Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cycling Savvy: A Story in Three Rides

Today, I'm reviewing the Cycling Savvy course. This is one of the hardest posts I've had to write in five years of blogging (I have a second blog that covers a crazy-range of topics that I started in January 2009). Why is it so hard?

1. I have a million things to say.

2. I was wrong.

First, a story of three rides.

One/Before. Last Saturday (May 3rd), Melissa came over and we rode together to Clayton to test out my work route, which has generally involved the following:

  • Left from a suburban side street onto a 2-lane road with a center stripe
  • Access the sidewalk and a crosswalk to cross a major arterial
  • Ride through 1/4mi of parking lots to access the neighborhood behind a strip mall
  • 2 mi of neighborhood riding
  • 1 mi of riding on 4-lane road
  • 1 mi of riding on 2-lane roads (center stripe)
  • 1/2 mi of riding on 4+ lane arterial
  • Access sidewalk/crosswalk to cross said arterial
  • 1/2 mi of neighborhood riding to access bike path
  • 1 mi of bike path riding up a very steep hill
  • Access sidewalk/crosswalk to cross a third arterial
  • 1/2 mi of city-center riding on streets
Melissa patiently endured the first five bullet points, but suggested that we try a different route that involved one alternate (2-lane) road through a neighborhood, followed by about a mile or so on a major arterial. I looked at her sideways, then agreed. 

It was easier, but I also immediately realized that I was appreciative of her company - both because she was more comfortable riding "as traffic" (rather than alongside it, or not with it at all, which was my preference) and because I felt much more visible and tolerable as a couple of bikes than one (mostly, I thought it would be less tempting to to motorists to run both of us over and face two manslaughter/murder charges).

While it was easier, more direct, definitely flatter*, and more pleasant than riding alone in my customary route and manner, I still elected to ride home (after we split up) in a way that was familiar and comfortable: 1/2 mile on an arterial, riding on the curbside 1/3 of the lane, and, though I worked my way to the left turn-pocket to access the south-bound road, once on it, I rode largely in the bike lane/glorified shoulder provided, which required me to merge with traffic when I crossed Highway 40, and to dodge road detritus in the pedestrian/bike lane, which is not swept separately, and which accumulates the crud that is swept out naturally by normal motorist activity. 

Though I made every effort to be polite, predictable, and prompt (I was on The Radish 10-speed and faster than I can be on Fleur), I got honked at three separate times (at least once in a not-nice way; the other two were ambiguous double honks - were they acknowledging me or frustrated that I was impeding their travel for a few seconds? It wasn't clear).

I found myself looking forward to - and, honestly? dreading - my upcoming Cycling Savvy courses (classroom session to be held Wednesday and Train Your Bike/Tour of St. Louis to be held the following Saturday). On one hand, something clearly wasn't right, because if cycling is this much of a pain when in traffic, no one would ride. On the other hand, negotiating more directly with cars seemed like an awful plan. I just wanted protected bike lanes, preferably away from traffic. 

*Funny, but they generally find or make flat and straight spots for major roads to maximize visibility and minimize the effort necessary to travel them...

Two/During. On Wednesday, I showed up for the CS classroom session. Mary and I were the students. I drove (three reasons: distance/8 miles, time/had to drive home to let dog out, and light/full darkness would fall before the course was over at 9:30pm). I literally thought the entire way to the class that I would appreciate the tips and use them when I had to interact with traffic, but that I'd continue to want to advocate for separated bike facilities after the class was over. And, three hours later, I could have talked bike tips and tricks for three hours longer. I left with a mixture of a nagging desire not to interact with traffic in meaningful ways, but a fundamental understanding of why my instincts to hug the side of the road were about the most dangerous options I could pursue. Sigh.

As late as Friday night, I was feeling really anxious. I couldn't decide whether to take Fleur, and labor up the hills with only three gears, or take The Radish, which offered ten finicky speeds (essentially, five speeds, because I usually stay in the lower of the two major gears) and less weight, but promised neck, back, and wrist pain from the aggressive road-bike/drop-bar positioning). I ultimately selected The Radish, because it was better suited to the hills and distance, and because it was easier to hoist onto the bike rack (the straight mixte-style top bar is far easier use with the mounts on the rack, and The Radish is probably ten pounds lighter than Fleur, who is increasingly unwieldy to lift due to her baskets).

I drove, again because I wasn't sure about my willingness to navigate streets on the way home, and because I wasn't sure my legs would tolerate 15 miles of riding above and beyond morning bike training and a roughly 10-mile ride around St. Louis (in retrospect, this second issue was spot-on. I was exhausted after 7 hours of bikey-bikeness).

