Biking for Beginners: 10 Ways to Overcome Fears of Cycling in the City
WASHINGTON, DC 8/30/2012- I love my bike. I choose my bike over my car at every chance I get. However, things weren’t always this way. When I finally started riding my bike over a year and a half ago, I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner.
FEAR. Fear was my biggest deterrent.
I hadn’t been on a bike since my early teens, and now in my mid 30s, I was terrified. I live in Washington DC, where traffic is nuts, where most cab drivers can’t tell the difference between a stop sign and a green light, and where one out of five drivers has diplomatic plates- code for: “I learned to drive in another country and didn’t bother to learn the traffic laws here because I’ll be gone soon anyway.”
DC traffic is scary enough to negotiate in a car! A few years ago, there was little chance of me ever entering that honking, steaming, slow-moving river of metal- on nothing but a rickety bike and with nothing to protect me but a dinky-looking plastic helmet. No way! Did I mention I was a little overweight and hadn’t exercised since high school PE class? (Biking changed all that- but that’s the topic of a previous post: How my bike changed my life).
Apparently, I wasn’t alone. According to Grist.org, “as many as 60 percent of people in U.S. cities would like to ride a bicycle if it weren’t for traffic-related concerns.” But traffic wasn’t my only fear. I was also afraid of crashing, hitting a dog, falling into a pot hole, ditch, the Potomac…
Somehow, I overcame my fears. It took a while and a little determination, but I can honestly say that even though I still have a healthy respect for riding on the road, I am confident and comfortable doing it. I own my piece of the road and I make drivers respect me. Who would have thought?
So if you have wanted to get on a bike but have been held back by fear, almost everyone goes through it. But if I can overcome it, anybody can! I did a little research, called on a few riding friends, and here is a list of tips if you want to begin cycling for sport, commuting, or fun, but are afraid of riding in the city.
WARNING: Cycling is highly addictive- once you start riding you’ll never stop!
1. Get the right gear: If you do not already own a bike, take time to choose the right bike for you. The right bicycle is everything. I started out with a folding bike because it sounded like a cool concept- and hated it. It felt unstable, I was sitting at an awkward angle, the handlebars were too close together, and making a turn was difficult. The folding bike experiment turned me off of biking for a few more years until my husband convinced me to try again.
Before spending thousands on a bike, think about what you are going to use it for. Consider whether you will be using it for commuting to work, riding trails for exercise on the weekends, or both. Finally, try several styles of bicycle. Get on and see how different bicycles feel; ride them around the parking lot of the bike shop, ask a friend to let you try their bike. I test-rode several bicycles, but like Cinderella, my hybrid felt just right as soon as I got on.
The second most important piece of gear is a helmet. There is a whole controversy about helmet promotion campaigns, but I’m just going to play it safe and say you should always wear a helmet when riding a bike. Your brain is precious. Like bikes, there are several different styles of helmet. While the safety factor is the most important, you should also pick a helmet that goes with your style, looks cute, and is comfortable, because, lets face it, that way you’ll be more likely to wear it.
Many riders, myself included, use a mirror. I got a mirror shortly after getting my bike because I was so unsure of my riding ability that I felt that I would lose my balance and careen to my death if I turned my body to look behind me while I was riding. My mirror gave me a lot of confidence, and even though now I can look behind me, I wouldn’t ride without it. Other riders, like Delores Simmons of Black Women Bike DC (BWB), use a mirror on their helmet. It is a question of preference.
Another important piece of gear is some kind of reflective device or piece of clothing. Make sure that you are as visible as possible to motorists, other riders, and pedestrians. There are all kinds of reflective gear available at bike shops and online. A bell is also an important piece of gear to alert others of your presence. Shouting is just not enough sometimes. Some riders, like Simmons, use a whistle, and say that they are usually much more effective in getting motorists’ attention.
