March 22, 2014

Commuter Season - can you see me now?

Spring.... ahhh, spring!  Finally!

That means commuter season is upon us...!
Sure, there are some - used-ta be me - die-hards out there for whom the season never stops, but, for the rest of the 90%, this is when we dust ourselves off and re-mount for the next nine months.  It's time to get your steed, and yourself, ready:

Please give your local bike shops a chance to earn your business.  The one GIANT thing your Amazon account can't get you is the vast compendium of experience, class, expertise and genuine, hands-on customer service which our local shops deliver.  For the southern KC-area, I highly recommend the following, in no particular order:

Either shop has a great selection of racks, bags, front & rear lights, locks, clothing, and knowledge to help make your commuting experience a success.  Check them out!

If you're not in the immediate area, however, or they just can't get it, check this out:  first off, I didn't even know Amazon HAD such a thing, but it's pretty slick - and sorta how I'd set up my own fantasy bike-store that I'll own in the future:

Amazon's Bike Commuter Store

Now that you know where to go... today, I'll focusing on a few quick tips:  
This episode:  reflectivity and safety.

1)  Reflectivity is good, and passive:  you don't
need to do anything other than employ its use to gain the benefits... no batteries to maintain, nothing to think about after the installation or purchase.

Reflectivity, however, has an important factor to consider:  approaching vehicle low-beams cast light out and downward as they extend away from the vehicle to which they are mounted.  This is designed to prevent blinding oncoming traffic, of course.  Therefore, as a vehicle approaches from the cyclist's rear, the farthest-away portion of the headlight beam is only illuminating the ground.  As the vehicle closes in, the light will "rise" from the ground up, illuminating the lowest items on you and your bike long before it illuminates your back, or your head, until finally illuminating everything - but, ONLY AS HIGH as the headlight itself, with some minor spill-light illuminating things above that.  Therefore, ONLY with approaching high-beams will anything above a cyclist's waist be fully illuminated.  Ergo, the lowest piece of reflective tape or gear on your bike or body will begin reflecting light back to oncoming traffic before anything above it.  This becomes crucial -- distance immediately translates to time, here; the sooner you become visible, the longer a motorist will have to react to your presence.  The farther up from the ground you or your bicycle's first item of reflective gear, conversely, the longer it will take for a motorist to "see" you.  Granted, any cyclist worth their salt will have a red LED taillight announcing their presence LONG before a vehicle's headlights illuminate them (more on that below) - however, the reflective gear will definitively differentiate you from, say, a moped or slow-moving-vehicle, and give motorists a better fix on your position on the road - it fills in the gaps which your taillight only hints to.

  Ankle Bands then, are perhaps the most important piece of reflective gear you can use.  The up and down motion of a cyclist's legs while pedaling is not mimicked by anything else on the roads - and it prevents you from appearing to be a lavishly-decorated mailbox or sign-post.  Being low on your body, and (on downstroke) lower than anything else on your bike, they catch approaching headlight beams from the front and rear before anything else you have.  Conveniently, reflective ankle-bands are the lightest, smallest, easiest-to-pack, cheapest, and most versatile piece you can buy.  Get a couple pairs, use them to secure extra layers, or your rain jacket.  Keep a pair in the seat bag, just in case.  If you read no farther, and do nothing else recommended in this post, just get some reflective ankle-bands.  

- Reflective tape on the bike.  If you happen to forget the ankle bands, this will keep you covered.  Applying white reflective tape (the most efficient color) to the backs of your seat-stays, down low, and at least 3" worth in length, will likely be the second thing vehicle headlights will catch.  Aesthetically, some won't agree with this - so, I offer a tip I've long stood by:  if you value your paint more than your safety, that's fine:  but, consider applying electrical tape to your frame first, then - with some trimming - apply the reflective tape to the surface of the electrical tape.  It will stay in place just fine, and if you want to remove it, the tape will peel off quickly and cleanly -- bare reflective tape is a bit tough to remove.  Further, some companies offer transparent reflective tape - so you can keep your ride looking un-altered, but enjoy the safety benefits of the tape after dark.  Another trick involves applying reflective tape to the side surfaces or the inside surface of your front and rear rims; this offers a unique and cycling-specific indicator of both position and relative speed.  Motorists will be able to gauge if you are at-speed, or coming to a stop, by the rotational, pulsing motion of your wheels rotating.  

- Reflective Triangles and vests.  These items are often employed for daytime and nighttime benefits, and some clubs require the vest these days.  Not a bad thing.  There are cycling-specific vests available, but your contractor-grade vests are far cheaper and work the same, if not a touch better.  Look for OHSA, ANSI or EN-471 approvals.  These are similar to the SNELL ratings for helmets, where-in a $20 generic helmet must meet the same safety rating as a $250 super-light racing lid.  I've seen vests as cheap as $5.00 - so, you really don't have many excuses here.  YES - it will likely be the LAST thing a motorist's headlights will illuminate, but, nothing gains a motorist's respect faster than a highway worker - if for no other reason than the high fines involved should they strike one.  Adding this to your arsenal definitively advertises your humanity, and fills in the final visual gap as cars approach from behind.  Triangles work in much the same way, but can be mounted lower - and their usual neon-yellow tape offset against orange mesh makes them highly-effective daytime markers.  They're cheap, light-weight, and can be adapted to rack trunks, seat-bags, or even zip-tied to a clothing clip and worn on one's back jersey pocket or shorts waist-band.  

Of course, if you can get a taillight with a built-in red reflector, all the better -- but, DO have a taillight.  What kind isn't as important as the following two items, however, and I've witnessed at least seven examples this week alone that do not meet these simple steps:

1)  AIM YOUR TAILLIGHT.   If it's pointing at the ground, or the sky, or left/right - it won't be effective.  Many lights these days use optics to increase output - which narrows their beam-width.  If it's only a degree or so off-axis to the viewer, it's nearly invisible - or at least a LOT dimmer.  This problem is totally preventable with some patience and time -- aim your light so the beam is level to the ground, and pointing straight-back, in-line with the long axis of your bike.  

2)  RUN FRESH BATTERIES.  I have witnessed in this same short period mentioned above some of the weakest, most anemic taillight beams -- some aimed correctly, some not.  No excuses here: check your batteries, and carry spares if you're planning to be out for a while.  Especially if there is no built-in reflector, your taillight is useless if the batteries are flat.  In some cases this week, I have come up on other cyclists in the dark and was not even aware they had a taillight at all until I got within mere feet of them.  That's at bicycle speeds... in a car, well... you get the idea.    

Curiously, some of the same cyclists I came across with miss-aimed and nearly dead taillights had AMAZING front lights mounted... so, I'm confused why announcing your presence to motorists on the other side of the road is apparently more important than those that will pass you from behind within a few feet.  

That's all for now, folks ---- it's a good starting place.  Take a good look at your rig, and make a few adjustments if needed -- but, above all else, ride safe out there!

Thanks for reading!

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