It Fell From the Sky
This article is reprinted from August 2006 WheelPeople. Images were added.
We were pedaling along one of those bucolic country roads that make the Boston Area such a delight for cyclists when a loud plop sound filled the air and brought us to an emergency stop. Right in front of us, just a few feet away, a 300-foot stretch of overhead telephone cable had fallen to the pavement. It was as if King Kong himself grabbed the cable and in a fury wrestled it to the ground. We were not injured and went our merry way, but had our timing been off by seconds, the consequences would not have been pretty. Then a few weeks later, on another ride with another rider, on a different road, a squirrel fell from an overhanging tree without warning, landing just inches from us. He was as startled as we were, and scurried away.
With all the safety issues that confront a cyclist, how do you anticipate squirrels falling out of overhead trees? You obviously can't, but you must recognize that cycling is a sport where safety is paramount, and participants must be vigilant and constantly on the alert for hazards. There's more to safe cycling than remembering a few basic guidelines--it means developing a mindset that keeps the safety mission uppermost in your thoughts so that you are in fact prepared for the falling squirrel and any other mishap that might cross your path. The act of foreseeing, expecting and taking measures against possible future exposure to risk is common in sports. It's the downhill skier, ever watchful for patches of ice or exposed terrain. It's the diver who must be mindful of the hazards of the marine environment. And it's the cyclist who must never forget that he/she shares the road and that noticing potential dangers requires awareness and anticipation.
You share the road. You are riding along minding your own business on a beautiful country road and enjoying the experience. Remember that you do not have exclusive use of the roadway and that at any moment you may have to deal with an approaching motorist, cyclist, or pedestrian. Know your rights and the rights of others, and remember the simple rules. Bicyclists and motorists are both responsible for bicycle safety. Many bicycle-motor vehicle collisions are attributed to various bicyclist behaviors, such as disregarding a traffic control sign or signal, and others are attributed to motorist behaviors, such as inattention and distraction. Motorists might merge across the path of a cyclist, and even run stop signs and red lights. These actions can't always be predicted, but anticipating the possibility allows a cyclist to plan an evasive response in advance. Stay aware of your surroundings, and constantly check traffic conditions especially when changing lanes or turning onto another roadway. While you are encouraged to ride predictably and lawfully, you cannot assume that others will always obey the rules.
Be alert! You cannot always predict when a stray animal or even another cyclist will cross your path, or when other unexpected events will require you to act immediately to avoid danger. The dog standing by the side of the road, may suddenly want to race alongside you. Anticipate events that could cause you harm and ride defensively in uncertain circumstances. Being alert means staying on top of the situation, and monitoring the area ahead of you for signs of potential danger. It means being aware that conditions could turn quickly and being prepared to deal with them. Keep your eyes moving, taking in the big picture, including scanning as far ahead as possible. If you see the potential for a bad situation to develop, plan your course of action so that, if you have to, you can act quickly and appropriately. No ride is "risk free", but through exercising care and anticipation, you will be safer. Be a confident and watchful cyclist--alert, not alarmed.
Imperfect Situations. A ride on a pleasant spring day along a deserted country road can be a delight, but we do not have full control of the environment and must deal with changes beyond our control. Rain, for example, can come without warning and be accompanied by decreased visibility, and reduced braking. The ride may take longer than anticipated and you may suddenly be confronted with decreased visibility as night approaches. A nearly empty road starts filling with vehicles as afternoon rush hour traffic mounts. An emergency vehicle comes out of nowhere and motorists scurry for the shoulder, perhaps right across your path. Be prepared to deal with such situations and have contingency plans in case they arise. Make your own decision--don't just follow others.