Surviving the Mean Streets

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Cycling Special, March 1997

Surviving the Mean Streets

You can't outrun all the obstacles you encounter in the city. You have to outsmart them.
By Alan Coté

Your Tutor:
Mike Downey, 29, commutes three miles six days a week to his job as a lighting designer in San Francisco's South of Market district. A former amateur road racer, Downey now owns a car for the first time in seven years--but swears he doesn't use it to get around town.

When it comes to negotiating city streets, bike messengers have a lot of clever tricks at their disposal--and we're not going to show you any of them. (After all, these are the same people who eschew helmets for fear of constricting their dreadlocks.) Really, there's not all that much to surviving biking's most hostile playing field: You just have to be brave enough to conduct yourself with unyielding authority, considerate enough to respect the rights of both drivers and pedestrians, and smart enough to foresee and avoid threatening situations. In other words, it all comes down to common sense, except for a few basic skills you can glean without the help of a guy with a nose ring.

Descending Stairs
Never mind allegations of grandstanding: In most cities, this comes in handy more than you might think. And all you need to pull it off is a dash of courage, a pinch of skill, and tires fat enough for the task. The key is to slow to a crawl before you reach the top step, standing with the pedals positioned horizontally and your front wheel aimed down the middle of the staircase to keep your handlebars safely away from handrails. As your front wheel rolls over the lip, let go of the brakes and shift your weight back over the saddle, or behind it if the stairs are particularly steep. Hold the handlebars firm and just ride it out, making sure not to so much as nudge the brakes until you reach bottom--lest you go over the bars in a tumble decidedly more painful than its mountain-biking equivalent.

You know the drill--swing wide, lean the bike into the turn, aim for the apex, right? Well, forget all that. When you're a sub-200-pound interloper in a two-ton world, the last thing you want to rely on is centrifugal force; if you suddenly need to brake, you could end up sprawled on the tarmac. Instead, brake to slow down before entering the turn and keep the bike upright, holding your ground in the middle of the lane and steering through the turn. You'll be more visible, in control of your bike at all times, and not at risk of losing traction on a crosswalk stripe or wet pavement.

Not to be confused with the fully airborne bunny hop, this is the civilized way to negotiate a curb, more appropriate for busy urban areas. Look for a clear patch of sidewalk and square off with the curb so you meet it as close to perpendicular as possible. Next, check your speed so that you have enough momentum to carry you through the maneuver without pedaling, but not so much that you have to skid to a halt once you've made it. Then, just as rubber is about to meet concrete, give the handlebars a modest tug, lifting front wheel onto sidewalk. The instant it's in the clear, shift your weight forward and crouch over the center of the bike, unweighting the rear end. Standing upright with your pedals aligned horizontally, pull up on your toeclips or clipless pedals to quickly goose the rear wheel over the curb.

Negotiating Traffic
In a world of double-parked delivery trucks, a cyclist can be regarded as little more than an oddly shaped speed bump. Which is why you must always give off a confident, even imperious air. This means riding directly in the flow of traffic to establish your own four-wheel-size space on the road, maintaining steely eye contact with drivers at intersections, and always being aware of your surroundings. (Unhip as it seems, a handlebar-mounted rearview mirror can be a big help.) When turning left, for example, merge to the left--cautiously but forcefully--and hold your slot by staying smack in the middle of the lane. Drivers will take notice, helping to keep you safe from potholes or, worse, the dreaded flung-open car door.

Myth: Drivers know what directional hand signals mean.

Reality: When they see you waving your left arm around, most drivers think you're having muscle spasms. They most certainly do not think, "She's turning right, so I'll make way for her." Instead of those DMV-approved motions, rely on eye contact, common sense, and, if absolutely necessary, a precise directional signal indicated by the clear use of your index finger--not its neighbor.

Illustration by Mick Aarestrup

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