Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series directed mostly toward beginners. The introductory article covered checking the bicycle for safety, and each article links to the next. So far we’ve covered lights, rear-view mirrors, and bells. Lights are required by law at night. Mirrors, and in most places, bells, are optional equipment.
Optional Equipment: Policy and Good Sense
The American Bicycling Education Association requires that everyone wear a helmet in its on-bike sessions, but makes no policy statements about any legally-optional equipment. Such statements can do as much harm as good. Convenience (“just hop on the bike”) can be at odds with having to manage equipment and change in and out of special clothing. Expense may be a concern.
So: You decide what measures you will adopt to improve your comfort and safety, beyond what the law requires. Generally, longer rides merit more preparation, as comfort takes on more importance. The special clothing that recreational and racing cyclists wear isn’t just for show. But some options apply to any ride.
Bright & Tight
There’s no doubt that some colors show up better than others. Although bright-colored clothing is optional — and no substitute for lights at night — it can’t hurt. Retroreflective surfaces on your clothing or on accessories such as panniers are even more helpful to a driver whose headlights are shining on you.
When I talk to kids about bike safety, I sometimes ask for a show of hands: “How many of you have ever gotten your shoelace caught in the chain?” There are always a few.
This is the meaning of “tight”: Make sure you don’t have any loose straps or clothing dangling, especially if your bicycle doesn’t have a chainguard. I like to take care of long shoelaces by tucking the extra length into the sides of my shoes.
You can roll up long pant legs, or secure them with rubber bands or straps, or tuck them into your socks. You must wear long socks to allow this. Some people think this is dorky, but it is super convenient, and only the socks ever get chain stains.
Many pedals lack retroreflectors. Reflectorized legbands not only substitute for these, but also are visible from the sides.
Secure any hanging strings or straps from backpacks or panniers. Do not dangle baggage from the handlebar, where it risks getting caught in the spokes of the front wheel.
Those who wear dresses can tuck extra material under the saddle, or use this cool trick to make the skirt into faux pants with a penny and a rubber band. Some European-style bikes eliminate this issue with a full chainguard as well as a “skirt guard” over the rear wheel, but these are not common in North America.
Wear a helmet?
In the Five Layers bike safety model, a helmet is included in the last layer, “Injury Reduction.” Protective equipment helps only when all the previous safety layers have failed.
Your chances of needing a helmet are pretty low on any given trip, especially if you follow all the other safety advice. But the consequences can be dire if you hit your head without a helmet. Many cyclists have stories of crashes in which they feel their helmet saved their life. I have had less severe crashes, thankfully, but I have had a few solo falls in which my helmet tapped the ground. It happens.
In North America, most states require a helmet for children and younger teens, but it is optional for adults. Should you choose to wear a helmet, make sure that it’s certified by the U. S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission, CPSC. (If you want a deep dive into geekiness, here’s the CPSC’s technical document on the subject.) Replace your helmet every few years, when it has begun to deteriorate, and of course whenever it’s involved in a crash. There is little difference in effectiveness between the better inexpensive helmets and a $200 helmet with all the latest features — though weight, ventilation and appearance vary. For comparisons, check out the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s reviews.
Helmet fit and adjustment
A helmet needs to be snug on your head. It must be level on your forehead, not pushed back. The strap must be snug under your chin. The ear straps should come together just under your earlobes.
Two easy ways to remember helmet fit are the “two finger test”, and the “eyes, ears, and mouth” test.
- Eyes: Your helmet should come down on your forehead about two fingers’ width above your eyebrows.
- Ears: Each ear strap should come together just under and slightly in front of your ear, as if you were making a letter V with your fingers under it.
- Mouth: The strap should be just tight enough to fit a finger (or two side-by- side) between the strap and your chin. When you open your mouth, you should feel the strap tighten.
A helmet may have a visor — helpful when the sun is low, and at night. Even without one, your helmet can help block glare if you tilt your head down. And as described in a previous article, a helmet is a convenient place to hang a rear-view mirror.
Footwear: So many options
Open-toed shoes can really mess up your toes in a crash. Insecure footwear like flip-flops can also impair your control of the bike, if they slip around or fall off while you’re riding.
Different shoes work best with different kinds of pedals:
- Rubber soles are slippery when wet on pedals with smooth metal platforms, but fine on pedals with teeth that grip.
- Leather and hard plastic soles slide around on anything other than rubber-block pedals.
- Toeclips and straps work well with most athletic shoes, but can leave marks on the uppers — not good for your fancy shoes.
- Clipless pedals need special shoes with cleats. Beginner cyclists do better to postpone foot retention. Learning how to safely use clipless pedals on roads and trails is a skill in itself.
Gloves increase comfort and avoid injury if you break a fall with your hand — and not only injury to the hand. You’ll be more willing to put your palm down if you know that the pavement will not sandpaper it.
Gloves are not only last-resort passive safety equipment, either. At night, a glove with a reflectorized back makes a super blinking turn signal for drivers behind you. Just stick out your arm and turn your wrist back and forth. Many gloves and mittens have reflectorized patches; few fingerless bicycling gloves do, though you can add reflective tape yourself.
In the next post in this series, we move on from equipment to riding technique.