Our cover model today, former St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran, is a living billboard for bike helmets. The 2010 cycling accident that put her in a coma for nearly two weeks would have been fatal, her doctor says, if not for her helmet.
She's in good company. After I shared the story of my own low-speed tumble last month, a number of you wrote to tell me about spills in which you cracked your helmets — but not your skulls.
Still, there's a lot more to safe cycling than a good helmet worn properly.
I was reminded of this as I was in my car pulling out of the dry cleaners on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I was turning right onto Fourth Street in St. Petersburg, so I looked to the left for oncoming traffic in the three southbound lanes. Seeing none, I started to go.
What I didn't see was the cyclist zooming in from the right. If not for the fact that because my radio was off I heard him yell at me, I might not have stopped in time.
He kept going, seemingly unfazed. Perhaps this kind of thing happens to you a lot when you ride a bike in the direction against traffic.
I, on the other hand, had to stop and breathe deeply to calm my pounding heart. Carefully, slowly, I went on my way, scolding myself for nearly taking out a fellow cyclist.
Yes, he was going north on the south-bound side of the road, and that's a bad idea. Did your mother tell you to ride against traffic so cars see you? Forgive me, but if so, your mother was wrong. There's just no way to avoid a collision if a bike and a car are in the same lane moving in opposite directions and there's no space to swerve away.
But in my close encounter at the dry cleaners, the cyclist was riding on the sidewalk. According to state statute, cyclists (like pedestrians) can go in either direction on any sidewalk. Now, it should also be said that such cyclists should ride slowly and carefully, and this fellow didn't seem particularly cautious to me, especially because he wasn't wearing a helmet.
But I was in the wrong. I was looking only for the traffic I expected, not a fast-moving cyclist on a sidewalk not usually frequented by bikes.
If I could find that guy and talk to him, I might mention the helmet thing. But I also would thank him.
First, for yelling at me. That saved us both a lot of misery.
Second, for making me a better driver.
And third, for making me a better cyclist.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how important it is for cyclists to make ourselves as visible to motorists as we can. And that means taking our rightful place on the roads.
I generally don't ride on sidewalks. Pedestrians and small children on trikes tend to inhabit that space. The surface can be uneven. And, as my experience demonstrates, curb cuts and unwary motorists can be killers.
But in the past, I have tended to ride as close as possible to the edge of the road so cars could get around me.
Yet my attempt at courtesy could have been dangerous. Gravel, broken glass and other detritus collect at road edges. Storm grates can trap a skinny bike tire. Pavement gets crumbly at the edge. And a glancing blow between bike tire and curb can send riders sprawling into the traffic they so carefully seek to avoid.
So now I stay to the right, but only on solid pavement, "where you can ride without increased danger of falls, jolts or blowouts,'' as John S. Allen writes in a wonderful little booklet called Florida Bicycling Street Smarts, which you can get from the Florida Bicycle Association (floridabicycle.org/publications).
Allen reminds us that cyclists have every right to use the roads. But he also counsels cyclists to be courteous, predictable (no swerving around, running through stop signs, etc.) and confident.
That last point, by the way, comes with experience, practice and the kind of knowledge you'll find in his 48-page booklet. Allen offers excellent suggestions for learning safety maneuvers, like stopping quickly, in an empty parking lot so your skills will be sharp if called upon.
And as cyclists and motorists can agree, your skills will be called upon — just when you least expect it.