Is it possible to ride your bike in complete and utter safety? It is, if you stay indoors and make sure your trainer is secure (and your body is healthy, and you're surrounded by pillows). Otherwise, you're taking a risk anytime you head out the door. So your job is to mitigate that risk as much as possible.
Any amount of riding puts you in danger of falling. You could have trouble unclipping, hit a random bump, or let a bunny rabbit scare you off your seat. If you fall from five or six feet in the air without your feet under you, you can land on your head. Your injury could range from a bruised ego to severe brain damage.
Obviously, step one is to wear a good helmet. Your helmet can save your life. I am amazed to still see people riding a bike without a helmet. It's foolish. Even if you're just pedaling down the street, wear your helmet.
The helmet needs to be securely fastened. It it's too loose and slips out of place at a critical moment, your head is in danger. If your head is in danger, your life is in danger. Do you see the line of reasoning?
What else can you do to lower your risk?
Let's talk about distracted driving. Distracted, and influenced, drivers are the biggest risk to all of us out on the open road. They don't see you, regardless of your neon jersey and flashing lights. They're oblivious. They're out of control. There is little you can do about some nut job hitting you from behind. But you do have control of yourself.
So your number one job on the road is to maintain situational awareness. If you hear a car approaching from behind, stay balanced. They may come close. Don't veer into their path. Don't veer off the road, either (unless you know they're aiming at you). Get ready for a truck to blow a bunch of wind your way. If it hasn't happened, it will.
Prepare for every driver to make the worst possible decision for you. If they pass you, prepare for them to immediately slow down and turn right (in front of you). If they stay behind you, prepare for them to come perilously close when they finally do pass. Imagine that virtually no approaching or cross-traffic drivers see you and expect them to fail to yield. It doesn't matter if you're in the right. What matters is not getting hit by a 3,000 lb vehicle.
You can and should wear bright clothing. With reflective stripes. And put some lights on your bike. Light that sucker up like a Christmas tree. Who cares if your roadie friends giggle every time you mount up? Riding a bike is a time to be seen!
Avoid road cycling at dawn, dusk, and nighttime. Visibility is poor at these hours and your chances for distracted or impaired drivers increase in the latter two. If you do ride at these times for commuter or scheduling reasons, find the least traveled roads you can. And turn on the Christmas tree.
Avoid rush hour cycling. People are angry, hungry, and they're catching up on their Facebook feed. If you must ride at or near rush hour, find a group. There is safety in numbers in these situations. Personally, I am opting out of any more rush hour riding in my life. If I do go, it'll be on dedicated greenways or bridle trails.
Maintain your bike. If the chain pops off on a steep climb, you're going to tip over. If you blow out the sidewall of an old tire on a steep descent, you have a high chance of crashing. This is not rocket science.
Don't wear headphones while riding. You lose situational awareness. I don't care if it's a great podcast. You look stupid.
Which brings me to: The safest sort of cycling you can do outdoors. Greenways and bridle trails. Safer than roads by a large margin. If there are no cars, there's no chance of being hit by a car. You can still crash into a pedestrian or another cyclist. Typically you are speed limited, but at some point the lure of safety might overpower your desire to hammer. And riding a fat tire bike increases resistance, so you can still get a good workout if you so desire.
I don't list singletrack riding here because two of my local buddies only recently got over devastating injuries they received riding on singletrack. You can definitely hurt yourself on a mountain bike. It is still safer than road riding by a decent factor. You might want to read this fascinating article about cycling injury rates.
Now, before you get all paranoid and hang up your wheels, let me leave you with a few quotes!
Don't give in to your fears. If you do, you won't be able to talk to your heart. - Paulo Coelho
I have accepted fear as part of life - specifically the fear of change... I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back.... - Erica Jong
Do not be afraid; our fate
Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift - Dante Alighieri
I tend to scare myself. - Stephen King
Happy riding, my illuminated cycling friends!
Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon coach who lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Marty has been coaching endurance athletes since 2002. You can read more about OSB coaching services at www.osbmultisport.com.
One Step Beyond is the producer of the Powerstroke®: Speed through force and form freestyle technique DVD, intended to help new to intermediate triathlon swimmers become faster and more powerful in the water.