The morning generally taught skills with which I was pretty familiar, if by different (or no) names - how to stop quickly; how to use your front brake without eating pavement; how to turn on a dime (much easier without massive toe-overlap, FYI), and how to avoid road obstacles without swerving into traffic. I'm really good at stoppping. ;)

We then had lunch and waited for a couple of folks (Monica and Mike), former CS grads who had agreed to ride with us for the Tour of St. Louis. We had lunch at Kaldi's and then rode together, in pairs, to the parking lot of the Cheshire Hotel. I thought we were going to discuss the route in further detail and take a water break. 

Ha. Haha. Ha.

No, we were told to take Clayton to Skinker, take a left, and then go into Forest Park and wait for the rest of the group. One person at a time. My adrenaline immediately spiked; I regretted the second cup of coffee. I was practically vibrating. I let Mary go first (she's so brave).

Using the skills we learned in class, I was able to ride and behave in a way that was predictable and visible to the traffic around me, and I did it. And it was fine. 

Photo credit: Karen Karabell (my editing).
We had several additional individual challenges that helped push us beyond our comfort zones while reassuring us that we were operating in a safe and comfortable way. And, little by little, it started to really sink in. It doesn't matter where you are, or how many cars there are, you can get there from here in a way that makes you visible and relevant to the folks with whom you're sharing the road. It was an amazing day. (More photos, here.)

Photo credit: Harold Karabell (my editing).

And somewhere in there, it hit me. I was wrong. We don't need bike lanes. We need cyclists and motorists to better understand how to interact with one another so that we can share the roads in a way that makes travel safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

More photos, here.

Three/After. And so, the next morning, when we were out of dishwasher soap (okay) and out of coffee (crisis!), I didn't hesitate to grab my helmet and unlatch the folding baskets on Fleur and take her the 1/2 mile to the grocery store.  

Shopping by bike is easy and fun.

On the way to and from, I took the lane on the 2-land (striped) road near my house, and communicated clearly with the cars around me. 

No one honked. The drivers who passed me went clear into the other other lane to pass. At a light, when I encouraged a driver to come past me to allow her to go right while I waited for the green to go straight, she gave me a big smile and indicated she was staying put. And that reminds us both that the person on the bike and the person behind the wheel are people -- we are more than our chosen methods of transportation.

The emotional and physical journey of this past week has been empowering and incredibly rewarding. I'm more excited to ride than ever.  

I was so thrilled, I bought a geranium.

Happy rider.

Post Script:

I continue to understand the desire for bicycle infrastructure. The instinct to stay out of the way of motorists' is strong and makes sense, until you view a cyclist from the perspective of the motorist. You are simply out of the way, out of the line-of-sight, and out of the minds of the motorists when you are on the sidewalk, on the shoulder, or in most bike lanes as they are designed in most places in America. I understand and appreciate that the ability to cycle effectively in traffic is a privilege and that this manner of cycling may not be appealing or appropriate for the very young, the very old, or those who are differently-abled. My challenge is to those developing infrastructure to consider that the designs we take for granted (sidewalks and sidepaths and bike lanes running immediately next to motorways) might not be the best way we can accommodate travel by all of our citizens. Further, a dedicated bike- or multi-use-trail is lovely, but is only as useful as its starting point, end point, and the destinations to which it can connect us along the way. I believe that creating more paths like Grant's Trail that connect our communities (eg, with transportation, rather than recreation, as the purpose for their creation), creating more bike/ped pass-throughs where side streets end and effectively disconnect many non-motorists from adjacent communities, and ensuring everyone knows the rights and responsibilities of road use will ensure that no matter the destination or the mode of transport, you can get there from here

UPDATE 8-2-2014:
I was searching for a post about something else on FoS and came across this repost of my CyclingSavvy review and found the discussion and theories about my positions interesting. To respond:
(1) I'm a fan of well-planned infrastructure.
(2) I prefer not to ride in traffic but want to be as safe and comfortable when I do as possible.
(3) Until or unless we devise a perfect cycling and driving plan, CyclingSavvy is an amazing and important tool and I can't recommend it enough.
(4) What we do need, more than anything else, is better education for road users.
Happy riding!


  1. Rebecca, your post is testament to what we hope to achieve with CyclingSavvy. I hope that it gets spread far and wide! Congratulations, and thank you.

    Have you seen this:

  2. Congratulations, Rebecca!

    Thank you for this post. What a wonderful gift it is to start my week reading about your journey!

  3. Thank you, Karen and Keri! It is a really well-designed course. Whatever someone's position about the best way to make cycling safe, attractive, and accessible, I think the lessons and tools offered in Cycling Savvy allow you to reach your destination, wherever it is, the the most visible, relevant, and safe way possible. Those are tools any cyclist can use.

