John Brooking rides confidently through the Congress Street interchange with I-295 in Portland.

The Benefits of Bicycle Training

I was contemplating on my bike ride home one day last week that I’ve recently completed my 13th year of bicycle commuting, and how much more confident I am about my travel now than I was, say, 10 years ago.

Early Days

Question mark on roadWhen I started, I knew just enough to basically follow the rules of the road, but it seemed that every week there was a new situation that I found myself in, or at least thought of, that I wasn’t sure how to handle. In those early days, not knowing about any kind of cycling course, I did what most of us do, I turned to the Internet. And I actually did find some good advice there, such as “the further away from the edge you ride, the better passing you get”. That was an early valuable nugget that I still find to be true today. ( Thanks, BikeForums.net! 😉 )

At some point I heard about classes from the League of American Cyclists, so I took Road I (now Traffic Skills 101), and a few years later, became a League Cycling Instructor (LCI). A few years after that, I took CyclingSavvy, which took me to yet another level.

Simplify, simplify

If this all sounds like there’s so much to learn, it’s really almost the opposite! One of the major ways I think my understanding of cycling in traffic has changed is that it seems so much simpler now than it used to! I don’t think that’s only because I’m more experienced and have had all this training. When I first started commuting, it seemed there were so many different situations to learn about, including an apparently infinite number of possible intersection configurations! It looked so complicated, contemplating it from the the edge of the road, where I thought I had to stay.

But now I think it all really comes down to behaving like the vehicle driver you are, which sometimes means leaving the edge of the road. Whatever situation you find yourself in, how would you handle it if you were driving a car? Multiple lanes at an intersection? Driving past parked cars? Yielding right of way? Turning left? Chances are, the best way to handle it on your bike is the same way as you would driving a car. Signal your turns, lane changes, and stopping, because communication to other road users is as important for you as it is for car drivers with turn signals and brake lights at their disposal. The strategies are really pretty simple, and they apply everywhere. Ninety-nine percent of situations that all seemed to call for different strategies before, now come down to a single question: Should I allow myself to be passed at this moment? That’s really it. Very simple. You choose your road position based first on your safety, and then you facilitate passing when it is safe.

Why education?

So why take training if it’s so simple? First, what is safe is not always what it appears, especially in traffic cycling. For example, some people think (or in some cases were taught) that riding against traffic is better, so you can “see them coming”. Some people stick to the sidewalk, or ride very close to parked cars to avoid moving traffic. Almost all of us stuck way closer to the edge way more of the time that we should have, when we first started riding as adults. Most bicyclists that keep at it learn better over time, but why not give yourself the benefit of other peoples’ experience rather than wait to figure it on your own? For example, I probably would have noticed over time that I got better passing distance the further from the edge I rode, but it probably saved me years of getting to that point by having someone on the Internet suggest it to me.

In CyclingSavvy, you will also pick up strategies which can help in specific situations. Most of these strategies are not absolutely necessary for your safety, but can make the trip easier and more relaxing.

But I think the biggest case for training, in the case of bicycling in traffic, is that before you can really learn how simple it can be, you may have to unlearn some “common sense” that says it is difficult. “Stay out of the road”, we are told as children. “You’ll get hit.” We carry what we were taught as children into adulthood, especially if we have no further training as we become adults. Even if you’ve been riding for a while, you may have picked up some unconscious habits that aren’t working as well as you’d like, and unlearning unsuccessful habits and beliefs is way harder than learning new ones.

We are traffic!

Paradoxically, the hardest thing to learn, and which CyclingSavvy in particular is invaluable for, is simply to believe that you can act like a real driver. In fact, unlike what most of our culture tells you, you are a real driver. Once you truly get that, you free yourself to radically simplify your traffic experience. But this is not something you generally learn just by reading, or even just by sitting in a classroom. This is a belief that can only be acquired by putting knowledge into practice, and that’s exactly the kind of experiential learning that the full CyclingSavvy sequence is designed to facilitate.

CyclingSavvy’s motto is “Empowerment for Unlimited Travel”, and it’s really true. My bicycle travel has became much simpler, more pleasant, and less frustrating than it was when I started 13 years ago. Sure, I still have occasional issues with motorists who don’t understand anything about this, but that is much less common than situations I used to find myself in, in my early days. Close passing, intersection confusion, getting trapped at the edge of the road — hardly any of that stuff happens to me anymore. Is it because of advanced techniques that are hard to learn, only for experts? No! It is because I know that I am a real driver, and I act like one. Training and experience has enabled me to have that belief and confidence, but the accompanying behavior is really pretty simple. And that has made my bicycling much easier and relaxing than it used to be, empowering me to go anywhere I want to by bike.

John Brooking rides confidently through the Congress Street interchange with I-295 in Portland.

Riding confidently through the Congress Street interchange with I-295 in Portland.

3 replies
  1. Tony
    Tony says:

    Great advice! I’ve been cycling for 8 years, but only commuting by bike for the last 3. Early on I had some of the same issues, but acting like a car, and being aware of other traffic goes a LONG way in keeping the ride smooth, either to work or fun!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Greg Hancock
    Greg Hancock says:

    Good article John, I rode three years all year in VT, 6000+ miles a year, it is tough at times, but I thoroughly agree with you about being traffic. There are still the occasional nut jobs, but confident riding and signaling are a big plus. Love me some studded tires in the winter…cheers

  3. John Aron
    John Aron says:

    Nice writeup.

    I was riding savvy when I was single digits and very pre internet (though I was first on in 1992).

    Cycling savvy and taking the lane is native to me and I’ve been doing it for years now. Simply, it’s the right thing to do. When on the road, be like a car and use the full lane.

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