By Michael Schwalbe
Transportation planners worry about cyclists who don’t ride bikes. The term of art for these non-riders is “interested but concerned,” a large category of people who express interest in cycling but don’t do so because the roads feel unsafe. Planners want to get these people — I’ll call them IBCers — on bikes. Maybe I can help.
What IBCers want, surveys find, is better infrastructure. I can’t do much about that (though I’m trying). But I can offer advice, based on many years of experience as a cyclist, that might nudge some IBCers onto bikes. If you’re in this category, here is your nudge.
Let me first polish the apple. Why ride a bike? It’s good for your physical and mental health. If you use a bike to commute or run errands, it decreases traffic congestion and pollution. You’ll also have old-fashioned fun while you accomplish these things. Be all this as it may, I understand your hesitation.
If you’re not used to it, sharing the road with cars and trucks can be unnerving, and feeling vulnerable is not unwarranted. Yet millions of people ride bikes safely on roads in places busier and meaner than Chapel Hill and Carrboro. So it might be safer out there, if one rides smartly and cautiously, than it seems from the sidelines.
Here, then, are five suggestions for IBCers who want to get off the sidelines. I’ll presume you know how to ride a bike. If not, find a grassy field and master that skill first. When you’re ready to give the road a try, here’s what to do.
Brush up on safety. There is an abundance of advice online about how to ride the roads safely on a bicycle. I recommend the Smart Cycling resources provided by the venerable League of American Bicyclists. The trove of education resources on the website of BikeWalk NC is also excellent. If you haven’t ridden a bike in a while — or perhaps ever — spend time with this material and learn what you need to know to ride as safely as possible. Safety skills also enhance on-the-bike confidence.
Scout a route. As a motorist, you might not think much about intersections, hills, or narrow roads; it’s all familiar and ordinary. But what’s ordinary for motorists can be a challenge for novice cyclists. So scout some easy routes ahead of time. Look for quiet(er) roads, ones with bike lanes and lower speed limits, roads that won’t force you into situations you’re not ready for. Gain skill on low-stress roads and later you’ll be able to tackle roads that now seem daunting.
Find a cycling buddy. Getting started might be easier if you ride with a more experienced cyclist. This is someone who knows the local roads, can handle minor problems (a flat tire, for instance), and is patient. Explain that you’re just getting into, or back into, cycling and want to go for an easy ride on quiet roads and get the hang of things. An experienced cyclist can offer safety tips and other bits of helpful advice. Riding with a partner also affords another of cycling’s rewards: sociability.
Get your bike ready. If you buy a new bike, it should be set up and ready to go. If you want to revive an old bike and you don’t have mechanical skills, take the bike to a shop and ask for a tuneup. An advantage of dealing with a shop, whether buying a new bike or making sure a used bike is in good working order, is that you can get expert help in adjusting the bike to fit you (yes, bikes need to be adjusted to fit their riders). A well-maintained bike that fits well will feel better beneath you and make cycling more enjoyable.
Get a helmet. Some people see helmets as optional for toodling around town. As a kid and a college student, I didn’t wear a helmet; it just wasn’t the era. Even today in some renowned cycling cities, Amsterdam for instance, helmets are rare. But while the chance of an accident is low, I’d rather not have a minor mishap turn into a major injury. So I wear a helmet and advise others to do the same. It’s an easy self-protective step that makes cycling a notch safer.
January isn’t the most inviting month to get on a bike. Warm spring days always beckon more strongly. But now is a great time to anticipate those days. Shop for a bike. Get an old bike back in shape. Read up on safety. Scout some routes. Look for a cycling partner. When nicer weather arrives, you’ll be ready to leave the interested-but-concerned category and start becoming one of the enthused and ardent. Start smart and you’ll wonder why you waited.
Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.