Staying safe on two wheels

Posted: May 3, 2013

With the number of cyclists in the 'Burg increasing, local experts offer safety tips whether you're on two wheels or four. (Photo by
“I’ve always been a bike commuter,” said Ben Bailey, assistant shop manager at Rocktown Bicycles.

He means it literally: Rides to middle school were a daily occurrence down the quiet street where he grew up.

“I didn’t realize how unusual that was at the time.”

Decades before Bailey was born, co-owner of Shenandoah Bicycle Company, Thomas Jenkins, was a ’70s child. “That was the way you got to school,” he recalled. “The roads were safe at that point. … I remember the first time riding to a friend’s house a mile away, and saying, ‘Wow, I can do that.’ ”    

Seven years ago, Thanh Dang was a fair-weather cyclist when she moved to Harrisonburg; now the Public Works planner commutes to the office and empowers others do the same, safely.

Bailey, Jenkins and Dang discuss here how to stay safe on two wheels.

Visible vehicles
“Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles,” quotes a slide from the April 26-27 class, Confident City Cycling, which Dang facilitated.

A bicyclist is operating a vehicle, with the same traffic rights and responsibilities as a motorist, her students learned — and also subject to the provisions of the Code of Virginia section on motor vehicles.

“The truth is that people who bike are also drivers, people who walk are also drivers, so there’s a mix. …  I feel like, just as much as we complain about bad drivers out there, there are going to be bad cyclists and pedestrians,” Dang said.

Educating travelers on both sides of the spokes means increasing awareness and enforcement.

“There is a segment of the population that, cycling is new to them, and I think that we need to take some time with those people to remind them they are vehicles on the road too, and there are rules we have to abide by,” she said. “I really think some people just don’t know that.”

As a lifelong cyclist, Jenkins has seen miles-worth of lacking education, or unwillingness to obey safety rules.

“The thing we see the most riding around is people not riding with traffic,” he said.

The myth that riding against traffic is more safe, he says, is actually very dangerous, as it reduces a cyclist’s visibility and inherently disregards the most basic road rules.

Bailey agrees — misinformation and fear, he said, are common reasons cyclists and motorists might clash.

“I hate for people to be scared of riding their bikes on the road,” he said. “It’s completely legal …  but it’s really important to obey the rules of the road, and try to do everything right as a cyclist, so you keep yourself safe, but also so cars know what to expect and just create an atmosphere where it’s expected for bikes to be on the road … so that cars expect it and you know what you’re supposed to do.”

Obey the rules
The intersection of U.S. 33 and Mason Street, near where Bailey works at Rocktown Bicycles, is one that’s highly trafficked and visibly tense: He sees bicyclists often take to the curb to avoid cars crowding them.

Although Bailey is an experienced rider — with a 3,500-mile journey from Oregon to Virginia under his belt and daily trips to work — he has felt vulnerable on the road.

“I really try to make eye contact with people at intersections,” he said, “and it just really scares me how many motorists I see that don’t make eye contact. …  every eye that I don’t see because it’s looking at a cellphone reminds me that I’m in danger of someone not paying attention because their attention is elsewhere.”

The alternative many inexperienced cyclists take, riding on the sidewalk, is slower paced, but less safe. Bicycles are less visible on the sidewalk, which can be uneven, obstacle-filled terrain.

Darting between cars, through stop signs or against traffic not only puts cyclists in more danger, but also adds to any negative feelings a motorist may have toward them.

“The main thing is communicating to folks you have a right to the road, but you also have responsibility; thinking of it as, you have the same responsibilities as someone driving a car,” Jenkins said. “Cyclists, sometimes, are our biggest enemy when it comes to advocating. If someone’s riding on the wrong side, that’s the image they’re giving to all cyclists.”

Friendly (cycling) city
Although mistakes happen, Harrisonburg’s bicycling community is unique, all three agree.

The additions of bike lanes and “sharrow” markings on existing roads add to the Friendly City’s bike-friendly atmosphere.

“[There’s] more work to do on the education of everybody who’s on the road,” said Dang, “but I think we’re making good progress.”

“There are some towns that are not at all hospitable to cyclists,” said Bailey. “You see recreational cyclists, but not cyclists riding bikes for transportation.” This strikes a special cadence between those who bike for sport and commuters: “It’s humbling how many cyclists there are, and people seem to really care and are passionate about it.”

A passion, said Jenkins, that’s summed up in his most fond memories of riding: “All the sudden, having the freedom to ride my bike …  it was amazing just exploring things and seeing new places.”

The veterans in the saddles whirring by the shop or longtime residents with children in tow, he said, are also in attendance at City Council meetings pushing for bicycle activism.

“The Shenandoah Valley is a great place to have this humble bike commuting community,” Bailed added. “It has high hopes and dreams, but is also down to earth and welcoming.”

When sharing the road, whether on two wheels or four, keep these helpful hints in mind.
For bicyclists:
—  If traveling at the same speed as traffic,  use the entire lane (known as “taking the lane”)
— Ride on the right-hand side of the lane, 3 to 4 feet from the curb or parked cars, for maximum visibility and safety
— Where the right tire track of a car would fall in the lane is a safe position for bicycles to travel
—  Increase visibility with front and rear lights, reflective and/or brightly colored clothing
—  Make eye contact with other drivers

For motorists:
— Leave 3 feet or more of passing space, and reduce speed when passing
— Allow bicyclists to take the travel lane
— Check behind after passing a bicyclist to avoid cutting them off while returning to the lane
— Yield to bicyclists’ right-of-way in the same way as cars
— Check for cyclists before opening car doors
— Never honk or harass

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