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Do Not Ride on the Sidewalk
This practice is illegal in most states, and for good reason—drivers do not expect people moving faster than a running pace on a sidewalk. If you ride your bicycle on the sidewalk, you run the risk of getting hit by drivers as they turn to or from cross streets. I cannot attest to every state, but I have not heard of any state that does not classify a cyclist as a vehicle. They are not motor vehicles, but they are still vehicles. The correct place for cyclists to ride is on the road or a designated bike path if there is one.
This is not to say that you cannot ride responsibly on the sidewalk. If you insist on riding on the sidewalk, proceed cautiously, and be aware that drivers are not looking for people moving at bicycle speeds when they make turns.
Wave at Drivers
This will definitely make you look goofy, but as a means of catching their attention, I wave at drivers at cross streets as I come up to an intersection.
Beware of the Right Hook
One of the most common bicycle-car accidents is the right hook (see photo here). If you come up to an intersection while in the bike lane, the safest place to be is between the first and second cars (while still in the bike lane). You may even want to wave at the driver behind you to be sure that they know you're there. Do not pull up right alongside the first car, as they may not notice you.
Get a Pool Noodle
There is a man in that attracted media attention when he attached a pool noodle to his bike. It is not at all obvious to drivers how much room you need to be safe while being passed, especially when it is windy.
Don't Get Doored
This is one of the more difficult ones to avoid in that sometimes the bicycle lane is positioned right against street parking. Be mindful when you are riding along parked cars. Try to pay attention as to whether a car just parked and someone is likely to step out of their car. Try to see if someone is in the car—though you obviously can't notice short people this way.
To prevent dooring cyclists, drivers should either use their side mirror or practice the "Dutch reach"—where you open the door with your right hand (or your left hand if you drive on the left), which forces you to turn your body and look behind you as you open the door.
Take the Full Lane when There's Another Lane On Your Side
You do have to be mindful of state laws on this one, but of the handful of states I've ridden in, it is legal for a cyclist to take the full lane (even when there is a bicycle lane). In my experience, if you ride close to the right hand side of the right lane, drivers will pass within inches of you instead of fully switching to the other lane.
Don't do this when there's no other lane on your side of the road, because all you will do is annoy the drivers behind you.
Signal Your Turns
Because you do not have braking lights on a bicycle, it is even more important to signal that you are turning and will need to slow down.
Follow All the Rules of the Road
As I stated earlier, as far as I know all states classify bicycles as vehicles (though not motor vehicles). You are thereby required to follow all laws that cars do, unless exceptions are specifically granted. This includes stopping at all stop signs. It is dangerous when drivers expect you to stop (as you legally should) but do not.
The one notable exception to this law is Idaho—where you are not required to do a full stop if there are no other cars in the vicinity.
Whether helmets actually reduce your risk of injury in the real world is actually, believe it or not, up for debate. Nobody questions whether you will reduce the risk of head injury in a bicycle accident while wearing a helmet—studies have shown they reduce your risk by 60% (though some people argue that there's an increase in neck injuries as a result).
But in the real world,
Elvik noted that whatever the benefits in each individual case, a population-wide increase in helmet use, for example after legislation, is not generally matched by similar reductions in overall head injury rates. Again, with helmets things are never as straightforward as they appear.
But his ideas about offsetting behaviour – his profession’s term for what psychologists call risk compensation – is a fascinating element to the discussion over bike helmets. Crucially, it seems the perception of reduced risk when a helmet is worn can both prompt riders to be more reckless with their own safety and nudge drivers into being less careful towards cyclists.
So what are some of these offsetting behaviors?
In 2006 he attached a computer and an electronic distance gauge to his bike and recorded data from 2,500 drivers who overtook him on the roads. Half the time he wore a bike helmet and half the time he was bare-headed. The results showed motorists tended to pass him more closely when he had the helmet on, coming an average of 8.5 cm nearer.
Walker also spent some time riding about wearing a long brunette wig, to see whether drivers gave female cyclists more room than men, perhaps because they also unconsciously assumed women are less experienced cyclists. They did, it emerged, even when the “woman” was 6ft tall
There's also the fact that one of the greatest hazards to cyclists is motorists, and the more cyclists there are on the road, the more motorists have to learn how to safely share the road.
Some studies have indicated that they put off enough people from riding bikes in the first place that the resulting negative effect on public health more than cancels out any benefits from fewer head injuries. As with everything connected to this subject, it’s worth noting that it’s all bitterly disputed by opposing sides. But the evidence seems solid.
In New Zealand, where helmet compulsion was introduced in 1994, the number of overall bike trips fell 51% between 1989–90 and 2003–6, according to one research paper. The reasons are mixed. It can be in part because some people simply don’t want to bother with a helmet, a factor arguably less important now than 20-plus years ago, when bike helmets were more expensive and not nearly as comfortable. More pressing, however, appears to be the fact that obligatory helmet use reinforces the notion that cycling isn’t an everyday way to get about, but a specialist pursuit needing safety equipment, which makes it less appealing.
This makes it hard for me to make a recommendation about bicycle helmets. If I say you should absolutely wear a helmet, then I am perpetuating the notion that cycling is a dangerous activity, perhaps so much so as to deter people from wanting to cycle, to the detriment of all cyclists.
On the other hand, nobody disputes that a helmet reduces the risk of head injury. I myself am one of these people, as I would probably not be here today without my helmet (I once flipped over my handlebars at ~20mph and landed on my helmet).
