A Timely Shake up

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Would an airbag improve bike safety?

Recently something went very wrong and very unexpectedly. It took me awhile to find a positive purpose.

I was biking along the Welland Canal with over two hours of free time ahead of me. It was a pleasant morning, I was biking on a scenic and dedicated bike path, feeling exhilarated. Unfortunately the great feeling and the ride only lasted about 3.5 km.

As I was approaching the Garden City Skyway, designed to allow vehicle traffic to not be detained by laker and freighter traffic, I misjudged a turn in the path. In my attempt to avoid losing control I made the mistake of grabbing the front break, which any cyclist would know, put me totally out of control. The bike flipped and I landed hard on my left knee and hands. This left me more shook up than injured, though I didn’t know that till after I had a chance to assess what had all happened in those 2.5 seconds.

In hindsight I learned several important and helpful things because of the upset. However, in that moment I recalled the cyclist on the 2013 tour who broke her leg on the first day of the tour. I realized how being so close to the start date of the tour that I have dreamed about since 2005 could have ended right there. It’s not hard to imagine what different injuries could have happened in those 2.5 seconds.

Fortunately the lower part of my body absorbed most of the impact, though not hard enough to cause serious injury to my knee. By misjudging the turn in the path I had fortunately landed in the grass and not on asphalt. Also a secondary benefit to wearing cycling gloves saved my hands from being chafed.

There was damage to the handlebar, damage to the back rack and the tire had popped right off the rim. When I realized I couldn’t get air into my back tire I figured my two hour ride was over.

I learned several things as a result of a momentary lapse of caution:

  • watch my speed
    • choose my speed according to conditions, not according to how I’m feeling
  • be extra attentive in unfamiliar territory
    • glad I fared better than the cyclist a friend mentioned who was distracted and hit the back of a truck, breaking his femur, pelvis and thumb.
  • make sure I know how to use the equipment
    • my bicycle pump didn’t fit the valve on the tube. Found out later that my pump had an adjustment for the two different types of valves
  • make sure all equipment is in good condition
    • I couldn’t fix my flat because the rubber cement in my repair kit had dried up

So I spent the better part of my remaining free time getting to a bike shop for replacement parts and then getting my bike back in working condition. At least I know I am able to trouble shoot and do my own basic repairs.

Second thoughts

The first ten minutes after flipping my bike I was having serious reservations about doing this Sea to Sea bike trip (7000 km in 67 days). While I managed to keep my level of anxiety in check it took it’s toll on me. An added challenge is my lack of mental flexibility; having to change gears from an anticipated two pleasant hours of cycling to figuring out how to get my bike fixed.

An interesting thing was happening after I flipped the bike. While working my way through this unfortunate combination of challenges and trying to assess what was going on, I also found myself being my own spectator. By that I mean, I was watching how well I was able to deal with the sudden and unexpected change in my day and the myriad challenges, some minor, some more significant, that I needed to deal with. If I had totally fallen apart it would raise serious self doubt about doing the Sea to Sea trip.

Support

In reflecting on this with my brain injury support person, she pointed out that I had assessed the situation, called for help, found a good bike shop, bought the parts I needed, put the bike back together, and was riding again a few hours later. (I did two short bike trips later in the day to keep my knee moving.) On top of that, I had sorted this out on my own, whereas on the tour there would be other cyclists there to offer support and advice.

Lessons learned

It seems like the longer something goes well, the less one is aware of the diminishing margin of safety in the routine and procedures as one is riding. After doing about 3000 km of riding without a mishap or bike breakdown, flipping the bike was somewhat humbling. Despite the fact that I had watched several bike safety videos a few days before, I guess experience is the sterner teacher.

Accidents have causes

I’ve heard that most accidents happen when there are 3 or more contributing factors. That left me wondering whether I had actually breached the number 3.

  • Speed was a factor
  • Unfamiliar bike path
  • Misjudging the situation
  • Mishandled equipment

The last one needs a caveat. I had just gotten the brake pads replaced. As a result it is hard to undo the brake cable which I need to undo to remove the front wheel when transporting my bike. So, to help remedy this problem I have been using the front brake more than usual, always in situations where it wouldn’t cause problems. However, the habit of using the front brake resulted in an unfortunate reflex when I entered the turn in the bike path too fast.

So I guess one additional lesson learned it to be mindful of each habit. Be methodical about using the equipment in a way that ones reflexes don’t contribute to a potential problem.

Timing

Having this mishap so close to my departure date was like being given a last minute opportunity to run through a mental checklist of a variety of items so that I am physically and mentally a bit better prepared for the ride.

The timing allowed me a few days to do a number of shorter and easier rides to make sure my knee would be in good shape and avoid possible complications from the full day rides ahead.

Serendipity

Doing several easy rides made me realize that despite exerting a lot less energy, my average speed dropped very little. This could be the answer to the nagging question that emerged following my four day ride from Cobourg to Sarnia. It took me two days of sleeping around the clock to recover from that four day, 600 km ride. Riding at an easier pace on the tour looks like the answer – a slower pace with 6 days of cycling and one day of rest. That should be manageable.

