By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
My junior year of college, I spent a semester enrolled at a university in Mérida, Mexico. In part, I considered it an experiment in what would happen if I went out in the Real World where sports (forever and always swimming and at the time only recently, cycling) weren’t at the center of my universe. It took less than a month to answer that question as I befriended a few Mexican triathletes who found me a loaner bike, let me join their training group, and invited me on their race trips. When they gave me the bike, however, they also gave me one very important piece of advice: “Nunca rodas solita en el Periférico”. Never ride alone in Periférico.
Periférico was the highway that encircled Mérida. While riding at the beach an hour’s drive away was fine, their last friend who rode alone in Periferico was stopped by a truck of ne’er-do-wells who stole his bike and sunglasses and left him stranded on the side of the road. It wasn’t very hard for me to follow this advice. Once I returned home, however, and throughout my professional cycling career, only very rarely was solo riding a conscious safety concern.
Plenty of blogs and magazines have published lists of ways for runners (particularly females) to stay safe, but the topic isn’t as widely discussed for cyclists. When a colleague recently pointed out the unique ability of the cyclist to get very far away from civilization in shoes incredibly poorly suited for either fighting or fleeing while necessarily attached to several thousands of dollars worth of equipment, I was startled by the obvious argument and curious as to whether others felt unsafe out riding. Unsafe, that is, not because of cars but as a matter of personal safety.
According to a week of admittedly unscientific research: not usually. By and large, hostile motor vehicles aside, cyclists seem to fear wildlife (anything from squirrels to bears) far more than predatory humans. Of course, last week was also when veteran pro Oscar Sevilla was violently attacked in his hometown in Colombia. “It happened to me in the place I least expected,” Sevilla said later.
Should we be more concerned about personal safety while riding? Attacks on cyclists aren’t terribly common, but they have happened – sometimes on roads, sometimes in neighborhoods, sometimes in parks or on trails. Regardless of our perceived odds, it is worth considering some simple things we can do to stay safe on our bikes. One of the great parts about cycling is the freedom to jaunt off on an impromptu solo adventure – and in most places we ride, I certainly wouldn’t advocate giving the habit. That being said, here are a few tips to keep things safe when you venture out alone on two wheels.
Recruit virtual support
Consider wearing a RoadID or some other identification badge that lists emergency contacts and important medical history. My mom even has a simple handwritten sticker inside of her helmet, so it doesn’t have to be expensive or complex. Make sure that someone knows roughly where you are going and when you will be back. My dad and I have a deal when my mom is out of town that he lets me know when to expect a “safe return” text message when he goes on mountain adventures. Leave a note for a roommate or send a message to a friend. If you’re tech savvy, there are even options for apps that let pre-selected contacts track your progress on GPS such as BSafe, Glympse, or even “find my iPhone”. A few of the options I researched can even send an alert to your contacts if you are stopped for more than five minutes – be careful with the coffee stops with that one.
Lose the shoes
I have decided I am indeed a fan of the idea of getting rid of your cleats as soon as possible – if you’ve got a triathlete friend in your network, they might even be able to offer some hot tips on how to do it on the fly. Also on that topic of equipment – if you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, I know how much your bike is worth and I know that it means even more to you than the money. For goodness’ sake though – don’t try to protect your bike. There will be others.
Know your route and the surrounding area well so that you give an aura of confidence in your direction – and can skillfully detour if necessary. Consider learning a few basic self-defense moves. They could save you in a sticky situation and allow you to feel more generally confident and secure regardless.
► Free Cycling Training Assessment Quiz
Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.
Particularly if you are a bike commuter (and thus more likely to be out after dark) consider whether your daylight route is appropriate at night. Will other people be around? Is it well lit? Sometimes it can be better to divert to a busier road (don’t forget your lights!) or ride a chunk (politely) on a sidewalk if you find yourself somewhere you feel uncomfortable. If you’re out on a long ride, consider if you will be going through areas without cell phone service – and whether you’d rather save those areas for when you have a companion.
Be sure that you have the tools and skills to fix a flat or a simple mechanical so that you don’t have to go looking for help. Carry a well-charged phone, and stash a small light stashed in case you’re caught out after dark. Some folks even advocate carrying pepper spray. I confess that the thought had never actually entered my mind, but that doesn’t mean it is a terrible idea – though I don’t know what happens to pepper spray if you crash on it. Several companies make sleek containers you can strap directly to your bike.
For those of you worries about the wilder hazards out there, here are some tips from personal experience:
- Cows – be very careful of riding a path that goes between a mama and her baby.
- Deer – watch out for dawn and dusk, take it easy on fast canyon descents.
- Squirrels – hit them dead on. Usually you will win.
- Geese – You think it’s funny? They hiss and travel in packs. Don’t let them bite you. Run away (see: “lose the shoes”).
Take care, enjoy the ride and stay safe out there!
► FREE Mini-Course: Learn How to Maximize Your Limited Training Time
Learn step-by-step how to overcome limited training time and get faster. Walk away with a personalized plan to increase your performance.