Biking in the City: Which Bike to Buy and Tips for Cycling Safely
BY AJ MORAN, GREEN LINE VELO // ILLUSTRATION BY ANDY HUFF
Green Line Velo has teamed up with Zipcar, our cycling team’s sponsor, to share essential tips in honor of National Bike Month. This week, we’ll go over choosing your ideal bike, and safety tips for both cyclists and drivers on city streets.
For the Cyclists
Choosing the right bike for you
Find features that fit your environment for the best biking experience.
The first step to having a successful riding experience in the city (or anywhere else) is choosing a bike that best fits your needs. Let’s start with the road bike. The road bike is easily identified by its drop-style handlebars and skinnier tires that are about an inch wide. Your position on this bike is generally more forward and aerodynamic. It has lower rolling resistance and moves at greater speeds, giving you the ability to ride further for longer periods of time. Well suited for asphalt and smoother dirt roads, the road bike is very popular for recreational cyclists and elite racers alike.
All-road bikes, gravel bikes, and cyclocross bikes are variants of the road bike that have been specifically designed to spend time off of asphalt. This includes dirt/gravel roads, fields, and less technical trails. These bikes are manufactured with slightly more relaxed geometry for a bit less forward position than a road bike, but giving you more front-end control. The bike frames are also sized with more clearance for wider tires, which allow for better grip and increased comfort.
Bikes for more recreational riding include hybrids, commuters, and E-bikes. These bikes generally have flat handlebars, offer clearance for a wider tire, and may even have a front fork with suspension. The bikes are built to be a bit more sturdy, offering more mounts for accessories like fenders and front and rear racks for bags/panniers—which makes them a great utility bike. The riding position is generally more upright and relaxed, as utility and comfort are the more defining factor than speed. Recently, more bike manufacturers have begun producing electric-assist bikes, or E-bikes, which have a motor in the rear hub and help get you up to speed.
And for the adventurous off-roader, there is the mountain bike. Mountain bikes were designed for off-road use, and you will get the most out of them riding on trails within or outside of the city. However, many people choose to ride mountain bikes on the road if they are only able to have one bike and want the flexibility of being able to ride in the woods. Urban riders on mountain bikes enjoy the benefit of clearance for much wider tires with better grip, and the added suspension if they live near really rough or torn-up road surfaces.
There are a number of other types of bikes such as cruisers, track, triathlon, and BMX. While these bikes can certainly be used for urban riding, the specific uses they were designed for are much different than riding on urban roads or trails, so we would recommend choosing one of the bikes above.
What size bike should you get?
Just as important as the type of bike is whether or not the bike fits properly. Ideally, you should be able to stand over the bike with both feet on the ground and a few inches of space between the bike’s top tube and your backside. Your seat height should allow you to comfortably put one foot down when coming to a stop, as well as give you a 90-95% leg extension when pedaling for maximum efficiency. General rule of thumb: if you’re feeling tightness or discomfort in your upper knees or quad area, your seat height may be too short, and if you’re feeling tightness or discomfort in your lower back, your seat may be too high. In addition, your reach to the handlebars shouldn’t be overly extended; a slight bend in your elbows will give you more comfort and control.
Your local bike shop should be able to help out with many of these steps if you have questions or concerns when it comes to sizing for your bike. For those looking to get the most comfort or efficiency out of their positions, many bike shops also offer professional fitting services that will analyze your riding style and make modifications to stock parts—making you truly feel one with the bike.
How to navigate city streets with traffic
The first step to riding your bike on the street is simple: wear a helmet! The second step is to make yourself visible at all times. This means wearing vibrant or reflective clothing, placing reflecting elements on your bike, and using lights at night. City streets are often well-lit after dark, but while you may not need lights to see where you’re going, it’s important that you be seen.
Once you are visible, the best way to stay safe on the roads is to obey all traffic laws, and to ride in a predictable manner. Doing unpredictable things like making sudden turns, constant swerving, or barreling through a stop sign or stoplight are when accidents are going to occur. The best thing you can do to be predictable is to ride in a straight line, maintain speed, look over your shoulder before turning, and signal turns with your hands to indicate what you are doing next.
