Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Competitive Commuting

Real bike racing is hard, dangerous and exhilarating. It’s also expensive. It’s hard to stay active in the sport. But the lessons learned there transfer very well to transportation.

In a bike race, a whole lot of vehicles of similar capability charge around a course, shooting for the same objectives. There we all are, jostling and elbowing, attacking and counterattacking. Everyone wants to win. Someone’s bound to go down.

On the street, you’re not competing as directly. Believe it or not, you are safer in traffic than you are in a bike race. Racing motorized behemoths, the bike has the advantage in agility. We all know the car is bigger, faster and stronger, so we’re not competing on that basis. That leaves the cyclist free to work to his (or her) strengths without worrying about the ultimate test of power one frequently faces in a race.

Sporty cornering and strong climbing are good traffic skills. Strength barely adequate to even the amateur peloton will still surprise the motoring public with your ability to hang in there. You will have more confidence and enjoy the ride more if you take a bit of a racing attitude, filtered through a sense of humor and humility. Practice those handling skills.

Read the traffic to decide where you should be. When the cars are stopped or crawling, you can move up beside or between them, but resist the temptation to lord it over them by zipping by in a blur. They’re big, unpredictable creatures that could fling out an appendage without warning. Observe how they fill the lane. Use the spaces available, left, right and center, to ease forward, ready at any moment to stop or turn.

When your comfortable cruising speed matches traffic speed, take the lane and work with the vehicles around you.

Pilot Fish Technique takes a tip from the fish of the same name, a stripy little guy that accompanies big sharks. The pilot fish rides the shark’s pressure waves to save energy (drafting) and uses the space other creatures give the big fish to slip by unmolested. Just remember not to get bitten by your own protector, and don’t fall off the pressure wave.

The cyclist pilot fish rides near the bigger vehicle, usually off one rear corner. It’s actually better if the driver does not know you’re there, because most drivers don’t know how to be helpful to a cyclist anyway. Really, the best thing they can do is drive as if you weren’t there, because you are completely responsible for your own safety. Watch their brake lights and turn signals, but remember bulbs maybe burnt out and the driver may swerve without a signal. You have to decide for yourself whether you and your shark are traveling at a safe speed.

The shark can lead you through intersections, avoiding the danger of someone yanking a left turn in front of you. You can use the shark as cover for your own left turns, if you find one going your way.

Avoid riding right next to your shark, where you can’t see its signal lights and you can’t get away from a sudden turn or an abrupt dive into a parking space.

At higher speeds, use the column of moving air created by traffic to get at least a partial draft. Confirmed car chasers can draft tightly behind motor vehicles, but the danger here is obvious. Big, boxy vehicles pull the most air. Loaded trucks are less likely to stop abruptly. Just give at least a passing thought to all the things that could go wrong before tucking yourself into the pocket for a little steel surfing. Some piece of debris could come shooting out from under that truck’s rear axle and be the last thing you see before you drive your face into the pavement.
It’s wicked fun, though. Woof woof.

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