Cycling in suburbia is hard. It’s harder if you’re stupid. There are plenty of things that can ruin the pleasure of your ride, injure you, or flat-out kill you. I have long maintained that suburban cycling is the most dangerous type of cycling there is. As a public service, I offer the following field guide to successfully navigating one of suburbia’s most common cycling features: the mixed-use pathway. I have learned most of these lessons the hard way. I encourage you to learn from my mistakes as it will take you way too long to make them all yourself.
While traveling on mixed-use pathways, you will encounter many unusual and exciting things. Most of them will probably not be trying to kill you. Still, Death surely waits for you as a sort of mildly interested bystander, waiting for a unique set of circumstances to arise whereupon he will take a more active interest in your situation. Below are some of the more common issues which you will confront. Good luck and God Bless.
Poseurs. Poseur is a French word, so you should already be on heightened alert for trouble. These are cyclists who believe they are riding in the Tour de France (or may do so one day) when in fact the closest they will come to any race is their television set or perhaps as a bystander. Their inflated sense of self-worth causes them to use public pathways as their personal time trial track. They treat other people on the pathway with the derision and callous indifference one would give to a squirrel, ant, or other animal of little consequence (NOTE: see Animals section below). This is their world and you are living in it.
What To Look For. Sadly, many poseurs attack from behind with little or no warning. A microsecond before they overtake you at 20+ mph on a narrow and winding path with a woman walking a baby stroller to your front and a skateboarding kid to your rear, you will hear “ON YOUR LEFT!” at which point you are expected to dive into the nearest ditch or allow yourself to come within a hairbreadth of the cyclist, who will split the seam between you and any other nearby person with a few millimeters to spare. You can more easily identify poseurs as they approach you. Look for their determined aero-tuck riding style and the incredible exertion they are expending as they squeeze out the next 0.1 mph of velocity. If you are fortunate, you will see them carve up an innocent person on the path in front of you and will be able to take proper precautions. Under no circumstances, overtake someone on the path when a poseur is within sight. If you are about to overtake someone, look behind you to ensure a guided missile isn’t flying by at that precise instant. Collisions with poseurs will be violent and you will find the poseur to be extremely arrogant and unapologetic. Fortunately for humanity, poseurs do not like riding on pathways and will stay on roads unless extreme conditions force them to do otherwise.
Full Disclosure: Your author occasionally takes on the attributes of a poseur. I am aware of my problem and am getting help.
Joggers. Joggers view cyclists the way cyclists view cars – they drive too fast for the conditions and regularly try to force them off the road. Poseurs go a long way to reinforcing this stereotype. Joggers wish cyclists would just get off the pathway and use the road with about the same intensity that drivers wish cyclist would just get off the road and use the pathways. The good news is that joggers are slow-moving creatures that are usually easily to avoid. The bad news is that they are usually quite fatigued and consequently have poor reactions and judgment skills. Their fatigue causes them to forget where they are and make unexpected movements that cause you to collide with unfortunately violent consequences.
What To Look For. When approaching a jogger, look at his ears. Are there earphones? If so, assume the individual is lost in his own world and completely oblivious to your existence. He will not hear your bell, friendly “Hello!” or any other attempt at communication. Slow down and treat him like a deaf mute. You should be ok. You can also determine the presence of earphones by an armband which holds the runner’s mp3 player. The next thing to look for is the tell-tale gesture of looking at his watch. This is what joggers do when they reach their turnaround point and are interested to know what their split time is. Shortly after looking at the watch, the jogger (without looking, of course) will conduct a U-Turn and will suddenly find himself face to face with you, the innocent cyclist hoping to pass him without incident. This maneuver is known as a “Crazy Ivan,” a reference to a submarine tactic in the movie, The Hunt For Red October. When combined with earphones, it is a particularly dangerous activity.
