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Guest post: Embracing fear (and tips to feel it less often)

Posted by on December 12th, 2017 at 10:08 am

Happiness is a new bike. 1990.
(Photos courtesy Eva Frazier)

This post was written by Eva Frazier, co-owner of Clever Cycles.

“I’m tired of being told to be safe/ride safe/stay safe. I want to have fun.”

I grew up in a quaint little town called Rhinebeck, about 90 miles north of New York City in the Hudson Valley. I started riding a bike as a little girl, somewhere around 3 years old. As soon as my folks let me, I started riding my bike to school. Most days I could beat the school bus, though, in the winter, my freshly washed hair would freeze on the way in. The bicycle was my ticket to freedom. Because I was living in a small town, I was allowed a wide territory to roam by myself, no questions asked. As long as I made it home by dinner, I could ride my bike anywhere I pleased. Most summer days I would go to the pool. Some days my dad, brother and I would take an 8 mile loop out to Rhinecliff and back. Sometimes I would ride up the Knollwood hill and then come flying back down, seeing how far I could coast before pedaling. I didn’t wear a helmet and all I carried was a puny little chain lock wrapped around my seatpost. Perhaps I was naive, or maybe I lived in some sort of paradise, but I never felt unsafe or scared.

Three wheels for my 3rd birthday. 1986.

Fast forward to now. I’ve been riding a bike for transportation and enjoyment for 30 years. At this point, my bicycle has put me in the ER once, and bucked me to the ground more than a handful of times. Never have I collided with a car, but perhaps, statistically, that day is still to come. There have been multiple close calls, a few of which have brought tears, a few have brought intense anger and harsh words, not to mention lewd gestures. I’ve come to a time in my life where I’ve lost my naiveté and sometimes get really scared while riding my bike. Gone are the carefree days of my childhood.

Fear: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

Fear is one of those feelings that we can’t control. An emotion that overtakes us before we can even think about it. It’s that gasp when you drop a knife close to your foot or an inner tube explodes. If it’s not a threat, then we can relax. If that fear is real, then we get riled up — that fight-or-flight response. Muscles tense, breath quickens, blood pressure rises, heart races and we’re ready to take on whatever threatens our survival. Sometimes this is just what’s needed to get away from a difficult situation, but too much reaction is detrimental, and sometimes can scar us in such a way that our fears control us. Let the fear control you and it becomes phobia.

Fear dictates the roads I take, the space that I give to other riders and drivers, the lights I use and the bikes I ride. I’ve come to the conclusion that fear is what keeps me alive, so I embrace it. I let it dictate, but not too loudly. I won’t let it keep me from riding. For more than a year I wouldn’t (maybe couldn’t) ride down the road that put me in the ER. With time, I overcame that–rationalization and statistics can only be so helpful–sometimes we just need time. That time can help define where fear is helpful and where it’s debilitating.

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I’m tired of being told to be safe/ride safe/stay safe. I want to have fun. Of course I have concern for my safety, but bicycles are fun. Bicycling is freedom. Bicycling is an act of rebellion. Uncaged and free to travel where we wish at the speed we like. We can take the lane or ride off on a dirt trail. We can act as pedestrians at a crosswalk or as a car in a turn lane. We can ride in en masse to disrupt or quietly take the sidestreets.

First time riding on my own. That’s my dad behind me. 1988.

Despite the occasional terrifying moment, bicycling is pretty fantastic. Fresh air, that feeling of freedom, the chill on your cheeks on a crisp winter day; these are the most joyful feelings where all senses are activated. I can’t imagine being caged in a car suffering through rush hour traffic day in and day out. I’d much rather be able to work out the day’s stress in my commute home. I prefer parking right up front and never worrying about how much money to put into the meter. Staying fit by riding to work and the grocery store is icing on the cake. Everyday I’m on my bike is a better day — rain, snow or blustery wind be damned.

All that being said, here are a few things to help make your ride safer and more fun:

1. Be observant. People often don’t signal their intentions, but if you hone your observational skills, you can usually interpret their next move. Trust that, and if someone looks like they’re slowing to make a turn, give them space. Better to avoid collisions than deal with the aftermath, or as the old timers say: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

2. Be visible. Get some good lights, but not those retina searing flashy jobs. Invest in some quality lights that put light on the road–ahead of you and behind. I personally have dynamo lights on all my bikes and am not sure how I lived without. They’re always on, never need charging and are never lost at the bottom of my bag. Try reflective tape and loud clothes if you’re so inclined. I still wear black (blame this classic camp song).

