Living

Workshop helps this nervous cyclist face her fear

Julia Hickey, center, bikes through the busy intersection of South Higuera and South Street as she goes through a Bike Confidence training course with Dan Rivoire, right, and Leslie Bloom of the SLO County Bike Coalition. 
Photo by Joe Johnston 10-20-10
Julia Hickey, center, bikes through the busy intersection of South Higuera and South Street as she goes through a Bike Confidence training course with Dan Rivoire, right, and Leslie Bloom of the SLO County Bike Coalition. Photo by Joe Johnston 10-20-10 Tribune

I see them everywhere: the early morning bike groups relaxing in spandex over espressos, the hipsters rolling effortlessly on vintage bikes, the college students saving gas by pedaling to class — and I feel a sad mixture of jealously and admiration.

Because I’m afraid of cycling.

Blame it on the nerve-inducing story of my friend who was car-doored, or public safety campaigns that equate helmet-less riding with certain death.

To address my woes, I turned to professionals: Dan Rivoire and Leslie Bloom of the SLO County Bicycle Coalition, a non-profit whose advocacy efforts and programs promote safe, frequent biking countywide.

They led me through a Bike Confidence Workshop, a program organized by the coalition and funded by the City of San Luis Obispo. The workshop taught me that my fear of cycling — though not uncommon — may be built on false assumptions.

First, if I ride a bike, a car will hit me.

While that is not impossible, statistics provided by the Coalition suggest that only 18 percent of accidents occur between a vehicle and a cyclist, and only half of those are the driver’s fault. Nearly half of all accidents do not involve a car at all — and are instead caused by a bicyclist losing control.

Many accidents can be prevented with practice, so the workshop took us to a parking lot to warm up.

As I practiced looking behind me without swerving, braking suddenly with stability, and maneuvering instantly around rocks, I began to feel more in control.

But greater fears still lingered, so we took to the road to confront another assumption: that streets are for cars.

The concept of “vehicular cycling,” or “driving your bike like a car,” said Bicycle Coalition executive director Rivoire, is both wise practice and an explicit right for cyclists in the vehicle code. Bicyclists should keep to the right when practicable, but if the lane isn’t wide enough to comfortably share with a motorist, bicyclists can do what I would never before have dared: take the lane.

Rivoire said, “You might feel vulnerable but in fact you are more safe vehicles respect you more because you are demanding it. It’s obvious what you are doing.”

As we rode carefully through busy intersections like Broad and South, down Higuera and Marsh, signaling to merge from bike lanes over to left-turn lanes, looking drivers in the eye before turning, and keeping with the flow of traffic, I was amazed how drivers accommodated our presence. They slowed behind us, made right turns beside us, and even gave us the right of way.

I realized my fear of cycling has come from nervous experiences and near-collisions with unpredictable cyclists who weren’t practicing vehicular cycling — those who popped on and off the sidewalk, hugged the curb on narrow streets or rode the wrong way in bike lanes.

Riding predictably with Rivoire and Bloom, I relaxed enough to remember what as a kid I loved about biking: the sensation of flying through space, the bit of sweat and burn in the legs that signals real work, and the feeling that you could go anywhere, do anything.

Maybe I’ll see you on the road.

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