Safety Corner, Getting Up to Speed

John Allen


Most often, we think of quick braking and swerving as ways to evade trouble on a bicycle. But what about acceleration? I mean, after all, you don’t match the acceleration of motorized vehicles on a bicycle. But that is exactly why learning to accelerate briskly is all the more important – to get across a wide intersection before the light changes; to cross a street at a stop sign when the gap in cross traffic is short; to evade a chasing canine. Brisk acceleration is not just for racers.

Being able to speed up smartly depends on how you slow down. Always to be prepared to speed up while slowing down. Shift down, step by step, pedaling light, keeping your cadence steady. Then if the traffic light turns green before you reach it, you are ready. Today’s shift levers allow you to keep a hand on a brake lever, even both hands, while shifting.

As you speed up, shift up step by step to keep a steady cadence.  I frequently out-accelerate younger, stronger cyclists on lighter bicycles. I have numerous opportunities to demonstrate this in city riding.

It does help to have a bicycle with a wide enough gear range for most conditions using only the rear derailleur. That simplifies matters. The cassette can easily be changed if this is not so with your bicycle. Two-tooth jumps at the top of the range, expanding out to three and four at the bottom, are good for acceleration. “Corn-cob” cassettes may work for racers in time trials on level ground, but not for acceleration.

My son Jacob and I set out recently to demonstrate shifting technique with video. I chose my Bike Friday Haul-a-Day cargo bike for the video shoot. It offers a convenient place to mount a video camera behind the rear hub. At 36 pounds, the Haul-a Day is the lightest cargo bike in production, but it is my heaviest bicycle, except for the tandem. I call the Haul-a-Day “The Beast”. It wouldn’t do me any favors in a sprinting contest. Neither would my 75-year-old legs. Still, by savvy use of the gears, I manage a respectable sprint on this bicycle.

With a half hour of shooting and many hours of editing, Jacob and I came up with the 2 ½ minute video here. Enjoy.  


John S. Allen is CRW Safety Coordinator, a certified CyclingSavvy Instructor and League Cycling Instructor and author of Bicycling Street Smarts.