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Posted by on Jul 29, 2012 in Safety | 16 comments

Personal safety when cycling alone

[Note from LisaB: I'm posting this on behalf of a female Commute Orlando reader who requested anonymity]

There is confident, and then there is overconfident.

I didn’t realize how much I had fallen into the latter category with my newfound love of cycling until a disturbing incident the other night. I’ve grown so comfortable on my bike that I zip right along anywhere and everywhere, without considering whether my riding choices are actually safe. Or rather, I’ve been focused on staying alert to the dangers posed by traffic, not people.

And so it is that I found myself tooling along on a remote, wooded section of trail several evenings ago after work. In daylight, but alone. Generally there are other people out on the trails, I’ve never felt unsafe, and on this particular evening, I was oblivious to the fact that there seemed to be fewer people out than usual. (Probably because I was the only one crazy enough to tackle the Florida summer heat in pursuit of my 1,000-mile goal.)

As I approached the far end of the trail, I happened upon a casual cyclist and thought nothing of it. On my return, I suddenly became aware of the shadow of a rider behind me, which turned out to be the same person I had previously passed. He was tailing pretty close behind, and thinking that maybe I was an obstacle to his progress, I sped up to put some distance between us. He sped up too. Then I slowed down so he would just go around me, and again, he adjusted his speed to match mine. This is the point at which I started to feel uncomfortable. I sped up again so I could get to a populated area as quickly as possible, and all the while I could hear his bike behind me and see his shadow off to my side.

When I finally stopped at a busy intersection, he stopped too and thanked me for motivating him. And maybe that’s really all it was, since I too am motivated by other cyclists who are traveling faster than me. But I don’t tail strangers closely like that. And he went on to give me a story about how he had just left work, which felt implausible given that I had first encountered him going in the opposite direction on a remote trail and that he had turned around when I did. He looked and sounded creepy, with a backpack in the basket on his handlebars that I suddenly imagined full of rope and duct tape. It unnerved me, and I changed my planned route back home to stay in traffic. He disappeared immediately once I got on the roads.

I posted about the unusual incident on Facebook and instantly started receiving admonishment from others for riding alone on an unpopulated stretch of trail. My mother even called to lecture me about it. Don’t tell her I said so, but I deserved the lecture. Besides scolding, however, I also got strong recommendations to report the episode to the sheriff’s department, which I did. And I got some excellent advice from fellow cyclists and the deputy I spoke to that is valuable to any woman who cycles alone.

  • Most importantly, don’t ride alone on the trails. Either ride with a friend, or stick to well-traveled streets. Lesson learned! Today I rode 22 miles alone on busy streets only, and you know what? It was even more awesome than riding the trails!
  • Carry a small can of mace in an easily accessible place. I did some Google checking and it’s easy to find products that attach to your wrist or bike, specifically marketed to runners and cyclists.
  • Keep your cell phone handy and ready to call 911 if necessary. I keep my own phone in a mount on the handlebars and it’s not so easy to get it out, so I may need to rethink that plan.
  • Keep your bike in good repair so you don’t get stranded and can make a quick escape if necessary.

If you do find yourself in an uncomfortable situation:

  • Get to a populated area immediately and call 911.
  • Try to get a good description of the person. I didn’t do such a good job here, since I wasn’t actually planning to report the incident until everyone on Facebook told me that I needed to. I was just focused on ditching the guy. Specific questions the sheriff’s deputy asked me were hair color, skin color, ethnicity, and description of the bike.
  • If the person making you uncomfortable initiates conversation, be polite but don’t entice them with interaction. Apparently I did exactly the right thing here, according to the deputy.
  • Don’t ride home if you think you are being followed! I can’t believe I actually needed the deputy to tell me this one, but it never even crossed my mind that someone might follow me all the way home. Fortunately I was sure I had lost the guy, but what a serious reality check.

The deputy did reassure me that the trails are well patrolled, and that usually the only negative activity has to do with items being stolen from cars parked at the trailheads. The trails themselves have not been known to be unsafe. Still, I’ll be sticking to the roads from now on when I’m riding alone. You should, too.

16 Comments

  1. I got a similar reminder on a collector street on my commute last week. I kept going, but was reminded that cyclists face dangers other than motorists and loose dogs. It didn’t put a big dent in my conviction that “cycling is fun and safe,” but such reminders keep us in balance.

  2. Good post. Another point is that trails may often have areas where a cyclist could be “trapped” – such as where it may go under a road. Also, conditions may vary from time of day. For example, there’s a trail here which bike commuters will ride alone in the mornings, but then they often use the streets after work instead.

  3. I rode Fort Worth Critical Mass last Friday, and a new rider came on the ride. Our CM rides are not for beginning cyclists, and before too long, she was lagging behind. This was the month, by the way, that the chosen route went through some unsavory east side areas.

    I saw her stop to get water and she said she’d be find and I didn’t need to wait, but I told her I would. I wouldn’t be too comfortable myself riding alone in that area, and I didn’t really want to leave a woman there alone.

    From her standpoint, she may have felt I was that creepy guy, but given the alternative of riding alone and not knowing what to encounter, she didn’t object too much to my presence, and I tried not to get too close to her personal space.

    It turned out to be a good thing because she really had no clue where she was or how to get home, and the group had dropped us. She would have never completed the ride anyway because there were several steep hills on the route. I got her back to the downtown area as quickly as I could to help her feel at ease.

    We made it back about the same time as the rest of the group got back, so it was all good, but even with the two of us, there were a few encounters with others that felt like the one described in the post above.

