Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: Protecting Yourself

I never really thought much about self-defense on a bicycle until the first time I got attacked by a dog.

I was tooling along happily on a quiet back road when all of the sudden a growling ball of teeth and anger was snapping at my front wheel. I hopped off and put the bike between me and the canine, using the frame to shove him away every time he made a lunge at my legs. While the dog in question wasn't particularly huge, he certainly looked willing and able to take a chunk out of my lycra-clad posterior. It was mildly frightening and really, really, REALLY annoying. Eventually, the dog's owner heard the commotion (by this point cars traveling in both directions were blocked by the spectacle, and horns were a-blaring) and came to my rescue. "He won't hurt you," she assured me in spite of all evidence to the contrary, "he's just curious." Eventually she managed to corral the critter and I was able to carry on my way, by that point my my mood was ruined and I took the short route home.

I heard later that the very same dog had indeed taken chunks out of cyclists before, and in one case managed to leave some permanent scarring. This being a fairly rural area not a lot was done about it and I learned to avoid that particular stretch of road whenever possible. I did take to carrying a small can of pepper spray on rides through farm country and ended up using it on another dog on one occasion.

In my many years of riding, mostly alone and through all sorts of places, I've had very few occasions to be afraid, but it has happened, either from barely-domesticated animals, irate drivers or a carload of drunk idiots looking to bully someone. And I'm a 6'3" Wookie-looking dude, not a prime target for any sort of harassment.

Let me say, for the record, bicycling is a pretty safe way to get around. Most of the bad things I dealt with happened out in the middle of nowhere, when I was riding by myself through isolated areas, and they mostly happened more than ten years ago, when cycling was even more marginal a means of transportation than it is now. On balance, the health benefits of riding far outweigh any risks of misadventure.

But, the fact remains that when it's just you on a bicycle, you ARE more vulnerable than you are when encased in a two-ton steel box. So what can you do to make yourself safer, or at least feel safer?

Well, when Thomas Stevens made the first-ever around-the-world bicycle trip, he brought a revolver with him, and had occasion to brandish it to ward off would-be attackers. But he made that trip in the 1880s, in the time of the actual Wild West, and he never actually used it while he was in America, except to try unsuccessfully to bag the occasional rabbit for dinner.

There are certainly those who advocate carrying a firearm while riding, either openly or concealed on your person, but I'm not one of them. I don't have any particularly strong feelings on guns personally, but I feel like being responsible for a firearm would add an entirely unwelcome level of complexity to what should be a simple bike ride (for one, I live in a state with very restrictive firearms laws, it's not worth the hassle). Maybe if I tended to ride in different circumstances, I might change my mind, but it's never come up, really. Generally, I've noticed the types of folks who bring a handgun along on bike rides are the types who bring guns with them everywhere else, and are just comfortable carrying guns. If that's you, go right ahead, as long as it's within the limit of local laws.

For what it's worth, while you hear news stories every now and then of drivers with handguns flipping out and and shooting at each other in fits of road rage, I can't think of ever hearing of a cyclist with a gun doing the same, so there's that.

For the rest of us, though, there are other ways to be protect ourselves. The first weapons in any cyclists arsenal are speed and maneuverability. On a bike you can go way faster than a person on foot, and you can go places that cars can't follow. Also, riding with a buddy on long treks through the middle of nowhere and carrying a mobile phone, both of which tactics are also helpful in the cases of crashes, breakdowns and sudden severe weather, where a handgun will be of no use whatsoever.
Of course, your iPhone may not be helpful in all riding conditions
I admit, after my run-in with that dog, I made a point of bringing a small can of pepper spray along on long solo rides, just in case. I stopped doing so when I moved out of that area, and haven't bothered with carrying anything other than a fairly substantial bike lock (yes, you can whack someone with a U-lock if you have to, no, I've never tried it). If you do feel the need to carry something extra for protection, pepper spray has the advantages of being lightweight, cheap and free from the licensing and carry restrictions that come with a handgun, so it's not a bad choice.

My feeling, overall, is that careless drivers, road hazards and slippery curves are the real dangers to bicyclists, and common sense and a well-planned route are the best self-defense you can get.

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