Cycling Basics

Types of bicycles

Racing bikes are built for speed on smooth terrain. But the problem is, Toronto's not smooth.

Cruisers are built for comfort on moderate terrain. And they can really zip along.

Mountain bikes are built of stability in rough terrain, at low speed. But the problem is, Toronto's not that rough, and it's not slow either.

I think most people should have two bikes: a worthless but high-performance racer and a beautiful cruiser. Which one comes first depends on the person.

Technique Basics - where to put your weight & pressure

Weight should be kept on the pedals and the seat, and off the handlebars. The front of the bike should be kept light, and the seat should also be able to move freely up and down a bit without slamming the rider's butt and spine, while the knees suspend the body while transferring weight back and forth, from one foot to another.

Pressure should be applied to the pedals using the ball of the foot. This offers better performance and comfort than stepping on the pedals with the arch of the foot. It allows the ankle to come in to play and form another lever in the mechanics of the leg system. It's a noticeable performance boost, just from foot placement on the pedals.

While at high speed or while accelerating, a forward-leaning posture will allow the rider to keep themselves up by pushing on the pedals, so the posture is balanced by the kicking actions of the legs. So you have to relax and let yourself fall forward, while pushing yourself back up by kicking against the drive train, through the pedals.

Leaning into turns makes them stronger and safer, but at that time, especially, it's important not to lean into them using the handlebars. Rather than leaning on the bars while turning, it's good to lean back a little bit, and towards the direction of the turn.

In low-traction conditions, like when the road is wet or snowy, it's extra important not to put downward pressure on the front end of the bike. And the rule on leaning into turns also goes out the window. In really slippery conditions, turns need to be slow and shallow enough that they can be completed without leaning.

Dealing with Cargo

There's a few things you can add to your bike to make it a cargo bike. You can install a rack on the back, and then hang paniers from it. Those are like little backpacks that your bike wears. You can put a basket on the front and a bin in the triangles formed by the frame.

I don't install any cargo accessories on the bikes I build, and I don't recommend using any of them. They're convenient and they're fun, but they change the way you ride your bicycle, and because of that, they're unsafe. They unbalance everything, unless the frame was designed for them.

Cyclists should have backpacks or courier bags. On a racing bike, because of the posture that they require, it's amazing how easy it is to pack a massive amount of weight around. You can shove a whole bunch of things into a hiking backpack, and barely be able to walk to your bike with it, but once you're on that racer, it's suddenly unexpectedly light, and your bike responds like it normally does. This makes racers an unlikely best choice for hauling cargo... as well as the fact that they're mechanically very efficient so the're not adding to the load.

So the thing to remember is, it's best to attach your stuff to your body, and leave your bike to its role as your safe transportation device.

Tires, safety and speed

There's a few things that makes tires fast: width, tire pressure, and smoothness. The skinnier, harder and smoother they are, the more efficiently they're going to transfer your muscle power to the ground. But that efficiency comes at a price: it leads to a more "intimate" connection with the surface, which means that you have to watch out for every little divet on the road, and you might get rattled around a bit, and neither of those things are very safe. Cruiser frames are designed to offer some cushioning without too much of a speed sacrifice, and that's why they're good in the city. But a racing bike can easily be adapted for city comfort, with only a little speed sacrifice: all you have to do is give it wider, softer tires.

The larger the tires are, the softer they are. That's a big part of why mountain bikes don't work well in cities - the tires that come standard on them aren't designed for the surface. But once again, we can make a mountain bike fast enough for downtown by putting thinner, smoother, harder tires on it.

Tracks & Lanes

Just the existence of streetcar tracks in Toronto keeps a lot of people from cycling downtown. But with a little technique and alertness, they're not a hazard.

First of all, larger tires aren't immune to the tracks. Mountain bike tires get stuck in them too.

There are three tricks to track immunity:
  1. they should be crossed at an angle that's somewhere between diagonal and perpendicular
  2. the safest place in a streetcar lane is between the two tracks
  3. it's not safe to cross an intersection of two streetcar lines using the streetcar lane

Safety, space and speed

I keep talking about safety and speed. Usually, faster means less safe. But there's a threshold of speed that cyclists need to achieve in order to claim the amount of space that they need in order to be safe.

A cyclist should take up a lane, as long as they can keep up their speed. A typical city lane can't be safely shared between a cyclist and a driver. So in order to claim a lane, cyclists need to get up to driving speed. They don't need to match the acceleration rates of aggressive drivers, rather they should aim to move more like a streetcar. For that reason, it's often best to get in the streetcar lane when behind one - because the curb lane becomes the passing lane for vehicles.

