This chapter is meant to deal with General Safety, and will cover what equipment you may need, visibility maintenance and security, all of which can be adjusted before a rider begins their daily commute.
First and foremost a cyclist needs a well maintained and functional machine. The bicycle is one of the few consumer durables still intended to be maintainable by the owner: most cycle maintenance is simple and requires only basic tools. At the very least the rider should regularly check safety-critical components:
- Brakes: the front brake should be capable of locking the front wheel so that if the bike is pushed forwards, the rear wheel lifts; the rear brake should be capable of skidding the rear wheel.
- Headset: with the front brake firmly on, rock the bike forwards and backwards. If you feel a clunk as the bike moves, and the handlebars move around, then the headset probably needs adjusting or replacing.
- Tires: inspect your tires regularly for cuts and wear. Worn tires can blow out, with perilous consequences. They also puncture more readily. Check that your tires are pumped up enough. Pinch the tire between thumb and forefinger: It should feel hard. Mountain bike tires typically run at about 45psi, road bike tires at anything up to 120psi. Do not use garage forecourt airlines (gas station air compressors) to inflate bike tires, use a proper pump preferably with a pressure gauge. Over-inflated tires can lift off the rim and burst. Under-inflated tires compromise control and can result in pinch flats, also known as snakebite punctures for their characteristic double holes.
- Wheels: In turn, lift each end of the bike and spin the wheel. It should spin freely and the rim should remain roughly the same distance from the brake blocks. A wheel which is badly out of true may indicate a broken spoke - this should be fixed as soon as possible or else more spokes (or the whole wheel) will probably soon fail. Try to move the rim from side to side. If it moves or you feel a clunk, then the bearings may be worn and should be checked. If the wheel feels gritty as it spins, or rumbles, the bearings are probably damaged.
- Handlebars: stand in front of the bike, facing towards it; hold the front wheel between your legs; grab the handlebars and try to turn. If the bars twist on the stem, tighten them.
- General: if you have mudguards (fenders), a rack, a chain guard or any other equipment attached to your bike, give it a good rattle from time to time and check that it is still securely fixed. Loose mudguards, for example, can go in your wheel and bring you down.
Lights & conspicuity
The general consensus is that if you ride after dark you should use lights. This a legal requirement in most places. It is also generally recommended that you dress to be seen, especially in poor weather. Although this consensus is broad-based, it is largely intuitive and there are few studies to support or refute it.
It is common for parents to buy a bike that is too big, in the knowledge that a child will grow. This can make it very difficult for the child to control the bike properly - in most cases it would be better to buy a second-hand bike the right size than a new one with "room for growth," which is, in reality, too big.
In adults the biggest fault is usually having the saddle too low, but this is mainly an issue of erroneously perceived comfort and health. It upsets the ability of the rider to control the bike and damages the riders knees and back. The best advice when buying/fitting a bike is to go to a specialist bike shop (Caveat emptor) and take advice.
The subject of cycle helmets is controversial. Some evidence suggests that helmeted riders are less likely to suffer head injury; other evidence suggests the opposite. Even when cycle helmet use has risen steeply due to laws that require it, it has not been demonstrated that there is a correlation between helmet use and reduction in head injuries. Recent analysis supports the conclusion of Spaite et al. that much of the effect attributed to helmets in case-control studies may be due to behavioural differences in the types of cyclists who choose to wear or not wear them. In a low speed crash, a cyclist might benefit from wearing a helmet but the theory of risk compensation suggests that the fact of wearing one may subtly influence cyclists' riding by making them less careful. In a more serious crash, especially if a motor vehicle is involved, it is unlikely that a helmet will make a significant difference. One study found that 16 of 20 cyclist fatalities whose primary cause of death was listed as head injury also had other fatal injuries. Of the remaining four, at least one rider had been helmeted at the time.
Find a local independent bike shop that you trust. Go in and have a chat with the people and see if it is your kind of place. The staff in a good bike shop will be able to offer invaluable advice and they are mostly happy to help. Independent bike shops are recommended because their staff tend to be more passionate and knowledgeable about cycling than in most chain shops.
Many areas also have local cycling organisations, ranging from sport-oriented cycle clubs to campaigning organisations for 'transport' cyclists.
There are many web forums offering discussion of all aspects of cycling and related issues, as well as information sites run by individuals and organisations. Links to some of these are given at the bottom of the page.
