I’ve been bicycling for years and still think back with appreciation for the veteran riders who taught me how to safely enjoy more miles than I can ever count. That was in the days before the Rails to Trails movement really took off. Our rides were mostly on backroads shared with cars whose drivers often failed to adjust to the presence of our road bikes and often made it clear they resented us.
With the advent of mountain bikes, hybrids, cruisers, etc., bicycling became a friendly and accessible sport for people of all ages who would never have gone near a twitchy road bike. The incredible success of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has brought thousands of miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails to countless people.1 The combination of easy-to-ride bikes and nearby trails is also attracting lots of people anxious for an escape from home offices and social isolation.
On daily trail rides near my Delaware home, I’ve noticed frightened looks on the faces of pedestrians as bicycles whiz by with no warning, squeeze between walkers going in both directions, or drift wide going around a curve with oncoming foot and bicycle traffic. There doesn’t seem to be an organized effort to educate new cyclists about riding etiquette. New cyclists don’t have the benefit of mentoring from experienced riders as I enjoyed.
One of my favorite state parks has a series of four signs seen in the photo above that is a good start in sharing some of the most important rules of the road for safe trail cycling.
This first sign in the series, “Stay on Trail, Stay to Right,” is important on two levels:
-Staying on the trail means resisting the urge to carve out trails in the woods. It is not a mountain biking park (and depending on where you are, if you go off-path, you are also inviting armies of ticks to catch a ride with you as you cruise through the brush).
-Staying to the Right is a golden rule of trail safety. Many trails barely have enough room for riders and walkers going in opposite directions to pass one another. The more room you provide by staying to the right, the more room there is if someone happens to speed through that middle safe zone or for an oncoming child or leashed dog to wander over to your side of the path.
Just like when driving a car, cyclists should Pass to the Left of walkers or other riders going in their same direction.
It is important to Warn People before you pass so they are not startled or wander into the center of the trail as you are passing. The warning can be a polite ring of a bell (bicycle bells are mandatory in many states) or calling out “On your left.” I prefer using a bell. Everyone has a different style. Another great reason to use a bell is that may be less confusing for the person you are approaching from behind.
The Washington Post carried a tragic story back in 2012 about an 80-year-old woman who died after being struck on a trail. The rider who hit her had called out “to your left” and the woman actually stepped to her left and turned around to face the cyclist and asked, “What?” 2,3 Riders need to anticipate all sorts of crazy reactions and allow the space to slow down or stop if necessary, to maintain everyone’s safety.
Also giving warning includes signaling if you are going to stop or turn. I’ve seen many riders just stop in the middle of a trail to look at a stream or decide to turn off without looking to see if anyone is coming up behind them. Most of us had to learn basic hand signals to pass an automobile driver’s test. Those same signals can be helpful when sharing a trail. If you do stop, pull off the trail so you don’t create an obstacle for pedestrians and riders coming and going around you.
The third sign in the series, “Yield to Other Trail Users” is directed specifically at the bicyclists. We are sharing a multi-use trail. Bicyclists yield to walkers. Bicyclists yield to leashed dogs (no matter if they are on your side of the path). Bicyclists yield to bicycles towing children in trailers. Bicyclists yield to horses. In short: Bicyclists yield to other trail users!
The last sign in the park’s series is also about safety: “Let Nature’s Sounds Prevail.” I can’t tell you how many cyclists and pedestrians I pass who are wearing headphones or have a speaker blasting their favorite tunes. There is simply no way they can have an awareness of bicycles riding up behind them, let alone hearing any warnings.
Bicycling is a wonderful way to stay in shape and enjoy being in nature. While cycling on trails can seem like a safer option than riding on streets with cars, unless riders observe some basic safety rules on trails, outings can be stressful for the others on the trail and even end in tragedy. These are just a few basics for making sure trail riding is fun—and safe—for everyone.
—Article & Photos: R.A. Kroft
1Rails-To-Trails Conservancy. History of RTC and the Rail-Trail Movement. Organization website.
2Klein A. Woman, 80 killed in Arlington after collision with bicyclist. Washington Post. 12 June 2012.
3Alpert D. Cyclist kills pedestrian; does calling “on your left” not work? Greater Greater Washington. 12 June 2012.
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.
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