  4. Thank you for writing this post and spreading the word about Cycling Savvy. I took the class in Orlando and am amazed how much I learned and how empowering it has been. I think you did a great job of explaining both perspectives - before and after the class. Keep Cycling Savvy!

  5. Rebecca, I'm delighted you took this course, offered by Karen Karabell of Cycling Savvy St. Louis, and had an epiphany.
    You may still occasionally meet aggressive or inconsiderate motorists, but we all do. The important thing is the knowledge you've gained and the desire to spread the word: that cycling as a vehicle operator can be done safely and enjoyably. And more people should do so, rather than be confined by ill-conceived bike lanes or other infrastructure.
    Karen helped with two short bike videos which you might find interesting to view/share:
    Are Bike Lanes Good or Bad for Cyclists? at

    Are Door Zone Bike Lanes Good or Bad? at

    All the best.

  6. Martin, thank you for the links. I will try to check them out tonight when I get home. I have long accepted that most bike lanes are poorly designed. This class only emphasized that! I'm now thinking a lot about ways to make bicycling appealing to as many people as we can WITHOUT compromising their safety and visibility along the way. All things being equal, I'd rather travel with other folks who are going about the same speed -- maybe +/- 8mph (assuming 12mph average). Creating bike highways that link to side streets near arterials, offer limited car parking, and actually go somewhere (e.g., a bike/multi-use path that goes from downtown to Clayton, and has spokes that reach north and south) could allow people of all ages and abilities to travel great distances more quickly, safely, and easily without the door zone/conflict area problems that much bike infra creates. Limiting speed limits in dense urban areas is another help. But until then and even once that happens, knowing how to safely ride on the roads from the cul-de-sac to the arterial is of critical importance.

    1. Martin, to follow up, I had a chance to review the videos - thanks for sharing! I have not biked much in the city. I do think that the placement of many lanes is problematic in that it encourages conflict, placing the cyclist at greater risk. I appreciate the visualization - you can see clearly in each video the shortcomings of the lane placements. I told Harold and Karen that I still would like an option that allows cyclists to hang out at 8-18mph and motorists to do their thing at 30-45mph, but I fully appreciate after CS that the decreased visibility, relevance, and margin of error afforded by riding to the right (in a lane or by default) is one of the most dangerous things cyclists can do - especially at intersections. Short of requiring all motorists to drive at sub-20mph speeds, I do still long for an alternative (the interconnected multi-use paths?) but fully recognize the value of taking the lane.


  7. Wow! It sounds like you've had a complete conversion! While I totally agree that bike lanes are unsafe - especially those in the door zone, I still can't quite wrap my brain around riding in traffic, especially on busy streets. It just seems that even in the best situations you'd create a backup a mile long within a few minutes.

    Too bad we don't have something like Cycling Savvy here in Denver. I'd love to understand the secret knowledge that somehow makes this possible.

    Well anyhow, in case you're interested, here's my little bike lane fantasy:

  8. Eco, it's pretty crazy to read, isn't it? I cannot recommend this enough. Should you have the opportunity to travel for a class or if CS comes to Denver, I highly recommend it. Should you decide to partake in St. Louis ever, let me and Melissa know and we'll meet up for coffee (and she'll probably be one of the people to teach you)!

    I enjoyed reading your post a lot. I really do think *EFFECTIVE* bike infra is critical to making riding safe and enjoyable for everyone, but it's fantastic to have a safe and effective way to travel with motorists and not sweat bullets the entire time. I think we both recognize the pitfalls of many conventional bike lanes but still long for effective transport options that limit our interactions with motorists. My desire to avoid major arteries didn't diminish, but my fear about using them did. I would love to see better signaling and lower posted speed limits where motorists and cyclists interact, especially at intersections, and to have our recreational paths expanded to connect our communities so that those making longer trips have a pleasant way to travel that doesn't include many intersections. Like little bicycle highways.

  9. What is the Tour of St Louis and when?

  10. Tour of St. Louis is the third piece of the Cycling Savvy course and is the on-the-road training portion in a section of STL city or County. For more information about CS sessions, check out this link:

  11. "until you view a cyclist from the perspective of the motorist"

    This will get cycling advocacy no where, IMO.

    1. I'm not talking about philosophically, ACC. I mean the difference in time it takes to spot a cyclist in the lane (and the additional time it provides the motorist to react) versus when the cyclist is hugging the curb or in a bike lane. The video under the third FAQ at the CS website illustrates this pretty well (the visual for the various road positions is the latter half of the video).


Let the bicycle talk begin...