2. Learn about your bike: Learning how to use and maintain your bike is also important in building confidence and overcoming fear. Practice getting on and off your bike- it may sound silly, but my worst fall to date was when I was stationary, trying to get off my bike (more on that later). Practice changing gears, learn how to pump air into your tires, and learn to replace the chain, at the very least. Many bike shops offer training clinics on basic bike maintenance. This will all help to boost your confidence and lessen the fear of being caught out on the road with a loose chain and not knowing what to do.
3. Take it little by little: One of the things that worked best for me was taking it one baby step at a time. To build up your confidence, ride in a parking lot, near home, at off- hours, or on bike trails. Bike trails can be helpful in learning to navigate obstacles like potholes, joggers, other bikers, dogs, etc. Once you have the confidence to negotiate those obstacles, you will have more confidence to face a road with cars.
“I became more confident from riding regular routes, primarily my work-home route,” says Allyson Criner Brown of BWB. “The first time was a bit scary but the more I got comfortable with the route, the more I learned how to anticipate drivers, what to expect, where drivers were most likely to do something that would threaten my safety, and certain ‘rules of the road.’”
Delores Simmons had a similar experience, “I started riding in traffic on low traffic streets or during low traffic times so I became familiar with a certain route, but there was not real stress. Finally, in the beginning I gave myself a lot of extra time so I was not rushing and I could focus on traffic. Now I am a pro!”
If you are really afraid of cars, ride short pieces of road in quiet neighborhoods at low traffic hours. As you put in more and more “time in the saddle,” you will find that your fear begins to subside. “Confidence comes with time!” says Criner Brown.
4. Know your body and limits: Another important part of overcoming fear is to know you body and your limitations. Don’t try to ride ten miles or tackle a steep hill on your first time out. That will just discourage you, put you at risk for injury, and reinforce your fears. The more you ride, the stronger and more comfortable you will get, but you don’t want to risk an injury in the meantime. Build your endurance and stamina gradually and always listen to your body.
However, it is also important to believe in yourself and believe in what you can achieve. Cycling is so easy and fun, that you will be constantly surprising yourself by your progress. “When I rediscovered cycling eight years ago at age 48, I had a good Cannondale hybrid bicycle but didn’t know much about how to use the gears. I just started riding roads around my home until I became more and more comfortable with shifting,” says Molly. “I found a hill that added to my route and rode it several times until someone told me, ‘I think that is the hill that the local cyclists call ‘the Wall.’’ (it has a grade of about 21% at one point) Ever since I learned the hill’s nickname, I’ve been a little afraid of it. Rather than celebrate the fact that I learned how to conquer the steep grade, I got freaked out by the image of climbing a wall.”
5. Obey traffic laws: It is very important to obey all traffic laws when riding a bicycle. Cyclists must avoid distractions and pay attention to all street and road signs and signals. I don’t wear headphones or listen to music while I ride. It is important to be able to hear cars, other riders, people, opening car doors, dogs… Some people ride with their earphones, but I don’t think that I’ll ever feel comfortable enough to do it.
There are other “rules of the road” which are cycling-specific, like using hand signals. According to Allyson Criner Brown, among the most important are “learning not to get squeezed off the road or into cars, not pulling up next to cars that are turning right, leaving enough brake distance between you and cars (they can stop a LOT faster you can), etc.” Talking to and riding with someone with more experience is very helpful in learning cycling-specific road rules.
6. Know where you are going, do a little research: Most people start off riding in their own neighborhoods, where they are familiar with the streets, traffic patters, and directions. However, if you are riding in a new place,look for local riding clubs. Their websites usually have information on bike routes, the best places to bike, etc.
Websites like Mapmyride.com or bikehead.com are useful in finding riding routes and other bike- related information on an area. Ciclyng360’s podcast on overcoming fear of riding also suggests that when all else fails, find the place you want to go on the satellite view of Google Maps to see if there is a bike lane or wide shoulder on that particular stretch of road.
Cycling itself is a great way to experience your neighborhood and any area in a whole different way. Nicole Donnelly of BWB says, “The biggest way I overcame my fear of riding in the city was to explore new routes. For some reason, I started out using the route I would use if driving, which is great if you are in a car. But once I broke that mindset, things became a lot better. Now, on the rare occasions when I drive, I find myself using my bike routes.”
