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Bike riding 101: Adventures in urban biking

In California, once your feet leave the ground and hit the pedals of your bike, you’re under the same rules of the road as cars and trucks. But, the thing about riding a bike is that, unlike driving a car, you don’t need a license. There is no test. Once your parents take off the training wheels and let go of the back of your bike,  you’re pretty much on your own. 

I report on transportation for KALW, but I hardly ever ride my bike. I decided to take an urban bike riding class to learn everything you need to know about riding your bike in the Bay Area.

When I was a kid, I rode my bike everywhere, all the time.  But now that I’m an adult living in a big city, I find lots of reasons not to get on my bike. It’s not that I don’t like riding – it’s just that I’m kind of afraid. 

I live on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, which basically means I live on Highway 13, a very busy thoroughfare. It’s intimidating out there, and I don’t really know the rules. 

Also, I have to admit, there’s a little vanity involved. Not only do I look incredibly goofy in a bike helmet, but I get possibly the worst helmet hair of anyone you’ve ever met. I mean, it’s bad.

So, every morning, I weigh the options. Either I pollute the earth and drive my car to work, or I do the right thing and ride my bike. 

Let’s just say that the earth is really on the losing end. In fact, I have never once ridden my bike to work, and I feel really badly about all this. So I’ve decided to take action.

On recent a sunny morning I met up with Bonnie Wehman in Downtown Oakland. She’s the education director for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, and she’s giving me an urban bike riding class. Anybody can take her classes – they're completely free, funded by Measure B sales taxes. We meet outside the Lake Merritt BART station so she can give me some basic pointers before we start our ride. 

“The first thing you want to do is to make sure your bike is in working order,” she says. “We have a very simple little test we do called the ABC Quick Check. A is air. You want to reach down and give your tires a squeeze, and if they feel smooshy at all, they need air. They should feel really firm.

I ask her to reach down and feel my tires, and she tells me they feel pretty squishy, which can’t be good. 

The next step is “B,” for brakes. One of the tests Wehman recommends is to squeeze your brakes and try to push your bike forward. If it moves, your brakes are shot. Mine seem fine.

Next: the letter “C.” Wehman wants to keep me engaged, so she asks me if I have a good guess about what the “C” is for. I think about it for a minute, and then come up with what is most important to me.

“Coffee?” I guess. Well, not exactly. “C” is for your chain, and for your crank arm. It’s good to check both of those before you hit the road, says Wehman. And, finally, if your bike has one of those quick-release levers on the tires, you should make sure it is locked down. That way your tires won’t come flying off your bike when you’re in traffic.

So, that’s the ABC Quick Check. I know what you’re thinking. For a lot of you, "ABC" could also stand for “awfully basic check.” But, for someone like me, just going through the process makes me a feel a lot more confident.  I think Wehman understands this about me. She kindly offers to air up my squishy tire.

While we get my bike ready to go, Wehman teaches me another of her bike riding mantras. She’s got a lot of them, but this is the most important one. She tells me that the best way to stay safe on a bike is to be visible, predictable, and aware. 

As I’m about to find out, that means that I should use lights and reflectors and brightly colored clothing. I should ride with traffic, not against it, and I should boldly take lanes – even if I make drivers really, really mad.  

“It’s the opposite of what you want to do,” says Wehman. But if you feel that 'oh my God, I think they're going to hit me,' it's too close, that means you need to move to the left.  They may honk at you, and that means you are visible.”  

Okay, if they honk, I’m visible. That’s good. But I still think I’m going to need additional protection. Which is a problem because it’s time to put our helmets on.

To me, helmets mean one thing: helmet hair. I have a feeling I’m not the only person who dreads this consequence of bike riding, so I ask Wehman for some advice about the problem. 

“If you're going somewhere and you know you're going to have helmet head, then have some cute little hat that you bring  along,” she says, brightly. “Then you wear a hat for the day and you're sort of jaunty.”

