Bicycling Street Smarts
5 - STEERING OUT OF TROUBLE
A bicycle is a highly maneuverable machine, but it stays upright only by being balanced. You have to take extra care to stay upright and watch the road for hazards that can cause a fall.
Beware of any slippery or loose surfaces, including: gravel, snow, ice, leaves, oil patches, wet manhole covers and crosswalk markings. Avoid these, or ride over them slowly (but not too slowly). Don't turn, brake or accelerate.
Check behind yourself for traffic, then cross a diagonal railroad crossing more nearly at a right angle.
Be especially careful of diagonal railroad crossings, trolley tracks, raised lane-line dots, steel plates in a construction zone, or a step between the shoulder and the travel lane. Any of these can push your front wheel to the side and sweep your bike out from under you. Where roads pass through rangelands, cattle guards are another common hazard.
When you can't avoid these hazards, cross them as nearly as possible at a right angle. Maneuver in advance as needed to cross them squarely - do not turn or change speed while crossing. Cross at moderate speed but don't slow too much or you might lose control. Grip the handlebars firmly. Coast while crossing if the surface is wet or slippery. Be alert to avoid additional gaps or ridges. To reduce any shock, rise off the saddle as you cross, using your knees and elbows as shock absorbers. If you're unsure you can cross safely, consider dismounting and walking across, but make sure there's space to walk outside of the traffic flow.
Cross cattle guards straight, not at an angle. Avoid gaps at the edge and between grates. The joint between cattle guard and road may be rough or change levels. Do not turn, accelerate, or brake while crossing.
Beware of steel-grid bridge decks, which, especially when wet, may steer your front wheel parallel to the gridding, causing you to fall. Test a grid deck at a low speed, and walk, using the bridge sidewalk as necessary.
Drain grates with slots parallel to the road pose a special hazard. Most often, you will be riding to their left, but if not, be sure to avoid riding over one. Your front wheel can fall into the grate, causing you to go over the handlebars. It's a good idea to notify the applicable road or public works department of these and other hazards, as they are dangerous to bicyclists, and a liability issue.
Any bump, rock or pothole more than an inch high can squash your bicycle's tires flat against the rims, damaging the wheels. Avoid the bumps if you can, and walk your bike if the going gets too rough.
Now for the good news: Thanks to your bicycle's small size and quick steering, you can prepare yourself for situations like this one:
It's a pleasant, two-lane country road, just wide enough for cars to pass you in your lane. You look up at the scenery and then down at the road. There's a rock directly in front of you. And there's a car just behind you. You can't swerve left into the traffic and you don't want to swerve to the right, into the gravel and dirt. What to do?
Make your wheels weave around the rock while riding in a straight line - the rock-dodge maneuver. Just as you reach the rock, steer quickly left, then right to correct your balance, then straight again.
Because you correct the balance quickly, your body doesn't have time to follow the bike's weave. You continue nearly in a straight line. To give yourself better odds against rocks and potholes, go to an empty parking lot and practice the rock dodge until it becomes easy.
Avoid a rock by turning the handlebars to one side; then correct your balance by turning them the other way.
Picture yourself in another pinch: You're riding along a street, approaching an intersection, and a car on your left suddenly begins a right turn. You are about to crash into the side of the car! You have to turn quickly alongside the car to get out of trouble. To begin a turn quickly, you have to lean your bike quickly. But how do you do that?
Your bicycle balances the same way you balance a yardstick upright on the palm of your hand. If you want to move the yardstick to the right, you move your hand to the left. Then, the yardstick leans to the right, and you follow it with your hand.
Just the same way, if you steer your bicycle out from under you to the left for a moment, you can then turn to the right. You must first steer momentarily toward the car you're trying to avoid.
Try this technique in your parking-lot practice area. At slow speeds at first, yank the handlebars quickly to the left. Your bicycle will lean to the right, and then you can steer right. Practice first at slow speeds, then at faster ones. The faster you go, the less sharply you have to steer.
Twitch the handlebars to the left first to start your lean to the right for a quick right turn.
Collision avoidance: Quick turn to avoid a car running a stop sign.
Collision avoidance: Quick turn to the right of a right-turning car.
Collision avoidance: Quick turn ahead of a left-turning car that failed to yield.
The quick turn is useful in many situations. If a car coming toward you begins a left turn, turn right into the side street with it. If a car pulls out of a side street from the right, swerve into the side street. It's best to turn to the right, behind the car - but if it's too late for that, turn left with the car. Even if you hit the car, the more nearly you are traveling in the same direction, the lighter the impact.
On a winding downhill, brake before you enter the turns, so you don't lose traction while turning. But sooner or later, you may find yourself going around a downhill curve too fast. If it's too late to slow down, a variation on the quick turn can get you through this situation in one piece.
The usual, panic reaction is to steer straight and brake. But then you're likely to go headfirst off the road before you can stop. Instead, steer with the curve. Don't brake. Straighten the handlebars momentarily, as in the quick turn, to drop your bike into a deeper lean.
Usually, you'll make it around the curve - your tires have more traction than you normally use. If you do skid out, you'll fall on your side and slide to a stop.
If you're going around a curve too fast, straighten the handlebars momentarily to drop into a deeper lean.
If you're about to ride into a wall or over a cliff, you may decide deliberately to skid out. Lean into a turn, then hit the brakes. The fall may hurt - but not as much as the alternative.
There is a pothole straight ahead, and no time for even a rock dodge. You were so busy looking up at the traffic that you didn't see the pothole, and now you're about to trash your wheels. If only you could fly . . .
Unfortunately, you can't fly your bike like the kid in the movie E.T., but you can jump your bike. Holding the pedals horizontal, squat down and pull up on the handlebars. Then jump up and yank your legs up under you. You'll be past the pothole faster than reading "squat-pull-jump-yank." You can't easily get your back wheel over the obstruction unless you use toeclips or clip-in pedals, but getting your front wheel over will usually prevent a crash.
Jumping is the quickest last-resort way to avoid a pothole or other road-surface hazard. Once you get good at it, you can even use it to climb low curbs or to cross diagonal railroad tracks. In your empty parking lot, practice jumping your bike. You must lift first the front wheel, then the rear wheel as it takes its turn with the bump. Your timing depends on how fast you're riding.
Once you know your emergency maneuvers, you'll gain a much expanded sense of security, confidence and style. You'll be able to "ride loose," to use the language of California all-terrain riders. It's a sign of an experienced rider, and it saves you and your bicycle a lot of wear and tear.