We saw the first accident before we even reached the start of the Northwest’s most famous bike ride.
A cyclist moved to avoid a curb, and the rider behind her hit the obstacle and fell.
By the time my wife and I arrived in Chehalis on the first day of the July 13-14 Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic, we’d seen five more accidents. Three were minor, two looked pretty nasty, and we considered ourselves lucky not to have witnessed a bike-car collision near Roy.
I guess anytime 10,000 riders hit the streets together there’s bound to be a little blood, but it’s been awhile since I’ve been that nervous on the bike.
At the pace Kristen and I were traveling, a casual 14 mph, we found ourselves constantly surrounded by inexperienced cyclists. Or, as I call them, “not cyclists, but people on bikes.”
Riders regularly rode more than two abreast, didn’t call out obstacles and cars, and passed others without announcing their intentions or looking behind them. We even saw some riders wearing headphones.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing the STP. This rolling celebration of cycling is one of the Northwest’s best events. It’s a ride every cyclist should try at least once. And if you’re one of those people who makes bucket lists, the STP really needs to be near the top.
But therein lies what might be a great event’s only problem. Arguably the Northwest’s only ride that’s a household name, the STP draws droves of inexperienced and first-time riders.
And while it’s probably safe to say none of those riders is intentionally being reckless, many of them are clearly learning as they go.
I get it. I’ve been there. Before I got serious about cycling, my editors and I thought it would be a good idea to ride the STP in 2005. I grabbed my cheap, 44-pound mountain bike and labored the entire 200 miles while carrying my laptop and other gear in a backpack.
It was my first organized ride, and I had no idea I was supposed to point out potholes and curbs or tell people when I was passing. In fact, on my mountain bike, I just rolled over many obstacles the road cyclists want to avoid.
But by the time I reached Portland, I was a better cyclist. I learned hand and verbal signals by copying more experienced riders.
In the years since, I’ve ridden the STP at a faster pace, enabling me and my friends to stay ahead of the biggest packs of inexperienced riders. But after the 2009 ride, I swore off the STP, deciding I was done unless my wife or kids wanted to give it a try.
I wasn’t alone.
Veteran cyclist Bob Myrick of the Tacoma Wheelmen’s Bicycle Club stopped participating several years ago, too, saying, “It’s too dangerous.” I regularly hear this, although I still know many very talented and experienced cyclists who count the STP as an annual highlight.
There still are a number of large organized rides this summer. While these are a good way to get comfortable riding around people before signing up for a colossal ride such as the STP, you shouldn’t enter any group ride without knowing the basics:
1. NO HEADPHONES
Biking with headphones is dangerous for a number of reasons. You might think rocking out to Macklemore will motivate you to get up a big hill or help pass the time, but it also cuts down your chances of hearing the car behind you and other cyclists announcing they’re slowing or calling out obstacles such as potholes, cars and curbs.
2. USE HAND SIGNALS
In a group ride in which your view sometimes can be obstructed by the rider in front of you, signaling is very important.
One rider not pointing out a pothole can mean everybody in line suddenly gets punched in their nether regions by their bike seat. Or, potentially worse, surprised cyclists finding themselves instinctively swerving to avoid obstacles.
Signal when you’re stopping or slowing, and signal when and which way you’re turning. Myrick says cyclists also should warn others of obstacles such as curbs, potholes, glass, gravel and sudden changes in the shoulder by pointing at them.
Ever see cyclists waving a hand behind their back? They’re signalling that they’re about to cross railroad tracks.
3. USE VERBAL SIGNALS
Often hand signals should be accompanied by a verbal signal. Say “stopping” or “slowing” in addition to signaling. Call out which way you are turning. State the type of obstacle you are pointing out.
Every car approaching from behind should be welcomed with a loud “car back.” Also call “car up” for vehicles that are potential obstacles ahead.
Sometimes you won’t feel comfortable letting go of the handlebars, so make sure your verbal signals are loud enough for people to hear you.
4. KNOW THE RULES
There is perhaps nothing scarier on the road than somebody texting and driving, but no matter how many of these imbeciles you see, it’s not an excuse for cyclists to ignore the rules.
The Bicycle Alliance of Washington offers an excellent summary of the rules of the road on its website, bicyclealliance.org.
5. OVERLAP LEFT
When riding in a pace line or single file, sometimes a cyclist’s front wheel will need to overlap with the rear wheel of the cyclist in front of them.
First off, if you haven’t practiced riding in a pace line, attempting to do it with a bunch of strangers probably isn’t a good idea.
Second, if you must overlap with another cyclist, make sure you are on the left.
“The reason for this is that if the person in front of you needs to escape something, they’re most likely going to go to their right,” Myrick said.
Same goes for passing cyclists. Pass on the left.
6. BE AWARE
Don’t just be aware of what’s going on in front of you, know what’s behind you.
In a group ride, somebody is likely just inches behind you.
“A sudden movement with somebody close, and you have problems,” Myrick said. “If you suddenly stop, think about the people behind you. Verbalize what you are doing.”
It’s not always a bike behind you. Sometimes it’s a car.
You can purchase rearview mirrors for your handlebars, helmet or even sunglasses.
Enter a smaller group ride and practice riding correctly before entering larger rides. When training with friends, practice hand and verbal signals no matter how comfortable you are riding together.
The Tacoma Wheelmen’s Bicycle Club and the Capital Bicycle Club of Olympia are ideal resources for learning to ride well. Myrick also recommends tagging along on one of the 9 a.m. Saturday morning rides starting at Tacoma Bike, 309 Puyallup Ave.
The rides are led by Jim Ahrens, a former bike race official and the Tacoma Wheelmen’s current safety and education director.
SundayTour de Kitsapwestsoundcycling.com
Aug. 3-5Courage Classiccourageclassic.com
Aug. 4Ride the Hurricaneportangeles.org
Aug. 24-25Rapsody Riderapsodybikeride.com
Sept. 8Ride the South Soundcapitalbicycleclub.org
Sept. 8High Pass Challengecascade.org
Sept. 21Tour de Blasttourdeblast.com
Sept. 29Kitsap Color Classiccascade.orgCraig Hill: 253-597-8497 firstname.lastname@example.org thenewstribune.com/fitness @AdventureGuys