It’s a good idea, and I like the idea of being sort of jaunty. Although she has good strategies for my most pressing problem, hairstyles are not her top priority. Wehman wants me to make sure I’ve got my helmet on correctly. Yep – she’s got a mantra for that, too: Eyes, ears, mouth.

That is, you should be able to see the top of your helmet when you look up, your ear straps should come to a "V" underneath your ears, and your chin strap should be tight, but still loose enough to let you open and close your mouth.

After I get my helmet on properly, Wehman then tells me what may be my very favorite factoid of the class, that the vast majority of bike crashes don’t involve cars, or other bikes, or even pedestrians. Most of the time, people just fall over. All by themselves. Which means, it’s time for another mantra: Power pedal up!

That means that whenever you start from a stopped position, you want to have one pedal up and one pedal down. As Wehman explains, “By doing this, when you start, you have a good amount of room to push down on your pedal.”

This goes a long way towards keeping you from falling over in the middle of intersections. Great idea.  I like this mantra the best. Power pedal up, power pedal up! It’s like summoning the only bike-riding super power I have. Which I’m going to need, because it’s finally time to start our ride.

We work our way to a corner, and Wehman coaxes me into traffic. She’s very encouraging, and compliments my use of the power pedal. We’re taking a three-mile ride along Lake Merritt, through Oakland Chinatown, and eventually under the 880 freeway. Wehman rides in front, which makes me happy, because I am actually pretty nervous. We are riding right in the flow of cars. 

Confidently, she tells me that we’re going to make a left turn. We’re in the right lane on a one way street, which means we’ll have to make our way across several lanes of traffic. 

“First I'm going to look behind me, and check that nobody's coming,” she says. “Then I put my left arm to signal that I’m moving over.”

“It’s scary!” I say. I feel like a little kid. 

“And then signal, and turn,” says Wehman, smiling. 

I actually wish I had one of those “student driver” orange triangles on my back, so people would know to give me a wide berth. But then I start to relax a little, and even enjoy myself.

I start noticing a lot of things I’ve never seen before. There’s a vintage treasure shop on the block we’re on, and up ahead I see an Ethiopian market. I like it a lot. In fact, I’m getting pretty comfortable on my bike now, enjoying the ride and the sunny day in Oakland. And then, I realize, it’s time to head into the complicated traffic of Oakland Chinatown.

In a panicky voice I tell Wehman that I’m kind of scared. There’s a lot of traffic. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get hit by a car.  I want to ride on the sidewalk, but Wehman reminds me of the visible, predictable, and aware mantra. Riding on the sidewalk is not predictable or visible. Neither cars nor pedestrians will expect me to be there.

In a soothing voice, Wehman tells me that riding with all the cars is the best place for me to be. “The flow of traffic will move with you and see you and work around you if you're in it with them,” she says.

We merge into traffic, dodging double-parked delivery trucks and pedestrians who dart out suddenly from between boxes of produce piled high on the sidewalks. Ahead of us is the roaring 880 freeway. I kind of want to just end the ride here and grab some dim sum and call it a day. But then the light turns green, and we ride our bikes right under the freeway. 

It is extremely unpleasant and loud under the 880. It’s dark, and filled with potholes. It may be even worse than actually driving on the 880. And, then, we emerge. We’re in the quiet warehouse zone around Jack London Square. Birds are chirping. It’s another part of town I’ve never really seen before.

It wasn’t quite as scary as I thought it would be, I have to admit. 

Wehman smiles at me. “Once you kind of adjust to the sounds of traffic and people moving past you and around you and realize that it’s okay as long as they can see you and you can see them,” she says. “It's the dance. There’s no jerky movements. No angry people. No close calls. Just riding in the streets in the city.”

I still feel nervous around all those cars. And I still don’t love the helmet hair. But I do like just riding in the streets in the city. My city. The city which, thanks to my bike, and the urban bike riding class, I’ve seen a little more of. 

Both the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offer free urban bike riding classes. Check out their schedules and get out there and ride!

This story originally aired on January 26, 2012.