I'm riding my bike on the streets of downtown Toronto - and when I say on the streets, that's exactly what I mean: not on the sidewalk, not hugging the curb but in the middle of a lane on one of the busiest streets in one of the busiest cities in Canada. I never thought I would feel comfortable doing that. My biking experience had, for the most part, been limited to suburban settings: roads with wide lanes and little traffic, and bicycle paths through serene parks.
I'm on the first day of a Can-Bike course that teaches defensive cycling to experienced adult cyclists who want to improve their skills and feel more comfortable riding in traffic. Before I took the course, I was one of those people who assumed that, because I knew how to ride a bike and was familiar with basic safety issues and the rules of the road, I could just put on a helmet and go. But Can-Bike was a real eye-opener. The course revealed misconceptions and gave me some invaluable tips for safe city cycling.
• Ride on the road instead of the sidewalk. Cycling on the sidewalk increases the danger at intersections, because drivers aren't watching the sidewalk for cyclists to ride into the road and they expect traffic coming off the sidewalk to be at walking speed, not cycling speed. Plus, pedestrians have been injured and even killed in collisions with cyclists riding on the sidewalk.
• Don't hug the curb; ride in the lane. I used to hug the curb all the time because I didn't want to be too close to the traffic. It's actually safer to ride farther out, where you're in the drivers' field of vision and you have room to manoeuvre if something goes wrong. And you should stay away from the curb when you're stopped, as well. Many cyclists move to the curb at red lights so they can remain seated on their bike with one foot resting on the curb. This moves them out of the flow of traffic - and out of drivers' field of vision - at the most dangerous place for cyclists: intersections.
• Keep your eyes up and look ahead while you're cycling. If you do this, you can spot obstacles, such as an open car door or a large pothole in the road, well ahead of time so you can plan to avoid them, rather than react at the last minute. The more traffic there is, the farther ahead you should look, because there will be more things happening that you have to react to.
• Look, signal, then look again. The second time you look is called the "lifesaver shoulder check." It gives you one last chance to make sure that the coast is clear before you turn or change lanes.
Page 1 of 3 -- Learn more about keeping yourself visible when cycling in the city on page 2
"A lot of people who cycle haven't thought about the rules of the road since they were kids," says Barb Wentworth, a bicycle-safety planner for the City of Toronto and a Can-Bike instructor. "Can-Bike teaches cyclists how to be more aware of the risks on the road and gives them the skills to avoid those hazards."
Can-Bike does this by emphasizing four basic principles: manoeuvrability, visibility, predictability and communication (MVPC). You can remember it with the phrase "most valuable person cycles."
"Even if people never take a Can-Bike course, if they make decisions with those terms in mind when they're cycling, they'll make the right decisions," says Darrell Noakes, a Can-Bike instructor and national examiner in Saskatoon.
Manoeuvrability means leaving enough room to plan an escape route while riding. Cycling about one metre away from the curb is a good guideline when you think there's enough room to share the lane, because it's far enough out to avoid sewer grates and opening car doors. (Cyclists colliding with car doors is the most frequent type of car-bike collision in downtown Toronto.) When it seemed there wasn't enough room for a car to safely pass me, I rode in the centre of the lane - referred to in Can-Bike as "taking the lane." For the first time, I didn't feel squished and intimidated.
Visibility means seeing and being seen. Where you ride in the lane helps make you visible, and when you're too close to the curb, drivers may not see you. Bright clothing also helps; especially at night, wear light clothes, or reflective clothes or bands, and use lights. Also, equip your bike with a bell or horn.
Predictability means following the rules of the road and riding in a straight line so drivers, other cyclists and pedestrians can predict what you're going to do. This may sound simple, but if you've ever weaved toward the curb, then away from it, between parked cars or hugged the curb in a right-hand-turn lane and then gone straight through the intersection, you'll know that riding predictably isn't always second nature.