So take that as you will.
Lights (both front and rear) are an absolute must when it comes to riding at night. As far as I know most states do not require you to have a light, but just a reflector, while riding at night. I believe that is a mistake, as there are still drivers that don't notice me until I'm much closer than I'd like (thankfully I have always been noticed while on the road at night).
However, even if you are riding on the road in the day, I still advise people to use bicycle lights that blink. A constantly on light will most likely not get a driver's attention, but a sufficiently bright blinking light is still easily noticed. Good lights offer a blinking mode.
Cheaper bicycle lights work well if your objective is to be seen by drivers on the road. However, if you ride at night where there are no streetlights, you will need a bright light, which does not come cheap.
I look goofy, but I'm a fan of these wheel lights so people can see me when I'm trying to turn from a side street onto a main street.
Some people buy construction vests such as this one. However, these will make you hot in the summer. I'm a fan of this one instead, which is only a reflective neon yellow X and will not make you any hotter. I still wear it in the daytime because while I may look like a fool, if some driver thinks so then at least it means they've seen me.
This bicycle horn has saved my life a couple times. It's as loud as a car horn (though you have to be careful in the winter - it needs more pressure if you're pumping it up inside, because when you go outside the pressure drops), and can be pumped up with a normal bike pump (Schraeder). I'm certain I've damaged my hearing slightly because of it, but better some hearing loss than ending up a pancake.
You'll want a bicycle bell as well because honking at pedestrians is overkill.
There are several different types of rearview mirrors—ones that mount to your helmet, your glasses, or your bike. I'm not a fan of those that mount to my helmet because I like to strap my helmet to my bag once I dismount and walk inside (and I might break the mirror on something). I much prefer the style that replaces the end cap of your handlebars.
Bicycle Rack + Panniers or a Milk Crate
You can certainly ride with a backpack on, but it tends to make your back sweaty, and can make you off balance, particularly if the contents of your backpack slide around while you're riding. If you want to carry stuff while riding I suggest getting a rear rack and panniers (the bags that hang from the rack). But make sure the bike you obtain has the eyelets for the panniers—many road bikes do not have them. Also, even if a road bike has the eyelets for them, oftentimes their geometry is such that your heel might hit the panniers as you pedal. You may need to get panniers that are trapezoidal to avoid heel strikes.
There are also trunk bags that sit on top of your rear rack.
Don't Get Stranded by Flats or Other Bicycle Troubles
Rely on Family and Friends
You can certainly rely on family and friends (after all, what are they for?), but just be sure that they have a compatible vehicle. A typical sedan can fit a bicycle in the trunk if you can put the rear seats down and take off the front wheel (you could take off the back wheel, but it's harder). Also, this would need a nearly empty trunk, so if they're the type of person that stores a lot of things in their trunk, they probably won't be able to help you.
Limit Your Rides to Within a Reasonable Distance of a Bike Shop
JD Roth of Get Rich Slowly takes this approach. Or rather, he did before he moved out into the countryside. For him it wasn't worth the trouble of carrying the requisite gear to repair a bicycle in the case of a flat or other mechanical trouble. Obviously you'll have to check the availability of bike shops in your area and not forget this if you ever go on a new route.
Carry the Requisite Gear
You'll need at a minimum one spare tube, a set of tire irons (or a QuikStik, which is what I prefer), a patch kit, and either a hand pump - you can attach this to your frame by the water bottle holder) or a CO2 cartridge and an inflator. And regardless of whether you will rely on friends/family or not when you're stranded, you should watch some YouTube videos on how to fix a flat.
You should also consider getting GatorSkin tires, as they are designed to be resistant to flats (and have a well deserved reputation of being successful).
If you intend to bike in the rain, you should get bike fenders; otherwise you will get a line of water and road dirt on your back. If you get a rear rack, the rear fender isn't actually necessary. You might still want a front fender, but I don't bother.
If you want to get clipless pedals, you can either get road bike style pedals, which absolutely require you to have cycling shoes, standard mountain bike style pedals, which also require cycling shoes, though you can get by without them in a pinch, or hybrid mountain bike style pedals (flat platform on one side and clipless on the other).
If you get the mountain bike style pedals, you can find shoes like this one that look like standard shoes.
There's also cycling sandals that look like normal sandals. I didn't realize how hot my feet get in the summer until I started wearing these.
If you are adventurous enough to bike in the winter, I suggest you get cycling shoe covers. Some people will wear an extra pair of socks, but I find my feet just get sweaty, which eventually cools down and makes my feet even colder.
You'll also want some gloves. These lobster gloves are the most effective cycling gloves I've found for winter use. Even in 30 degree weather, my hands start to sweat eventually. The lobster design groups your index and middle fingers together, and your pinky and ring fingers together, which keep each other warm (and then your thumb is on it's own).
Sierra has some great deals on cycling (and other sports) clothes. I've got some merino wool baselayers (both shirts and leg bottoms).
Some cycling tights will have a built in pad (and are meant for you to go commando, because if you wear underwear and cycling tights with a pad, they will chafe). I prefer cycling underwear that has the chamois pad. While they're not cheap by underwear standards, they're cheaper than cycling tights with pads in them; I have a set of five of these and washed them every week when I was cycling to work.
Be cautious about getting wide (and cushion-y) bicycle seats. They are more comfortable for shorter rides, but over time they are less comfortable because you cannot properly recruit your glutes while riding.