Savvy Cycling: Keep the Hard Knocks Out of Biking

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by Randy Kambic

People are biking more than ever. Recreational bicycling ranked second to running as the favorite outdoor activity among both youths (6 to 24 years old) and adults (25-plus) in a recent Outdoor Industry Association study. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) further reports that from 2000 to 2012 the number of Americans biking to work rose from 488,000 to 786,000.

This positive trend also means more crowded bike lanes and other pathways challenge the community infrastructure’s ability to keep up, raising safety concerns. Plus, we naturally want to avoid aches and pains while enjoying the myriad benefits of pedaling.

Find the Right Bike

“Having the right bike for one’s needs that’s properly fitted is crucial,” says Dan Moser, a founder and steering committee member of the BikeWalkLee community coalition and a traffic safety consultant in Fort Myers, Fla. “Use a local bike shop whose mechanics test and adjust the bikes they sell.”

A bike mechanic can determine the proper seat height and ideal distance from the handlebars to the seat tube. Back, knee or hip pain may develop if a cyclist has to stretch their legs to get to the pedals, explains Tim Bustos, a bicycling consultant in Pensacola, Fla., and former bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Davis, California, which earned platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community status, along with Boulder, Colo., and Portland, Ore., from the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). On the other hand, “A biker doesn’t get proper leg extension if the seat is too low,” he says, possibly leading to leg muscle strains. “The legs should be almost, but not totally extended at the lowest point in the pedaling motion.”

Safety Alert

The latest NHTSA study charted 49,000 bicycle accidents in 2012, 1,000 more than the year before. Biking only in daylight and avoiding alcohol could improve those numbers because 48 percent of biker fatalities occur beginning at 4 p.m. and 37 percent involve a driver or bicyclist that has been drinking.

Even well-marked bike lanes don’t guarantee safety, so caution is required. Some motorists are careless about entering bike lanes and don’t correctly stop at crosswalks or look behind before opening car doors. David Takemoto- Weerts, a bicycle program coordinator at the University of California, Davis, member of the city’s Bike Transportation Advisory Committee and LAB-certified instructor, suggests keeping at least five feet from the sides of cars to avoid being hit. Cyclists are wise not to weave in and out of traffic, to signal turns and watch out for runners, walkers and pedestrians as they abide by normal traffic rules and flow. Takemoto-Weerts says that bikers sometimes overlook using the stop signal (left arm extended downward) to alert bikers behind them.

Wearing a helmet should be a standard practice. The University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, in Chapel Hill, reports that wearing a helmet reduces the overall risk of head injuries by 85 percent. “Cyclists are part of traffic, whether operating on a road, pathway or a combination,” says Moser. “Being acutely aware of one’s surroundings and minimizing distractions, following the rules of the road and pathway, and being prepared to deal with others’ mistakes are all vital.”

Fitness Factors

Dr. Kim Martin, a certified functional medicine practitioner and chiropractor with North Shore Health Solutions, in Northbrook, Ill., says that recreational bikers have visited her for knee, hip and neck soreness or strains. In addition to ensuring they’re employing proper leg extension, she advises, “Pedal a little faster in a lower gear; ideally, 75 to 90 revolutions per minute, which is easier on the knees and lessens muscle fatigue than traveling slower in a higher gear.” She explains that the correct seat height facilitates proper alignment of hips and a full rotation; if not, energy is forced outward, stressing the hips.

Martin adds that the neck might experience strain from tilting the head up for long periods. “This can occur by wearing a helmet that is too low or forward in the front or poor-fitting eyewear that inches forward down the nose.” Right after a long ride, Martin suggests that riders gently bend downward over their crossed legs a few times, alternately switching legs, and also slowly bending the head up and down, sideways and then in a circular motion for a couple of minutes. “Overall,” she says, “the key is to have fun.”

Freelance writer and editor Randy Kambic, in Estero, Fla., is a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings.

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