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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Amphibious Paddler

Rules of the (Asphalt) Road —
Getting From Home Port to Put-In

By Tamia Nelson

May 3, 2005

Summer's right around the corner in the northern hemisphere, and amphibious paddlers are getting on their bikes and scouting around for new places to wet a blade. Maybe you've already done so. Now you're ready to bag up your boat, load the trailer, and head down the road. But hold on! Riding in traffic is like paddling in a busy harbor. You can't afford to make mistakes. So unless you've been in the saddle all winter, take a little time to sharpen your "street smarts."

Begin by giving your bike a thorough going-over. A bike's a lot more complex than a canoe or kayak, and mechanical problems are easier to deal with at home than on the shoulder of a busy highway. Next, review the rules of the road. No, I'm not talking about the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS), though open-water kayakers would do well to be familiar with these, too. I'm thinking of the written and unwritten rules that help us survive in traffic. It's a high-stakes game, and the penalties for errors can be harsh, particularly when you're the smallest kid on the field. For amphibious paddlers operating in cycling mode, winning the game boils down to staying alive and unhurt. Nothing less. That means we're always playing defense. The game plan is simple:

  • Be Seen
  • Be Predictable
  • Be Prepared

Let's take each of these in turn, beginning with…

Be Seen

Drivers usually don't expect to encounter cyclists on the road. And what they don't expect, they often don't see. "Honest to God, officer, I never even saw him." Those words — or something very like them — have been said over a lot of cyclists' broken bodies. So make it your business to be seen. Muted colors and earth-tones have their place, but that place isn't on the highway. Hunter orange, lemon yellow, and "Hi-Viz" lime green are best, and strips of reflecting material are a plus. You can get orange t-shirts now. They're cheap, and they are visible. Farwell walked up to the checkout at the local HyperMart in January in an orange tee (he was wearing it over three layers of fleece at the time). The cashier, who'd been bagging another customer's groceries, turned around suddenly and almost dropped her scanner. "Jeez," she said, "Nobody could miss you in that thing!"

"You know, I kinda hope you're wrong about that," Farwell joked, rapping his knuckles on the bicycle helmet in his shopping cart to make the point. "I hope they'll see me first."

"They will," the cashier replied, with decided emphasis.

If t-shirts aren't your thing — and I admit they leave a great deal to be desired in a North Country January — look for a safety vest. The mesh vests worn by highway workers are perfect for the dog days of summer, while fleece hunters' vests come into their own in fall. Brightly colored windbreakers are another good choice, but stay away from red. It grabs the eye in the store, but in low-light conditions you might as well be wearing a gray flannel suit.

While you're at it, make sure your bike can be seen, too. Keep the reflectors clean, and replace any that are cracked or broken. And don't stop there. Even if you never intend to be on the road after dark — and night riding is risky, no doubt about it — mount both head- and taillights on your bike. They're very useful on foggy and rainy days, and they're a lot better than they used to be. My first headlight cast a sickly yellow glow and faded to black with every bump in the road. The batteries lasted about an hour. The generator light on Farwell's old Raleigh three-speed didn't need batteries, and it was nice and bright, but it left him in the dark whenever he stopped. The LED revolution has changed all this. The taillight ("blinkie") that I use now can be seen on all but the brightest days, yet it's still blinking away on its original pair of AAA cells. My headlight, whose brilliant blue-white beam makes it easy for me to dodge surly skunks out for a moonlight stroll, also doubles as a headlamp in camp and on the water. It, too, uses AAA cells.

Lastly, consider mounting a flag on your trailer. The little pennant whips back and forth in the wind, and it's definitely a drag, but it earns its keep on the highway and at stoplights. Motorists don't expect a cyclist to be pulling a trailer. The flag is a heads-up. Remove it whenever you leave the asphalt for a forest road, though. If you don't, an overhanging branch will do the job for you.


"Be seen" is the first item in the highway playbook. The second is…

Be Predictable

Think about it. When you're behind the wheel, you're constantly having to predict other road users' behavior. Now, when you're on your bike, you're one of those "other road users." Your safety depends on motorists' good judgement, so make it easy for them to help you stay alive — ride predictably. To begin with, know the traffic laws and obey them, and use hand signals where appropriate. Of course, if it's been a while since you last looked at the motor-vehicle and traffic code, you may have forgotten the finer points. I'll touch on some of the highlights for amphipads in a minute, but be warned: there are many local variations. To avoid embarrassment (or worse), consult the Official Writ first and then spend some time at John Allen's excellent "Street Smarts" website.

