The Chainlink

"You Must Be Brave"

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.

Perhaps cycling needs a public relations makeover. If the general public perceives it as safe (which it is), more people will do it, and more people doing it will make it even safer. Photo by Ronit Bezalel.

In reality, you're one absent-minded (or drunk) driver away from being pushed into oncoming traffic at highway speeds. Your side curtain air bags will only make you slightly less obliterated.

For the record, I own and drive a car. I'm not anti-car. I just believe a balanced approach to transportation is best. Sure, use your car for hauling heavy things and camping trips and stuff. But try to use your bike and your feet for short trips...and if it makes sense logistically, ride or walk to work.

Oh yeah, my point:

Maybe what cycling needs, even more than day-glow windbreakers and extensive, expensive euro-style modifications to our streets, is a PR campaign. Maybe if we can simply dispel the myth that cycling requires "bravery," perhaps that will solve a lot of problems.

About the Author

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by Irvin Steinert on October 7, 2015 at 9:00am

Yes, it takes some bravery! (as well as the 500$ shopping trip) I certainly have to do a bit of a gut check every time I take to the road on my bike and in the cold weather even more so. Certainly more so than commuting by car (which is none in most occasions). For me, that is part of the challenge of biking. Many would say that there shouldn't be a "challenging element" to biking but that would, personally, break my heart. OK, so it's no X-games event but each individual has a different mental association with different activities (eg; some individuals crave casual romantic encounters but that scares the heck out of me). So my bike commute is a personal challenge and it does take bravery to move out of one's comfort zone and that is a major reason to why it is so rewarding.

Also: totally agree with comment by Mark Irwin here. {to add to that: just because an argument has functional logic does not indicate it is balanced to the point of holding up to the main points of the counterargument and therefore, although it should be researched and considered, it should not be given equal weight}

Comment by paulcycles on October 3, 2015 at 7:42am
Wonderful, cogent article. To commenter, Nancy I've been there, acting badly at times like a messenger on steroids AND at times the kindly old man stopping for loser tourists or other bike folks with mechanicals. Good behavior is far preferably, but as a bike commuter since high school, occasionally with golf clubs back in the day, and now & then with a load in panniers or a trailer stay a smiling ambassor even when breezing through clogged traffic.
Comment by Marc A. Irwin on October 2, 2015 at 4:30am

I love the arguments about helmets.  Detractors claiming they are more dangerous because riders will take more risk feeling a false sense of security, or that they dehumanize you in a drivers perception making the driver less attentive, and that it makes people think bike riding is too dangerous.  Nobody who makes these claims ever quotes any source of information, it just comes from the top of their heads.  How do they know what others are thinking?  Clairvoyance must be wonderful. I have a hard time understanding what most people are thinking when they talk to me.  I certainly don't know what people think when I haven't met them.

Comment by Nancy L. Fagin on October 1, 2015 at 2:30pm

A few days ago I had a big package to mail and the local station didn't quite know how to do air m-sack, so off I went to Cardiss Collin/Main po, down Milwaukee to DesPlaines pulling a trailer.  There were cabs in the bike lane, huge 18 wheelers in the bike lane, other construction equipment in the bike lane - so I'm weaving in and out.  On the way back, they're still trucks in the bike lane, especially at Union/Milwaukee/DesPlaines.  My hand signals probably looked more frantic at this stage, I just want to make certain the driver sees that the bike lane is clogged and we're both going into the GREAT DARKNESS of the underpass.  At the red light she rolled down the passenger side window and comment how brave I was. 

Many thanks, I said, but at that point I was ready for a brain transplant.

The cab drivers said they were sorry, that they had pickups and drop offs (even in front of the Harrison Street station - middle aged guys that huffed and puffed their way out of the cabs) - so I hate to be really angry with working people - but still, the bike lanes are there for a certain purpose.

Love the articles.

Nancy

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