decoding black arts, like using trailers and savvy cycling

A Little Instruction Really Changes Things

How are you at backing up with a trailer on your car? If you’re like many people, you haven’t had reason to do so, and thus find the idea daunting.

It seems like a black art to many, based on the reactions I’ve gotten from people when I backed trailers into narrow spaces.

Decoding the black arts of trailers and savvy cycling.

My wife, Jenn, was going on a road trip with my sister. One of several things they planned to accomplish involved moving some things that won’t fit in or on our car. Rather than rent a truck for the whole trip, renting a trailer made sense, since it could be picked up close to the first house and dropped off close to the second.

It made sense to me, but not to Jenn.

Jenn didn’t feel comfortable maneuvering a trailer in close quarters, and especially didn’t feel good about having to back up with a trailer, after an unpleasant experience she had a few years ago.

Why is this related to savvy cycling, you ask? Read on.

I’m pretty good with trailers, having done a LOT of backing up with them in various occupations (tow truck driver, airport tug driver, bicycle trailer user). I figured that with a couple of short sessions, Jenn would gain confidence in her ability to navigate in tighter quarters than she had thought herself able to manage before.

Since we’re both CyclingSavvy instructors, we know the value of parking lot drills. It’s important to have a quiet place to develop and practice a skill before venturing out on actual roads and using the skill “in the real world.”

With that in mind, we rented a trailer the same size as the one they’d be using for the trip, and headed to a mall parking lot to practice.

I started with basic rules:

  • Always turn wider than you think you need to turn, since the trailer tracks a different turn radius. There’s an interactive video in the CyclingSavvy web site about big trucks and how the trailer follows through a turn
  • Second: Plan your backing up for best visibility; plan for your blind spots. To get the trailer to change path relative to the car, turn the wheel opposite what you think you need to turn (THIS way instead of THAT way)
  • Lastly, it’s not a failure to pull forward to realign the trailer or start again
decoding black arts, like using trailers and savvy cycling

“How do you drive these things?”

Then I set up easy exercises: Back up guiding on a particular line in the parking lot, trying to keep things straight. Start to turn, and learn when you can and cannot straighten out without pulling forward to do so.

practice with trailers

“Hey! That wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be!”

Then I had her back into a marked parking slot from the aisle, to simulate backing into a driveway from the street. After she did a couple of those, I had her pull into a parking slot, then back to the parking slot to the left of the one directly behind her, to gain confidence in directional control.

After a while, she was doing quite well. She had improved tremendously.

The next day we had family visits to do, so Jenn drove with the trailer. When we got to my folks’ house, she backed into the driveway, for practice and to prove to herself that she could. She did it easily! A little while later, she took the opportunity to practice in her parents’ driveway. She did even better, in a narrower driveway! And, yes, it was easy to see how much more confidence she had in her ability to back with a trailer, a thing that many people find a daunting task.

The analogy?

A lot of people find the idea of using bicycles instead of their cars daunting. With a few good pointers from experienced people (like CyclingSavvy instructors), and a little practice (CS Train Your Bike and Tour sessions), much of the mystery is solved.

CyclingSavvy helps people learn how traffic works, and how to participate in the existing system to get what we need through planning, courtesy, and mindfulness.

Jenn’s confidence in her ability to back up with a trailer attached to the car improved through a few brief exercises. She knows that she can go places using a trailer, which enables her to carry stuff with the car that she might not have been comfortable carrying before.

Similarly, you can become a safer, happier, more confident cyclist by attending a CyclingSavvy workshop and using what you learn. A little bit of focused experiential learning and a little bit of practice with new skills will help you realize why the tag line is Empowerment for Unlimited Travel.

And if you’re in my hometown of Louisville, look me up. I’ll be glad to show you how to do some real hauling with your bike.

sofa hauled by bike

Bill (not in this picture–Tom was using Andy’s trailer, so he’s there beside Tom, wearing his helmet) truly appreciated Tom hauling his sofa and several boxes of books, under plastic to protect from the rain

Hauling more by bike than by car

When I worked at a bike shop, I could haul more cardboard on my trailer than the store owner could in his minivan. This load weighed about four hundred pounds

Hauling barrels by bike

These 55-gallon barrels won’t fit in my car, not at the same time

bulky load by bike trailer

We had to dispose of an old mattress and box spring set. It was easier to haul it with my bicycle than with a car

dogs traveling in roomy bike trailers

Our basset hounds, Wilbur and Orville, always want to go with us, however we travel

5 replies
    • John Brooking
      John Brooking says:

      And has very low gears!

      I’ve got a Surly Bill trailer, which is rated up to 300 lbs, but there’s no way I would be able to pull that with my standard-geared commuting bike. I’ve found it’s exhausting enough to be impractical over about 100 lbs, especially with the moderate hills we have here in Maine. Apparently I’ll have to do something about gearing to be able to use this trailer to capacity.

  1. Harold A. Karabell
    Harold A. Karabell says:

    One shouldn’t discount Tom’s ability to haul extraordinary loads up even challenging grades!

    In any case, the photographs document a most impressive and inspiring achievement, flat roads or otherwise.

    And it’s a genuine pleasure to see someone who doesn’t live in either Brooklyn, Seattle, or “Portlandia” and isn’t under 30 (the usual suspects where such images are concerned) hauling such remarkable cargo. :-)

  2. John Schubert
    John Schubert says:

    Tom, you’ve made an important point. Most of us just jump in and hope for the best. Practicing with the trailer in a parking lot? Most people wouldn’t think to do that. They’d just crunch a few sidewalk curbs while learning on the go. What we teach is unusual because we teach skill building like this. The concept applies to many walks of life beyond riding a bike and towing a trailer.
    P.S. I still say it’s too hilly here (grades up to 22%) to tow a whole darn bed behind my bike.


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