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The Gear Junkie on REI: Urban Biking Tips

REI Blog editor: Welcome, readers, to our regular new feature with The site's editor/founder Stephen Regenold will talk about new products, gear trends, destinations and personalities in the world of fitness, adventure and the great outdoors. Today’s topic: riding your bike in the city.

Traffic, potholes, pollution, pedestrians, signs, signals, crowds and one-way streets... biking in the city can be tough. In truth, it can be dangerous, too. But despite the challenges, riding in urban areas is on the rise.

Studies reveal a significant growth in Americans who commute by bike since 2000. Cities from Denver to Austin to New York have seen spikes, and overall U.S. Census Bureau data cites a 47% increase in urban commuters nationwide.


Count me among the statistics. I live and bike in Minneapolis year-round, through the snow each (long) winter, to the spring mud and into the haze of summer heat. There's rarely a day I don't ride.

A secret? I love urban biking! Indeed, beyond commuting to my office (a fast 10 miles a day down city paths and bike lanes) I train on urban roads with friends, race in alleycat events and pull my kids in a Burley trailer all summer around Minneapolis' chain of lakes.

Fixie bike

To be sure, biking in a big city should not be taken lightly. There are hazards on every street, from distracted drivers to cracks in the pavement that can swallow a wheel. Sadly, riders are hit every day around the United States, despite growing budgets dedicated to building bike lanes and infrastructure.

(Personal aside: A friend and co-editor at GearJunkie was hit last fall by a taxi driver who ran a red light. At the hospital it was revealed she was bruised but otherwise OK. Her bike got crushed, though, and so did her confidence riding among traffic for a few months afterwards as she recovered from the crash.)

Riding safe takes some self-education. REI dissects the nuts and bolts of urban biking in its excellent Urban Bicycling: The Basics article. There you'll learn how to pick a bike, carry gear or groceries, lock up at stops and stay safer on city streets.

My advice here is more personal and a bit more obscure. The tips below represent some of the "street smarts" I've picked up from more than a decade of riding on the urban road.

'You Are Traffic'

On city streets that have a speed limit under 40mph, I "drive" my bike like it's a car. To be sure, I'm not in the middle of the lane. But I don't pedal hug the curb, either. Ride a couple feet away from the edge of the street, and try to flow with traffic. Signal, stop at lights and intersections where it's required, and let cars pass by you (signal and wave to let drivers know you're aware). Overall, I try to be courteous but confident on the road. Aggressive city biking is dangerous, but so is being too passive. Car drivers want to know what you're doing and where you're trying to go.

Eye Contact

A car pulls up to an intersection, ready to make a turn. You are approaching on your bike. The best way to assure the driver sees you? Simply establish eye contact. A nod or a wave is good in some situations, too. I've applied this technique for years to make a "visual understanding" with a driver of what's going on. 


Don't Get 'Doored'

Urban roads lined with parked cars present a danger if you hug the edge of a lane. A car door flung open is like a booby trap for a biker—there's little time to react and sometimes nowhere to go if cars are adjacent. I ride a few feet from parked cars at all times unless the traffic pushes me close. In that case, slow down and look at each vehicle to try and spot someone sitting on the driver's side who might potentially pop out into the street without a glance back.

Normalize the Bike Commute

I gave up driving to my office years ago. Biking is just "how I get to work" and nothing too much more serious than that. Most days I don't even think about it... I pull out of the garage and ride uneventfully into the city. If you live close enough to make it work, I recommend trying to "normalize" a bike commute. It might take a couple of weeks. But once your system is dialed and the route becomes familiar, you might forget what driving a car was even like.

Road cyclist

All 5 Senses

OK, maybe not taste! But when urban riding I try and use multiple senses to constantly assess my situation. Vision is obvious, but in addition to looking ahead I rely on peripheral vision to keep tabs on traffic to my right, left and coming up from behind. I listen for cars constantly to know what traffic is doing. And via my grip on the handlebars I "feel" the road to adjust balance, speed, and slow or brake when needed. Smell? See the next tip.

Bad Air

When it's polluted outside, your nose can be a great guide to tell you where in the city not to ride. Some cities can stink to ride in, literally. Minneapolis, my home town, is usually fine, but on certain days heavy air keeps car exhaust hugging the ground, making intense activity in the city a bad idea. Monitor air-quality levels online for your town. I adjust my route away from busy roads and crowded parts of town on the worst days.

Night Riding

Bright L.E.D. bike lights on the front and rear, reflective tape, and clothing or backpacks with reflective "hits" or piping are mandatory gear for me riding at night. (Use a bright white light on front and a blinking red light on back.) I try and get as visible as possible when the sun goes down. In addition, change your riding style and avoid busier roads, especially late at night when drivers are even less likely to be thinking about a biker on the road.

Ready to give urban biking a try? May is National Bike Month, and you can check out the sponsoring League of American Bicyclists website for local events.

Posted on at 12:45 PM

Tagged: Bike Commuting & Touring, Cycling and urban cycling

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Leah of the Lakes

Helpful tips. Thanks!

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