Government agencies issue information and advice about cycling. the UK Highway Code contains a summary of road traffic laws and official 'best practice'. Whilst few cycling organisations advocate breaking the law, many see the advice elements as written by non-cyclists, and not necessarily in line with reality or cyclists' best interests.
It's vital that the bicycle you rely on is in good condition. Learn to do simple jobs like lubrication and brake and gear adjustment. Clean your bike regularly. Take your bike in for a service at your bike shop at least once a year. Essential safety critical parts that you should check often are:
Wheels: Are your tires in good condition and correctly inflated? Don't ride on bald or flat tires. Are the wheel bolts tight enough to hold the wheel in place? If you have quick-release wheels check that the quick release is correctly tightened every time you ride your bike. Does the wheel run straight and true? if there are wobbles in the spinning wheel your bike shop can easily "true" them for you.
Cables: Check all your brake and gear cables for signs of rust, wear or fraying. The brake cable is one of the most important parts on a bike so make sure you keep a close check on its condition. If your cables look worn out get your bike shop to fit new ones.
Brakes: Test the brakes before you get out on to the road. When looking at the brakes check that the brake pads are not worn out, and that they make contact with the wheel rim correctly when force is applied on the lever. Ask your bike shop to show you how to perform day to day adjustment on your brakes. See also Adjusting Brakes.
Many bike shops run cycle maintenance courses. Check with the staff in your local (hopefully independent) cycle shop.
Bike theft is rampant in urban centres, so if you're going to leave your bike anywhere you must assume that it will attract thieves. The usual method used by bike thieves is as follows:
- Bikes usually disappear overnight. Bikes are stolen by opportunists during the day but organised bike gangs steal bikes at night, after mapping out their intended locations in the preceding daylight hours.
- Beware of strangers on bikes. Prior to an organised theft, young strangers or near-strangers will be seen observing in the area of the bikes during the daytime, perhaps on bikes themselves. Even if they are sent away it is wrong to assume that the point was won; they are casing the place for a night theft and they or others will return, usually the same night. If observers are noticed during the day, take the bikes into the house regardless of any inconvenience.
- No lock is totally safe. Any lock can be broken, but buy a good lock to keep the odds in your favor. Thieves use car jacks to break d-clamp locks, and bolt cutters for chains and cables. Some say that skeleton keys are available for locks.
- Bikes are then stripped of any peculiar fixings. In fact, all of the brakes and other accessories can be removed; They are interchanged between other bikes to confuse recognition.
- The thieves sell the bikes quickly. They get comparatively low prices for bikes but in view of the low penalties imposed on their activities, they steal large numbers of items. Selling the bikes compounds the difficulty of recovery even if the items are found.
Bear in mind then, the following points:
- No cycle lock is thief proof. All you can do to protect your bike is buy time. You have to increase the risk for the thief to the point that they will not bother targeting you. By the time that a bike is stolen, the chance of it being recovered by police is poor.
- Invest in a secure cycle lock. There are many types to choose from. The staff in the bike shop will be able to offer you the best advice. A common guide is that you should invest at least 10% of the price of your cycle in a lock. Ideally consider a lock that can fasten both wheels and the frame to a bike stand. Insurers insist on good locks and they have approved lists.
- Insure your bike. Read the policy carefully; some of these are difficult to claim on. If your bike receipt does not have all of the items on it, including the bike number, date of purchase, cost, and other items, then make sure you get these or the insurance might not work. Similarly, the receipt for your bike lock is expected to be much-detailed, including its make, model, price, and serial number, so that you can justify the good lock clause. No easy task; most counter receipts lack detail. Although most insurance covers theft away from home when an approved lock was used, insurers will not usually pay for a bike stolen from the common area of flats whether or not a good lock was used, (on the railings). There is often a stipulated front-door lock quality for insured items in the house itself, though frankly, taking the bike into the house at night gives the best protection of all. Sadly, many only realize the limitations of insurance after an unsuccessful claim.
- Quick release components need locked too. Wheels and saddles need locked to deter petty thieves. It might be worth investing in a light cable lock to secure your components to your frame. Two locks are also better than one because it takes the thief longer to remove them.
