Traffic Cycling as a Primary Skill

by Kirby Beck, PCI #002T/EMSCI #017T
Coon Rapids (MN) Police Department (retired)

Someone recently posted a photo on Facebook of an IPMBA Police Cyclist class during a vehicular cycling road ride.  There were roughly 20 uniformed riders, lined up two by two.  They stretched out nearly half a block.  Almost everyone reading this has likely ridden in a large group as part of an IPMBA class.  I have certainly done so.  You might remember that with a large group, it isn’t very difficult to take and control a lane of traffic.  It might not look pretty at times, but often when we are out in large groups, we just overwhelm and sometimes intimidate surrounding traffic.  Of course, that’s just about opposite the situation most students will experience when they complete the training and start riding on duty or on their own.

I remember back in 1992-93 when the IPMBA Police Cyclist course was first being discussed and developed.  The primary goal of our standardized training was to teach police officers riding mountain bikes how to operate safely and legally in traffic.  At that time, IPMBA was part of the League of American Bicyclists.  The League participated in an established cyclist-training program called Effective Cycling (EC).  EC’s creator, John Forester, developed a basic tenet for cycling as part of traffic:  “Cyclists Fare Best When They Act and Are Treated as Drivers of Vehicles.”  IPMBA still adheres to that basic tenet.  It is the best and safest way to ride a bike in traffic.

After roughly 23 years of IPMBA cyclist training, I now worry that while we still discuss traffic riding in the classroom, we may not be adequately teaching our students to ride correctly on their own, when they are not part of a large group.  I get feedback on Facebook and other media from serious cyclist friends, even in areas that use IPMBA training.   Either the police cyclists they see out and about did not learn to ride properly, or they simply choose not to do so.  I have no good explanation for what they’ve observed.

IPMBA teaches group riding primarily as a way to move a class of cycling students safely from one training location to another.  We teach transitioning from double-file to single-file to shorten our groups at intersections or narrow our groups in heavy traffic.  It is taught and used primarily in our basic cycling classes and the Instructor Courses, which tend to be large. 

The vast majority of police, EMS, and security cyclists rarely, if ever, ride in groups as part of their normal duties.  Most work either solo or with a single partner.  Riding alone or as a pair is far different than riding in a large group.  Single and double riders are more reliant upon proper lane position, effective communication, and more stringent adherence to the traffic laws and principles.

While a large group of IPMBA students on a road ride may present quite a spectacle, one or two uniformed public safety professionals cycling in traffic on-duty are just as noticeable.  The public watches how you ride, and some people, especially serious cyclists, watch you very closely.  They expect you to know the traffic laws specific to bicycles, understand traffic cycling principles, and ride in a way that demonstrates that expertise.  In other words, they expect you to set an example for the community.  To do so is important both for your physical safety and to decrease your liability in the event of an incident.

In my years teaching, I have taught many students who have little or no experience as adult cyclists.  Some have not ridden more than a few blocks since they were kids.  Only a small percentage have actually ridden a bike on the roadway as part of traffic – most have gone to great lengths to avoid traffic!  It is our job as IPMBA Instructors to teach them how to ride safely and predictably in traffic with both confidence and skill.

The challenge we face as IPMBA Instructors is to find creative and effective ways for our students to learn how to ride in a confident, assertive, predictable, and legal manner whether alone or with others.

We must find complicated intersections, unique roadway designs and features, and other facilities that will challenge them, sharpen their traffic skills, and help them apply the cognitive knowledge introduced in the classroom.  They are not going to develop those skills while road riding in a large group with other students.  They will learn it best by practicing the way they will actually be riding.

In 2012, I took a CyclingSavvy course from Keri Caffrey, the co-creator of the program.  I had heard it described as the best civilian cycling course in the country, and I wanted to experience it for myself.  After taking the training, I can assure you – IT IS! 

Keri started by spending a couple of hours using both interactive graphics and dialogue to explain traffic movement, patterns, rules and how cyclists fit into it.  She uses her own terrific visuals as she explains why taking and “controlling” the lane is usually the safest way to cycle, especially with narrow (less than 14-foot), non-shareable lanes.  She also provides many examples of the real but unseen dangers of riding in bike lanes.  The next couple of hours were spent on bike, learning basic cycling skills (starting, braking, turning, shifting, and emergency maneuvers), much as we do in IPMBA.

The way Keri taught the road riding skills is what made her really stand apart.  Because she lives in Orlando, Florida, and was teaching this class in St. Paul, Minnesota, she used maps, satellite images and scouting to learn the area and to find the intersections she wanted to use for the exercises.  She mapped out the route she wished to use and then memorized it.  Well, maybe she had some notes, but it didn’t seem obvious!

As our group rode along, she would stop us several blocks away from the intersection she had chosen.  She would then draw the intersection on the sidewalk with chalk and have people describe the proper lane, position and manner in which to ride it.  [Now she carries a roll of Tyvek and uses dry erase markers instead.]  She would then ride alone to a position where she could observe the crucial spots.  Riders would depart one at a time on either a set interval, or on a text-directed message. 

While the class was training as a group, the students were learning how to function in traffic as individuals.  They had to use the skills they had learned because there was no one else to do it for them.  The intersections got progressively more complicated and challenging.  The messages we had received in the first hours were making sense and being validated.  It felt very safe riding that way.  While everyone in my class was already an experienced rider (many were certified League Cycling Instructors), I could still see “lights coming on” that this was an effective way to train new riders.

There is no reason IPMBA Instructors can’t be creative and train in a similar fashion.  It is our challenge as professional cyclists, and professional instructors, to give our students the most realistic practice and experience in their training time with us.  We have to teach them, and then let them practice, riding solo or in pairs, like they will on their own or on duty.

I worry that some IPMBA Instructors might get swept up in the “sexy” parts of our class, like stair descents/ascents, takedowns, hook slides and the like.  In doing so, they may pay less attention proper road riding principles, laws, skills and techniques.  These may seem mundane, but they have been the primary goal of the IPMBA Course since the beginning.  The specialized tactics, EMS-specific training, and obstacle skills were secondary. 

As you are teaching your cycling classes, ask yourself if you are really preparing your students to ride as they will when riding on duty, or if you are just spending time on road rides so you can check that off the list of things you are supposed to do.  Remember:  it is important to cover the basics well and teach traffic cycling as the crucial primary skill it is.

Watch for Keri Caffrey to bring her materials and interactive teaching style to the 2016 IPIMBA Conference in Asheville.  Those who attend the two-part CyclingSavvy: Empowerment for Unlimited Travel workshop will be eligible to enroll in the CyclingSavvy Instructor program, part of the American Bicycling Education Association (ABEA).

Kirby Beck retired after 28 years with Coon Rapids Police Department.  He has 14 years of police bike patrol experience.  He has taught bicycle safety and traffic cycling to children and adults for more than 25 years.  As a training consultant, he co-taught the Bicycle Safety and Accommodation Course for the National Highway Institute, sponsored by NHTSA and FHWA.  A founding member and past President of IPMBA, he was co-creator of the IPMBA Police Cyclist Course and Instructor Course.  He contributed to both the Complete Guide to Police Cycling and the Complete Guide to Public Safety Cycling.  He can be reached at kirby@kbeckconsulting.com

(c) 2015 IPMBA.  This article appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of IPMBA News. 

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