I realize that despite all the training, careful packing, and mental preparation, at some point one just needs to get out there and start the tour and pray it goes well.

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Cycling Road Safety

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Important public service notice on a very quiet road

I recently completed a 4 day bike trip through a wide variety of traffic conditions. The experience left me appreciating many of the professional drivers on the road and dismayed at the lack of considerations that I encountered at other times.

One thing that is lacking is signs that educate drivers, informing them what “Share the Road” means. Too many drivers don’t seem to realize or don’t seem to care that they must give cyclists a 1 meter safety margin. I have thought about putting a pool noodle on the back of my bike that extends 1 meter into the traffic lane. At times I’m tempted to put a nail on the end of the noodle to leave my mark when a driver fails to give me my safety margin. Don’t worry, I’ve resisted the temptation so far.

Secondary roads

I prefer biking on quiet roads. While biking on secondary roads my experience with 100% of the drivers was one of courtesy. Each driver would make a wide berth around me as they approached me from behind. With no other traffic on the road, that was easy enough without impeding their own progress.

County roads

When I choose county roads, because it’s not always possible to get everywhere on secondary roads, it’s a different story. Most drivers will slow down behind me and wait to pass when the lane of on coming traffic is clear, giving me a wide berth of a full lane. Others will slow down and then give me the minimum 1 meter. The slower speed is a compromised courtesy which gives some margin of safety.

Truck traffic

While cycling it didn’t take long to recognize the professional drivers from the irresponsible ones. Every 18 wheeler, concrete truck and other large vehicle consistently gave me a full lane when they passed me. At times when one of these vehicles would slow down behind me, and the road was wide enough for my comfort, I would signal them to pass me rather than waiting for the on coming traffic to clear. That allowed them to not lose as much speed. Invariably I would get a signal from them that they appreciated the courtesy I gave them.

The truck traffic that was most discourteous and therefore very much reduced the margin of safety were usually the straight trucks or cargo vans. Many of them would over take me without slowing down and often without using the on coming lane even when it was clear. This left me wondering about the safety training and commitment to safety that the smaller companies who operate the straight trucks and cargo vans have compared to the heavy haulers or the long distance drivers.

City Driving

When I cycled in Toronto it was readily apparent that on the whole drivers in Toronto have a strong general awareness of cyclists. Drivers look out for cyclists when making right hand turns or check for cyclists before pulling away from a stop sign. The extensive road markings for cyclist and signage along with the sheer number of cyclists on the road seems to keep drivers alert to cyclists.

Even so, I would occasionally come across a driver who was blocking the bike lane while waiting to make a turn. On the whole the awareness of the majority of drivers is reassuring as a cyclist.

When I cycled in a few smaller cities I noticed reduced awareness and courtesy towards cyclists. With fewer cyclists around drivers had fewer reminders despite the ‘share the road’ signage that was posted along many streets.

Driver Education

It is disconcerting how little driver education has been done to inform drivers to enhance bicycle safety. It would be good if more public service announcements and other forms of driver education would be used in the province.

There are several areas of confusion when it comes to mixing bikes and motor vehicles.

  1. The law is not clear on whether cyclists should use a flashing red light on the back of the bike. I prefer using a flashing light over a constant red light as it will get a driver’s attention more readily. It seems like the approval of using a flashing red light is a recent upgrade to the traffic act.
  2. The law is not clear on whether it is legal to ride bikes two abreast. On the one hand it would appear safer to ‘own’ the whole lane. When a cyclist keeps to the extreme right side of the lane it creates opportunities for aggressive motorists to ignore the safety margin for cyclists. According to the CANbike training videos developed in Manitoba, a cyclist should ride 1 meter from the right edge of the road, to avoid pot holes and debris, and motorist must give cyclists a 1 meter margin for safety. That doesn’t leave much additional room for motorists to pass without moving over 1 lane.

Bicycle safety is everyone’s business but it’s the cyclist that carries all of the risk. As the bumper sticker reads, sent by a friend:

  • Bikes don’t have airbags. SHARETHEROAD *

http://www.sharetheroad.ca

The one item that I haven’t seen a definitive statement on is whether cyclists when approaching a red traffic light, stay back with the last car or move past all the cars, on the right hand side to the front of the line. The strongest statement I have seen about that is to move to the front of the line so that the cyclists are clearly visible to all traffic and less likely to get cut off by a vehicle making a right hand turn.

Come June 26 I will be spending the balance of my summer cycling 7000 km (4000 miles) across Canada with Sea to Sea. I won’t be home again till September if all goes as planned. When it comes to cycling, the long and short of it is, bikes are part of the traffic and subject to all aspects of the highway traffic act.

One stop sign near the CNE grounds in Toronto had an additional note on it. STOP – including bikes. When cyclists follow the rules of the road it enhances their safety.