Communication means giving signals to drivers through actions, such as using the correct hand signals and making eye contact with them. Once you're sure that they know what you intend to do, you can then do it safely.
Page 2 of 3 -- Find more city cycling resources on page 3
We learned about all of these things in class, then practised drills to help us apply what we had learned. We started with simply riding in a straight line in a parking lot, looking not at the line on the pavement, but up - way up. We were instructed to focus on flags flying from the top of SkyDome. You definitely don't have to look that high up while cycling, but doing it during a drill forced me to really focus on breaking my habit of looking down. We progressed to straight-line riding while signalling, shoulder checking and then doing a quick swerve to avoid an obstacle. The techniques involved in these drills were not hard, but keeping my eyes off the pavement was. At first I kept looking down at the obstacle I was trying to avoid, and the instructors caught me every time - even though I was wearing sunglasses.
The drills on the second day of the course included emergency stopping and turning techniques. The stopping involved braking while coming off the bicycle seat and transferring your weight behind the seat, over the back wheel. This keeps you from flipping over the handlebars when you have to stop really quickly and the front brake locks. Instant turns are for situations where you can't stop; you simply turn quickly, leaning into the turn and looking where you want to go - not at the obstacle you're trying to avoid. I managed to do the emergency stop - although I wasn't travelling as quickly as other, more experienced cyclists. The instant turn was more difficult and, although I understood the concept and how it should feel on the bike (the bike should literally whip around the turn), I wasn't confident enough to lean far enough to get that result.
Finally, each afternoon, as a group, we went for a ride, taking turns leading the group and taking breaks to talk about the decisions we made, such as where we rode in the lane and how well we avoided obstacles. "The on-road portion is one of the best parts of Can-Bike," says Wentworth. "You get the chance to put what you learned into practice and gain confidence - while you have the support of the instructor and other people in the class. You could get a book, but it's not the same."
It's that support and coaching that makes Can-Bike so useful. "This course gives cyclists both the handling skills and the emotional skills to deal with the stress of riding in traffic," says Bruce Mol, a Can-Bike instructor in Vancouver. "I find that commuting is a mental challenge. I don't ride on automatic. If you're cycling and daydreaming, that's when you're most at risk."
I think that's how Can-Bike helped me most. Riding on those serene bike trails is a far cry from rush hour in downtown Toronto. I was more mentally than physically tired after the course each day. Even so, I felt that if I wanted to commute to work or ride through the city, I could. I would probably still be overly cautious - I'm a big fan of turning into a pedestrian and walking my bike across an intersection - but I would know how to be an MVPC.
Buying and wearing a helmet
Buy your helmet at a store where the staff are knowledgeable about fitting bike helmets. Make sure you try it on. It should fit snugly - not tight enough to hurt and not loose enough to slide forward or backward. Adjust the straps so they are snug; you should be able to tug on the helmet without it coming off. Look for safety approval stickers (such as CSA, Snell, ANSI or ASTM) inside the helmet. Finally, don't buy a helmet secondhand because you can't tell if it has been in a collision. During a collision, the outer shell of the helmet spreads the force through the helmet, and the foam absorbs the impact. Helmets are not constructed to do this more than once and, therefore, won't protect you a second time.
Stop, look & lessons
There are Can-Bike courses for people of all ages and abilities. Kids Can-Bike, a 12-hour course for nine- to 13-year-olds who know how to ride a bike, teaches basic cycling skills. There are two three-hour Can-Bike Adult Learn-to-Ride courses, one for complete beginners and one for those who are too unsteady to ride on streets. Can-Bike 1 is a 12-hour course for cyclists who want to gain confidence in low-traffic situations. Can-Bike 2 - the one I took - is an 18-hour advanced course in defensive cycling. The cost of these courses ranges from $50 to $100, and they are available from spring through fall in most major cities in Canada. For more information, visit www.toronto.ca/cycling, contact your provincial cycling association or visit the Canadian Cycling Association's Web site at www.canadian-cycling.com.
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