3. Allow yourself enough time. If you’re in a rush, you’re more likely to make rash decisions. If you give yourself time or allow yourself to be late, you’ll be more likely to ride safely and not rush through yellow lights and sketchy intersections.

4. Don’t blindly trust Google Maps. Trust your instincts. If you’re feeling uncomfortable or upset when you’re riding, it might be the route. Take roads that are slower and less trafficked. Side streets are your friend. For every busy street, there’s usually one a few blocks away that might have some stop signs, but will keep your blood pressure at a reasonable level. Some roads feel totally different at rush hour, so consider time of day as well. Ask someone who rides a lot for advice if you’re looking for alternative routes. Portland has some great bike maps that are helpful if you’re going somewhere new and want to see the options.

5. Get a more upright bike with wider tires. Since entering my third decade on this Earth, I’ve come to appreciate a more upright ride. One advantage is a clearer field of view without neck strain, another is a slower pace to allow better reaction time, tertiary is enjoyment. Wide tires mean I’m not afraid to ride on sewer grates or in the wet leaves when forced to take to the side of the road–they’re also super comfortable and don’t require topping off every three days.

6. Be nice. People tend to mirror those around them (save a few bad seeds). If you’re nice, people are more likely to be nice back. Smile and wave. Appreciate a kind gesture by passing it on. The jerks out there don’t deserve your attention. Often feel the need to give the finger? Wear mittens.

— Written by Eva Frazier: Bicyclist, shop owner, mitten-wearer.

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rachel bqAlex ReedinHello, KittyBrian Recent comment authors
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Alex Reedin
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Alex Reedin

“I’m tired of being told to be safe/ride safe/stay safe.” Me too! Whenever I am told this, I respond with “Drive safe!” (if the person is leaving by motor vehicle) or “Have fun!” (if the person is biking). I wish I could find a way to shoehorn in a diatribe about how biking has huge positive health benefits and the injury risk is almost negligible in comparison without it being a shoehorned-in diatribe 🙂

Jocelyn Gaudi Quarrell
Guest
Jocelyn Gaudi Quarrell

Thank you for writing this, Eva! I absolutely empathize and relate to your observations on fear when riding around town – and agree that taken as a whole, cycling is still the best transportation option available. Thanks for sharing your great tips! I’ve recently started to wave at cars when I feel fearful that they may not see me (or see me as a human) and it seems to help most situations.

Another tip to share: Find time and space to ride your bike away from cars. Whether singletrack or roads closed to cars, being able to let your guard down a bit and focus on the feels does a cyclist good mentally and physically!

axoplasm
Subscriber

> “ bicycles are fun”

Heck YEAH.

soren
Guest
soren

I enjoyed reading this piece and think it serves as a nice counterpoint to John Liu’s “expert” essays on safe cycling.

I do have a minor quibble with this:

“Be nice”

I’ve never heard someone admonish people walking to “be nice”. On the other hand, the cycling “other” is often told to be nice as if the mere act of cycling is somehow provocative.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

This is a great article! I think fear and caution around physical injury tend to increase as one grows older. I see it more as a general change of perspective than anything specific to cycling. There was plenty I did as a child or young adult that I look back on now and wonder how I managed to live past 18.

Joe
Guest
Joe

awesome thanks, I grew up in the 70’s with same vibes 🙂

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

Which will resume with a post on being visible.

wsbob
Guest

On number three:

“3. Allow yourself enough time.”

I suggest to include in that, be as well rested as you can before going out riding, and if you do have to ride tired and fatigued, try be aware of that and ride, drive, walk, etc, accordingly. When people are tired and fatigued is one of things that have them be more inclined to make mistakes.

You’ve written that you’re tired of people saying to you ‘ride safe’. It’s important to note that the way you wrote it, may be different than the way I think about those words. You wrote: “…I’m tired of being told to be safe/ride safe/stay safe. …”. Which suggests to me you feel those words are being delivered to you as an order or an insinuation that you somehow don’t ride safe.