There are plenty of times when riding in the city that you will approach stopped traffic leading up to an intersection, in which case you may ride up to the stoplight in the bike lane. It is best to do so in a safe and cautious manner, as pedestrians may be crossing between stopped cars and you may not be able to see them coming from behind. In terms of passing larger vehicles on the road like buses, box trucks, or tractor-trailers, it is best to keep a safe distance and only attempt to pass if traffic is stopping or already stopped.
Avoiding road hazards
Watch out for road hazards like potholes and parked cars.
City roads are often the most beat up due to things like excessive use, improper drainage, harsh winters, or ongoing construction. If you see a crack, pothole, or other hazards up ahead, check behind you for traffic and move your riding line slowly away from it. Swerving to miss something at the last second is unpredictable and can cause an accident, especially if you are riding in a group or if anyone is riding behind you. Another common hazard is an open car door. If you see a car door from a parked car opening in your path, be sure to yell out the hazard while you adjust your line to alert those who may be riding around you, and even alert the driver of that car to close their door, or remind them to check before it happens again. This also applies to double-parked cars and cars dropping off passengers, an increasing hazard in the era of ride-sharing services.
When the road is wet, be aware of the painted white lines, manhole covers and streetcar tracks that become more slippery than usual. To get more traction on wet roads, let a little air out of your tires, giving you more grip. When the weather turns cold and wet roads and paths suddenly become icy, it’s best to not make any hard turns. If you ever find yourself riding into a slippery patch of road, try to maintain a straight line forward and not hit the brakes aggressively. And if you ever need to bail out of a slippery situation onto a soft surface, grass is always the best place to land!
For the drivers
How to navigate traffic around bicycles
When driving on city streets, chances are you are going to see a number of bicyclists on the road. While cyclists should be making every attempt to make themselves visible to you, you should keep your eye out for them as well. There is a safe passing distance law that is enforced in 39 states; most state that a minimum of three feet is required when passing a cyclist. Before you pass a cyclist, be sure that there is ample room ahead of you to account for oncoming traffic. Attempting to pass and then not having enough time to get around will leave the cyclist wondering if you are going to swerve into them. Be patient, and everyone will be safe.
When turning right or pulling over to the side of the road to park, check to see if you’re crossing over a bike lane—and be sure to look for any cyclists in your rear-view mirrors. Be predictable and use your turn signals. And when you’re behind the wheel, the best way to make sure you don’t injure someone (including yourself) by opening your car door is to use the “Dutch Reach” technique and open your door slowly. By opening your driver-side door with your right hand, your head will be turned enough to see anyone coming from behind. Likewise, ask your passengers to use their left hand when opening the passenger-side door. Zipcar has also implemented safety measures by noting to watch for bicycles from inside the car.
Following Traffic Laws
While it may seem obvious, the best way to prevent most accidents on the road is by obeying the rules of the road. If you live in a major city and haven’t heard of Vision Zero, you will soon. Initiatives like Vision Zero are being adopted in cities all over the world due to the alarming number of traffic-related injuries and fatalities over the past few years. The initiative is designed to protect pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike.
Cities like Boston, NYC, Seattle, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Baltimore, Atlanta, and many others have begun to implement traffic safety laws (such as lowering the speed limit to 25 mph city-wide.) This brings down the speed differential between two moving objects, helps vehicles become more predictable, and makes the street a much safer to travel.
Double-parked cars and idling vehicles in the bike lane are also things to avoid—doing so can block the paths of both cyclists and vehicles, forcing them to move across the road and into oncoming traffic.
Many incidents have been attributed to negligent or distracted driving. Here are three simple rules that can help solve many of these problems:
1)Please observe and obey the speed limit.
2)Please drive predictably and use your turn signals.
3)Please be attentive and put your phone away.
Stay tuned for next week, where we’ll go over some maintenance tips for keeping your bike running nice and smooth all year long.
Want to pedal in style for bike month? We’re giving V7 bikes by PUBLIC Bikes to cyclists who share their #bikestories with us on Twitter. Tell us why you love riding in the city, share some tips, or throw pics of your bike our way and your #bikestories will be entered to win!