Tips for staying safe on a bike tour...
Life is full of risk--it's inevitable. But we do risky things because they are part of a fulfilling life that we want to live...and so that we won't be haunted by that nagging "What if?" question when we get old.
What if I went skydiving on my friend's birthday?
What if I had taken that job at the start-up?
What if I rode my bike cross-country?
Riding a bicycle cross-country is risky business. I'm not going to lie to you. Distracted and aggressive drivers, foul weather, faulty equipment; there are plenty of ways for things to go awry while you are out there on the lonely roads. Though the risks of bike touring are real, the rewards are undeniable; seeing the stars at night, becoming in touch with nature, developing an intimate understanding of your home country. These were some of the life-changing aspects of my cross-country bike tour.
So even though bike touring can be scary at times, people shouldn't let their fears deter them from living a meaningful life. Be passionate and dreamy and motivated and all of that good stuff, but also be prepared. The good news about all this risk stuff is that there are ways to manage many of the risks that you will encounter while cycling 80 miles a day for weeks on end.
Based on my experience as a touring cyclist, I present to you my top five bike touring safety tips
1. Be seen on the roadways
Visibility is important. Like, really, really important. Drivers don't want to hit you almost as much as you don't want to be hit by them. If a driver can see you then they will usually do their best to avoid a collision. Wearing bright colored clothing with reflective material, having reflectors properly installed on your bike, using daytime blinking lights and strapping on a reflective triangle will increase the chances that you are seen. These suggestions apply at all times, not just when visibility is reduced (due to fog, riding at dusk/dawn, etc.). Even on sunny days, the reflective materials on your bike can help to catch the eyes of distracted drivers and thwart a collision.
2. Be able to see...everything
For that reason I strongly advocate that touring cyclists use a rear-view mirror mounted to their helmet or glasses. Being able to see what's coming up behind you not only gives you peace of mind, but it can save your tail. It's my impression that the helmet or glasses-mounted rear-views are superior to the handlebar-mounted rear-views because the former allow for a fuller range of vision (e.g. you can move your head to adjust your view) when compared to the latter (e.g. you can't move your handlebars to adjust your view). Note, the helmet or glasses-mounted rear-views do take some time to get used to. When you first start using them, you will find that your eye feels distracted by the mirror. Just give it some time and the device will begin to feel natural. The helmet-mounted rear-view I use is detachable, so I take it off while city-riding and reattach it when I get out into rural and suburban areas.
3. Stay hydrated
Bring more water than you think you will need. Have multiple bottle cages with squirt bottles and stash a hydration bladder in your backpack or pannier. While you are riding, don't wait to feel parched before you begin drinking. If you are feeling dry then it is already too late. Aside from the many obvious hazards of dehydration, you become fatigued and lose your mental sharpness. It is imperative to be alert at all times on shared roadways, and staying well-hydrated is key to that.
4. Respect the weather
Don't challenge Zeus, Poseidon, Helios, Aeolus or any of the other elements. You will lose. If the forecast is calling for stormy weather, consider taking a rest day. If you observe lightning or excessive gusts of wind, find indoor shelter. If the temperature starts inching above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, take a break and wait for it to cool off. Foul weather and extreme heat tend to take place in the afternoon. By getting an early start to your ride, hitting the road by 6:00 am or so, you have the dual benefit of generally more mild weather and beautiful morning scenery. Maybe you don't have to go as far as Marion, my riding partner who hit the road at 3:45 am one day in Kansas to avoid the sweltering heat, but I assure you that you won't regret the early start.
5. Wear a helmet
Helmets can be thought of as one of the cheapest insurance policies you will ever purchase in your life. For $35 to $200 you can potentially avoid millions of dollars in medical expenses. I assure you that you will at some point or another fall from your bike during your tour. You'll have a lapse in concentration, hit a pothole, bump into your riding partner, and down you'll go. Wearing a helmet will be the reason that the spill sets you back just a few minutes rather than ending your adventure.
Those are my suggestions. Please keep in mind that they are based largely on my experience riding cross-country. The stark reality is that there is nothing that anyone can do to ensure their safety 100% at all times. Anything that claims to be "risk-free" is phony. Nonetheless, with some hard work, insight and preparation, you can manage the risks and embark on your journey with the confidence that you need to succeed.
Disclaimer: Bikepacking, cycling and bike touring are inherently risky activities. Following the above suggestions offers absolutely no guarantee that the reader's journey will be "safe". By embarking on a bike tour, individuals assume full responsibility for their actions and any associated consequences, particularly those pertaining to their personal health.