How fast is fast enough?

August 18, 2011

On a 25-mile bike trip through the center of Portland, I kept thinking about how fast is fast enough. These meditations were prompted by Dave Moulton’s recent blog on the virtues of slowing down, stopping, and losing momentum when the circumstances call for it. Dave tells of one San Francisco cyclist who didn’t do it. He hit a pedestrian who was crossing the street with a green light and she died of her injuries.

During my 40 years as an urban cyclist, I haven’t hit anyone whether they were walking, cycling, or driving. There have been close calls, and honesty requires confession. Often, I’m the one who was at fault, and the alertness of the other person was what prevented the impact. This despite the fact that as a general rule, I try to cycle according to the recognized rules of the road that motorists are supposed to follow.

So what causes hits and near misses? Dave’s answer is the cyclist’s desire not to lose momentum, to keep going at close to full speed regardless of the conditions. I recognize the tendency even though I know that I can’t keep up with younger, better-trained cyclists who zip past me. Riding home on Williams Avenue, I mingle with other cyclists. Here I am in fancy attire, riding an expensive bike, and some guy whistles past me even when he’s mounted on a knobby tired clunker, with single pannier tilting his bike a little to the left. You just can’t let that happen without challenge, can you?

Some cyclists don’t drive up the desire to keep up. Like one guy on this same trip through town who rode up onto the sidewalk back from the intersection to wait for the light to change. Anticipating the change he hit the pedals hard and virtually catapulted over the curb and bolted through the intersection as though he were the only person in the world.

Doing stupid stuff like that isn’t what gets me into trouble. Rather, it is pushing faster than I can manage while traveling through city streets. On this day’s ride, I realized that when cycling at a reasonable rate of speed, I’m in control of myself and of my bike. I can see and hear what’s happening all around me and take defensive actions as may be called for. Pushing to go beyond that speed, however, and I’m no longer in control. I can’t swing out of the way of trouble or stop. I miss the cues of what may be about to happen. I might not notice a stop sign coming up or a jaywalker, or a road hazard. That’s when trouble is likely to come.

How fast is the right speed? It will vary depending upon the cyclist. I think that the right speed is a percentage of what the same cyclist would be doing on the open road when going at the speed that he or she could keep up for hours. Maybe two-thirds to three-fourths of the road speed. On the open road, I ordinarily do 17 to 19 mph. In the city today, I seemed to be fully aware of everything when I was traveling at 12 to 15 mph.

Instead of covering the ten miles from home to downtown in 33 minutes, it is likely to take 40. The life I save may be my own—and that’s worth a lot more than seven minutes.


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