Don't hit the pedals until you brush up on bicycle safety

Bicyclists are taking to the streets in record numbers in search of exercise, transportation or just a dose of sunshine.

More bikes lead to safer conditions for bicyclists, says Chris Clark, an instructor trained by the League of American Bicyclists.

“The more bikes there are in the streets, the fewer incidents there are of crashes,” Clark says.

State law and cycling etiquette teach that cyclists should use the road just like a car or truck.That means they should follow all rules of the road but also expect respect from drivers.

“We try to teach people to be hyper-vigilant and very defensive in their riding skills and only ride at their comfort level,” Clark says.

This winter Clark began offering bicycle safety classes through BREC, the East Baton Rouge Parish parks system, teaching cyclists young and old to take their proper place on the street. Here are his tips for safer rides:

Before the ride

Before throwing a leg over your bike, make sure it’s working properly.

Clark teaches the acronym ABC to remind cyclists to check: A, for air in the tires; B, for brakes; and C, for the chain.

The writing on the tire’s sidewall provides the maximum air pressure it can hold.

“If you don’t pump up your tires — you want them to feel really hard — you’re going to go slow and they’re going to be squishy,” Clark says.

For the chain, rotate the pedals and shift gears, listening for noise from the chain and the cranks — the arms that connect the pedals to the bike frame.

“If there are any sounds coming from there, any creaking or squeaking or mis-shifting, then get those checked out,” Clark says.

Last, ensure the brakes can stop the bike. According to state law, the brakes must be able to bring the bike to a skidding stop.

Dress to be seen

Proper bicycling attire doesn’t just include tight black shorts and garish tops.

The best cycling clothing helps drivers see you from a distance, says Clark, who often wears what he calls “don’t hit me green” — a bright neon that increases visibility.

In the afternoon, children should change from their navy and khaki school uniforms — colors seen in nature — into “something more bright and vibrant.”

Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, shadows can easily hide a bicycle, so Clark prefers to ride with lights attached to his bike.

“I want space ships to be able to see me like a landing strip,” he says. “Lots of lights.”

Helmets are essential, Clark says, but many riders wear them incorrectly. To ensure your helmet fits correctly, tighten the chin strap so the helmet won’t slide forward in a crash. Many new riders push the helmet back on their heads, but a helmet should cover part of the forehead, with the front no more than two finger widths above your eyebrow.

Defensive riding

On the road, state law says cyclists must ride as far to the right “as practicable.”

“That means they should ride far enough away from the curb that they have room to dodge any obstacles they may see,” explains Clark.

Although riding three to five feet from the curb feels dangerous, it is safer because of the trash and poor road conditions near the road’s edge.

“If you assert yourself in traffic, it takes a lot of practice, it takes a lot of confidence,” he says. “It makes a big difference because people have to treat you like traffic.”

Be alert

Continually scan the road in front of you and occasionally look back while riding.

“It’s the same thing you would be doing if you were driving defensively,” Clark says. “You always want to be aware.”

In a parking lot or on a quiet street, practice keeping the bike straight while glancing over your shoulder, he advises.

Hand signals help drivers anticipate bicyclists’ turns.

“We don’t have blinkers, and we don’t have brake lights on our bikes,” Clark says, “so we have to say, ‘Hey, person in a steel cage, we’re about to do something.’”

Before turning, point where you plan to go. Use your right hand for right turns and your left for left turns. In the past, cyclists learned to only use their left hands for all signals.

“It’s a lot easier for people to understand,” Clark says. “They don’t have to be taught the proper hand signals. (Drivers) understand intuitively.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Jan. 27, 2014 to note that bicycle riders should ride as far to the right as practicable on roads shared with cars and trucks, not to the left.