By Brett Ratner
It's fall. And with the turning leaves and dropping temperatures come the inevitable conversations with our non-cyclist co-workers that we bike commuters must endure on an annual basis. It goes a little something like this:
Coworker: "Pretty soon it will be too cold to ride to work."
Me: "Well, actually, I've been commuting through the winter for about ten years now. It's not so bad if you dress appropriately for it. I don't think it's different than skiing or any other winter sport."
Coworker: "Wow, you must be brave."
I've heard that last phrase, verbatim, at least two dozen times (including this morning), and it never fails to puzzle me. I could understand "dedicated," or "hard core," or even "crazy," but why is "brave" the term that always seems to come to mind when discussing my bike commute?
Riding in cold weather can actually be fun (no "bravery" needed) if you dress appropriately.
In my mind, doing a back flip over a 40-foot gap jump at Red Bull Rampage takes bravery. Or attacking a mountain descent, Peter Sagan style, with nothing but under-powered caliper brakes and skinny road bike tires to control your speed and trajectory. Or working as a bike messenger, threading your way through tiny gaps between taxi cabs, city buses and delivery trucks for entire eight-hour shifts (while possessing inadequate or non-existent medical insurance).
As we've mentioned before, getting a few cyclocross races under your belt will sharpen your bike handling skills, making you more confident when you encounter slick spots on the road (we just don't recommend racing on a Divvy).
But riding a bike to work in less-than-idyllic weather? That doesn't take bravery. That takes a $500 shopping spree at your favorite outdoor retailer, a little common sense, and a tiny bit of patience when encountering the occasional slick surface.
But maybe that's part of the problem. Once again, it seems cycling's biggest nemesis is the perception that it's inherently dangerous.
And this perception persists despite herculean efforts by local municipalities and the bike industry to make cycling seem safer. These efforts include but aren't limited to protected bike lanes, bike paths, helmets and day-glow colored cycling apparel.
My personal opinion (as someone who feels comfortable riding normal streets and roads) is that many of these inventions largely serve to create a "perception" of safety. Whether they actually make you safer seems up for debate.
Some suggest helmets deter new riders and also negatively change driver behavior. Hopefully the recent crop of stylish, skateboard-style helmets (such as this Bern) can minimize that effect (photo by Ronit Bezalel).
A popular example is helmets. Before I start, let me state for the record that I'm someone who has (in the context of bike racing) hit my (helmeted) head in a high-speed, multi-rider pileup. Upon untangling myself from a pile of carbon and lycra, I simply remounted my bike and finished the race as if nothing happened. It wasn't until after the race that I realized the crash had actually split my helmet in two.
One crash in no way, shape or form counts as "research." But due to this experience, I feel pretty confident my helmet protected me and had it been my bare head hitting the ground, it would have (at the very least) really, really hurt.
However, articles like this suggest that wearing a helmet in traffic can dehumanize you in the minds of drivers and in turn change driver behavior, which offsets the safety advantage of the helmet and (all variables considered) makes you less safe. Other articles, like this one, suggest that wearing helmets deter others from riding. Presumably one of the reasons is that helmets perpetuate the perception that cycling is dangerous. Since there is safety in numbers, fewer bikes on the road arguably means you (and your helmeted head) are ultimately less safe.
I haven't personally formulated an opinion about these arguments, but I can definitely appreciate their logic.
Protected bike lanes are definitely a good thing if they get more people on bikes. But since the lanes don't follow normal car traffic patterns, they arguably can create confusing situations. Note, for example, the guy to the right traveling in the wrong direction. Photo by Ronit Bezalel.
Something I have formulated an opinion about is protected bike lanes. Ultimately, I'm 100% in support of protected bike lanes if they get more people out on bikes. But I'll be honest, I felt a little freaked out the first time I rode on one.
Specifically, I was riding along on the street like normal and then suddenly I had to swerve around the RIGHT SIDE of a parallel parked car and into this protected lane. Once in the lane, I was completely isolated from moving cars, which seemed cool...until I got to an intersection, where I was suddenly thrust back into traffic. The problem, as far as I was concerned, was that when isolated from traffic I wasn't able to take my normal mental "inventory" of the cars traveling near me. And the drivers, presumably, weren't aware of my presence either. And then all of a sudden, an intersection manifested itself, and there I was.
I'm sure with experience, I could get used to it. But personally, I feel safer riding on the street IN the flow of traffic, so when intersections, potholes and other things crop up, I've already established a relationship with the drivers around me and I can react without startling anyone.
In an article written by Jan Heine, he mentions a similar thing in Germany, where a network of bike paths exist to get cyclists off the roadways. According to the article, many cyclists choose to ride on the street because of awkwardness they encounter when the paths intersect with the roads.
All this aside, the way I see it, stuff people routinely do in the process of driving cars is (in actuality) way more dangerous than cycling. Texting at 80 mph and driving on bald, under-inflated tires come to mind. Less obvious is the notion that all that time people spend sitting in the car seat is time they're not on a bike, walking, or otherwise getting some exercise.
To put it another way, sure, there's a chance I could crash and seriously hurt myself on my bike. But what about the sedentary person who uses a car as his/her sole means of transportation? Developing some sort of health problem seems darn near inevitable. So which is truly more dangerous?
Anyway, I've kinda rambled here a bit, and probably need to get to my point. My point is this:
One reason I believe cars are perceived safe is that the car industry spends a lot of PR and advertising dollars supporting that perception. What with the side curtain air bags, traction control, anti-lock brakes, and soothing commercials featuring cherubic children sound asleep in the back seat, cars exude the image of a rolling fortress, there solely to protect you, its fragile, precious cargo.