As triathletes and other cyclists head out on the roads this spring, safety should be their primary concern, says John Tolkamp, president of the Canadian Cycling Association. Several riders have already been killed on the roads in recent weeks. Three of six triathletes hit by a truck during a training session in Quebec died earlier this month. Only two days later, a 57-year-old man was struck by a car and killed as he rode on the shoulder of a highway in the Laurentians. Close calls happen every day, in every city across Canada. The Globe and Mail's Dave McGinn spoke to Mr. Tolkamp about cycling safety.
What are the most important elements of cycling safety people need to keep in mind as they head out on the road this spring?
You need your equipment, you need some basic bike-handling skills, you need to know and follow the rules of the road. And by that I mean you are considered a motor vehicle and you've got to understand that you act that way.
What sort of equipment should people have?
Flashing lights are great. Those things are really, really visible. Bright clothing helps. It doesn't take much. It could just be shoes being bright. Helmets are obviously a 100-per-cent necessity. Never leave home without it. And that doesn't mean strapped to your handlebars. It means strapped to your head properly. And a lot of racers don't like to do it, but I think a bell or a horn is valuable. A rear-view mirror on your bike or helmet is helpful if you're not comfortable turning around. And never ride with anything in your ears. Don't play music.
How often should people tune their bikes to make sure everything's in working order?
You should do a quick check of the brakes every ride. Make sure your tires are properly inflated. Cleaning your bike and giving it a look-over is something you should do every five to 10 rides. And if you're not experienced as a mechanic, you should have your shop take a look at it in the spring and have it checked over again in late summer.
And what sort of bike-handling skills do people need?
You've got to be comfortable looking over your shoulder without moving the bike off its line. Very often, people look over their shoulders and they tend to turn in that direction. You've got to be comfortable taking a hand off the bars so you can point and signal that you're going to be doing something.
Even though cyclists are allowed to take up a lane because they are considered a motor vehicle, cyclists rarely choose to do so. Should they do it more?
It's important to use that to your advantage from a safety perspective. Sometimes it's better to just take a full lane and make sure you're fully visible, whether it's because there's issues on the side of the road, or you're coming to an intersection, or some other reason. You can do that. Obviously you want to be courteous to drivers. You don't want to abuse that privilege and slow them up. But there are opportunities to use that to your advantage.
Do you think it's important to chart out routes before going for rides?
From a safety perspective, you want to know which routes have less traffic, where you've got less intersections, and those tend to be better riding routes anyways. If you're going out alone, someone should know where you're at. Always carry some kind of I.D. on you, because if you do get hit or are rendered unable to speak, people need to find out who you are quickly. I take a few bucks and a credit card too.
Is cycling in a group safer than going out solo?
Riding in a pack is a skill in itself, which is a challenge. You have to work up to that. But there is certainly an element of safety in numbers. It's fun, it's sociable and you learn a lot from your pack mates.
Would you say that cyclists always need to be playing defence when they're on the road?
Yes. Don't assume anybody sees you. You should always be looking well ahead, anticipating any issues that are coming up, whether that's pedestrians who don't see or hear you, or a vehicle. And it's being always predictable in how you ride. Don't make any abrupt movements. Always signal.
Have you ever been in an accident on your bike?
There's always been close calls. I actually had one on my way to the race last night. I came out of an alley and [a driver]stuck the nose of his van right into my lane. But I had been looking. I saw him. I had to take some evasive action, but I knew I had some room on my left. If I hadn't been paying attention, it would have been quite different. In terms of actually being hit by a vehicle and getting knocked down, the last that that happened I was 16 years old on my way to high school. I did actually get hit a year ago by a mirror on an SUV that went by me. Having the skills to be able to stay upright and stable kept me from crashing. He didn't even stop.