The Safety Swerve

51KxlaMNpqL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click-small,TopRight,12,-30_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-87,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_-1(Warning: Nothing in this post is advice. Don’t try it at home. I mean it.)


I’ve ridden over 1,200 miles in 2013, all of which have been ridden on bicycles I purchased used for less than $600. And during those miles, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t need anything aerodynamic to help me speed up a ride. I enjoy riding too much to speed it up.

This post is about city riding — the kind I do almost exclusively these days. While my ride to work and back is primarily along neighborhood streets, greenways and designated bike lanes, I have ridden enough miles in streets during the past 18 months to lose all fear of claiming my portion of almost any street in Nashville.

And the more fear I’ve lost about riding a bicycle in the city, the more joy I’ve found from riding one. And bike-riding joy is unique among any recreational activity I’ve tried as it is the joy of having constant flashbacks to being 12 years old and discovering the sense of independence for the first time.

It took a few hundred miles for that fear-joy factor to kick in, however.

And it also took me reading a book called Just Ride, by Grant Peterson, to provide me with the framework to understand what I was sensing. I’m glad I didn’t read the book until I had spent a few hundred miles riding on city streets, however. Before that, I don’t believe I would have agreed with some his suggestions had I not come to many of the same conclusions on my own through trial and error. (There are a couple of things I still don’t agree with him on, as I still prefer wearing bicycle pants, granted under some over-sized gym shorts; and I like using cleated pedals, which he says are ridiculous for those who aren’t racing professionally.)

More than anything else, the one thing I most agree with Peterson is something that will freak out drivers (translation: everyone) when you read it. It’s his advice on the smartest thing a bicyclist can do to keep a car from running over him or her is to look like they don’t know how to ride a bike. (Much preferred over the other method: riding in the gutter.)

That means, if you’re riding on city streets, never wear road biking costumes and aerodynamic helmets. (Wear the rounded off kind like the Jimmy Johns delivery guys and I do.) In fact, look like you’ve never been on a bicycle before.

safety_swerveHere’s a quote from Just Ride that explains what I mean:

“British psychologist, cyclist, and traffic researcher Ian Walker has conducted the most extensive studies on bikes in car traffic. He says motorists give the most space to helmetless riders, women (or men who look like them), and riders in civilian clothing. According to the study, un-helmeted, casual riders don’t look like they know what they’re doing. They could be riding a bike for the first time in years…

“There is another way: the safety swerve. You’re riding down a road, glance back quickly, and notice a car bearing down. Most cyclists react by riding closer to the edge of the road. That’s what the driver wants you to do—defer to them, give them more elbow room, get the heck out of the way. Here’s another option: With the car three to four seconds behind you (it helps to have a bike mirror), wiggle a bit or swerve for an instant. Look unsteady or oblivious. Reach your left arm skyward or outward to stretch it or shake it. Your goal isn’t to freak out the driver. It’s to appear slightly unsteady on the bike and unaware that a car’s approaching, so the driver will pass you more carefully. Be aware, ride with precision, but give cars reasons to pass you with a little extra caution.

“(Petersen, Grant (2012-05-08). Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike (pp. 39-40). Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.)

In other words, if you want to be safe while riding a bicycle on the streets of a city (I can only speak first-hand about Nashville), then you should swerve out in front of people and act like you’re riding a bike for the second or third time in your life. (Peterson’s advice, not mine.)

And never, never dress up in a Tour de France uniform.

(Note & Warning: Yes, there’s a little tongue in cheek in this post. And do not try the safety swerve until you’ve practiced on a closed course with professional cyclists.)