Out on the street
Bike guru Dave Cohen checks over the bicycle of <i>Commons</i> reporter Wendy Levy before they ride.

Out on the street

Learning some survival tips for how to ride your bicycle safely around Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO — Three years ago, Dave Cohen convinced me to get an electric-assist installed on my bicycle. I missed riding my bike, but Brattleboro's steep terrain was much too challenging for this sedentary reporter.

Cohen, founder and director of VBike, a nonprofit group that works toward “shifting the bike and bike culture in Vermont towards a far more inclusive, fun, and transportation-oriented future,” let me test-ride an e-assist bicycle.

Through the VBike program, Cohen has a fleet of e-bikes - some for seniors, some for rural roads, cargo bikes that can carry four kids and bags of groceries - he lends out to Brattleboro-area residents on a short-term basis so they can “try before they buy."

When I tried the e-bike, with the push of a button the area's hills became flat - at least according to my legs. Cohen calls e-bikes “true hybrid vehicles,” because they are powered by human effort and, when engaged, a small, battery-powered motor.

So, last year, I got a motor attached to my beloved - and neglected - metallic-pink Specialized step-through sport bicycle, which was already tricked out with a totally sweet faux wicker basket and some punk rock stickers.

My intention was to drive my car less and ride my bike more.

It never happened.

What stopped me?


Fear of getting flattened

Brattleboro's roads are narrow, few have bike lanes (and even when they do, they become ad hoc turning or passing lanes), and judging from how many cars tailgate me, more than a few drivers ignore speed limits. Some likely don't notice the speed limit signs because they're too busy texting.

Sure, I'd love to ride my bike more often, but I'm afraid I'd be the one getting flattened.

I recently mentioned this to Cohen in an email about participating in Strolling of the Heifers.

Cohen is helping to rally a bike contingent to ride in the parade, and I contacted him with my interest. “I'm (still) trying to get over my fear of riding in traffic. By riding with a bunch of people on closed streets, that'll give me one opportunity,” I wrote.

Cohen replied with an offer I couldn't refuse: A one-on-one traffic riding lesson.

“I'd love to help you with a bit more confidence and skills,” he wrote, and added, “We can also talk about your bike and see if there is anything else we can do to make you feel safer on it."

Perhaps best of all? It wouldn't cost me a thing. Cohen's consultations are paid by Go! Vermont, a program developed by the Agency of Transportation to promote other forms of getting around, including ride-sharing, trains, and bicycles.

“It's not a huge contract, but it allows me to have these consultations with people,” Cohen said.

Cohen said his work with VBike is about “including bikes in people's lives. It's about using our bodies and interacting and connecting with the world.”

On a recent Friday, he came to my house to help me out.

'Like the Borg in Star Trek'

First, we talked about my fear, and why it's not irrational. Our automobile culture, Cohen said, promotes “an ecology of fear.” Cars are big, heavy, they go fast, and drivers have plenty of distractions. And our roads are designed to make traveling easier for them.

“It's like the Borg in Star Trek,” Cohen said. Sooner or later, you'll have to submit.

But, at the state and local level, groups and individuals are working to change that through a variety of programs, including e-bike lending libraries and purchasing subsidies. In addition to VBike and Go! Vermont, Cohen mentioned Local Motion and the Brattleboro Coalition for Active Transportation.

The idea is, with more bikes on the road, drivers can't help but see them. As Cohen said about the narrative of “bikes holding up traffic,” he pointed out that “We ARE traffic.”

E-bikes will help that along.

The technology that brought us electric-assist bicycles “mitigates for the crappy infrastructure” on area roads “because it allows you to take more of the road,” said Cohen. “You're moving faster, which increases your visibility” to drivers, he noted.

With e-bikes, “the main thing we're doing is inclusivity, not just biking for the 'fit and fearless,'” Cohen said. “You don't have to be a 'bicyclist,'” he said, and compared it to housecleaning. “I use a vacuum, but I'm not a vacuumist.” Cohen also noted “no spandex required!"

To help get me started, Cohen took a look at my bike and its accessories. He complimented me on my fashionable and functional bicycle helmet, decorated with cartoon monkeys, and the orange flag. He noted my seat was set at the right height to protect my knees, and my tires had good pressure.

Cohen recommended a few additions. “A side-view mirror will take out a lot of the guesswork,” he said. LED lights for the front and back would help, too.

To get them, we were going for a ride downtown to the bike shop.

Traffic-safety tips

To prepare, Cohen gave me a primer on hand signals. He acknowledged most people, riders and drivers, don't know them, so you can make them up. “I often wave my arm. What does that mean? Slow down? Am I turning?” Cohen said, and added, “Ambiguity is good. It makes them pay attention.”

We went over traffic techniques.

The best way to navigate “in tight places in the road is to take over more of the road. Be less passive,” he said. Every rider will find what's most comfortable for them as to when to take the lane and when to move to the side.

But, when possible, don't ride next to parked cars, because drivers and passengers don't usually look for bikes before opening their doors.

When turning left, move away from the right-hand shoulder (or bike lane) into the traveling lane far in advance of your turn.

And when cars are stacked, waiting to turn, get yourself up to the first car if you can, because the driver of the first car is more likely to see you than the cars behind them.

Also, be aware that drivers behind the first car will often illegally pass on the right - into the shoulder or bike lane where you are riding.

Cohen recommended that even on flat surfaces, when I'm starting from a full-stop, to use my e-assist to give me a boost.

As we headed into town, along Western Avenue, down Green Street, onto Elliot then Main, I tried Cohen's techniques. Mostly, I followed his lead.

I did feel more confident as we pedaled along. On the way back, I even managed to turn onto Western Avenue from Williams Street without having a panic attack. Again, riding along with a seasoned bike-rider certainly helped my confidence, and our visibility.

To my surprise, most drivers were patient and generous - well, except for the driver of that one late-model dark gray Honda who revved his engine at us.

Note to that driver: That technique doesn't make bikes go faster.

I made it home in one piece, and with no crying jags. My bike's battery still had plenty of juice, my legs weren't too rubbery, and I felt good.

Will I go out again? Yes, but probably with a buddy or two.

Who's with me?

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