[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.