There are numerous theoretical good reasons to use a bicycle for commuting and moving around in a big city. It’s healthy, it’s an excellent cross-training for a runner and it’s a surprisingly quick and nimble vehicle.
After about two weeks of daily commutes, however, the day-to-day reality of urban cycling is catching up to me. And the news isn’t very good. Although some of my points are pretty specific to the situation in Montreal, I compiled a short list of things you should really consider before venturing out in traffic on a bicycle. I hope this helps.
1. You’re in danger.
As soon as you head out, basically everything wants to kill you. Clueless pedestrians with their eyes glued to their smartphone. Stressed out, oblivious drivers. Huge trucks which can’t even see you. Cracks, gravel patches and potholes the size of a basketball. The random car coming out of a blind corner. That dad who’s taking his clumsy, ADD five-year-old along on a micro-bike. And, last but not least, the plague of urban cycling, BIXIs (Montreal’s rental bike service).
In a nutshell, you’re a hard-to-spot target, moving around at fairly high speeds (30-35 km/h) on a flimsy little aluminum frame with little-to-no protection. There’s stuff that requires your full attention in front of you, on both your sides and behind as well. The law’s not on your side and no one gives much of a crap about you. My recommendation? Pay serious attention.
2. You’re going really fast.
If you’re on a decent bike with road tires and you’re in good shape, you’ll be surprised how fast you can actually go. I don’t have a multi-thousand-dollar bike myself and can often match or exceed the cars’ speed over a short distance (say, a block and a half). The faster you go, the shorter your reaction time is to anything that happens around you. Speed can be as much of an advantage as it can be a problem, so be aware of your surroundings and learn how to recognize when it’s time to go slow. And spend the extra minute.
3. You’re going really slow.
Compared to motorcycles, speeding vehicles or even bicycle couriers, you’re an obstacle to avoid as they pass by. You need to be aware that you are never the fastest vehicle and you need to pay a lot of attention to what happens behind you. Never swerve out of line without checking, because you can’t assume that whatever’s behind you is going to move or give way accordingly.
4. Beware the tunnel effect.
After some minutes of moderate-to-intense pedaling, you’ll get into physical effort, which will naturally tend to make you focus, to concentrate. Don’t. Stay fully aware of everything and remind yourself that effort will narrow your field of vision and make you focus on what’s immediately ahead of you, which can lead to very bad decisions.
5. No one knows you’re there.
If you’re not dressed in super-reflective or flashy gear, you’re not easy to differentiate, visually, from anything else that’s going on in a busy urban environment. You’re basically making no sound, either, and even if you are, most cars have their windows rolled up and most pedestrians have earphones on. Hell, even the other cyclists ahead of you can’t hear you coming. You can never assume that any person around you even knows you’re coming.
Is urban cycling for you?
So, are you doomed? Should you just store your bike and never ride it again? Probably not, but I think it’s healthy to give all this an objective, serious thought to evaluate if urban cycling, more so in Montreal, is the right thing for you. Among other things, here are some points I think are worth your consideration:
1. Can you tolerate the risk?
It’s safe to assume that your biking season will include close calls, falls and possibly some collisions. I’m not a doomsayer; I’m just trying to be realistic. If you’re going to be traumatized at the first sign of danger, keep biking as a recreational activity in controlled environments, which means nice open bike paths outside of busy cities.
2. Do you enjoy a challenge?
Every day, your commute to and back from work promises to keep you on your toes. The adrenaline rush of an urban commute on a bike, for me, is brought by the elevated awareness, the physical effort and the perceived danger of everything else I have to weave around. Cycling in Montreal is a bit of an extreme sport.
3. Do you have the attitude?
Can you work around obstacles, both moving and not? Do you have good enough reflexes to react to whatever the urban environment throws at you? Can you bend the rules to nudge the odds in your favor? Will you tolerate the stress and the cussing from other users of the road?
If you answered “yes” to these 3 questions, you’re probably a good candidate for day-to-day urban cycling. If not, that doesn’t mean you should never do it, but I think it might be best for you to use your bicycle in a leisure perspective and not so much as a vehicle.
Finally, for your sake and my own, if you cycle in Montreal or in any other urban area for that matter, pay attention, be as visible as you can and please stay out of harm's way. Seriously.