Maintaining Situational Awareness is a vital aspect of bicycle safety. If you understand the danger of a particular situation you’re in, you can take action to avoid or reduce the risk.
But even then, situational awareness may not be enough to get you out of a tight jam. If you find yourself in a true emergency, you may need to execute an emergency maneuver.
First Things First
Before you ever take your bike out on the road, there are some safety measures you need to take. First, you need to make sure that your bike fits you properly. Bike fit means having the right size bike—too big or too small will make it difficult for you to maneuver as effectively as you need to. It also means having your saddle height and angle, your stem, and your handlebars set to the right dimensions and angles for your body. With proper fit, you and your bike are able to work together effectively as one of the most amazing machines ever devised.
You also need to make sure your bike is in perfect mechanical condition. Situational awareness and mastery of emergency maneuvers are important, but they’re not going to get you out of a tight jam if your bike is in poor mechanical condition and your bike fails at the exact moment when you need it most. A flat tire, a dropped chain, a missed shift, or brake failure would be annoying in the best of circumstances. In an emergency, mechanical failures may mean you see the impending collision coming at you with enough time for you to react, but unable to do anything to change the outcome because your bike isn’t responding to your input.
Once you have your bike fit dialed in, and your mechanics in perfect working order, keep them that way, because you never know when you will have an emergency. Now you’re ready to start working on your emergency maneuvers.
A quick stop isn’t your standard “slow and stop.” It’s an emergency stop, intended to safely bring you to a stop in as short a distance as possible. Most bikes are equipped with front and rear brakes. The quick stop is accomplished by understanding the difference between your front brake and your rear brake, and learning how to use them together to shorten the distance of your stop.
Your front brake stops your bike in the shortest distance; your rear brake stops your bike in a significantly longer distance. However, while your front brake will bring you to a stop more quickly, you can also lock up your front wheel and get pitched right over your handlebars if you pull on the brake lever with too much force. The key to safely stopping in the shortest distance possible is to use both brakes together. When you use both brakes, you stop in a shorter distance than you would by using either the front brake or the rear brake alone, and you reduce the risk of going flying over your handle bars after pulling too hard on the brake lever.
To execute the quick stop, you need to pull harder on your front brake than your rear brake. You should also shift your weight back to the rear of your bike as far as possible. This puts more weight on your rear wheel. Without this weight transfer, most of your weight will be on the front wheel, which effectively stops your bike quickly, but increases your risk of locking your front wheel and pitching you over your handlebars. With more weight on your rear wheel, you reduce the risk of transferring too much weight to your front wheel. If your rear wheel begins to skid, you can back off a bit on the pressure on your rear brake; this will stop your skid.
To effectively and safely stop your bike with a quick stop, you will need to practice until it is easy and natural for you to quickly and safely bring your bike to a stop.
This emergency maneuver is a skill that can save you in two different cycling hazards: The Left Cross and the Right Hook. In both situations, you will want to execute an emergency turn to the right to avoid colliding with a car in oncoming traffic that is making a left turn across your path, or a car traveling in the same direction as you and makes a right turn across your path.
Although in both emergencies you’ll be making a quick turn to the right, the skill is counterintuitive, because it begins with a quick turn of your wheel to the left. This quick turn causes your bike to lean and fall to the right. As soon as this begins to happen, immediately turn your wheel to the right, and instead of falling to the right, you will turn right—a sharp right turn, much sharper than you can make by simply turning your wheel to the right.
Because this maneuver begins with a counterintuitive turn to your left, you will need to practice it relentlessly, until it’s a second-nature skill that becomes your natural reaction to a left cross or a right hook.
Jumping will help you get over obstacles like rocks, sticks, or potholes in the road, or get you up over a curb. To pull this maneuver off, you will need to be clipped into your pedals. Crouch down evenly, and spring up quickly, pulling the bike up to you. It will take a lot of practice to get this right, but it’s a very important skill to master.
Another way to avoid a rock or other small hazard in the road is the quick dodge. To accomplish this, you will turn your wheel quickly to the left, and then turn it back onto course just as quickly again. The idea is to have your front wheel quickly go left around the rock, and your rear wheel quickly trail right around the rock, and then to quickly get back on course. As with all of the other emergency maneuvers, you will need to practice this until you can easily do it.
If you have more than one road hazard to get around—for example, a series of potholes or rocks—you will want to be able to weave your way through the hazards. To accomplish this, look ahead, past the object, and begin a swooping turn around the object before reaching it. Because you’re weaving your way through a series of surface hazards, you practice this maneuver by slaloming your bike through an obstacle course. Keep practicing until it’s easy.
One More Bike-Handling Skill You Need To Practice
This isn’t actually an emergency handling skill, but it’s a very important skill nonetheless: You need to be able to ride a straight line. This is an especially important skill to have on the road. Being able to ride a straight, predictable line when you’re riding next to traffic that has the potential to seriously injure or kill you can mean the difference between getting home safely and getting hit by a car. You might think you can already do this, but you will want to test your ability to see how accurate your perceived ability is.
To practice this skill, find an empty parking lot with straight, painted lines on the surface. Practice riding along the straight line without deviating outside the line. When you can do this every time, try the same line, only s-l-o-w this time. Can you still stay within the painted line?
When you can do this easily, start practicing riding with one hand on the bars while still staying within the painted line. When you can do that, try reaching for your water bottle and taking a drink of water while riding a straight line. Then try riding a straight line with no hands on the bars. This will make it significantly more difficult to stay within the painted line, but do your best to ride with no hands while maintaining as straight a course as you can.
One last test of your ability to maintain a straight line—while you’re riding along the straight line, take a look back over your left shoulder, as you would if you were checking for traffic behind you. You need to be able to do this while maintaining a straight line of travel. When you look back to the road ahead of you, check to see if you’ve deviated from the straight line. Keep practicing this traffic check over your shoulder until you can easily do it without deviating from your straight line.
Practice Makes Perfect
It’s not enough to read how to execute an emergency maneuver. You have to practice each maneuver until it’s second nature, so you can call on it in that split second when needed.
You’ll need to find a safe place to practice, where you won’t have to worry about cars while you’re practicing. An empty parking lot or other area where you won’t have to look for and dodge cars while practicing would be ideal. Now that you’ve found a practice place, you need to start practicing. And keep practicing until you’ve mastered each maneuver and can call on your skill as a natural reaction to a hazard, without having to think about it. When you need to stop, you’ll be able to stop. When you need to turn, you’ll be able to turn. When you need to avoid a road surface hazard, you’ll be able to avoid it. This kind of preparation can make all the difference when you’re facing an emergency and all you have to get safely through is your bike handling skills.