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COLUMNS The Bike Madame

Be Seen And Heard

Bike shirtStanding out may not be everyone’s favorite thing, but it’s essential when you’re a cyclist on roads designed for and occupied by larger, higher-speed vehicles. This truth finds its most tragic illustration in cycle-auto accidents where a motorist protests, “But I didn’t see the bicycle!” Being pilloried by second-grade classmates for wearing that beer-can-and-crochet vest sure wasn’t fun, but you want to shine forth on the road. Even if you don’t ride a double-height mutant bike, you need to be brightly lit and sonically equipped.

Bike lights come in two basic types: the ones that enable others to see you and the ones that allow you to see the road under the cover of darkness. If you ride on well-lit streets, you need only the first kind. If you ride on rural roads with minimal illumination, you need both. I ride with a 250 lumen front light (about as bright as a headlight), which reveals gravel and grit ahead as if it were daylight.

By law, cyclists riding at night need a white front light and a red rear light, both of which can be seen from at least 500 feet away. I prefer multiple rear lights, each with its own position (near your seat, on your rear rack, etc.) and flashing pattern. Check your batteries before hopping on; lights can fade out mid-ride and you won’t realize you’ve suddenly become the Invisible Cyclist. Some lights fasten to your axles so they flash every time the wheels turn (no batteries required), but they can get loose and rattle around, making you sound like an oncoming train (tighten before leaving your station). Be sure your lights aren’t blocked by bags on racks and other obstacles.

Bright, reflective clothing is crucial for rain, fog, and darkness. Water-resistant clothing designed for bicycling usually has reflective components in the right spots, but consider whether items like a backpack will cover them. (Recumbent riders, be aware that these items are designed for upright bikes; your seat may hide the reflective tape on the back of a jacket.) Clever accessories such as reflective or battery-powered flashing ankle bracelets keep baggy pants at bay and get you noticed.

Auditory recognition aids are most helpful for alerting pedestrians and other cyclists to your presence. Although I still ring my bike bell at unaware motorists emerging from parking lots, the combination of road noise, being enclosed, and the radio can conspire to mute that tinny sound. Some cyclists resort to loud horns, with the ultimate in sonic blasts being an air horn-like device fueled by a bike pump. (It might end up startling you more than the motorist, though.) Elders are more accustomed to bike bells than someone shouting “Oh your left!” However, some have high-frequency hearing loss, hence the attractiveness of a bell with a deeper tone. I’ve heard everything from cowbells to retro “oogah” horns. The one thing you don’t want is to rely on your squeaky chain or other untended components to notify others of your imminent arrival.

Being seen and heard extends beyond the road itself. Whenever community meetings touch upon road design and maintenance, a cycling contingent needs to make its presence felt to ensure that new or expanded transportation corridors take the non-motorized population into account. I’ve found community planners to be open to pedestrian and cycling concerns, and a positive attitude and focus on safety can win over avowed non-cyclists. That SUV-driving politician might even dust off the 1960s clunker and roll up behind you…with a flashlight and a doorbell tied onto the handlebars.