That’s a tall order during these pandemic times: Wetzel acknowledges that we’re in the midst of a biking boom. Since March, cycling traffic in the region has ballooned, with some trails reporting their heaviest use in years. Biking has become a favored means of wheeling back into normalcy, or at least into fresh air, a change of scenery and a blast of exercise. It’s also an attractive alternative to public transportation.
Scores of novice cyclists, compounded by the need to remain socially distant, complicate and elevate the need for good biking etiquette. All riders should be predictable, alert and lawful — which means, for example, obeying the same rules as cars, such as stopping at traffic signals. Always ride with the flow of traffic and — no surprise — wear a helmet. It’s a particularly bad time to land in the hospital.
For the most part, bikers have responded well to a fluid situation. “People are more conscious,” says Adina Crawford, an ambassador for Black Girls Do Bike, a site offering support and community for women of color who cycle. “They’re more courteous in terms of keeping their distance. I’m seeing more humbleness.”
But we could all use a reminder on what good manners look like on the trail and on the road. Here are several etiquette tips geared toward those taking up biking again, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives, in the midst of a global pandemic.
Ride where you feel most comfortable, but don’t be a jerk about it.
The road is generally the best place to ride — and many new cyclists feel relatively comfortable on neighborhood streets, where the speed limit is low and there’s not much traffic. Bikers can travel in designated bike lanes or claim the full lane, but keep in mind that some pedestrians and runners have taken to using cycling lanes lately, despite the danger. Expect the unexpected.
It’s easier to keep a healthy distance from others on the street than it is on the more-cramped sidewalk, so if you’re huffing and puffing, this is the safest place to travel. It’ll help to reduce the odds of breathing (or coughing or sneezing) on anyone else.
Still, if you’re not yet comfortable on the road, it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in most areas. There are exceptions, like in D.C.’s Central Business District; do your research ahead of time. And remember that sidewalks are for pedestrians first, Wetzel says. Always yield to walkers, and go their speed. If you absolutely need to pass, a friendly “good morning” and ding of the bell — get one if you don’t already have one — can reduce the likelihood of startling someone. If it’s a particularly congested sidewalk, dismount and walk your bike.
“Remember that people on the sidewalk are people; some are going to be grumpy no matter what you do,” Wetzel says. “However, I suspect that if people are regularly yelling at you, you’re using the space in a way that makes them uncomfortable.”
It’s not exactly fun to cover your mouth and nose, especially during strenuous rides. But most experts agree it’s the respectful thing to do. “To make it simple, wear a mask when you’re out on a bike unless you’re certain you can keep well away from people,” says John Kraemer, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s Department of Health Systems Administration. Even then, bring one along in case you happen to encounter someone. It’s okay to wear it pulled down or around your neck until you need it.
Despite recent uncertainty about neck gaiters, Kraemer says the best ones are likely to have benefits, and if that’s the only thing you’ll wear, “it’s probably better than nothing.” In general, he adds, covid-19 transmission is a lot less likely outdoors than indoors — hence biking’s appeal as a safer way to exercise.
When one cyclist is cruising at a decent clip, another might “join” him or her, coming close and latching onto the front-runner’s slipstream. Drafting, as it’s called, can boost the slower person’s efficiency so they don’t have to pedal as hard. Doing so without asking isn’t good etiquette — especially during a pandemic, says Bruce Wright, a board member with the Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling. Ease up on your speed if you’re experiencing unwelcome drafting, and ask the person behind you to pull through. Then resume your ride.
Announce yourself when passing
“It’s bananas on the trails,” Crawford says. “Sometimes people come right up and don’t say anything — they just swoop right by.” Don’t be a silent swooper, the Dark Knight of the trail. Call out “on your left,” or ring a bell attached to your handlebars. Ursula Sandstrom, WABA’s outreach manager, prefers the latter, given pandemic-related concerns about projecting loudly and releasing respiratory particles.
