Spring is a tragic time to be cooped up in a car for any part of the day. If you’re reading this because you’re thinking about starting to bike to school, or if you’ve developed ambitions to someday run the Chuckanut 50k, that’s fantastic. While the running and cycling worlds may seem exclusive and obnoxious on the surface, they are both extremely supportive communities that will be thrilled to have you. The trick is to make sure you don’t get yourself killed. First, let’s address cycling.
This isn’t just for beginners, a lot of people who have been commuting on bike for years have done a lot of things wrong the whole time. Here’s what I’m not going to tell you to do: I’m not going to tell you to go to your local bike shop and buy a bunch of neon spandex, elbow pads and those dinky little mirrors that you can attach to your bike helmet. Shops would be happy to sell you all kinds of junk in the name of safety, but the single most important piece of safety equipment you can find at a bike shop should be completely free, sitting in a neat stack somewhere near the cash register: A Bellingham bike route map.
It doesn’t matter how many layers of neon green you wear, how effectively you signal, how fast you ride or even how good you look, if you ride on dangerous streets, you will upset drivers and the distracted ones will hit you. After spending my entire high school life crisscrossing a major metropolitan area on everything from my mother’s old touring bike to a brake-less track bike, I found that the best way to avoid accidents is to find routes that include bike lanes as much as possible, and when those aren’t available, look for quiet neighborhood streets that connect the bike routes. An extra few blocks of riding is more than worth avoiding a battle with cars trying to swerve around you at 35 mph. Plus you get to spend that much more time outside on your bike, which should be a positive thing.
The only thing worse than fighting through traffic on streets like Lakeway Drive is riding the sidewalk alongside it. Unless you are a five-year-old on a big wheel, you should never be rolling on a sidewalk. It’s an extremely dangerous thing to do, firstly because you are a threat to pedestrians and secondly because cars don’t expect you to be there. Plus, you will look ridiculous and end up traveling really slow. Stay off of the sidewalks. Please.
If you’re going to ride at night, you need more than reflectors, you need lights. Big, powerful ones that flash and blink a lot. You need a red one [or two or three] on the back and a white one [or two or three] on the front. If you ride at night without lights, you’re almost asking to get hit, no matter what religion or lucky charm you’ve put your faith in.
Whether you’re running or biking, an important safety tip is to make eye contact with drivers. There are a million moments during running or riding when you find yourself playing an awkward game with a car at an intersection, waiting to see if they’re going to let you go through. The best rule I’ve come up with for these sorts of situations is to do everything you can to look through that windshield until you catch eyes with the driver. Always remember that cars are like giant, steel squirrels: distracted, jumpy, easily frightened and thinking about nuts. Or at least something other than the task at hand.
When it comes to running, I have less advice to offer, because running should be a pretty safe sport. If you are running at night, wear a headlamp. Do everything you can to stay off the streets and run on any of the incredible trails Bellingham has to offer. Be cautious when approaching the ends of alleys, because drivers tend to stop perfectly in the middle of the sidewalk when exiting those alleys.
Keep an eye out for rabid raccoons. Whatever you do, make sure that it makes you feel good. Don’t just ride a bike to save gas, ride a bike to get that wind in your hair [through the holes in your helmet]. Don’t just run to lose weight, run because you’re a human being whose species has been running for the last 10,000 years and it feels fantastic. You’ll thank yourself.