Cresting a rise thick with rush-hour traffic on Eager Road in Brentwood, our six-pack of pedalers stops at the intersection just short of South Hanley. We look at each other and smile and joke, not so nervous as when we’d first started this excursion more than an hour earlier. As commuters, this stretch of asphalt is familiar terrain, though normally we’re looking out from the protective, anonymous shell of a car, truck or bus. Today is different, much different. We’re touring midtown St. Louis on bicycles during the busiest time of day to practice the principles we learned in two previous CyclingSavvy educational sessions.
“We’re going to loop around the cloverleaf and merge onto Hanley, then follow that to Clayton, turn right, and ride up to St. Mary’s,” says our instructor, Karen Karabell, like we’re casually planning a route on Google Maps. On this weekday, however, we couldn’t be more exposed — a meager school of two-wheelers in an ocean of motorized man-eaters. “Power pedals up,” says Karabell, reminding us to be ready to down-stroke and quickly start forward motion when the light changes. It does, and we’re rolling again. “I can’t believe I’m riding on this road,” says my fellow student, Jacque Lumsden, from beside me. “I’ve driven my car here hundreds of times, but I never would’ve considered riding my bike here.”
CyclingSavvy is a curriculum designed to teach the principles of mindful bicycling on roads, as part of traffic. A program of the non-profit American Bicycling Education Association, its focuses on building empowered, equal road users and provides strategies for safe, stress-free integrated cycling.
We start our schooling with the first of three courses: The Truth & Techniques of Traffic Cycling. “There’s been somewhat of a propaganda campaign to persuade us that only people in cars are drivers,” says Karabell. “But only in the last 100 years have cars been around. Our traffic system pre-dates that, and speed has nothing to do with right of way.”
Or, in the words of Jedi Master Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
Held in a classroom setting, The Truth & Techniques of Traffic Cycling includes helpful, well-produced videos and animation illustrating the rules of the road, tactics for safe movement and proper communication with other drivers. This last one is key. “Ninety-nine percent of motorists want to help you out, and most drivers are willing to cooperate with a bicyclist who communicates,” Karabell says.
From hand signals, to predictable behaviors, to traffic dynamics — even real-life case studies — we cover a lot of ground over the three hours. After this session comes Train You Bike, a second three-hour course held on a different day. This hands-on lesson takes place in a parking lot and is made up of a set of progressive drills designed to increase our control and comfort when handling our bikes in various situations.
“How many of you have crashed your bike when no one else was around,” asks Karabell. Nearly everyone in our group raises a hand. “Most cycling accidents do not involve a motor vehicle. They’re crashes with fixed objects, pavement hazards or other obstacles, and can be avoided with better bike-handling skills.” Among other things, we practice starting and stopping, slow-speed balance, gearing and acceleration, one-handed riding and signaling, shoulder checks, object avoidance, emergency braking, and high-speed and tight cornering.
The third session, Tour of the City, is where we put our newly learned strategies and skills to the test, navigating some of the most intimidating road features in our area. “We believe that more people would choose bicycling for transportation if they knew how to handle the intimidating links in their commutes,” says Karabell. “It’s why we take people on busy and ‘scary’ roads, and don’t just simply toodle around neighborhood cul de sacs.”
We ride about a dozen miles over three hours, traveling as a group and stopping to observe certain intersections and interchanges. After discussing the traffic dynamics and the best strategy for safe and easy passage, we ride through individually and regroup at a nearby location. Is it scary at first to find yourself in the middle of a busy street, the lone bicyclist framed in by much larger vehicles on all four sides? Yes, but it’s usually only a short stretch of road or one intersection that causes anxiety. As soon as you negotiate the feature, the fear is gone and you fall into easy gaps within the traffic pattern — oftentimes with the pavement all to yourself. It’s an entirely new, empowering view of the city and its traffic grid.
Safe and Sound
Regrouping in the parking lot of SSM St. Mary’s Health Center after our tour of midtown, Karabell asks: “So, how many cars do you think we passed today?” Maybe 200 or 300, we guess. “And how many times were you honked at or yelled at?” Zero, we all agree. “Right, no uncivil behavior,” continues Karabell. “You see, it really is possible to be part of traffic and to do it safely, without being afraid of drivers.” None of us disagrees. In fact, we students marvel at how uneventful it was to negotiate some of the area’s busiest roads and intersections during the busiest time of day once we learned to effectively communicate and follow the strategies we’d learned from CyclingSavvy.
The next day at work, I tell my coworkers about steering my bike through the Clayton Road/McCausland Avenue interchange, with traffic also merging from Interstate 64. It can be a dicey junction even in a car, and they look at me like I must have a death wish. It’s perfect, if a little discouraging. There’s no reason everyone shouldn’t feel empowered to ride on our roadways. Whether or not I have an occasion to pedal around midtown St. Louis on my bicycle again soon, I’m confident that I can. And that makes all the difference.
CyclingSavvy isn’t the only curriculum in town when it comes to safe urban/commuter biking. Trailnet offers its Bike Smart program, with free classes held throughout the year and covering topics such “Basic Maintenance/Basic Road Maneuvers,” “How to NOT Get Your Bike Stolen/Emergency Maneuvers” and “Cold Weather Commuting.”
Refer to cyclingsavvy.org and trailnet.org to get more information and to register.
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor of Terrain magazine