What I Learned at Bike School

1.jpgTraffic Skills 101? Bikeshare 101? What are all these classes being offered to bike riders? If you’ve been riding a bike for years, would you really benefit from them? What could there possibly be left to learn? Or if you’re new to bike riding (or bike riding in a city), would these classes help you move beyond the Eastside Trail?

I discovered first-hand that these classes help you brush off old skills, break a bad habit or two, learn the latest laws, and get schooled a bit on proper etiquette and bike handling maneuvers in common city situations so that you can go more places via bike both alone and in groups safely and enjoyably. Plus, taking a class could enable you to teach others (even if it’s just your own children), and the proliferation of bike-access-for-all means that there will be many emerging opportunities for those with bike safety training to lead the way.

No time? No problem. Relay Bikeshare classes -- offered for free through a partnership including Relay Bikeshare, the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition (ABC), Atlanta Regional Commission, and PICH-- are only two hours long, and you get free bikeshare rental during the class. There are also free 30-minute drop-in classes during scheduled ABC events.

The Traffic Skills/Smart Cycling 101 class, offered through ABC by Georgia Bikes (a statewide advocacy nonprofit) is nine hours long during two weekend days so that is a bit more of a commitment. It is a prerequisite for the League of American Bicyclists’ League Cycling Instructor certification course, however, so if that is something in which you are interested, your first stop is the Traffic Skills/Smart Cycling 101 class. It’s also a class that new employees of our local bikey organizations are usually required to take as well, so if you are lucky enough to land a job riding your bike while using your professional skills, well, then you’re heading to that class. It’s offered only occasionally so keep your eye out for that.

2.jpgI recently road-tested the Traffic Skills/Smart Cycling 101 class for you (see my post, Putting Skills to the Test, if interested). To successfully complete the class, we had to pass three tests:

(a)  Mastery of about eight hazard avoidance drills (which is where I learned, without a doubt, that applying both brakes and sitting back in the saddle is the surest way to stop sharply -- most people tend to skip the part about sitting back);

(b)  A three-mile road test (I lost points for not giving five feet to parked cars to avoid the “door zone,” which is a very dangerous spot for bike riders);

(c)  A 30-question written test (I still don’t know what the right answer is to what a group of ten riders in a single file should do at a stop sign).

Other “knowledge gaps” of mine that became evident during the class include not knowing all the parts of a bike (no, the answer is never “the thingy”) and really needing a basic class in bike repair. Some REI locations in metro Atlanta offer free basic bike repair classes, so that’s a next stop for me.

Here are five tips from the class curriculum and conversations with the instructor and fellow students that have already made me a better urban bike rider, and that you may find helpful, too.


5 Tips to Be a Better Urban Bike Rider

  1. Get a bike that fits right. The bare basics: stand over the frame and make sure you can stand flat-footed while clearing it. If you are in the market for a new or used bike, take advantage of the expertise of our brilliant local bike shop friends and let them guide you toward one that fits not just your size but also the type of riding you want to do and our local conditions. (Hint: Atlanta is hilly. You need gears.)
  2.  Make sure your bike helmet fits. The straps should form a V around your ears, you should only be able to fit two fingers between your chin and the chin strap, and you should only be able to fit two sideways fingers between your eyebrows and your helmet lip. And, not to be facetious here, but also make sure you know which side is the front of the helmet. Many people out there are wearing them backwards. Just sayin’.
  3. Check your bike before you ride every single time. Do a quick ABC check (and I’m not talking Atlanta Bicycle Coalition here). Check that you have enough air in your tires (most MARTA stations have or will have air pumps), that your brakes work (if you can pull them all the way back, then they need fixin’), and that your chain and cassette (that’s the whole thingy on which the chain runs) is working smoothly (hint: if you have trouble with your chain when you switch gears, it may be stretched and need replacing).
  4. Be visible and comfortable. At a minimum, make sure you have a rear reflector all the time and both rear and front lights if you are riding after dark. That’s the law. Other than that, there’s no need for neon or lycra in city riding. In fact, a sign of a bike-friendly city is seeing people of all ages wearing regular clothes just going about their daily lives (unless it’s at night, where reflective clothing certainly helps make you more visible). You may want to think breathable fabrics, layers as the seasons change, and pant legs that don’t get stuck in the chain (or you can roll up the right one, secure it with a rubber band, or tuck it into a boot). If you ride in the rain, dress accordingly and be aware that drivers’ visibility may be impaired.
  5. Communicate clearly. This is probably the most important thing I learned in the class. Your job as a legally-allowed moving vehicle sharing the road with motor vehicles (besides following the same rules as drivers) is to put yourself in the safest spot on the road for your intentions and to be predictable. You can do this by taking the lane confidently when staying to the right would not give a motor vehicle driver enough room to pass you, by proper positioning in a left lane to show where you want to go (such as in the middle to go straight or on the left of the lane to make an upcoming left turn), and by always using hand signals to turn or stop (you’d be surprised how many times there’s a bike rider behind you all of a sudden, plus this could reduce the chances of you being “right-hooked” by a driver turning). Hint: never underestimate the positive impact of a friendly wave of thanks when a driver is clearly working with you to share the road. I also wave if I feel some aggression toward me with the hope that might reduce it a bit. It usually does.

If you are interested in taking a class, click here for the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s offerings. Consider becoming a member if you aren’t already so that good work like this can continue. And when you see fellow bike riders out there, give a nod or friendly wave. It’s little moments of connection like that in our big city that make bike riding extra nice.


Pattie Baker (aka “Sustainable Pattie”) travels at the speed of bike as much as possible and blogs at FoodShed Planet.