And remember: An announcement isn’t license to blow past someone recklessly. Allow at least six feet of space when passing; if that’s not available, slow down until it is. You could be passing someone who’s hearing-impaired, wearing headphones or lost in their own world, oblivious to your warning.
Don’t change positions when you’re being passed.
Henry Dunbar, director of active transportation operations with Arlington County Commuter Services, coaches new cyclists to “hold the line,” continuing steadily ahead. “As the slower mover, you are not obligated to get out of anybody’s way,” he says. Your job is to keep doing whatever you were already doing. If the person being passed suddenly swerves or jumps — which happens often — it’s not going to end well for anyone involved.
You don’t own the path.
Many popular biking spots are shared-use trails, full of walkers, joggers, strollers and pets. Just like on sidewalks, if you’re biking one of these — say, the Mount Vernon Trail — be aware that you’re the dominant force. Go slow enough that it’s safe for everyone, Sandstrom says, which will prove helpful if you get into an accident. Low-speed collisions are always preferable.
Make your intentions clear with hand signals and auditory warnings. Don’t do anything sudden, and stay alert. Put the headphones away, too: It’s important to be able to hear, especially in busy areas. That said, there are differences of opinion on attaching speakers to your handlebars. “If you’re out walking on a forested trail, you might be annoyed if somebody comes by blasting death metal on their bike,” Dunbar says. “If it’s loud enough to impede somebody else’s ability to be alert, it’s too loud. Be respectful of others, and be reasonable about the volume.”
There’s such a thing as a “snot rocket,” which — well, look it up. Suffice to say it’s not pleasant at any time, pandemic or not. “If you’re breathing hard, you’re going to have some fluids coming off your body: sweat or spit or snot,” Wright says. “The most egregious are the fast riders who are really riding hard,” sometimes attempting to blow their noses while they fly down the path. “I just think we all need to be more careful.”
Pedal-assist bikes, which are powered by electric motors, take some of the work out of pedaling, making them a good gateway into cycling. If you’d like to check one out, Capital Bikeshare recently brought back its fleet of e-bikes (pulled last year because of reports of malfunctioning brakes), joining such other e-bike companies as Helbiz.
Practice cleanliness on shared equipment.
Like all bike-share companies, Capital Bikeshare regularly disinfects high-touch surfaces. Nevertheless, Dunbar says, “Treat it like you would any other surface,” wiping it down before and after use, and applying plenty of hand sanitizer. As always, avoid touching your face and wash your hands as soon as you can.
Dunbar suggests new cyclists get acquainted with online discussion boards, such as the Washington Area Bike Forum. Post a question about the best way to get from Point A to Point B, or click through extensive archives on such topics as local trail conditions and biking with kids. “The cycling community is very welcoming, despite our reputation sometimes,” Dunbar says. “We’re more than willing to help, particularly with routing.”
Wright says a little training can help newbies feel a lot more comfortable. The League of American Bicyclists offers a free online course called Traffic Skills 101, which is about four hours long. And WABA has developed virtual options, including lessons on how to fix a flat tire and find the right gear, as well as regular discussions on street safety in each of the District’s wards. Bike Arlington has teamed up with WABA to create virtual workshops on bike riding with kids, planning your route and maintaining your bike.
More on biking with kids
If you want to bring young kids along for the ride, you’ll most likely attach them to your bike via a trailer, bike seat or tandem-style trail-a-bike. Trailers, which are sometimes called burleys, are easy to use and the safest choice for toddlers, says Anne Mader, co-owner of the Bike Lane, a shop with locations in Reston and Springfield. Burleys come as singles or doubles — making it possible to pull two kids, up to age 6 — and typically have a cover, so the kids inside won’t get splashed by an inconsiderate puddle. “They don’t tip. They’re very stable,” Mader says. “And they have lots of room to put snacks and books and all sorts of stuff in there.”
Bike seats, which can be tricky to install, are attached to the handlebars or the back of a bike. The latter is more stable, and safer during falls, but some parents like to have eyes on their front-facing kids. Bike seats typically accommodate those ages 1 to 4.
