Becoming a Biker in L.A.: Learning “Confident City Cycling”

Since making my decision to become a cyclist in L.A., one piece of advice I've received over and over is to take a cycling class prior to taking my bike out for a spin on L.A's roads.

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Becoming a “Confident City Cyclist”

Since making my decision to become a cyclist in L.A., one piece of advice I’ve received over and over is to take a cycling class prior to taking my bike out for a spin on L.A’s roads. Like many people, I first learned how to ride a bike as a child in the suburbs and have barely ridden since. So I can’t say my long-ago graduation from training wheels prepared me for sharing the streets with L.A.’s notorious drivers. Besides, it seems to make a lot of sense to have some sort of training before biking on the same roads that require drivers to go through hours of paperwork and driver training.

After a little bit of research I stumbled upon Sustainable Streets, a Santa Monica-based non-profit that offers free ‘Confident City Cycling’ and Bike Maintenance courses on the weekends. I signed up for their city cycling course to follow immediately after purchasing my first bike and took my first ride — in the comfort of the bike lanes on Broadway — directly to the classroom in Reed Park.

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Fatty Foods, Grumpy Cyclist

I joined a group from the non-profit TRUST South L.A.  an organization dedicated to improving South L.A.’s neighborhoods, part of which will include them passing on their cycling knowledge to kids in South L.A. There were also two women who were training for a long-distance bike ride and even a woman from Hollywood who was learning how to ride a bike for the first time.  “I just wanted to be outside,” she said, admitting that when she’s not commuting by bus, she tends “to stay inside.”

Ron Durgin, Executive Director of Sustainable Streets, taught the class with help from his associate Tim Wilcox. Ron outlined some basic safety guidelines and laws that cyclists must follow. He went around from person to person and made sure our helmets fit properly, showed us the legal requirements of riding at night in California, played videos demonstrating different traffic scenarios and broke us up into groups where we discussed what bike accessories were in the “need to have” vs. “good to have” category. We also all received 36-page manuals from the League of American Cyclists that outlined riding safety, riding etiquette and even a guide to enjoying bicycling (I didn’t know that would be a problem!). According to the guide, eating fatty foods and not pacing yourself properly can make for a grumpy cyclist.

A lot of the information was surprising and counterintuitive. And throughout the day I couldn’t help but think about how useful this information would be for motorists as well. It’s one thing to know as a cyclist what I’m supposed to do, but it would be great if the motorist knew the rules and challenges too (the information is in the DMV drivers handbook but that only gets viewed when you are learning and when you are re-learning — at traffic school!).

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Courtesy of League of American Cyclists

The Dangerous “Door Zone”

For example, I’d previously heard about the dangers of the “door zone,” from friends and colleagues who’d warned me that one of the biggest dangers for cyclists is being thrown into traffic by an opening door of a parked car. The problem is that a cyclist needs about 5 feet of space between the edge of a parked car and herself to be safely out of reach of opening doors, and many bike lanes are situated completely within a car door’s wingspan. So cyclists are advised to ride at the very left edge of the bike lane, on the line, or to just feel free to take up a whole lane if there aren’t any cars. But what is a motorist supposed to think when cyclists are seemingly disregarding the bike lanes specifically allocated for their use?

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Door zone bike lane. Image by Bicycling Matters

I suspect that this gray area is a cause for a lot of confusion and anxiety between motorists and cyclists.

After the classroom portion, we stepped outside and spent the rest of the day cycling around Santa Monica, which admittedly is quite advanced in terms of making its streets cyclist-friendly. But first, we all took our bikes outside in the open area of the park where we learned about the “ABC Check” that cyclists are recommended to perform every time before they ride.

ABC Check consists of:

A-Check your tires have enough air

B-Check your brakes work properly

C-Check your cranks and chains

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On The Road!

After everyone completed the ABC check, we set off for a two mile group ride to the bike campus in Santa Monica to practice some maneuvers. Group rides are a great way to get comfortable riding in busier traffic, especially when it comes to trickier aspects of city cycling like making unprotected left turns. Cycling with a crew bears out the “safety in numbers” idiom.

bike campus practice

We arrived at the lovely beach-adjacent bike campus located at the intersection of Ocean Ave. and Ocean Park Boulevard and learned how to ‘rock dodge’, perform emergency stops (which I was pretty horrendous at); cycle within narrow curved lines and check how effectively we could look behind ourselves while cycling in a straight line. We also ran through some potential traffic scenarios.

Then we took to traffic where we practiced riding without the comfort of a group or the confines of a bike campus. We practiced making left turns and cycling over sharrows on quieter streets and then took to busier traffic. I told myself before the class that I wouldn’t make a left turn through a chaotic intersection, but that’s just what I did. I made a left onto Lincoln Boulevard from Pico, and I lived to tell the tale!

At the end of the class we gathered and parked our bikes in Tacos Por Favor off of Olympic and 14th and took a multiple choice exam that tested everything we had learned that day. Then we enjoyed celebratory tacos and burritos. I passed!

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Takeaways From my Bike Class

1. You learn — by doing — the vital rules of the road, your rights and hazards as a cyclist; plus, you meet fellow riders!

2. The rules and rights of cyclists need greater emphasis in driver education.

3. Cycling on the road is more challenging (and fun) than your spin class. Stop driving to the gym!