What is safe cycling? You’ll probably get a different answer from every website you read or any other cyclist you talk to. To me, ‘safe cycling’ relates to the combination of common sense, road rules and cycling knowledge to get you from Point A to Point B in a safe and efficient way, preferably with the journey having been a pleasant one and not fraught with danger.
What do you need in order to cycle safely?
a) You need the right vehicle…
Choose the right bicycle for the job. I prefer using a hybrid or mountain bicycle for commuting purposes. It is more comfortable than a road racing bicycle due to the more upright riding position and the additional gears help when you ride a bicycle laden with kit for the office or groceries. Try putting semi-slicks on the bike so that you don’t get too much rolling resistance when riding on tar, yet are still able to ride on gravel paths or road shoulders without any problems.
I do not like riding with a backpack as I prefer being able to move freely on the bicycle, so I have fitted panniers to my commuting bicycle. In addition to being able to comfortably carry my clothes for work, handbag, laptop, lunch and the like, I have found that cars seem to give me a wider berth when the panniers are on the bike since they make the bicycle appear wider. In addition, the weight is carried low on the bicycle, which adds stability.
If you do not like the idea of panniers, a small bicycle trailer is also an option.
Give your bicycle a quick check before you set out: Again, use your common sense here.
- Regularly check the tyres for cuts or objects that may become embedded in the tyres so that you do not end up with a flat halfway into the journey.
- Check the brakes – you want to be able to stop your bicycle, especially if you need to brake suddenly.
- Check the bicycle for any loose nuts and bolts – you do not want your handlebars to come off in your hands as you approach a downhill intersection.
- Make sure you have what you need to fix a puncture en route. And so on.
b) You need the right kit…
First and foremost, do not get onto your bicycle without putting on a decent helmet. Apart from the fact that it became law in 2004 that you have to wear a helmet whenever you cycle in South Africa, you never know when a dog will run out in front of you; when a parked vehicle will unexpectedly open a door, a pedestrian step out in front of you, and the like. So be prepared and wear that helmet!
Secondly, always wear gloves. In the unhappy instance of a fall, your hands are usually the first to hit the ground. Palms without skin takes a long time to heal.
Always wear bright, reflective clothing. Nevermind if you think you look like a Christmas tree – make sure the other road users can see you. Light, contrasting colours work well – don’t be afraid to combine red and yellow, or bright pink and white… Bright, luminous sleeveless wind jackets (gilets) or rain jackets are highly visible and well worth wearing.
Fit lights to your bicycle. I have a red flashing rear light underneath the saddle and switch that on even if I ride in the middle of the day – even more so on an overcast day. If you intend riding at dawn or dusk, add a steady, white front light as well.
For the rest of the kit, use your common sense: If it looks like it could rain or get cold during the day, take along something waterproof and/or warm: You cannot adequately control your bicycle if you are shivering with cold. Sunglasses (or clear glasses in the evening) will protect your eyes from dust and the like blowing into it – again, it is difficult to control a bicycle if you are riding down a steep hill, traffic next to you, and something blows into your eyes. Wear the right shoes: Slip-slops or sandals may be acceptable for a very short trip to the café on the corner, but have you thought of what would happen should the sandal get caught, or you get involved in an accident? If possible, rather wear closed shoes (again, make sure the shoe laces don’t get caught in the chain or chain ring) or – even better – MTB cycling shoes that will allow you to comfortably walk around when off the bicycle.
c) You need to know something about road conditions and traffic rules
Safe cycling includes know where you may or may not ride your bicycle, what the general traffic rules are, and what your rights are as a cyclist.
According to SA traffic laws, bicycles are regarded as vehicles, which means you have every right to be on the road. Ride assertively and make eye contact with drivers who may cross your path.
Having said that, most motorists seem to think that cyclists should ride as far left of the road as possible. This is usually not the best place to cycle, for various reasons:
- The far left of the road often has glass and other debris in it
- There are often ‘cat-eyes’, gutters or drain covers which could cause you to fall
- The road camber is often steepest or uneven near the edge of the road
- Riding a metre in from the side of the road often will often force a vehicle to cross the centre line in order to pass you. This often stops them from passing when there are oncoming vehicles. Having a metre ‘free’ to your left also means you have space to swerve should a vehicle pass too closely
- If it is windy, having some space on your left helps should you get caught in a gust
Where may you ride? You may ride your bicycle on any road open to cycling. This excludes freeways (like the M3, M5, N1 and N2 in and near Cape Town), and roads which are specifically closed to bicycles. Use the cycle lane if there is one.
As a cyclist, you need to obey all the road and traffic rules. Jumping red lights and riding on pedestrian-only pavements is illegal and can also be dangerous and frighten other road users. Don’t do it!
Watch out for the following:
- Drain covers that run in the same direction as your direction of travel
- Glass, sand, water or oil spills
- Wet paint
- Any road debris
- Vehicles that have just parked, as the driver/passenger may open a door without first checking to see if there is a cyclist approaching
- Vehicles that are turning left and who may not have seen you approaching in their blind spots
What about other cyclists on the road? Keep your eyes open for children or novices, as their bicycle handling skills may not yet be up to scratch and they may get a fright should you pass them too closely. Also keep your eyes open for other cyclists when approaching intersections.
- Always check your blind spots
- Cycle predictably so that vehicle drivers around you can guess (correctly) what you are doing
- Give appropriate hand signals when you intend to stop or turn and make sure the motorists see you
- Watch out for disembarking passengers when you cycle past a bus or taxi that has stopped
- Watch out for the draft from a passing bus or truck
- Give yourself extra room if it is raining so that you have enough time to stop – remember also that wet brakes are not as effective as dry ones. “Pump” your brakes a few times before reaching a stop street to remove water from the rim before pulling the brakes for stopping.
- Using a cell phone while cycling can distract your attention. Rather pull off to take the call
- Using an iPod or radio could restrict your hearing – make sure you can hear the road users around you
- Be polite…