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For a cyclist, the ride rules

I often ride with the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and its sister triathlon club, the Mad Dogs. We usually start at North Shore Pool and go either north or south for 20 miles or so. On Sundays, we meet at the main branch of the St. Petersburg Public Library and go to Clearwater and back in a large pack.

I wasn't along on the ride Sunday when a car swerved into the pack and injured 14 cyclists, several seriously, on 30th Avenue N. It can be no surprise when a cyclist is hit by a motor vehicle in Tampa Bay, among the most dangerous places to ride in Florida. Yet what happened Sunday did surprise me.

Other experienced cyclists may different opinions, so I'll speak only for myself. When I ride with a pack I usually worry very little about automobile traffic. In a pack, a cyclist has visibility. Riding two abreast (which is the rule cyclists generally follow, though not always), we're like a colorful 100-foot caterpillar rolling down the street. Safety in numbers, is what I tell myself.

Of course, anyone who rides in a pack is alive to the possibility of injury. It comes with the territory. After all, very tender skin and bone and brain is perched atop a 20-pound hunk of aluminum, steel and rubber. Pavement and Detroit steel are notoriously unforgiving.

That said, the greatest danger for a pack rider is other riders. In a pack, we draft. I'm only inches behind the rider in front of me. Imagine a flock of migrating geese not in the air but on bikes. The riders at the front of the pack, setting the pace, bear the burden of riding into the wind. Those of us behind, riding in the vacuum, sucked along, conserve energy.

When the riders in front tire, others take their places.

Riding in a pack is one of my favorite things. When I'm with a good group of experienced cyclists, the ride is utterly exhilarating. I ride faster and can go longer than when I'm alone. For an hour or so, I feel like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France (but even Lance had a spill Sunday).

Those of us who ride in a pack try to have our wits about us. One mistake, one miscalculation, may cause an accident. In a pack, I focus not only on pedaling and breathing and automobile traffic but on the cyclist in front of me. Above all I don't want to hit his back wheel with my front wheel. I'll go down and many riders behind me will go down, too. I'm told a broken collarbone hurts like the devil.

I have been riding seriously for about a decade. These days I squeeze in 120 miles a week. I've had a few falls over the years, mostly scraped elbows and knees, but no broken bones. I've never had accident while riding in a pack. Just lucky, I guess.

When I ride alone, I am a raw nerve in Lycra. Like all experienced cyclists, I trust no car and no pedestrian. That guy who just motored past? I assume he will suddenly make a right turn into my path. Defensive cycling is the most important skill a rider brings to the pavement.

Sometimes I think the most dangerous place I ever ride is the Pinellas Trail, the 35-mile path connecting St. Petersburg with Tarpon Springs. Almost every time out I have to evade pedestrians, skaters and rookie cyclists who are oblivious to general safety and basic common sense.

I feel safer on the street in a bike pack. Generally, we're the most safety-minded people on two wheels. We always wear helmets. We always ride with traffic, never against it. If we absolutely must ride at night, we have lights fore and aft. We never ride while wearing headphones. If a light turns red, we stop. When we're going to turn, we signal.

We chatter among ourselves like mockingbirds. Riders in the front communicate possible problems ahead to the riders behind. "Car up." "Red light." "Bump!" Or whatever. Riders behind yell "Car back!" as a vehicle approaches from the rear. And the word is passed up the line.

We use a variety of hand signals. If I'm stopping, not only do I yell my intentions, I position my open palm on my hip. If I feel the need to pass another cyclist, I yell "I'm on your left."

We do everything we can to stay safe.

But we're human; we're vulnerable; we're flesh and bone. A tree can fall on us as we pass. We can fall into a just-opened sinkhole. If a motor vehicle suddenly veers into the pack, there's nothing much we can do but pray.

Riding a bike, like riding a motorcycle or inline skating or flying in a small airplane, is a calculated risk. It's one that many of us will continue to take. When we ride, we feel alive.