By John Yoder
Recently, I was sitting in the bleachers at my grandson’s baseball game when a teenage boy on crutches hobbled to a seat in the first row near me. He was walking by leaning on the top of his crutches, and as he sat down with some friends, he greeted them with the words, “These things hurt,” an obvious reference to the crutches.
As one who walked with crutches for several months years ago due to a broken leg, I felt sorry for him and was more than a little annoyed that no one had told him the proper way to walk with crutches. Walking with crutches shouldn’t hurt. They were hurting him because he was putting the full weight of his body on the top of the crutches that rested in his arm pits. The correct way to use crutches is to put most of your weight on the hand grips and only use the tops of the crutches for balance.
When I heard his frustration, I debated whether I should tell him the correct way to walk with crutches, but since I didn’t know him, since I’m old enough to be his grandfather, and since it seemed presumptuous to offer advice to a stranger, I hesitated. For a moment, I even wondered if my memory of the correct way to use crutches was correct, seeing as how it’s been 48 years since I used them. As I mulled those thoughts over, he started talking with his friends, and my moment to give advice passed.
How This Applies to Cycling
What does this incident have to do with cycling? Well, thinking about giving unsolicited advice on the proper way to walk with crutches reminded me of the multiple times I’ve been tempted to give advice to cyclists on the proper way to ride when I see someone using the wrong technique or behaving in dangerous ways.
To intervene, or not to intervene? That is the question.
Here are some examples of bad cycling technique and behavior I see on a regular basis that makes me think about intervening, followed by the advice I could offer, if I did:
- Cyclists riding with their seats so low that their knees are practically hitting their chins. My advice: Riding like that puts unnecessary strain on your knees and requires much more effort than when the seat is at the proper height, which is when the knee is only slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
- Cyclists straining to turn the pedals because they are in a gear that is too hard for the terrain. My advice: Since most bikes have lots of gears, there is no reason pedaling should be a strain on your knees. Learn to use your gears.
- Cyclists riding on the wrong side of the road. My advice: Wrong-way riding is illegal in all 50 states and is one of the leading causes of bicycle fatalities.
- Cyclists ignoring stoplights. My advice: Such behavior sends the message that cyclists are above the law, making motorists angry (do we really want to promote that?) and gives anti-cycling forces a reason to oppose spending tax dollars to make our communities more bicycle-friendly.
- Cyclists riding on the sidewalk in town. My advice: Sidewalks are designed for pedestrians. They are too narrow to accommodate cyclists and walkers, and you are a particular danger to people leaving businesses along the sidewalk.
- Cyclists riding at night with no lights. My advice: Since you are nearly invisible to motorists, I assume you have some kind of death wish. What are you thinking? Get some lights or stay home. (I’m not diplomatic in this case.)
Of course, each of these topics requires more than a quick answer in real life. I even carry and one-page handout on the dangers of wrong-way riding to explain that issue in more detail. And my discussions with cyclists I don’t know on these topics have had mixed results, ranging from hostility and verbal abuse to gratitude.
The basic problem is making contact. I’m either going in a different direction, or they are so far from me that it would be difficult to catch them. So my solution has been to attempt to be an interventionist with illegal and dangerous behaviors, like wrong-way riding, ignoring stoplights and riding without lights at night, and write articles to the newspaper about the others (admittedly, articles the offenders aren’t likely to see), and to teach cycling classes.
In reality, riding with your seat too low and gearing too high isn’t a crime; it’s just bad form that will eventually give you sore knees. In hindsight, I regret not talking to the teen with bad crutches form. That was a case where I was close enough to connect and could have provided some (hopefully) useful advice.
John D. Yoder is a recreational cyclist, former cycling commuter and League of American Bicyclists cycling instructor. He has been active for over 25 years establishing the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a rails-to-trails project connecting Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana, Indiana (www.pumpkinvine.org).
I don’t intervene on riding style, I don’t want to come across as some sort of cycling know it all jerk. If I see a person riding at night with no lights on surface streets I will say something, depending on the situation I may or may not say anything about riding on the sidewalk.
i saw a dad in a metro park..going the wrong way in traffic..towing a kidde trailer. he was on the wrong side. he says “i want to see the cars before they hit us.” these folks won’t believe you (or can’t because they’re wearing earbuds) and wont change their ways. i save my breath now.
My sole comment is when parents are riding with their young children, and the child does not have a helmet.
Equally bad is when the child has a helmet but the parent doesn’t. What kind of example is that?
David Frost says
I was recently part of a moderately-paced half-century ride with long-time cycling friends, plus a rider who admitted that he was very new to cycling. New guy had expressed interest in learning how to improve his cycling. Over the course of the ride, we gently offered advice on seat height, gear usage and cadence, even how to get started from a standstill. New guy accepted the advice well, and was a much more comfortable and proficient rider by the end of the day.
Mark Pemburn says
There is no shame in wishing to mentor the inexperienced if you have solid guidance to offer. But the way you offer it matters a great deal. Have you considered beginning with a question? For example: “Are you comfortable with your saddle in that position? Have you tried any different positions to see how well they work?” I believe that this changes the character of the advice-giver from the “know-it-all” to the “concerned companion”. You may want to give it a try.
Bruce Miller says
Thanks for your work establishing the Pumpkinvine Trail – a great ride with excellent pie at the Shipshewana end!