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How to Group Cycle Like a Pro

Group Cycling Safety

Dogs may be man's best friend, but they're a cyclist's worst enemy. They'll bark at you; they'll nip at your heels; they'll run under your front wheel and bring you crashing to the ground. Dogs are even an issue during the acclaimed Tour de France. Every year, the occasional stray might dart into the peloton, unwittingly prompting a storm of flailing limbs and airborne bicycles.

Dogs are just one of the many hazards facing group cyclists. Amid heavy traffic, rough weather, uneven terrain and even swooping birds, it's a wonder cyclists take to the road in anything less than a full suit of armor. Group cyclists face a particularly unique set of safety hazards. On the one hand, a peloton is less at risk for auto collisions, because it's more visible to motorists. On the other hand, you're also more at risk of getting caught in a massive, multi-cyclist collision. Still, by taking along the right equipment and keeping your wits about you, you should be able to get to the finish line in one piece.

A helmet is absolutely essential. Of any piece of safety equipment, a helmet is most likely to keep you out of the morgue. More than 9 in 10 U.S. cyclists killed in 2008 weren't wearing a helmet [source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety]. Most cycling groups won't let you join a ride without one. A handlebar-mounted bell may seem like a childish accessory, but it's an essential tool to help you politely communicate with other pedestrians, cars and other cyclists. A ringing bell is always more pleasant to hear than "Get out of the way!"

If you're sharing a road with cars (which is most of the time) you should always be well-versed in the official rules of the road. Stop at stop signs, don't go the wrong way down a one-way street, and never ride on the sidewalk. The more predictable you make your movements on the road, the easier it will be for motorists to steer clear of your peloton.

You should never ride in groups wider than two riders, and even that can be risky. On busy roads, you should stay in a single file. To keep the peloton from sprawling out into traffic, riders should stay almost uncomfortably close. Your front wheel should be no less than six inches from the rear wheel of the rider in front of you, and your shoulders should be no less than 12 inches away from the rider next to you -- just be sure not to overlap wheels [source: Horowitz]. Because of these close quarters, you'll want your cycling to be as smooth as possible. Brake too fast or swerve your wheels, and you could find yourself under a pile of very unhappy riders.

Daylight is always the safest time to schedule a bike ride, but during the winter some night biking may be unavoidable. Whenever you take to the road after sunset, be sure to bedeck yourself with as many lights as possible. Reflectors don't count: If a car's headlights have come close enough to illuminate your reflectors, chances are that it's too late to avoid a collision [source: Goodridge]. Luckily, we live in the golden age of cheap, bright bike lights. You should be able to pick up two blindingly bright LED lights (one for the back, one for the front) for no more than $50. Avoid incandescent lights: They burn out, they're not as bright, and they'll eat through batteries much faster. Colors are also important, as they indicate the direction in which a bike is moving. Keep your front lights white, your back lights red and your side lights amber. Cars will obviously be your biggest night time hazard -- but don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for pedestrians, animals and the occasional unlit cyclist.

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