If you’re genuinely having those words delivered to you with that intent, I’m sorry you’re having that experience. I’m glad to say that’s an experience I’ve not had when people have said those words to me. It’s been in good spirits and wishes for mine and other’s safe travel that I have heard people say those words.

Your suggestion to “Be nice”, is great advice, I think. Smile, be friendly, demonstrate patience. All those things used by people biking, can help immensely towards having courtesy extended to them by people driving. It helps a lot, when people driving, also are making efforts to be nice, and friendly, and have patience.

Thank you for taking the time to sort out some of your thoughts and write them down. I enjoyed reading them. ….

rick
Guest
rick

Try the cyclecross routes with stairs to carry !

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

This is a great article. While it is sad that riding a bike, especially among motor vehicles, can create so much fear, learning to deal with it is very helpful. One other thing that I’ve found helps me, is to review scary situations and see whether there was anything under my control that might have made a difference. Usually there is. I’ve lowered tire pressures, slowed down in particular spots, taken the lane where I hadn’t before—all kinds of things to mitigate the conditions that caused something scary to happen. I think the knowledge that I have taken steps to prevent a fear-inducing situation in the future helps the fear to lose its grip sooner.

Not all situations can be dealt with in this way, however. I can name about 3 very specific places in which I will likely be found if I don’t make it to work or home someday; a lot of things are just the nature of our extremely biased system.

One other bit of imagery your post elicited in my head is that riding a bike—even for transportation—can be as exciting as running with the bulls, or as peaceful as watching snow fall. It really is an activity that is adaptable to a wide range of personality types.

B. Carfree
Guest
B. Carfree

Nice article. I have just to teeny tiny quibbles, which means it’s as close to perfect from my perspective as is humanly possible. Really a well done and well thought out piece.

As to my quibbles, I think riders are better able to avoid conflicts and deal with the ones that arrive by not being on a bike that puts them absolutely upright. There’s just no way to achieve the necessary momentum transfers necessary for emergency maneuvering if one has all one’s mass on top of a line from saddle to cranks, plus the added height of the center of mass is problematic. It’s a small thing and is rarely necessary to employ, but since she put this in as making riding safer, I felt it warranted addressing. Note: I’m not talking about getting all the way down into time-trial mode, just a good comfortable bend forward at the waist.

Quibble two is about taking more time and not rushing. I agree, but I suspect too many will misconstrue this to mean slower is safer. I think one should ride as fast as one is comfortable without actually rushing, and that unless there is a specific need to slow down, the faster one goes the fewer cars overtake and the smaller the speed differential is, so safety is enhanced. Of course if one insists on bombing downhill into a red traffic light on an icy morning, that’s likely to end poorly eventually.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

(Ugh. Sooo many men on this thread arguing with each other and telling us how to ride bikes.)

Thank you for sharing this Eva. You’re a great writer — and rider!

Alexandra Phillips
Guest
Alexandra Phillips

I love the wear mittens idea! Keeps the automatic New Yorker response in me “under wraps”
I agree with the “don’t rush” idea. When I am not in a hurry I take the time to stop and look both ways.. and then go as fast or slow as I want.

Caitlin D
Subscriber

“Often feel the need to give the finger? Wear mittens.”

I love this 🙂 Thank you for sharing your perspective and tips!

joan
Subscriber

I’m sure many of the women readers here are familiar with what Susan B. Anthony said about women and bicycles: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

It was a very different context back then, but when I ride my bike, I do indeed feel the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.

Thanks for great piece, Eva!

Chris Bassett
Subscriber
Chris Bassett

Thanks for the article, some very valuable tips here. As someone still getting over an ER visit from earlier this year, I found a lot to relate to. I’m still never going on that toute that took me out though!

Ted G
Guest
Ted G

The leap from growing up and cycling in a “quaint small town” to cycling in a big city fails to adjust for the change in location. I am often struck by the harkening back to childhood as some bucolic happy place. Maybe it was, but unless you lived in a city, the comparison is not helpful. There are wonderfully tranquil and quaint places to live where you and your children can still pedal carefree to school or grocery store, but it won’t be in a city.

