Developing Street Smarts

Sometimes once you’ve been riding for a while, you forget the little steps you took along the way. A recent comment on our “About Us” page reminded me of that recently. Amy in Chicago said:

Hi Ladies: I just discovered your blog and it’s so inspiring! Seeing what you have both been able to do has made me want to give up the el and start biking more often. . . . my boyfriend has been an avid biker for years. I just bought the Gary Fisher Simple City 3 which I absolutely love, but I’ve only been riding on smaller side streets around our neighborhood. I was hoping you could offer some advice on how you started riding on bigger streets around the city. I have to admit, I’m a bit scared of all the horror stories and oblivious drivers. We live in Wicker Park so I would have to find some major street just to get to the lakefront. How did you both start riding on bigger streets? Can you recommend any resources to learn how to ride more safely? Again, I’m really enjoying your blog. Keep up the good work!

How did I get started riding on bigger streets? Like the origins of my sudden desire to bicycle commute, it seemed murky.

After some thought, I came up with a list of things for beginning street riders to remember. Feel free to add your own in the comments!
  1. Take small steps. Start in your neighborhood or a less busy area. When you feel comfortable there, branch out. But don’t stagnate — always push your comfort zone (within reason).
  2. Don’t be afraid to be afraid. It is normal to be nervous when you’re a beginner. It will probably take you longer to feel comfortable than you might think is normal. That’s OK.
  3. Ride with a more experienced friend. On my first trip to Chicago, it helped a lot to have Dottie riding in front of me and Greg behind — that way, I didn’t have to worry as much about where I was going or who or what was coming up behind me. If you don’t travel with a posse, one friend behind you will do. ;-)
  4. Know the rules of the road. This should have been #1! Read blogs, your local traffic laws, and sites like How Not to Get Hit By Cars. If you know what you’re doing on the road, you will feel much more confident.
  5. Make sure your bike is equipped with lights–and wear a helmet. You’ll feel (and be) safer. Once you’re more comfortable on a bike you can decide whether or not a helmet is necessary in your area.

How did you build your biking confidence?

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18 thoughts on “Developing Street Smarts

  1. The way I decided to do it, was just go for it. I read some articles on vehicular cycling, and then set off. I expected to be terrified, but wasn’t; it all somehow made sense. I have a post about it here.

    One thing for me, is that the kind of bicycle I am riding makes a huge difference. While I have no problems on my Pashley, which has wide tires and keeps me entirely upright, I cannot yet deal with riding my roadbike in traffic.

  2. ksteinhoff says:

    I’ll echo the Street Smarts recommendation. I had to speak at a service club and asked the Florida Bicycle Association for handouts.

    Street Smarts is an excellent publication with lots of good advice.

  3. Tom says:

    My advice:

    First of all biking is safe. An overwhelming majority of drivers (of automobiles) are not oblivious. They are aware and do not want to squish you.

    Read about vehicular cycling and take a course.

  4. Trisha says:

    Thanks for mentioning Street Smarts, folks.

    And LOL Tom — so true. You get the occasional rude honker or zoom-past-er, but most people, in Nashville at least, are quite courteous to cyclists.

  5. Jen says:

    I just started riding in my city (Victoria, BC, Canada) a few years ago, and it’s been easy cruising along neighbourhood streets, main roads and highways.

    What set me up was a free bike safety skills day-course! Half the day was in a classroom learning the rules of the road (essential!!) and the afternoon was a ride through the city with the instructor.

    Check the course out:

    Trisha — are helmets not mandatory where you live?? In BC it’s been law since the mid 90s, and the police are happy to hand out $50 tickets to anyone not wearing one!

    • Dean Peddle says:

      Jen….helmets are not even law in all of Canada. Here in Ontario it is only mandetory for those under the age of 18 to wear a helmet.

      • Jen says:

        Thanks Dean, I didn’t know that!

        I feel naked without my helmet. It makes me happy that everyone has to wear one so I don’t look like a safety-dork.

    • Trisha says:

      Nope, they’re not…at least, not if you’re over 18 (might even be younger). Wish we had a bike safety class here!

  6. yolaleah says:

    What a wonderful wonderful post. Super useful advice and I definitely intend on passing this one on.

  7. Scott says:

    As far as getting to the lakefront from wicker park, I think Armitage is best. You have a bike lane all the way to Ashland, then after the jog to cortland you have the easiest river crossing I know of and a nice easy road by the steel forge to clyborn. Then you’re back on armitage with a bike lane all the way to the park.

  8. dottie says:

    Hey Amy, I’ll meet you in your neighborhood for a ride. Scott, anyone else…? I smell group ride :)

  9. Kevin says:

    I live in Wicker Park and I’d be happy to assist in a group ride in traffic as well. Truth is I love riding in traffic.

  10. lorenza says:

    I found that going for a sunday early morning ride, if you don’t mind missing out on a lay in, was the best way to gain confidence, as there is hardly any traffic around ;) as everyone is probably still in bed!! xxx

    • Trisha says:

      Great tip! I try to take advantage of Sunday mornings (and actually, Sunday all day) when I can, too — can’t believe I forgot to mention it.

  11. Deb says:

    In addition to the other great suggestions, I’d highly recommend taking a League of American Bicyclists course.

    In my area, there are free intro courses periodically, courtesy of the local advocacy group. There are also fairly inexpensive more advanced courses. I took the intro and “road bike 1” or whatever it is called. It really helped me understand what I needed to do to be safe and how to deal with certain tricky situations. It also gave me a lot of confidence which is, I think, more than half the battle.

    If there is a local bike advocacy group, they likely would be willing to help find the best possible route to and from wherever. Not all roads are created equal, and I’ve certainly noticed that seemingly equivalent constructed roads have very different motorist attitudes! Not sure why that is.

  12. Amy says:

    Hi Everyone:
    I submitted this question, and I’m so glad to see all the great tips and advice! I’m excited to use the wee hours of Sunday morning to take on the bigger streets. Hopefully I will be up for a Wicker Park meet-up ride soon.

  13. Scott says:

    Sure, I would do a group ride. I have a friend who is also new to cycling in the cit,y and she would probably like to join too. I have seen the early Sunday morning streets a couple times, and they are nice and empty. Another good time is Sunday night from 8:30 and after. This is my bike pub crawling sweet spot.

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