Another option is the trail-a-bike, or tagalong, which attaches a single-wheeled bike to the rear of an adult’s bike. Kids don’t have to pedal — they can simply cruise — but they do need balance skills for a safe experience.
Mader advises avoiding the road when you have kids in tow, unless it’s “a very, very quiet street.” Even then, equip your bike with a flag or flashy accessories to ensure motorists will see you. Off-times are ideal, like lunch on a weekday — which can double as “recess” for your kids. Bike to a playground or ice-cream shop, Mader suggests, so your young passengers have something to look forward to.
Where to go
The big-name trails in Washington are seeing striking increases in traffic — and aren’t necessarily equipped to handle it. “If you’re like, ‘Oh, right, I’ve heard of that,’ those are the trails that are more likely to be busy,” Sandstrom says. To find an alternative, consult local biking groups’ maps, and make friends with the biking layer on Google Maps. Don’t rule out your local neighborhoods, and be smart about timing. “It’s not so much where you go, but when,” Dunbar says. “If you’re concerned about social distancing, the best time to go is early, before 9 a.m.”
Also keep alert when biking on waterside trails, some of which — such as portions of the paved path that runs along the creek in Rock Creek Park — have been made impassable to bikes by silt deposited in recent flooding. Here are seven spots for novices to consider:
“It’s a lovely ride through Prince George’s and D.C.,” Wetzel says of this 70-mile paved network of trails. Weave from College Park to Nationals Park, or stick to the scenic Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.
Mader recommends this loop around Burke Lake in Springfield for those who are biking with kids. It’s flat and smooth, and there’s plenty to see on the lake and in the woods.
This sprawling park in Northeast D.C. is a great place for novices to bike, according to Wetzel. “They just reopened the entire thing to cars,” he says, “but it’s generally lower traffic and a calm oasis in the city.” It’s also one of the most efficient and fun ways to explore 400-plus acres of diverse gardens.
Sections of the park, including Beach Drive NW, have long been closed to motor traffic from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Because of the pandemic, many of those sections are now closed to vehicles all day, every day, through Oct. 9.
This paved trail in Montgomery County is a favorite among local bicyclists, and a good destination for families. It’s a pleasant, mostly flat 16-mile ride, and it connects to the Anacostia Tributary Trail System.
“That is a nice trail,” Crawford says of the 13-miler in Anne Arundel County, which connects Annapolis and Glen Burnie. Expect an easy-to-ride, paved path, plenty of shade and relatively flat traveling. There are connector trails for those who crave a longer distance.
Where to shop online
As demand spikes, bikes are in short supply globally. Snagging what you need might require a Tour de Bike Shop, and some flexibility: Dunbar recently complimented a cyclist on his vibrant blue tires, and the man responded, “That’s all they had!” If your local shop is all out of, well, everything, check out these online shops. If you need help putting your new bike together, most bricks-and-mortar shops can do that for a modest fee.
Namesake Arni Nashbar started a bicycle parts mail order business from his Ohio home in the mid-1970s, and it’s now one of the biggest Internet retailers in its market. All kinds of bikes, cycling computers and reflective clothing are a click away.
This user-friendly site makes it easy for novices to find nonthreatening, entry-level bikes that come 99 percent assembled — and that go for decent prices. If you’ve ever wanted a “cute” bike, this is the place to shop.
The team behind Worldwide Cyclery is all about mountain bikes (and, apparently, if you watch the fun product reviews on the shop’s YouTube page, an appreciation for beer). Expect terrific customer service and free shipping on all products.
This online shop, which has a physical location in — ahem — Corona, Calif., is a longtime go-to for cyclists. It boasts an extensive selection of bikes and other gear, and employs veteran cyclists to advise customers on the best choices.
If you can’t get enough of those bike share e-bikes, it might be time to invest in your own. Rad Power Bikes offers lots of different models and does a solid job explaining the benefits of each one.