A city bike needs to accommodate rapid acceleration and braking. It needs to be easy to quickly shift from a hard gear into an easy one, or have one speed that's literally geared for the city. It needs gearing that will allow for powerful acceleration and high top speed. And the drivetrain needs to perform smoothly, so that a cyclist can shift into harder gears as they continue to apply force to the pedals.

Cyclists need two feet of space on either side of them at low speeds, and a metre at high speeds. So they can't safely use the "door zone" of the parking lane, because they're riding inside the swing radius of doors that could open at any second. So the edge of where an open door would be is where that 2ft or 1m space needs to begin. And that means cyclists have to take a lane if they're moving at faster-than-walking speed.

Slowing down traffic and getting honked at

When taking the lane, a cyclist runs the risk of slowing down the people behind them. Just like when driving slowly in a car, it's inappropriate not to accommodate those moving at the general moving speed of the lane. So cyclists should pay attention to those behind them, and do things like allowing drivers to pass them at intersection and at breaks in parking. Instead of passing all the cars waiting at an intersection, ducking out in front of them, and then getting passed by all of them between that intersection and the next, cyclists can simply stay in the flow. Just being aware of the flow of traffic and signals can make all the difference. The safest, easiest and least stressful thing to do when trying to merge is to simply wait until a rush of traffic has passed, and then take the lane behind it. Little breaks are good anyway. Because most cyclists travel at 20km/h and most drivers travel at 40km/h, a cyclist can often stay between rushes of cars, and let them pass at every second intersection. I use crosswalks to do this - by the time I'm on the other side, that rush of cars is gone into the distance and the road behind me is clear. So I can take a lane and do 30km/h.

"Indirect turns" - Treating intersections like roundabouts

Cyclists can avoid all the hassle that drivers go through at intersections, because they can treat them as roundabouts:
  • to go straight through a red light without running it, make a right turn, a u-turn, and then another right turn. You must stop before the first right turn, and the second as well, if the light has gone red. That's because unless marked, u-turns are legal, and right turns on a red light are legal, as long as the turn is proceeded by a stop.
  • instead of lining up and waiting for the left-turn signal, and then trying to break through the oncoming traffic, just make a right turn, a u-turn, and then go straight.
It's a lot easier to make right turns and u-turns than it is to stop at a red light and get going again when the light turns green.

Safe lane changes and turns

Here's the sequence that each turn and lane change needs to take in order to be done safely:
  1. check the space you want to move into
  2. check your blind spot for others who may also be moving into that space
  3. check your path
  4. signal your course change
  5. again, check your destination, and your blind spot, and then focus on your path as you turn
If you face into your lane change, others on the road will interpret your body language to mean that your turn will continue, perhaps crossing their path. This is how you can indicate whether you're making a turn or a lane change. If you continue to look at your actual path instead of the direction of your front wheel, drivers will know that you're just making a little swerve to cross a lane or some rail tracks or something.

Hand signals

They're not always safe, and when they aren't safe to use, if there's any chance of intersection of your path with that of another person on the road, then it's unsafe to make a course change. It's all a matter of space and speed.

Signals really do help, and so does body language. Where you look, where your body is facing, and the way you're leaning, all communicate about where you want to go and what you're aware of in your surroundings.

In a lot of cases, drivers have to wait for cyclists to actually start moving through an intersection before they can even enter it themselves, because they can't be sure whether they're going to hit the cyclist. If you don't signal a right turn when coming up to an intersection, a person coming from the road you're about to enter won't know that they can set themselves up for their right turn.

Bike lanes vs. sharing & caring

Ultimately, we all have a lot of power to slow down or facilitate another person's commute, and it's important for road users to use that power and their discretion so that the road can be safely shared, and we can all get to where we're going as quickly as possible.

Because Toronto is a fast city, and we like it this way. Bikes are the fastest way to get around town, because they can be safely driven through gridlock, and because they can be used to make roundabouts out of all the intersections.

Everyone's capable of speed. Old ladies and gents are ramming through the streets out there, because they have the right bikes and the right cycling technique. Foot technique, leg technique, arm technique, all these little details that add up to an efficient and ergonomic moving system that really moves. Between men and women, the major difference in muscle mass is in the upper body, so when it comes to cycling, the average man will be able to accelerate a little faster, and the average woman will be able to maintain high speed for a little longer, but the difference is not that big. It varies more from person to person than it does between the genders. On the right bike, kids and teens can also totally rip down the block. Even fat people can perform well with the right technique and gear. Bicycles are a great equalizer between a lot of different body types. Seriously, I have seen some fast fatties and they are awesome. People who are slow on their feet and struggle to get in and out of a small car can outperform me, with my Dutch & British length of track and field muscle. And it's because they built up to it, they took it easy on themselves, kept safety as priority #1, and now they've got active mobility that's slimming and building them up instead of wasting them away. It's a magical thing. Same with anybody who's physically vulnerable on a city sidewalk.