Here's the short course. Once you get on a bike, you're no longer a pedestrian. Ride with traffic — on the right. (Except in the UK and a few outposts of empire, that is. Traffic in these places takes a sinister course, and cyclists should follow suit.) After all, when you're on a bike, you are traffic. Still, keep as far to the right "as practicable." This rather opaque phrase is what lawyers call a term of art. It means that, although you have a duty to avoid unreasonably obstructing the passage of cars and trucks, you aren't legally obligated to ride through potholes or broken glass or travel only inches from the curb. In particular, give parked cars a wide berth. Many cyclists have come to a bad end when a car door opened suddenly in front of them. It seems like the stuff of slapstick comedy, but it's not. Being "doored" is no joke, and a sudden lurch into traffic to avoid the door is almost equally bad. The upshot? If your trip to the water takes you through a city or village, ride some three to five feet out from the line of parked cars, moving to the center of the lane whenever there's no room for a car to pass you safely, or when you're preparing to turn. Be especially careful at intersections. If there's a left-turn lane, use it when turning left. Never make a left turn from the far right of the roadway, and do NOT pass cars on the right when they're stopped in your lane. Either move is tempting fate.

Once you've broken free from the madding crowd, use the paved shoulder (if any), but don't move so far to the right that you have nowhere to go except the ditch if you have to swerve to avoid a darting animal or broken bottle. (Warning! Paved shoulders have a way of vanishing at every small bridge. Plan ahead.) Expect to be buffeted by the slipstream from passing trucks, too. Lightly-traveled rural roads are delightful places to ride, but most have only rudimentary shoulders, and the drivers you meet don't see many cyclists, so it's more important than ever to be predictable. One last thing: when cycling in company, it's usually best to ride single-file, even on apparently deserted byways. In fact, it's often the law. And there's a bonus of sorts. The lead cyclist frequently serves as a windbreak, making life easier for whoever follows her. To keep everyone happy, take turns riding point.


Last, and most important…

Be Prepared

There's a reason that Baden-Powell's old chestnut is still being quoted: it's very good advice, whether you're on the water or on the road. Being prepared begins with good gear, but it doesn't end there. Cycling and paddling can both be hard work. Do yourself a favor. Get in shape and stay that way. This may mean indoor workouts in winter. Then, once you're on the road, keep alert. Always. Check your rearview mirror every few seconds, but don't stare fixedly at it. It's just as important to see what's in front of you. If you're too tired to pay attention to the road — and the traffic — stop and rest.

Furthermore, use all your senses. You'll often hear cars long before you see them. Even your nose will sometimes tell you things you need to know. I've been warned of frequent ATV traffic on forest roads by the persistent, acrid pall of exhaust. I smelled the ATVs long before I heard them, in other words, and I heard them long before I saw the first rider. He wasn't expecting me, but I was expecting him. That made all the difference.

Being prepared for the road means more than getting your muscles in tune. Your attitude may need adjusting, too. If the thought of riding in traffic terrifies you — and it can be scary, make no mistake about it — don't just head out and hope for the best. Work up to it gradually. Ride with a group of experienced friends. Many communities have cycling clubs, and some of these clubs schedule group rides especially for beginners. You'll probably meet a few of your paddling buddies there, too. Larger clubs even run "effective cycling" courses, often based on a model developed by the League of American Bicyclists (formerly the League of American Wheelmen). There's no better way to learn the rules of the road. In any case, stay off sidewalks except in emergencies. The sidewalk is best left to walkers and kids on tricycles. Bike paths are something else, but they're few and far between in rural areas. (The same thing can be said of sidewalks.) If you want to get to the water on your bike, you'll have to hit the road sooner or later. You might as well get good at it.

Speaking of hitting the road — if you ride far enough, you will, if not this year, then the next, or the year after that. Crashes are to cycling what dumping is to paddling. And if you don't want your first trip over the handlebars to be your last, wear a helmet. This, too, is part of being prepared. Both Farwell and I have taken hits upside our heads, with and without helmets. Take it from us. It's a lot less painful when your head's got protection.

Finally, never forget the most important rule of all — the gross-tonnage rule. You won't find it in any highway code, but it's as important on the road as it is on the water. If something's bigger (or faster) than you are, it always has the right-of-way. 'Nuff said?

Getting on your bike and heading out for a no-octane day on the water is always a treat, especially now that gas prices are ratcheting higher. But you have to earn your fun. So work your muscles back into shape and sharpen your street smarts. Learn the rules of the road. Then load up and go. The world's waterways are waiting for you.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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