Safety, Safety, Safety

The safety of the people shall be the highest law.   – Marcus Tullius Cicero

When we undertake long-distance road rides, we know that the experience comes with risk.  Riding on the shoulders on highways and only feet away from speeding automobiles and trucks always brings a certain degree of trepidation to me with each of our rides.  We try to minimize the risks, but it is always there and always something to be aware of.

The first line of safety comes from the education of our cyclists.  We are always recruiting and bringing new cyclists into our groups for our BRAT adventures.  Almost all of those who join our teams are newbie cyclists.  Everything about road cycling is new to them.  Part of the training and preparation of new team members each year includes safety awareness and building habits of safe riding into the team.

The second level of safety involves gaining as much knowledge as possible about the roads that we will ride.  When we don’t have first-hand knowledge of the highway shoulders and amount of traffic on the roads, we analyze highway conditions using street views on Google Maps.  By dropping onto a section of the planned route in Google Maps and dragging the view along the route, we can get a good idea of the conditions we will encounter.  When roads look too busy or shoulders don’t look wide enough for safe riding, out of the direct line of traffic, we will search for alternate routes.

Choosing times of day to travel certain sections of road provides another level of safety for the team.  On the ride across Missouri, we were required to ride on roads without shoulders for the 52 miles between the Kansas border and the start of the Katy Trail in Clinton.  We chose to ride rural county roads on a Sunday morning.  On the road before 8 a.m., we rode the miles when the majority of people were heading to and in church or at home.  The same ride during the work-week or Saturday might have presented us with different levels of traffic on the road.  We try to implement the same strategies when riding through cities along our routes while on our rides.  The times of day when we ride through towns is also something that we can control–to a degree.  We rode through Denton, Texas and across the top of the DFW Metroplex on a Sunday morning on BRAT1 to avoid the insane traffic that exists at other times of the week.

The final, and probably most important, safety measure that we take is riding with a support vehicle.  When traffic is heavy or when the shoulders are narrow, we often position the support vehicle right behind the cyclists.  In that way, the support vehicle provides warning to vehicles approaching from behind and an actual barrier between the approaching traffic and the cyclists.  With flashing hazard lights, car-top warning signs, and magnetic signs on the sides and backs of the support vehicles, it would be hard for an approaching vehicle to miss the fact that they are coming up on a pack of cyclists.

The driver of the support vehicle carries a lot of responsibility for the team.  In addition to assessing the road and traffic conditions and determining the best strategy for staying with and protecting the cyclists, the support vehicle also helps communicate with cyclists while on the road.  We’ve developed a “honking” system to notify the cyclists of vehicles approaching from behind.  On certain sections of road, the driver of the support vehicle will honk the horn to notify cyclists of approaching traffic.  The driver will toot the horn one time for each approaching vehicle.  Three toots mean that three vehicles are approaching and about to pass the cyclists.  It is important for the cyclists to know how many vehicles are about to pass so that they stay over and away from traffic until everything passes.

For the honking system to work, cyclists have to stay within earshot of the support vehicle.  When the team gets too strung out on the road, it creates difficulty for everyone to hear the warning honks.  In addition, getting too strung out in a line is also more dangerous when vehicles pass us on two-lane highways.  When a passing vehicle crosses the middle line on the road to pass us in the left lane, that vehicle is going to want to slide back over to the right lane as soon as possible–especially when oncoming traffic is coming at them.  When our line of cyclists extends far beyond the support vehicle, the passing vehicles have to spend more time on the left side of the road.  It is best that we stay close together, within hearing range of the support vehicle, and packed together closely enough to permit passing vehicles to get around us quickly and back in the right lane.  These are some of the safety lessons that we teach to newbie team members and ones that we continually repeat while on the road.

In addition to all of our systematic safety measures, it is ultimately up to each team member to decide what is safe and unsafe for them.  Riders must know their limits, what they are comfortable doing, and what they should not do.  When road and riding conditions seem unsafe for the team members, we know to stop and assess.  Narrow and busy bridges, unsafe shoulders, wet roads, unfavorable weather conditions, steep hills and excessive speeds, physical exhaustion, dehydration, and host of other issues safety concerns need to be addressed immediately as they arise.  Only the individual cyclists know their limits and how they feel.  We want participants to push themselves to new limits, but not beyond what caution and good sense tell them.

We say and repeat it every trip…the cycling journeys will only be successful if everyone comes back safe and sound.  Participant safety is the first and foremost important goal of successful rides.  So far, so good.  Let’s keep it that way.



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