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Momentum Mag’s top 10 tips for first-time bicycle commuters.
Once you’ve been bike commuting for a while, it’s easy to forget how overwhelming it felt to hop on a bicycle and head off into the city streets for the first time. While safe cycling practices and comfort in the saddle come to feel like second-nature after a while, a person who hasn’t been on a bike in years (and maybe has never cycled on the road), may have a lot more questions than answers when it comes to bicycle commuting. Hopping on a bike and heading out on that first ride can be uncomfortable, confusing, and even outright dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. But cycling isn’t dangerous, there are just a few things to keep in mind to make your experience as safe, comfortable, and convenient as possible.
In an ideal world, we would have sprawling, interconnected networks of protected bike lanes that would render many of these suggestions obsolete. But in the meantime, here are a few tips and tricks for first time bicycle commuters, both in and out of the bike lane.
If you haven’t been on a bike in years, the first step you should take before riding around town is simply getting comfortable on your bike. Take some time to practice in your driveway, in a park, or on a calm side street before you take your wheels on the road. Practice the range of motions you’ll at some point do on your bike, such as riding with one hand, shoulder checking, stopping quickly, and standing up to pedal.
Give your bicycle a good once-over before you take it out on the road. Clean the chain, put air in the tires, and make sure the brakes are working properly. Check out our guide “How to get your bike ready for spring” for more in-depth instructions on how to get your bike road-ready. If you’re not comfortable with basic bike mechanics, take it to a local bike co-op or bike shop for a tune-up before you go.
Finding a more experienced rider to tag along with can be a great way to beat those first ride jitters. Find a friend, family member or coworker who cycles regularly, and join them on a trip around town. Let them lead the way, so you can just focus on getting comfortable.
Look for a map of bike lanes and paths in your community and plan a route that will have you spending as much time as possible in protected bike lanes or bike routes on traffic-calmed roads. While in most North American cities, commuting entirely in dedicated cycling infrastructure is impossible, many cities have cycling infrastructure that will cover you for at least part of your trip. If there isn’t a bike route map on the municipality’s website, contact a local cycling organization or bike shop for advice on the best routes in town.
Be cognizant of other cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles around you. Yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, shoulder check before turning, and mind the turn signals of cars in front of you as you approach intersections. Pay special attention to staying out of the blind spots of motorists.
Pass on the left, and use a bell to alert other cyclists and pedestrians that you are about to pass them. You can also say “passing on the left,” if you don’t have a bell.
Bike in the direction of traffic and obey traffic lights. There are a few traffic laws – such as the requirement to come to a complete stop at stop signs – whose relevance to people on bikes is currently being debated. The ability to treat stop signs as yields, known as the Idaho Stop, is a bike-specific law designed to reduce congestion and keep cyclists safe. But the Idaho Stop aside, obeying traffic laws is the best way to keep yourself and others safe.
Biking in a predictable manner can go a long way to keep you safe on the road. If people behind you (other bike riders, cars, etc.) can predict what you’re going to do, they can better plan their movements around you. Just as drivers who don’t signal cause crashes, so do people on bikes. Use hand signals when you’re turning or stopping to avoid unnecessary confusion. A bent left elbow, fingers raised skywards, means turning right, while pointing your arm straight out to the left indicates a lefthand turn. Pointing your fingers down with a bent left elbow signals that you plan to stop.
Use bicycle lights when riding at night to be more visible to other road users. While the usefulness of helmets and other safety-wear for cyclists remains a contentious issue in the cycling community, the use of lights is hard to argue against. Motorists can’t look out for you if they can’t see you!
While cycling in the city needs to be approached with the same degree of precaution that any form of transportation should, it shouldn’t be a stressful experience. Cycling is safe, healthy and importantly, fun! Relish the experience of the wind in your hair and the sun on your back. Take note of your surroundings, say hi to other cyclists. As much as it’s about health and sustainability, cycling is also about putting the joy back into your commute.