The cycling season is more or less properly underway for me and Chris. We’ve had a handful of outings this year, but have been hampered by one or other of bad weather, work or illness, so are quite late getting into a regular riding routine this year.
We were driving back from Gueret a couple of weeks back, going into and out of patches of shade and bright sunlight, and I mentioned to Chris how, when we were on our bikes in such a situation, I always felt worried about a car coming up from behind not seeing us. Chris agreed that he felt vulnerable too, so back home he started searching for something to increase our safety.
First up, new helmets. We realised our current ones are pretty ancient, and mine took a hard rap last year when I fell. I was getting off my bike on a gravelly patch at the bottom of a very short, steep slope that rises from the Petite Creuse towards Le Pont, just outside Boussac. My foot slipped from under me, and down I went. Thunk. My butt and helmet took the brunt. You’re meant to replace a helmet after it’s received a whack, but neither of us thought of that at the time. Now, however, we did remember! So Chris ordered us a Starvos Bontrager helmet each. His focus had been on safety features in his search, whilst I had specifically demanded a bright pink helmet, to go with my white, black and pink cycling top and my pink cycling shoes. I’m not normally so shallow, but I rather fancied looking smartly colour co-ordinated on my bike! (Which is blue… hmm.) These helmets incorporate a Swedish ‘brain protection system’ which consists of providing a low friction layer between helmet and head. This is particularly good when protecting against rotational motion, which is what your head will encounter when you fall sideways off a bike. It hits at an angle. Testing on helmets is traditionally done by dropping a helmeted dummy vertically onto a flat surface, which isn’t realistic at all.
Next, lights. We don’t ride at night but lights catch the eye even in broad daylight. Chris came across the Garmin Varia radar light. These are around €150 each, so a bit of an investment, but we figured it would be money well spent. There isn’t a lot of traffic on the quiet, rural roads we stick to when cycling but more often than not there’s at least one too-close-for-comfort encounter on a trip. Cars blast by far too close, in either direction but especially when overtaking. They’re meant to leave 1.5 metres between the cyclist’s left shoulder and their vehicle, but if it’s more than a quarter of that we’re doing well. A survey in Australia revealed that 41% of motorists considered cyclists as “less than human”, allowing them to justify aggressive behaviour toward people on bikes. Cyclists are annoyances, little better than “cockroaches on wheels”. This same study revealed that 17% of motorists had, within the last year, intentionally blocked cyclists with their cars, 11% had purposely driven too close to them and 9% had cut them up. Any of those stupid, insupportable actions could have resulted in a dead cyclist.
Our Garmin Varia lights stand guard from our bike racks. (They can also be fitted on a seat stem if you don’t have a rack.) When they sense a car approaching, they begin to flash. They repeat a couple of slow flashing patterns, then, as the car gets closer, they flash with increasing frequency and ferocity until it has passed. For our trial run with them yesterday – into Boussac to collect our new helmets from the Pointe Relais at Carrefour – we had them shining all the time. (You can choose a setting that means they only come on and begin the flashing sequence when they sense a vehicle approaching.) It’s a good bright light. We took it in turns to admire each other’s.
The real test came when traffic materialised. Thursday is market day in Boussac, so there are more cars on the road as this, like all country markets, is very popular with the local elderly population for whom it’s a major social occasion. Our lights flashed as promised, and frankly, we couldn’t believe the reaction. Not only did drivers lift their foot from the accelerator pedal, something that we’ve rarely encountered before, but some even moved that foot onto the clutch and changed down a gear in order to pass us more slowly. Major breakthrough! Cars definitely seemed to give us a wider margin, and a significant proportion even indicated whilst overtaking. That’s quite something given that there’s an infuriating general trend in France at present to refuse point-blankedly to employ a car indicator at any time. In conclusion, motorists showed us consideration.
Why such a good result? We suspect that it’s a combination of greater visibility (despite bright cycling clothes and good weather) and a Pavlovian cautionary reaction of drivers towards red lights in general, and flashing ones in particular. These lights catch the attention. No, they demand it. They add gravitas. They’re saying “Don’t mess with me.”
We now feel much better equipped for our bike rides. You can never safeguard against stupidity, unfortunately. On our ride yesterday a chap with a hedge trimmer, who’d been standing in the middle of the road chatting to a car driver, suddenly stepped out without looking into my path as I was going around the obstacle he and the vehicle presented. But we’ll take what measures we can in an increasingly dangerous world.
Subscribe via RSS