I too am miffed by the “be safe/ride safe” statements. The one that really gets me is “stay safe.” Does this mean I need to stay in my house all day long? Safety is not a binary thing. Safety is a function of risk and so is on a continuum. Some of the fear that Eva is referring to, I believe, is related to one’s ability to assess risk. If you re unable to assess risk and so see risk everywhere you will be fearful and feel very unsafe all the time. Avoiding a situation is a way of avoiding a particular risk, whether real or imagined (like the street that sent her to the ER). The “ride safe” comments from people seems to assume that simply riding a bike is a leap of faith because danger lurks with every passing car. Those same sentiments do not often carryover to every-day driving because that is a situation with which everyone is familiar and so they feel confident assessing the risk, which leads them to considered driving around town as low risk=safe and elicits little fear. .

The best way, I think, to become better at assessing risk, and therefore less fearful, is to ride more and pay close attention to your surroundings. Biking is a skill, and just like new drivers have shown they are more likely to get in an accident, the same, I am guessing, is true for new cyclists. Practice urban biking. Familiarize yourself with different situations and be prepared to react. I think proof of this is the feeling I have when I bike in unfamiliar places. I am more fearful/careful because I am not confident that I can assess all the risks. It also speaks to Eva reaction to the street that put her in the hospital. An accident like that can certainly undercut one’s confidence in one’s ability to assess risk in a given situation.

One tip I would offer is that whenever you are near a car there is 1-2 second period of time where I feel completely vulnerable to an unpredictable movement by a car. 1-2 seconds before or after I feel I can either brake, swerve, or accelerate to avoid serious consequences. I am constantly assessing cars and I feel I now intuitively consider the danger zone and either brake to avoid entering the zone or keep riding and get through it as quickly possible. I would encourage everyone to be continually assessing risks and to work on the skill of biking to become a better cyclist. This, more than any infrastructure improvements, will provide the greatest benefit in decreasing your fear and increasing your enjoyment while riding a bike on city streets.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

Eva, thanks for sharing your childhood bike story. Such a great bike smile you had!

curly
Subscriber
curly

Thanks for writing the article Eva. As always, Safe Travels:)

Anne
Guest
Anne

Excellent guest post. Thank you, Eva and Jonathan.

Next can we do an article about riding in this clear but cold weather? People look at me askance when I arrive rosy-cheeked. But I find it so exhilarating and rad! I love it.

X
Guest
X

Leave a bit early–I definitely support that. It makes for a better interaction with almost everybody you encounter.

I get the “ride safe” thing from all kinds of people, helmet wearers and non-helmet wearers. Maybe it’s like “go with God”, not necessarily meant to be taken literally. I mean, where is God going? Personally I like “stay dry” which is of course fully ironic because often as not I’m dripping on their briefcase at the time.

Aleia
Guest
Aleia

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for your wonderful post!

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

I won’t argue with this ‘cuz I’m a dude.

Smarty Pants
Guest
Smarty Pants

Good article. Agree with most of it. Nice “new bike” picture.

I don’t mind if someone tells me to be safe, ride safe, drive safe, etc. It’s kind of a “wish” for them, or a basic courtesy, no offense meant by it.

Each of us has to decide what it means to be safe (if we actually want to be safe). I like flashy lights – they attract attention which makes me a little safer; and I like visible colors/reflective gear – same purpose.

q
Guest
q

I appreciate that there are several hints for being safe, but only one involves visibility, and helmets aren’t mentioned. It’s a reminder that there’s much more to safety than those two things. The focus–in safety campaigns, police reports, etc.–on those may be counterproductive, giving the impression that “safety” is a matter of checking off that you have a light, a helmet, and maybe some bright clothing. The reality is that “Don’t hurry” and “Be observant” may be as important, or more so. And they apply to drivers as much as or more than to cyclists.

If accident reports are going to mention safety measures taken or not, it’d be interesting to see these included (“The cyclist was in a hurry, and the driver wasn’t being observant and was hogging the lane instead of being nice”…) rather than the knee-jerk, check-off “helmet/light/clothing” reports.

Evan
Guest
Evan

I love this, and especially the tip about mittens.

Manville
Guest

As I was getting on my bike this morning to ride to work my wife, who was loading our 9-month-old son in her car, said: “have a safe ride”. Remembering this post, I yelled back, “I am the vulnerable one here; why don’t you have a safe drive.”