- Choose the place that you lock your bike up carefully. Never lock your bike up somewhere that you hope it won't be noticed - remember, no lock is thief proof, but they buy time. If the thief thinks it will take too long to remove the lock, and they might be caught then they won't attempt a theft. By locking your bike up in a quiet spot you are removing the only advantage you have. Ideally choose a designated cycle parking facility provided by the (most) municipal authorities. If not then lamp posts, fences, signs, etc. provide useful locking points. Make sure you lock your bike up in busy places. There are a few major points to make about picking the object you lock your bike to:
- Never lock your bike to cast iron railings! - Cast iron is brittle, so although a railing looks strong a sharp blow from a heavy hammer can shatter it in no time at all. If you're not sure find something else to lock your bike to.
- Check that the bike stand or other object is secure. Bicycle locking stands should not move. They should be as solid as a rock. Some really do just lift up out of the ground. Some fences have railings that slide right out. What ever you're locking your bike to, give it a good shake before you lock your bike to it. If it looks like it might go somewhere, choose somewhere else to lock your bike.
- When you lock your bike to a sign make sure it's a tall one. Thieves will just bend the sign up and lift your bike over the top of the post if they can. Make sure the post is too tall for them to do that. Also, in some countries, (London, UK), the police might object to bikes cabled to lampposts, and as such if an offense is being committed, you might that it makes for a difficult insurance claim in the event of a theft.
- Try not to leave your bike outside overnight anywhere. You will find that insurance policies may not cover this, even in the common area of your home. Take any bike that you value into the house. Folding bikes make this regime easier, even if they have 26 inch wheels.
- Make your cycle less attractive to thieves. You can get your bicycle frame stamped with a unique number (sometimes your postcode or zip-code) and registered with the police. There are also electronic tags that identify your bike as stolen if the police find it. There are internet property registers like Immobilise.com that are used by law enforcement and bike owners to check whether or not for-sale and recovered items are already reported as stolen. Theoretically, there should be no international boundaries to internet registers, though the lack of international police liaison (and their disinterest) might prevent it. Priority in most police forces is given to crimes against the person, so bike theft has quite a low priority.
- Some cyclists wrap the frame of their cycles in tape. Use either electrical insulating tape or "gaffer" tape to make the frame unique; this also covers the labels on an expensive frame and protects the paintwork. It is also removable, any gunk left over from the tape can be removed with degreaser. Some (particularly messengers) cover their frames in vinyl stickers. This looks cool but might not be to everybody's taste. It has the same effect as taping.
- Fitting mudguards gives a bike a slightly less racy appearance. It also helps make it less attractive to thieves.
- Take lots of photos of your bike. This will help you identify it before reporting a find to police. It is difficult to check a serial number on a parked bike, and perhaps dangerous too, so consider other ideas, like keeping a photo of the bike's paint chip patterns on your phone for a quick comparison. Chip patterns are quite unique and thieves rarely take the trouble to cover them.
Cycle shops sell a wide range of clothing specifically designed for cyclists.
In the summer you'll need to wear shorts and a t-shirt. The "wicking" t-shirts sold in bike shops and mountaineering shops etc. will draw the sweat away from you and help keep you dry. A light wind-cheater is handy for colder moments
In the winter you'll need breathable waterproofs - something that keeps the rain off but also lets the sweat out, normal waterproofs will just trap your sweat and make you feel damp.
Cycle shorts: Are really good for cyclists, but some don't like the look. The seams are specially placed to avoid chafing your "sensitive" regions, sometimes they have padding to soften the ride. They can be made of special wicking material to draw away sweat and keep you dry. They can be worth wearing under more conventional clothes for a more conventional look.
It is important to be as visible as possible when cycling. It is very easy for other road users to fail to see a cyclist in the dark until it is too late.
The reflectors supplied with your bike are a legal minimum requirement (in the UK) but they will not be enough to ensure you are fully visible. Reflectors fail for myriad reasons- see Sheldon Brown's guide for a list . Pedal reflectors tend to work the best, because they are in motion most of the time, resulting in a "flashing" effect. Spoke reflectors help to make you visible from side on, and like pedal reflectors are in constant motion. Despite this, A cyclist has to take responsibility for their own visibility. If the car that hits you has no headlights then your reflectors won't do anything. It is important that you fit front and rear lights. Many cyclists also attach extra lights to their clothing/helmet.
