Cycling’s Only As Dangerous As You Make It
Relax, you’re gonna be fine
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We all approach cycling differently. Some us kit up, clip in, and head out in search of glory. Others of us don sandals and hemp and strike devastating blows against the Automotive Industrial Complex by riding bikes with panniers to the local food co-op. Regardless, no matter how we ride, we all have one thing in common:
We want to see more people on bikes.*
Theoretically, getting more people to ride should be easy. Never in the history of cycling has there been a wider range of bicycles and riding styles on offer to the American consumer. However, there’s still a pretty significant barrier of entry to cycling here in America, and it’s called the prospect of death.
But how dangerous is cycling really? Unfortunately it’s difficult to say with numerical certainty, because the annual number of bicycle deaths doesn’t tell the entire story. We do know that somewhere around 800 people per year are killed in cycling crashes, but what we don’t have is the necessary data to calculate cyclist mortality per miles traveled.
Then there are all the other injuries you can incur while cycling—ranging in severity from broken bones to bruised dignity—which often go unreported. At the same time, all of the above is mitigated (and probably outweighed) by the clear health benefits of riding a bike; there’s plenty of evidence that cycling prolongs your life, whereas the soul-crushing alienation of driving can shorten it.
Given all of this, it’s pretty safe to say that if you’re looking to increase your quality of life by riding a bicycle, the odds are strongly in your favor. Granted, there are risks inherent in cycling, but then again your toilet could also explode, so there you go.
Still, it’s human nature to demand additional assurances. Sure, more and more cities are building something resembling bicycle infrastructure to provide those assurances, but you can’t blame the average American for being afraid to ride when a stock pickup truck basically looks and sounds like it was designed to kill you. (Not to mention the fact that the driver seems radicalized to do just that.) It’s also normal to want to feel as though you’re in control of your own destiny as opposed to being at the mercy of the drivers with whom you’re ostensibly “sharing” the road. Meanwhile, it’s 2019, and safety messaging for cyclists still hasn’t gone much farther than “Strap on a helmet and hope for the best.”
Fortunately, there’s lots you can do on the bike to winnow down the risk factor in cycling even more, and by focussing on the things you can control, you can keep your head (as well as the rest of your body parts) from hitting the ground in the first place.
Take cars out of the equation and your survival on the bike is all but assured. Like germs, cars are everywhere, but also like germs, there are things you can do to reduce your exposure to them. Certainly if you’re going to work, then you don’t have much flexibility in terms of your destination, and you probably can’t avoid cars altogether. However, you do have control over your route choice, and by sacrificing a few minutes here and there you can cut out the worst stretches of road in the same way you can avoid grabbing the grimiest and most germ-ridden portions of the subway pole. (Or at least rubbing your eyes afterward.) Think of it as marginal safety gains. And yes, if you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to get off and walk sometimes. Riding doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.
It’s a lot easier to avoid cars if you’re cycling for recreation, and one of the best way to do that is to go mountain biking. You might think this would introduce a whole new set of dangers, but apart from downhill racing, mountain biking’s reputation as an extreme sport is mostly unwarranted. Really, mountain biking is a doddle compared to other popular outdoor sports such as running, which will pound your joints into oblivion, or even soccer, which combines all the delightful joint-pounding of running with the excitement of torn ligaments and fractured metatarsals.
To be sure, like anything else if you approach mountain biking overzealously you can mess yourself up pretty good. And yes, while mostly an aberration, animal attacks are a thing. Nevertheless, if approached sensibly, mountain biking is essentially a low-impact activity that involves the occasional banged-up shin or slow-speed fall into a thicket.
Or, if you don’t like nature, just head to the velodrome, which is the cycling equivalent of a sterile environment.
Use Sensible Equipment
Drivers aren’t responsible for all the bad things that happen to cyclists; they’re only responsible for the vast majority of those bad things. The remainder mostly consists of the kind of miscellaneous misfortune that you can mitigate considerably through equipment choice. For example, consider the road bike: fast, agile, and capable, it’s one of the most efficient machines ever devised by humankind. However, it’s also basically designed to pitch you forward and shatter your collarbone in the event of a crash, and if operated inexpertly or inattentively, it’s going to do just that.
Bike shops are more than happy to sell casual cyclists high-performance road bikes, and the Internet will gladly validate your temptation to “slam that stem,” but if either of the aforementioned adverbs describes your riding style, be honest with yourself and change your setup. You don’t have to drop the drops, but you should bring them higher up and farther back. Not only will this improve your stability, but it will also keep you from pulling a Superman should you manage to go down anyway. Wider tires will also go a long way toward protecting you from the sorts of road surface irregularities that cause crashes, and now that we’re living in the Golden Age of Tire Clearance you have no excuse for rejecting them.
Testing your limits is one of the joys of cycling (assuming you go in for that sort of thing). However, once you shift into the big ring, your risk increases exponentially with every additional MPH, and the further you push the speed envelope, the more likely it is that the postmaster of fate is gonna cancel your stamp.
Fortunately, there’s another way to prove yourself on the bike, and it’s called climbing. By fighting gravity instead of wind resistance and exchanging double-digit speeds for triple-digit ascents, you reduce your risk exposure considerably while reaping all the fitness rewards. Plus, there’s arguably more glory in turning yourself inside out on the climb and then descending conservatively than vice versa.
Ultimately, there’s no reason for even the most risk-averse person to avoid cycling. Even in a country that’s been ravaged by the SUV, riding a bike is not particularly dangerous, and by approaching it sensibly you reduce the risk to a level that should be acceptable with anyone with enough derring-do to stand up in the shower or cross the street.
Hey, if you’re looking to risk your life at high speed, there’s always driving.
*Except for roadies, who just want to keep bikes for themselves.