In large cities with no bike lanes: Not all cities are as bike-friendly as DC. If you live in a not-too-bike-friendly city, check your local parks for bike trails or take your bike out of the city for a weekend bike ride. There is also great article about cycling in New York City.
7. Own your part of the road/ Taking the lane: This is what scared me the most about riding. I’m lucky that DC has a lot of bike lanes, but riding in any city, no matter how many bike lanes, means you will be riding in traffic some of the time. It took me about 8 months of riding every day – to the gym, the store, etc- to be able to actually ride on a street without a bike lane and not feel that I was going to get hit by a car at every second. My mirror and plain old experience and time riding helped a lot. Today, I ride my lane and no longer feel afraid when I’m going somewhere that does not have an uninterrupted bike lane route. I agree with Lesly Jones of BWB when she says, “fortunately, in DC, I have a legal right to the road and I claim it most days of the week!!”
There are many reasons for riding your lane. It will not only discourage motorists from passing you in an unsafe manner, but it also forces them to give you more space. Taking up your lane also gives you room to maneuver when a car is passing you and something –say a car door- suddenly appears in your way.
Learning to take the lane can be difficult. Allyson Criner Brown puts it this way, “as a cyclist there are times when you have to ride like you’re invisible and assume that no one can see you, and there are other times when you have to just commandeer the road and make everyone else go around.” This will come with time and experience.
8. Bike with friends/Join a group: If you have friends who bike, ask them to take you out sometime and explain a few things about riding. Most people who cycle love it so much that you will have no trouble getting them to talk to you about it, give you tips, and take you out for a ride. Riding with people with more experience will help you learn how to conquer your fear and give you confidence. I just joined Black Women Bike DC, and even though I have not been out on my first group ride yet (can’t wait!), the members are a great source of information, inspiration, and support.
Joining a group is one of the best ways to overcome riding fears. “As for other fears — riding with motorist traffic and going downhill — I found I was more comfortable with those things after doing RAGBRAI for the first time,” writes Molly, who took up riding again when she was 48. “Riding with other cyclists and learning from them are my best means of overcoming my fears.”
Delores Simmons agrees, “I was intimidated by riding on the street with cars. First, I did group rides with people who were more experienced riders than me. That way I learned biking rules and signals, as well as how to avoid certain pitfalls.”
One tip I got from the Cycling360 podcast is that if you are a novice riding in a group, let someone know, and don’t pretend to know what you’re doing. Another tip is to go out with a small group of 3 or 4 people and then move on to a larger one. Local bike shops may also offer or have information on beginner’s bike rides or women’s rides.
9. After a fall/ fear of crashing: I have fallen off my bike. A few times. Once I fell behind my garage, trying to climb off too quickly and tangled my foot on one of the bars. I fell, the bike fell on top of me, I had a few scrapes and bruises. Other falls were even less dramatic. But I’m here, I’m alive, I’m in much better shape than before I started riding, and have a minor scar on my knee.
The truth is: if you ride a bike, you are probably going to crash. More than once. Usually its not that bad; some bad wrecks happen, but most people love biking so much that they get right back on as soon as they are able to. This is where wearing a helmet comes in. “I had an accident a few years ago that resulted in my landing head first,” recounts Lesly Jones. “I had just purchased a new helmet the week before. Without that helmet, well, I don’t even want to think about what may have occurred. Fortunately, I only have an ugly scar on my shoulder instead of permanent brain damage or worse.” Lesly’s accident has not put her off riding in the least bit.
10. Final safety precautions- When riding, always have a cell phone with you so that you can call for help. A RoadID bracelet may be useful if you do not carry anything when you ride. Lesly Jones of BWB says, in general, “be alert, be aggressive and know your rights.”
Riding a bicycle, like driving a car and flying in an airplane, has its dangers. But you accept them, try to minimize them, stay alert, and ride on!