Despite the problems with bike reflectors, don't be tempted to remove them, They're an important back up. Many cyclists attach extra reflectors to their bike. Reflective tape is particularly useful as is can be wrapped around the frame, turning the surface of the bike into a reflector with out adding any unsightly bits of plastic and metal. Reflective clothing is also recommended. A wide range of reflective jackets, belts, trouser clips, vests etc. is available in cycle shops. A cheap alternative can be the reflective tabards worn by road repair crews. These are available in builders merchants and should be certified to be industry safety standards.
Bells and horns
A bell or horn (or among London cycle messengers an elaborate whistle) is an essential piece of safety equipment. Use it to warn pedestrians of your approach on shared pathways, or if they have not noticed you when they are crossing the road. Ring your bell for a few seconds before going round any blind corners. If you cycle on canal towpaths ring the bell before and while going under any bridges, as the entrance to many bridges (in London for example) is obscured by a kink in the path. Remember that bicycles don't make any engine noise so you have to help others become aware of your presence.
Other road users
It is inevitable when cycling in an urban centre that you will come in conflict with other road users, including both moving and parked motor vehicles, pedestrians, maintenance activities, deliveries and trash pickups. Many regular cyclists (and many drivers) have a long list of examples of imbecility on the part of drivers that led to a near miss/close shave, or seemingly unwarranted aggression from frustrated motorists. Growing numbers of motorists and pedestrians have equally-long lists of absurdly bad behavior by cyclists. Cycle-commuting is healthier for you and better for the environment. These personally- and socially-desirable benefits entitle you to no more special consideration than anybody else on the street. The important things you must remember are:
- You have as much right to be on the road as motorists (except emergency vehicles in the course of their duty). If they can't pass you safely they ought to wait. You may not want to hold your breath for this, however.
- Other users - especially pedestrians - have just as much right to use the roads and streets. If you endanger their safety by not observing road-rules, you are just as culpable as any motorist who will not give you space. Your additional attention is warranted for children, people with disabilities, animals, many seniors, and visitors who are unfamiliar with local right-of-way arrangements.
- Safety is everybody's lookout. It is your responsibility to be seen - this can mean slowing down when approaching cross-traffic; wearing highly-visible gear in poor light (fog, rain, dusk, glare) and lights visible for 100 meters when it is dark; giving indications of your intention to move in the lane or make a turn. It is also wise to be aware of distractions that may afflict other riders, drivers, and pedestrians - these include phones and music players as well as sudden noises, flashing lights, or furious activity in the environment. Making eye contact with drivers at junctions, etc., really helps ensure he/she has seen you, and lets you anticipate when someone may pull in front of you.
- Streets are for riding. Sidewalks are for walking. Don't ride on the sidewalk, and don't ride the wrong way down a one-way street. If a street has a bicycle lane, use it. Follow safety rules for bikes on stairs, escalators, and public transit. Stop at stop-lights and stop signs. Exercise care to avoid slower-moving and halted vehicles and pedestrians.
- Crowded urban areas are never a place for racing or time-trials. Many urban cyclists are goal-oriented, intense, and assertive individuals who easily transfer this attitude onto the street. Being focussed prevents general-awareness of your surroundings, however, it is a major safety hazard.
- Do not retaliate or provoke a confrontation. A cyclist is much more vulnerable than a motor vehicle. Even an exasperated gesture may provoke road rage, making a bad situation worse. Be satisfied that cycling in cities is quicker, better for your health, environmentally friendly and a social activity. If you really want to make your voice heard you can see if your city has a cyclist's association, or perhaps join a bike ride organised by the protest group Critical Mass (but avoid illegal behaviors).
- Sage MD (December 25, 1985). "Fatal injuries to bicycle riders in Auckland". NZ Med J 98 (793).
- http://www.sheldonbrown.com - A huge site with lots of safety, maintenance and fun tips, in-depth bike history categories. A rich seam of cycling information.
- http://www.lcc.org.uk/ - The website of the London Cycling Campaign. Full of information for cyclists in London and beyond
- http://www.resonancefm.com/ - a London radio station with a weekly bike show. 18:30 Monday
- http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/TravelAndTransport/Highway-code/Cyclists/index.htm - The Highway Code (UK traffic laws) as it affects cyclists
- http://www.ctc.org.uk/ - CTC - "the UK's national cyclists' organisation"
- http://www.bikeforums.net/ and http://www.cyclingforums.com/ - Cycle discussion websites, cover many topics and styles of writing
- http://lists.topica.com/lists/urbancyclist-uk/?cid=51 - urbancyclist-uk mailing list