Walkers. See these happy people? See how they are spread out all over the walkway, some hand-in-hand, lost in nature’s splendor and oblivious to anyone who may be nearby? These are common characteristics of walkers, who are not necessarily using the path to get somewhere. The path is where they want to be; they are soaking up the sights and sounds and aren’t terribly concerned about issues attendant to sharing the path with others. Joggers and Cyclists jar Walkers out of their reverie and this is quite upsetting to them. Fortunately, they are extremely slow and the cyclist’s only concern is their propensity for sudden darting movements as their fancy causes them to look in another direction, hug a partner or playfully chase a child.
What To Look For. In daylight hours, this is a relatively simple challenge for the cyclist. Walkers tend to not wear earphones so it is easier to get their attention, assuming you can shout over their casual conversation. Usually, they are eager to gather themselves up and happily apologize for being in your way. The main concern is during hours of darkness, when they continue to occupy pathways for evening strolls. Sadly, they usually do not see the need to wear any reflective clothing and you may find yourself rapidly approaching these folks as they appear out of the darkness. No daydreaming during night rides, (if you’ll pardon the expression). You’ll never know when you’ll happen upon one of these people. Also be advised that walkers may have dogs with them (see Animals section below).
Animals. Bikes are quiet and quite fast. This allows you to sneak up on all sorts of creatures who are used to looking for cars and people, but not people on bikes. Almost all animals freeze when you initially startle them on the side of the path. Larger animals, like deer, seem to recover reasonably well and bolt off to nearby safety. The flight or fight reflex in smaller animals (like squirrels and cats) is less developed and is prone to malfunction. They’ll dart in one direction, then change their mind and head in the opposite direction. Another important thing to consider is that small creatures do not seem to appreciate the fact that your wheel is supported by several rapidly turning spokes and view the seemingly-empty space around your tires as a good spot to dart to. This can have an unfortunate effect on you, your brakes, and especially the squirrel, as Rev Rider can attest to.
A Special Note On Dogs. Dogs are out there – have a plan. I have determined during impromptu field tests that a Doberman can run over 17 mph for short distances. Most dogs on the path are happily leashed to an owner. You must quickly size up how much leash the owner has given the dog, how much control the owner appears to have over the dog, and how aggressive the dog is. I recommend erring on the side of caution. Dogs can be found with walkers as well as joggers, though the dogs with joggers tend to be tired and not much threat.
Side Streets. Nothing you will encounter on a mixed use pathway is more dangerous than a side street. Consider the picture to the right, which probably appears to most people to be a rather boring intersection of a side street and a divided roadway. It actually is a death trap, full of unsafe and contradictory markings, including:
- A white stop line painted beyond the crosswalk, meaning the car won’t stop until it has run you over.
- A stop sign for pathway users on one side of the side street, but not for users coming the other way.
- And what’s up with a stop sign in front of a crosswalk? I thought people in the crosswalk at an intersection with no light automatically have the right of way. Apparently you don’t get the right of way until you stop and give traffic the right of way. Then you have it. Whatever.
The point is that the markings are not helpful and actually invite problems. Cars come roaring up the side street, their attention focused on merging with traffic on the busier main road. They are not looking for you, dear cyclist. Drivers tend to break hard and late, meaning when they hit you they will still be doing about 20 mph with their 2 ton vehicle. Good times. To add to the fun we have the occasional police officer with an axe to grind who is only too happy to write a ticket for a moving violation for violating the nonsensical stop-only-when-going-this-way-before-entering-the-crosswalk stop sign. These cops are rare but trust me, they’re out there. Thus every cyclist must make a decision when coming to one of these bazaar spots: follow the dumb sign or apply common sense? Good luck.
Intersections. These are pretty straightforward, but I will point out that it is here that cyclists often earn their bad reputation for being scofflaws. Be a good cyclist and set the example – no running red lights, stopping in the middle of the intersection, trying to do track stands, or any of the other silly thing cyclists do. Also, be advised that drivers can be a little absent-minded and not notice that a light is red, especially on long suburban roads like the one pictured. I generally wait to make sure the approaching cars are slowing before entering the crosswalk. That way I can be reasonably assured I won’t be hit by a car going 55 mph.
I hope this field guide is a useful tool for you, dear cyclist, should you choose to brave the roads of suburbia. Good luck and good cycling!