been more serious. I guess a lot of us have that kind of reaction. I know that after my first major fall it took me about a year before I rode with my previous verve. On the club ride last week, the group turned off on a side street, then waited a long time for a stoplight to change before we could turn onto a major arterial. I mentioned to the ride leader that if we had gone on a few blocks more to a busier street, the wait at the light would have been much shorter.

“Yeah, but that’s where I had my crash,” he said.

A pickup truck’s mirror had clipped his helmet when turning too close, and he went down. His injuries were severe enough for an ambulance trip to the emergency room.

“I’d prefer not to ride there again,” he added.

I haven’t crashed in almost two years (knock wood), and I do like to bomb downhills with the kind of élan I had when I was a new biker. But in some situations I find myself backing off because of sudden timidity, too. Just a week ago I was way out in the country and faced a long downhill. The speed climbed to 37 mph. Problem was, the road was really torn up. The surface was uneven, with wide cracks parallel to my direction of travel, and spots of gravel or small potholes. Oncoming traffic kept me from getting out in the middle of the road where the surface was a little bit smoother. It was an exhilarating hill, but I was glad to put it behind me.

Another route I like out in a different area has a nice straight downhill that I always look forward to, but the last two times I’ve ridden it I found myself braking once I get to 34 mph. It also has an uneven surface, and I’m a lot less comfortable on it than I would expect, considering that I have never seen a car on that road.

One popular route north of the city features long rolling hills. It’s easy to get into the high 30s going down, but the crosswind that usually affects this route bothers the heck out of me. On a group ride two months ago, I watched the person I was chatting with zoom ahead of me on the downhill, while I feathered the brakes to guard against the (imagined) feeling I had that the wind would blow me off the road and over a steeper drop at the side.

I mentioned to my friend David that I’ve gotten more cautious in certain situations.

“That’s not caution, that’s wisdom,” he said. David is 61 and has been biking for over 20 years. But he said even he is backing off when faced with some stretches he doesn’t care for. At the same time, he recently took me a different way to get to the Veloway than usual. We rode in the left lane of a 45 mph highway (where the traffic is often moving well over 50) for about a half mile before being able to make our left turn. For him, it was a normal ride. Myself, I don’t care if I never go that way again — too nerve-wracking.

On today’s group ride, I was heading back on a four-lane divided road with no shoulder. I rode “as far to the right as practicable.” Usually, cars will take the left lane to pass, but not today. They whizzed by pretty close — well closer than the three feet we cyclists like to see. It would have been easy to get off onto a residential side street, but this was new biking territory for me, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to navigate side streets out to the next turn. I held my ground. Most cyclists who confess to timidity say it’s because of situations like this one, where the cars come too close. The only advice I can give is to ride with at least one other person. The bigger the group, the more cars will have to give way. They won’t like it, but they’ll do it.

Ultimately, the decision about when to ride aggressively and when to back off lies with the individual cyclist. As the instructor in my Road I course said three years ago, “If it makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it.” There are things I won’t do.


  1. johnt says

    To me it’s all about minimizing risk. I like wide shoulders and bike lanes and plan my rides and routes with my road bike accordingly when riding alone. I ride a lot more on my 29er these days especially in and around town and feel safer on it with more options to hop up on the sidewalk or trail when I don’t like the traffic or street conditions.

  2. says

    I definitely second JohnT’s comment about minimizing risk. Our group rides consist of 85%-90% bike lanes and shoulders. The rest of the roads are well-known cyclist routes and drivers “tolerate” us being there. We emphasize riding in a pack of at least 4-riders for added visibility, safety and just to have someone to talk to. For the final touch, we say a “prayer / affirmation of safety” to keep us and the drivers out there alert, and to allow us to continue to do what we love to do every day: to cycle.

  3. Dan says

    I tend to do the majority of my riding solo. The group rides in my area do not fit well with my work and family schedule. I prefer the arterials rather than the residential roads. Less traveled country roads are my preferance, but I need the arterials to get there. While fast moving traffic coming from behind can be a cause for nerves on occasion, having to slow down at every uncontrolled intersection in the residential areas really hampers the training aspect of the ride for me. Plus if I am riding at 18mph and get rear ended by a car doing 35 the imapct is at 17, and likely a glancing blow. In a residential area I feel I am more likely to get broadsided at a full 25mph. That seems to me like it would hurt more. I will agree though that you are more likely to be safe when you feel safe.

  4. says

    Almost every serious cyclist I have met or read about has had at least one significant crash. It seems to come with the territory. As I approach my 2nd anniversary of my return to cycling, I have not yet crashed and I am increasingly aware that the odds are slowly working against me. I could quit, but I’d probably still get hurt in some other activity. With my luck, I would take up jogging and get run over by some crazy cyclist! :)

  5. Daved says

    Great topic Ray. If the danger is the only thing we think about none of us would ever ride. There have been times when I became so obsessed with the thought of getting hurt that I would talk myself out of riding. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” FDR. Some of the above comments are describing the relative safety of a bike lane or shoulder but the only thing between us and 2 tons of steel and plastic is a line painted on the ground. Won’t help much when a high school kid gets a text and he moves into the bike lane. Truly, accidents happen. I just don’t want anything happen because I did something dumb.

    You and I have ridden together enough that we know that you never want to make yourself small on the bike. Ride like you are supposed to be there and make the traffic deal with you. That’s why I thought we were being completely safe when you were worried. It was a Saturday morning and we were in plain sight, owning the lane and the traffic had to deal with us. What could be safer (staying home and watching cooking shows)?

  6. Jeff says

    > Ride like you are supposed to be there and make the traffic deal with you.
    Daved said a lot in that simple statement. Two days ago I was passed way-too-closely by a huge construction truck on a narrow road with no shoulder. I should have been smack dab in the middle of that lane.

    I also use a blinky tail lite at all times, even in the daytime, and I’m thinking about getting a blinky headlight for the same reason. Anything to help drivers pay attention to me.

    But traffic doesn’t creep me out as much as doing those steep downhills. I just got a new bike that’s about 12 lbs lighter than my old clunker. It feels too twitchy for me at high speed going down hills. All I can think about is flesh meeting asphalt at 35 mph. Asphalt wins every time!

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