  4. A woman becomes especially vulnerable when she experiences mechanical problems that immobilize her. Generally men are immune from assault in that condition. Girls, be understanding when we insist on accompanying you…. I’m not referring to the stalker subject in this post. I doubt his concern was for the welfare of the woman cyclist.

  5. Yes. A woman was murdered on a path in a rural state park here in Massachusetts some years ago, and the murder was never solved.

    Now, I’m a guy — and so I’m supposed to be immune? In my years living in the Boston urban core, 1971-1983, I was physically attacked three times on paths, and once on a barricaded street inside a public housing development — every time by one or more male teenagers (and all appearing to be of European ancestry: let’s not indulge ourselves in stereotypes). I had a friend, also a guy, who came very close to being murdered for his bicycle on one of the Charles River paths. You may read about the incident in point #4 here:

    http://bikexprt.com/witness/rowinskyaff.htm

    Bicycle theft by mugging is common on the hilly north end of the ring road in New York City’s Central Park when the road closed to motor traffic.

    The risk of physical attack raises serious concerns about bicycle transportation networks that rely on off-street segments or connections. It doesn’t take many attacks to discourage people from avoiding these — an issue which sees too little attention from “visionary” bicycling advocates. Whether a path is safe depends in the first instance on the general level of crime. The USA unfortunately has a worse record than countries which are held up as models to us.

    There’s a tradeoff between how pleasant a route is, by being quiet and having low moor traffic volume, and how safe it is. there’s no one size fits all solution, bu a bicycle;e boulevard is about as far as I’d go to make a route quiet and pleasant. It still puts eyes on the street. An isolated path doesn’t.

  6. This is what is known as “social safety.” People from Jane Jacobs to David Hembrow have described it quite well. There are a variety of solutions, some of which are quite easy (and some of which are not!).

    Little things like thinking about the effect on social safety before planting trees. Or making sure that people can see out of an underpass before they enter it.

    For more information, see:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2008/09/three-types-of-safety.html

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2008/09/three-types-of-safety.html

  7. I guess no site is safe from predator scare mongering, considering how much this site does in removing unreasonable fears about cycling.

    • I guess no site is immune from blinded denial. There’s a real world out there, Will.

      When four young toughs standing one after the other tried to take me down on a narrow bicycle-pedestrian overpass, I sped up and bounced off the railing to get past them. I’d rather have turned around and sped away, as I might have done in the street, but there wasn’t room. Bike handling skills can be the first phase of martial arts and may be the only one needed.

  8. My usual post facto justification for not avoiding “bad” areas of town when on foot is that if everyone avoids them who can, it sucks even more for those who are forced to be there. As well as the fact that incidents are relatively rare, of course, and that worrying too much is not healthy in itself. (Similar to the argument that requiring helmets will decrease biking and people will exercise less, outweighing the increase in injury from not wearing a helmet.)

    This justification may not apply at bike speeds, however. But for a cyclist who’s not as comfortable on busy roads as we are, the helmet argument may apply: if you tell someone to avoid the trails, they may end up just staying home and watching TV.

  9. I hate to suggest additional work for potential victims (they shouldn’t have to do any additional work), but I’ll do so anyway: take a good martial arts class.
    This isn’t a single-afternoon event. It’s a much larger commitment, for two reasons:
    – It takes a lot of practice — recent practice — to stay sharp. You aren’t going to be able to use any martial arts skills if you haven’t practiced them, often and recently.
    – More than the fighting ability, what you are looking for is a change in your persona. (A friend of mine who teaches martial arts explained this to me: she was once in an undesirable situation with two or three men. All she did was stand there and look at them in complete confidence. One of them said to his companions, “Look at her. She’s not even scared.” And they ran away.) This too, comes with an investment of time.
    I worry — some — when I hear women say, “I carry pepper spray.” Are you lightning-fast with it? Can you really dial your cell phone faster than a perp can grab it from you and smash it? Creeps who are truly dangerous would love to confront a nice guilt-ridden liberal woman who hesitates and trembles while threatening to use her weapon. They’ll disarm that woman in the blink of an eye.

  10. Another “additonal work” suggestion: have a movie camera running. (Like that GoPro that looks so cute atop Lisa’s helmet! ;-) — or a more discreet one mounted on your bike.)
    I wish no one felt s/he needed a camera for reasons of paranoia, but it’s hard to argue against the benefits of having video footage. Our poster’s perp would find his picture all over town.

  11. Thanks for this post. Good points for women to think about. It’s reality. Not to be afraid but to be prepared and to pick the best route for your safety. Glad you’re ok. It’s good to be aware of where your local fire and police stations are in case you need to stop by.

  12. I have a probably-irrational fear of someone poking a walking stick through my spokes or hitting me with one. I always have my “feelers” out and don’t feel bad about going with my gut and turning around.

  13. Before I head out for a solo bike ride or run, I leave a note telling my family what time I left, what route I’m taking and estimated time of return.

  14. As the original author suggests, this really is about a little common sense and awareness.

    While I would not describe this as fear mongering like Will since these events do happen … off the top of my head, see the two recent events.

    http://tinyurl.com/bogunkl
    http://tinyurl.com/bu5t2gk

    However, it is not clear that the conditional probability — nighttime on a trail — of a violent attack is terribly high. Regardless, I think that whatever the real odds are for a violent attack you could likely reduce them by sticking with populated areas in low-crime neighborhoods.

  15. Sorry about the errors. I should check my prose more carefully.