Southern Oregon's largest bicycle club wants bicyclists to start thinking of themselves as drivers rather than riders, and it's teaching classes to do just that.
"One of the phrases we use in the class is 'driving the bicycle,' " says David Chapman, one of the original safety instructors for the Siskiyou Velo club and a former Ashland city councilor. "You need to act like a vehicle, and once you start doing that, drivers tend to respect you. They know what you're going to do."
1. You are a vehicle. Obey the laws of the road just like an automobile, including stopping at stop signs and stoplights. Ride with traffic; use the rightmost lane headed in the direction you are going.
2. Stay out of the door zone. Don't risk getting snagged by a car door. Give yourself a wide buffer from parked cars.
3. Take your lane. On narrow roads, move out into the lane, not toward the curb or guard rail. This will force drivers to switch lanes when passing you rather than squeezing by, getting dangerously close.
4. Plan, scan, signal, execute. Plan ahead so you don't switch lanes or turn suddenly. Look around, give drivers the appropriate hand signal so they know what you're intending to do. Do this for each lane change. Don't try to sweep across multiple lanes at once.
5. Negotiate your space. When changing lanes, point directly to the gap in traffic you've targeted and make sure the driver in back has seen your signal.
For instance, automobile drivers know they shouldn't blow through red lights and stops signs, they don't drive the wrong way in traffic, and vehicles don't drive on the sidewalk. Neither should bicycles, Chapman says.
"There are more conflicts on a sidewalk, basically, than on the street. An auto coming out of an intersection or a driveway doesn't expect something to be moving fast on a sidewalk," Chapman says. "Most bicyclists, when they understand this situation, feel they're safer in the street than on the sidewalk."
Siskiyou Velo began offering bike-handling and safety classes on a limited basis a few years ago. They've had to shift gears in the past few months to meet the demand.
"We asked, 'How should we go about giving these skills to the people who want these skills,' " says Chapman.
Last fall, Siskiyou Velo paid for eight members to take a course with the League of American Bicyclists to become certified trainers. They then worked with the league to design a special course for club members.
"Part of the deal of having Siskiyou Velo pay for your class is that you're going to volunteer to teach two to three classes; that's how you pay back the club," Chapman explains.
The club will soon open its classes to the public, free of charge. Dates are being firmed up for three classes to be held during the last weeks in September, October and November.
The class is a combination of theory, taught in the classroom, and practice in the streets of Ashland.
The class sets aside plenty of time to practice new skills.
"In the parking lot, we teach them bike-handling skills," says Chapman. "Things you think you know: How do you start and stop a bike safely so you don't swerve around when you're taking off in an intersection? How do you do a panic stop? How do you stop quickly without skidding your bike, because as soon as your tire breaks free, you lose control."
One of the early students of the Velo's bike safety class was Danielle Amarotico, co-owner of Standing Stone Brewery in Ashland.
"I did not own a bike," Amarotico recalls. "I learned so much in that three-hour training on how to use my bike that I have used it with my kids. I have actually retaken the class. I think we all walked away from the training, thinking, 'Wow!' Even when people have been bike riders all their lives, they don't know the rules of the road and the safest way to do things."
Amarotico originally signed up for the class with some of her employees four years ago as part of a company program.
"Standing Stone began a bike-commuter program where we'd buy a commuter bike for any employee who had worked at Standing Stone for 1,000 hours or more," Amarotico explains. "We have purchased about 55 bikes so far, I believe, and we're trying to encourage people to get to work other than in a car. "¦ We can't just buy people the bike and send them out there without any training."
The bike-safety training had an unexpected side benefit.
"Just knowing the rules of the road for a cyclist and cars not only made me a better cyclist but made me a better driver also," Amarotico affirms.
Although the shortened three-hour commuter class is a popular refresher class, the full eight-hour class is still taught.
Sometimes, it's a required course.
As an Ashland city councilor, Chapman and fellow Siskiyou Velo safety instructor Bill Heimann approached the judge and police chief in Ashland with a proposition.
"We said it would really be nice to get some of these folks who aren't obeying the traffic laws on the bike to get tickets," says Chapman. "Why don't we use this same class as a diversion class? So the judge started assigning people with tickets to our class. It looks like that's going to extend to other parts of the valley."
And just like diversion classes for drivers with speeding tickets, the errant bicyclists often come to class with a resistant attitude.
"Without exception, by the end of the class they're having a good time, partly because we've gotten out and ridden our bikes," Chapman says.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org