Stayin' Alive: Rules of the Road

Above: Stayin' Alive columnist (and Shandaken Ambulance Service captain) Rich Muellerleile properly geared up for a spin around town with local bike blogger Mike Wentland.

I could try to scare you with a diatribe citing national statistics on mortality regarding any recreational activity that we enjoy up here in the Catskills, and I would generally lose your attention about a sentence or two into this article.

So in lieu of a raft of data, we’ll start out with a short, self-deprecating story about a maiden trek onto a few of our local roads in Catskill Park on something with less than four wheels, as the weather is starting to become more conducive to such activities. A bicycle is a popular way to save money, and maybe to go slightly "green,” as using a full-sized SUV to grab groceries a mile away tends to get expensive after a while. Resolved to be lighter on the planet and the wallet -- and maybe look a little better for wifey in the process -- I went on Craigslist and bought a bicycle.

For the short adventure I embarked upon, I made a few mistakes, and a few of them could have been detrimental to my health if my journey had been longer. After some rest and an inordinate amount of time in a hot tub, I was back to normal, but for about a day I was suffering from exposure to the cold and aches.

In light of my ignorance, we have a treat for you this month: We have enrolled the expertise of Mike Wentland of Catskill Cycling to elaborate upon the finer points of bicycle safety. Mike runs, a local web resource that exists solely to promote and improve cycling in the Catskill Park.

Rich: I recently found myself unprepared for a relatively short jaunt and paid for it. What are a few things that beginners can do to make sure they're prepared for an enjoyable ride?

Mike: First, as a novice cyclist, don’t buy a bike on Craigslist. It’s very important to be properly sized for a bicycle and have the right gear to complement your cycling experience. Any reputable local cycling shop will be able to give you ample guidance. You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it, would you?

Rich: Been there, done that. What about those of us who already have a bike and are looking to get back into it?

Mike: It’s important to make sure your bike is in good shape before you head out on a trip, whether it's short or long. Many times, cyclists find themselves stranded on the road with a broken chain, underinflated or failing tires, rubbing brakes, etc.

A little-known fact is that bicycle tires always leak air -- air molecules are smaller than the molecules that hold rubber together, so over time pressure naturally decreases. So keeping a bike pump close by your bike is always an easy thing to do. Get one with a gauge built into it, and make sure you have proper pressure before heading out. For longer rides, consider a small frame mounted pump or they even make ones small enough to fit in a pocket.

A well-lubed chain, properly working and adjusted brake shoes and cables, and gear cables are just as important particularly if your planned ride has varied terrain. Bikes that have been sitting even for a season need to be serviced -- any local bike shop can help you out with that.

Rich: So aside from a helmet and proper bicycle maintenance, what other gear would you recommend?

Mike: Ha ha, big gears, you go faster! But seriously -- many beginners underestimate weather. Dress accordingly and prepare for the worst. Layer, and do not wear loose clothing of a cotton type that will hold moisture. Check detailed weather before you go out on a ride such as anticipated headwinds and temperature gradients in the areas you are planning on cycling through, and remember that mountains funnel wind. If there is a chance of precipitation take adequate safeguards and plan your route accordingly.

Wind chill can turn you around quickly, especially during this time of year -- when you are moving on a bike, this is naturally is a factor. Even traveling along at a mere 10mph is a 10mph (or more) wind chill. This makes even a mild day fairly brisk quickly. Gloves are commonly forgotten, and hands exposed on the handlebars are subjected to the full force of the wind chill, so it’s important to protect them.











Rich: Nobody looks good in spandex. Especially me.

Mike: Tell a football player that. Loose cotton clothing can be dangerous and get in the way. Plus, proper clothing keeps you warmer.

Rich: I don’t look good in a Speedo either.

Mike: Then don’t swim. And that’s a terrible visual.

Rich: Speaking of water, how much should you bring? I have one of those fancy cages on my bike for a water bottle.

Mike: That depends on the ride. Long ride = big water. Whenever you are exerting yourself you are expending a lot of moisture just through heavier breathing, and that makes you susceptible to dehydration. Lots of newbies out there make the mistake of not taking water with them. Be sure to drink often and start long before you are thirsty. A sip every 15 minutes is a good idea. Don’t forget food on longer trips as well.

Rich: What about safety on the road? What can cyclists do once they’re geared up and ready to go?

Mike: Remember, a bicycle is a vehicle, so traffic laws apply -- including DWI's, so use good judgement. Respect the hazards of 3000-pound vehicles. When making a turn, simply extend your arm out to the direction you are turning and point. Left turn, use left arm. Right turn, use right arm.

New York does have a safe passing law that is designed to enhance protection for cyclists from motor vehicles, but be aware of your surroundings at all times. If riding at night make sure people can see you. The law requires a white headlight and a red taillight. Wearing bright or reflective clothing is always good too.

Rich: So always stay on the right side of the road, right?

Mike: Right, right. The rationale is simple. If you are moving at 15 miles per hour on the road, and a car is moving 50 miles per hour on the road, your closing rate of speed is 65 if you are on the left side (against traffic). Your closing rate and passing speed is 35 miles per hour if you are on the right (moving with traffic). This gives motorists more time to react to the cyclist, and lowers the chance for injury if a collision occurs.

Rich: Right. So is there anything happening in the industry to enhance bicycle safety?

Mike: The industry is constantly evolving and we’re seeing more and more people on bikes these days, especially since cycling is a win-win-win. You save, it’s fun, and it’s good for you.

Here in the Catskills we have world-class roads for cycling, and traffic volume is very low, which is great for cyclists. Locally, we are making an effort to promote cycling and enhance awareness by petitioning the DOT to add printed bicycle symbols to Route 28. To read more about our effort, check out our petition here.

Lastly, without printed symbols, local cyclists know to keep off of Route 28 on Fridays and Sundays when drivers from downstate are coming and going. Route 28 is very dangerous at these times, and it's best to find other routes to ride.

Rich: So in closing, what message would you like to convey to anybody out there thinking of taking advantage of our local cycling resources here in Catskill Park?

Mike: Have a great time, but know your limits: Start small and then go big. Go to your local bike shop and tell them what your goals are. A little research, some decent gear, and a well-planned trip will make for a great ride. Get this right a few times, and you'll be hooked!

Rich Muellerleile is the captain of the Shandaken Ambulance Service. He posts regular Catskills safety tips in his column, Stayin' Alive.