Columbus, OH USA
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by Greg Knepp
Cycling Safety Course
The construction of new bike trails in Columbus and its environs seems an on-again off-again process. City voters approved a bond issue a few years ago that would, among other things, have expanded the local bikeway system. However, as the recession deepened, local officials wisely decided not to borrow money that might be difficult to repay. Then there was the increased city income tax passed by voters recently. That money is starting to trickle in to city coffers, but there are libraries, health clinics, rec centers and senior facilities to fund. As usual, amid the financing of a morass of parks, potholes and politics it seems unlikely that any serious effort on the part of city government to facilitate new bike path construction will be forthcoming. I’m not complaining; in fact, the existing bike path system in this burg is pretty good, at least by American standards. And Mayor Coleman seems dead serious about expanding cycling in general as a local mode of transportation and recreation. But reality is reality; asphalt is dear, and most folks in our society still look on bicycling as engaging fluff – like the symphony but with sore legs.
So what’s a cyclist to do when confronted with the fact that there are lots of desirable cycling destinations that simply aren’t on path routes? Easy – take to the streets! In-town Columbus is a perfectly good cycling environment: straight roads, gently rolling terrain and reasonably courteous motorists. The fact that it’s a college town also helps. A goodly portion of the student population has consisted of active cyclists since the bike resurgence of the sixties. And we’ve no shortage of college students, particularly in the Short North.
Still, many cyclists, particularly novices, are fearful of street riding, and for good reason: a pedaler can easily be intimated by the race and roar of city traffic. Of course, it’s easy to assume that safe cycling is merely the result of applying a little common sense. But common sense has often proved to be history’s greatest liar. For example, common sense tells us that riding on the sidewalk is fine, or that, if one must pedal on the streets it’s best to ride in the wrong lane against oncoming traffic so as to better spot potential traffic hazards. Or to automatically veer into the empty spaces between parked cars to allow motor traffic to pass more easily. Or that helmets are cumbersome and useless. Or that blood-borne disease can be cured by cutting open one’s veins to drain the infected fluid. All sensible and all bunk!
Yes, there are a few simple truisms that can be applied to street cycling. Such as: always wear a helmet, and follow the rules of the road as assiduously as if you were driving a car. But effective, safe cycling is quite a bit more involved than these simple steps might suggest. In truth, a good urban cyclist has skills usually honed by years of experience – experience steeped in trial-and-error, and often peppered with numerous difficult and sometimes painful encounters with curbs, grates, dogs, pedestrians, potholes, cars, trucks, motorcycles and – you guessed it – other cyclists.
How might one shorten this lengthy and arduous learning curve, and in so doing avoid some of the pitfalls inherent in the school-of-hard-knocks approach to bicycling proficiency? One sure way is to take a cycling safety course. That’s right, I took just such instruction in March and was surprised by what I learned about cycling basics as well as advanced cycling techniques – and I’ve been pedaling for over half a century! The course was conducted by teachers certified by the League of American Cyclists (formerly the League of American Wheelmen) and consisted of four sessions totaling twelve hours of instruction, both in the classroom and in the saddle.
Our small class met at Greenovate, a store specializing in non-toxic paints and home renovation products located at Second Avenue just east of High Street. Our instructors, David Jeffords, Randy Dull and Gordon Renkes proved quite knowledgeable. There were only three students present including me. One was an old timer like myself, and the other, a young man originally from India who, during a coffee break, told me that the main problem he had encountered while cycling in rural India was the threat of tiger attacks. He may have been pulling my leg, but no matter; I’ll take a good story over a drab fact any day.
Each class started with lectures complete with powerpoint displays covering every conceivable topic: not just traffic safety, but basic bicycle mechanics, emergency maneuvering, cycling law and even proper nutrition and hydration. The classroom sessions were casual with a good deal of give and take, but the information was quite comprehensive. A number of common myths were debunked. For instance at least half of all cycling accidents don’t involve a motor vehicle at all. And only 3 percent of accidents are caused by automobiles approaching a bicycle from behind … interesting.
Reading material for later study was handed out as part of the learning package. I found this literature – most of it published by the League of American Bicyclists – to be informative as well as interesting.
Following each classroom session, we all saddled up and headed to the parking lot adjacent to the old Second Avenue Elementary School for what amounted to obstacle course training to build our skills in such techniques as emergency breaking and quick turning. Then we took a group ride through the Short North and into downtown. This is where we applied what we had learned in class. Attention was given to such practices as signaling turns, lane changes and stops, and maintaining a straight, predictable line of travel.
The last session of the course included tests, both riding and writing, on what we had learned throughout the course. Included was a written evaluation by the students as to the effectiveness of the instruction. Quite thorough indeed!
So, would I recommend the League of American Bicyclists safety cycling course? Absolutely! As much fun as cycling is, it’s also serious business. The key to getting the most benefit out of your bike is knowing as much as possible about how it works and how to work it. If an old cycling dog like me can learn some new tricks, so can you.
Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist
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