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Cycling Safety In The Big Sky Country

Bicycle touring is as safe a sport as you make it. Some cycling techniques mixed with common sense can greatly reduce your chances of injury.

In some on-road routes, vehicle traffic can present the greatest danger to the cyclist. Cars, motorcycles, and trucks are heavier and faster than bicycles; always anticipate that the next driver you meet may do something bizarre. When a car or truck overtakes you, assume that there is a line of traffic following it, and that the second driver back has not seen you.

Towing units and recreational vehicles are often equipped with mirror extenders that protrude far to the right side of the vehicle and can clip an unsuspecting cyclist. Be attentive to the extra space requirements of commercial vehicles.

It would be a mistake to only look out for vehicles; many accidents are caused by cyclists running into each other. Following too closely, whether for purposes of chatting or for staying out of a headwind in a “pace line,” leads to a number of accidents every year. But, the classic cycling accident occurs when a cyclist stops for a rest or to take a photo, and remains right on the shoulder travel lane. A second cyclist, who perhaps is looking at the scenery or just concentrating on the road, runs into the first. While usually not life threatening, these accidents can lead to bruises and perhaps damaged equipment. It’s an easy accident type to avoid…simply by getting well off of the road, trail, or travel lane whenever stopping.

Stationary hazards account for the majority of cycling accidents. Watch out for oil, wet leaves, hot tar, parked cars, rocks, broken pavement, and railroad crossings. Watch for loose gravel, especially at intersections and where side roads or driveways enter your shoulder. Cross the rails at railroad crossings as perpendicular as possible; a track at an angle to the road can easily trap a wheel. In Montana, especially on back roads in ranching country, you'll encounter an obstacle that makes urban storm sewer grating ride like blacktop by comparison: the cattle guard. This is a series of 5-8 railroad rails spaced 3 to 6 inches apart so that cattle won't try to cross. Always dismount and walk across cattle guards; there is no sense in risking a damaged wheel or a more serious crash.

In Montana, the bicycle is recognized as a legal vehicle on the roadways, so you as the cyclist are subject to all of the same traffic laws you would obey as a motorist. But, there are also rules of the road dictated by common courtesy. Show courtesy to motorists and pedestrians as well as fellow cyclists. If you’d like to take a look at specific cycling laws for the state, you’ll find them at this link.

Time of day is often an important safety consideration. Temperatures are usually best, and traffic is lightest, in the early morning hours. Avoid leaving or approaching major population centers during rush hours or at the noon hour. If you can, be off the road before 5 p.m. Low or glaring light conditions, heavy traffic, fatigue of both driver and bicyclists, and the appearance of the drinking driver make this the most dangerous time of day. Be aware that when you are riding directly into the sun (at dawn or dusk), motorists behind you are doing the same, and they may have difficulty seeing you.

Night riding is not recommended. If you must ride at night, wear bright, reflective clothing; use lights and reflectors front and rear, and listen for traffic. When on the highway, leave the roadway when you hear a car approaching. Always assume that the driver has not seen you.

Fog presents another danger for cyclists. If you must ride in fog, treat it like nighttime. Under conditions like these, helmets, safety flags, safety triangles (fanny bumpers), and rear view mirrors make extra good sense. Remember that heavy fog severely distorts a driver's sense of depth perception; a motorist may be on top of you before he/she realizes it.

Tunnels are almost never designed for use by bicyclists. Use lights, flags, and safety triangles. Stand just inside the tunnel on the walkway or shoulder until your eyes can adjust to the poor light. Ride as far to the right as you can get. For long tunnels, the group may want to appoint one person to stand at the entrance waving a flag to warn motorists of cyclists ahead, but this person will still have to get through. A better solution is to flag down a sympathetic motorist who will agree to follow your group through the tunnel with flashers blinking.

Cycling proficiency, safety consciousness, and visibility are your best keys to safe bicycle touring.