Car doors. Bold pedestrians. Uneven pavement. Distracted drivers. All of these are just a few of the many elements that stack up with the dangers of steep hills, rocks and roots of mountain biking. However, with a little know-how, your daily commute through the concrete jungle doesn't have to be a walk on the wild side.
Critical Biking Gear
The best place to start is, appropriately, the most basic. Before you ever hit the bike lanes of a congested city artery, choose a bike helmet that fits you well and you feel comfortable wearing out in public. There's no excuse for not wearing a helmet, especially since you've got a plethora of bike helmet styles to choose from today, ranging from warmer, high-protection gear to sleek, breathable helmets.
Many bike safety lights now use the latest LED technologies, which means they're easier than ever to install, maintain and use every time you ride. To put together the best lighting system, start with a front-mounted white safety light, which serves as both a way to light your path in low-light conditions as well as heightened visibility for other cars and pedestrians. If you plan to ride at night, be sure to choose a light with a brightness that is high enough to light your way.
A helmet light of at least a 100 lumens will also ensure you can see in whichever direction you look, as opposed to straight ahead. The best lighting system is completed by a red, rear-facing safety light, which may either pulse or illuminate constantly. Most often, these are attached to the seat or rear frame of the bike, but there are easily portable versions you can put on your shirt or backpack.
Raising your visibility in any way possible is one of the best preventative measures for urban bike safety. You may want to put together a strong collection of bike apparel that is not only lightweight and breathable, but is in a bright color - think neon green or hot pink. There are also jerseys available that slip over your regular clothing if you plan to commute in your work attire.
The Bike Itself
Keep in mind the type of bike you'll be riding among the city traffic everyday. If it's a bike strictly for touring or road races, you'll find it much more difficult to lift your head and remain aware - more on that later. While an upright mountain bike would certainly afford you this better visibility and awareness, keep in mind the tread and gear systems on mountain bikes may be unnecessary - or even aggravating - on a longer, paved ride.
Some of the best options may be commuter hybrid bikes. These typically have the handlebars and brake systems (V-brakes) of mountain bikes that are great for visibility and all-weather riding, but the 700cc wheel diameters typical of road bikes.
However, all the best and most appropriate gear in the world won't amount to a hill of beans if you don't employ one simple tactic: Awareness.
Know Before You Go
Undoubtedly, awareness is a key aspect when it comes to urban bike safety. This includes awareness of the big picture (your route), the immediate space around you, your capabilities, your gear's functionality and more.
One of the easiest ways to maintain focus when riding is to have a good sense of where you're going before you set out on your ride. If at all possible, take a leisurely ride on your commute to work before doing it in rush hour traffic, or when you may be distracted by what lies ahead at your job. This will give you a chance to scope out any dodgy intersections, abrupt ends to bike lanes, high-traffic areas and other factors. Once you take note of these, you'll be able to navigate these areas of the city much better than if you were going into the commute without any sense of the route.
Communicate With Everyone on the Road
Communication doesn't mean obscene hand gestures at cars that don't respect your rights as a cyclist - it means being proactive and using established hand signals to clearly communicate your intentions.
Hand signal laws differ around the country, so if you're not familiar with how to appropriately show your intentions, at the very least point in the direction you plan to turn. Don't be timid about it, either. When you signal, be bold and big, and extend your arm fully. This will make you even more visible to traffic and pedestrians.
It's also helpful - when possible - to make eye contact with drivers. For example, if you're approaching an intersection and a car arrives at the corner on your right, making eye contact will ensure the driver knows you are on your way. This, however, should be used in conjunction with all other safety measures.
Ride smart and confident
Sharing the road with cars, trucks and buses can be intimidating at first, but remember that you have rights on the road, too. That said, be sure to follow standard traffic rules, including riding in the same direction as car traffic, avoiding riding on the sidewalk, paying attention to signs and lighting your way appropriately at night.
The lack of confidence that most new urban bikers feel often leads them to stay pressed tight against the curb when a bike lane isn't available. However, this can actually create a more dangerous situation, as cars will be much more likely to pass you within the lane than pass after changing into the lane next to them. Assert your authority on the road, ride confident and always remain aware with a 360-view of your surroundings.
Lock It Up
You've managed to make it through the mean streets of your city without a single scare, but unless you plan to do it again tomorrow, invest in a good bike lock. The two safest options are impenetrable U-locks, such as those made by Kryptonite, or bulky industrial chains. However, U-locks are far easier to commute with, and Kryptonite's products have impeccable track records.
Simply put, if a standard cable lock is a part of your bike equipment, it will only keep the honest thieves away. With these types of locks, you run the risk of opportunists who have bike theft down to a science getting away with your gear in a matter of seconds. It's not worth it to risk it - invest in a powerful lock designed for the city.
Commuting through the city on your bike is one of the best ways to get around. You get exercise, you keep a low carbon footprint and you won't deal with the stress of stop and go traffic. However, if you choose this mode of transportation, be sure you have all the biking gear and basic knowledge to stay safe in the streets.
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