Even With Good Bike Plan, A Lot Is Up To The Cyclist


Los Alamos

With the Laboratory beginning work on a site-wide bike plan, the County having just received Bronze level bicycle-friendly community status, and a plethora of good road and trail riding in Los Alamos and surrounding areas, there is a lot for local bicyclists to cheer about. That said, whether one is riding for fun, utility, or both, a lot still depends on the engagement and awareness of the rider in order to get out and back with the rubber side consistently down.

A road bike in battle dress for the ride up the ski hill with appropriate gears for an old guy and a light wheelset. Courtesy photo

For fun, a bicycle need not be festooned with lights, fenders, or other utility stuff unless one plans on riding where that stuff is necessary. Fenders don’t make a lot of sense in a desert environment but lights might be handy, if not mandatory, if riding before or after work during dawn or dusk hours.

Gears appropriate for topography and one’s strength and level of fitness are the difference between fun and misery.

Salsa LaCruz cross bike/commuter for winter commuting with dress heavier wheels and light knobbies, fenders, reflectors and lights with lower wide range (11-34; 46-34) gearing and disk brakes. Courtesy photo

As is proper bike fit and good saddle/handlebar choices. Having a bike that has passed the ABC quick check  (don’t forget your patches and tool kit) and sporting a rider prepared for potential inclement weather (I once was stuck in the Jemez in summer bicycling spandex as the temperature dropped by 30 degrees and hail pelted me until I found a rock outcrop to hide under) and who is competent at the handlebars is a must. Fun riding is often done in low traffic conditions but one must still be situationally-aware and know how to dance with cars.

And not to be left out…

A bicycle equipped for the range of conditions one can expect during the commute to and from the salt mines. Courtesy photo

Commuting or utility riding is a little more challenging. A rider must be ready to work with heavier traffic if one is working at a location where a lot of other people are also headed, such as LANL. One can expect a range of conditions including separated bike paths or sidewalks, bike lanes, or plain old roads that must be shared. Good bike handling skills, situational awareness, and a respect for traffic law and other users (motorists, pedestrians, fellow cyclists) go a long way toward keeping one upright and out of trouble of one’s own or other people’s making. I’ve avoided crashes with situational awareness and an ability to execute instant turns and emergency stops. Having a bicycle equipped for the range of conditions one can expect during the commute to and from the salt mines is important: rain, snow, wind, darkness, rough roads, or what have you.

Full dress commuter with fenders, etc. Courtesy photo

Effective commuting usually means more of a “utility” bike rather than a gossamer racer. My choices are touring or cyclecross bikes since they are more easily fit with fenders (to ward off rain and slush), larger and burlier tires (that can shed debris and possibly get you home in some snow or after hitting a pothole) and where you are not heartbroken over festooning a featherweight carbon bike with lights, reflectors, fenders, drop tanks, bomb racks, and a luggage rack to carry stuff. Plus, a longer wheelbase bike is more stable steering and, depending on chainstay length, can have more room between the backs of your feet and the panniers you might hang on a rear rack. These bikes can also be fit with a variety of tire widths and wide range gear trains useful for hauling you, your stuff, and a fully loaded bike back and forth to the factory.

Paying attention to the Five Layers of Safety is pretty important and puts a lot of stuff in context.  Its about being competent and effectively utilizing your skills, situational awareness, and the amazing abilities of your highly maneuverable bicycle to keep you out of trouble. Its also where the “wear a helmet” campaigns get it bass-ackwards. A helmet is the innermost layer of safety and you should hopefully never have adversity pierce those other four layers. Using your helmet up in a crash should be an extremely rare event (unless you are a gonzo mountainbiker or similar) but hitting your head can be a high consequence event. Avoid smacking your bare skull on something hard such as Mr. Pavement. Traumatic Brain Injury ain’t fun and I have indeed experienced it, quite predictably, back when I was an inexperienced cyclist riding in traffic. Nearly ended my budding career as a scientist, if not my life.

Safe and effective cycling is a combination of good local policies and infrastructure, effective enforcement of traffic laws to keep people honest behind the wheel and handlebars, education/training so we all react appropriately when necessary, and finally, making use of the grey matter between the ears to integrate all of that within the scope of the bicyclist and his or her steed. Eventually, it all comes down to looking out for #1 and the best person to do that is #1.

Editor’s Note: Khal Spencer is a League of American Bicyclists instructor and served on the Transportation Board and 2017 bicycle plan advisory committee. As both a past policy advisor and avid bicyclist, he wishes to thank all of those who were involved in making Los Alamos a Bronze level bicycle-friendly community.