By Dave Cooper
NoC ambassador to Cycling
In July of 1989, my friend Carol and I decided to follow a dream and ride our bicycles across America. We took leaves of absence from work, packed our bikes and gear into boxes, and flew to Seattle to start our trip. Carol brought her brown 18-speed Fuji from Massachusetts. My bike was an orange 15-speed 1970’s model Schwinn LeTour III, with fully-loaded front and rear Cannondale panniers, leather grips and a handlebar pack. It weighed a freakin’ ton.
After reassembling our bikes in the baggage claim area, we rode out of the airport and wobbled towards downtown Seattle to try and find an REI camping store. Pedaling around an unfamiliar downtown, we got turned around and ended up riding the wrong way against traffic on a one-way street before cutting across the street to the store, blocking traffic in the process.
A pedestrian looked at us and said, scornfully, “It’s people like you that give bicyclists a bad name.”
Ouch! Seattle is a bike-friendly town and I was a relative novice at bike touring, so I took the comment seriously. I figured if we were making people mad on the first day of our trip, we’d better start being more responsible cyclists.
So on that trip we made a habit of cycling responsibly and, by summer’s end, arrived safely to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Now when I ride around Lexington I still generally obey traffic signals and use hand signals. I always wear a helmet and usually a bright yellow shirt for better visibility. I ride purposefully and try to maintain a straight line. I even put a “Share the Road” bumper sticker on the milk crate which sits behind my bike seat.
My reasoning is simple. When motorists see cyclists riding responsibly, wearing helmets, stopping for traffic lights and using hand signals, it gives cyclists more credibility and improves our relationships with them. If our overall goal is to promote cycling as a safe and efficient alternative form of transportation, we all have to be responsible cyclists.
Part of my responsibilities as a responsible cyclist is being an ambassador for cycling. I smile and wave at people, figuring if it looks like I’m having a great time out riding my bike, maybe one day they will join me.
For me, though, being a good cycling ambassador also means becoming part of the flow and rhythm of traffic – riding with traffic but not blocking traffic. Cyclists can be friendly with motorists, but there is a bit of an art to this. Because cyclists rarely communicate verbally with motorists, we have to use body language and visual cues to clearly indicate our intentions. I will wave someone up when I want them to pass me, or bob my head at a four-way stop to acknowledge that I see them and they can go ahead. I stare into the windshield or side window of a stopped car and make eye contact with the driver before passing in front of it. (Making eye contact with the front seat passenger is no good—it has to be the driver.)
I usually ride pretty close to the white line on the edge of the road, so I don’t block traffic. There are times when I might claim the whole lane, if I need to make a left turn or when I don’t want cars to pass, for example, but afterwards I usually move out of the way as quickly as possible—and I give the cars a little hand wave of “thanks” to acknowledge that I have inconvenienced them. Sometimes in downtown or around UK, if traffic is heavy I will ride on the sidewalk, but I have a ding bell on my handlebars to alert pedestrians. I use it frequently.
In order to be in harmony with traffic, I have a rear view mirror that I watch as closely as I watch the road ahead. It’s also for my safety, after all. The things ahead of you can cause problems, but the things coming up from behind can kill you.