Winter cycling in Alaska requires smart preparation

With increasing hours of darkness, riders must ensure they're visible

Posted: Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Daylight savings is kaput. We're inexorably plunging toward five dim hours of winter solstice light, losing more than five minutes of sunshine per day.

Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News
Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News

Most bikers who pedal through winter for transportation or recreation know that during the dark season, their very survival is linked to the lights and reflective tape that signal their presence.

"I've had lots of close calls," said Mike Morganson, 51, who usually misses rush hour on his daily seven-mile commute from home in South Anchorage to his job at REI in Spenard. "Usually it's an inattentive driver, honestly - somebody pulling up to make a right turn who goes by the stop sign. If you're coming from the right, they never see you.

"You could have five or six incidents in one day if you hit the rush hour," he added. "You can't count the number of times you brake to avoid being run over."

With nearly 19 hours of darkness come December, cyclists need to ensure they're visible.

"Everyone who rides at night really needs a blinky," said Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage President Brian Litmans, referring to a rapidly blinking light. A steady light to negotiate turns and potholes helps, too.

"Blinkies can be very cheap, and they may save your life. If you don't have a blinky front and rear light, you're a fool."

And, perhaps, a criminal. The law requires cyclists to have a white light visible 500 feet to the front and a red reflector or light in the rear too.

Typically, serious bike commuters are among the best-prepared riders, vigilant about traveling defensively and picking safe routes. Inexperienced riders and those who can't afford safety gear often are the ones who get in trouble.

"As far as safety gear, more is better if you can do it," said Kristi Wood, an avid bike commuter who lives in Midtown.

She said she knows of a man who regularly rides in Midtown who is lit up with: six lights on his helmet; two reflective vests - one for his chest and another for his backpack; four lights on his backpack; three lights on his handlebars; a tail light; much of the bike frame covered with reflective tape; and additional reflective tape woven into his wheel spokes.

To some, that might be excessive. But Wood rides with eight lights and still had a collision with a motorist two years ago in October. That experience drove home to her what she calls "the golden rule" of riding at night.

Make eye contact with drivers at intersections.

"My accident happened when a driver wasn't paying attention and made an illegal turn," she said. "It was dark, but the intersection was fully lit.

"The first thing the driver said to me was, 'Oh my God. Are you OK?' The second thing he said was, 'I don't know how I missed you - you were lit up like a Christmas tree.'"

Unfortunately, neither drivers nor riders always look both ways before entering an intersection. And in the dark season, making eye contact across an intersection is even tougher.

"All cyclists need to ride safer, and be aware they're a danger at intersections," Wood said. "Now, I'm always prepared. You may have to stop or sprint like crazy (to avoid a collision) if you're not able to make eye contact."

Lights bolster the odds of riding unscathed. Even cheaper than lights is reflective tape.

And some cyclists have tried a new product called using BikeGlow ($24.95), a 10-foot tube weighing just two ounces that wraps around a bike frame, offering a big footprint of light to vehicles approaching from the side.

"Drivers gave us a wider berth than I've ever gotten before," said cyclist Jessi Hance. "It felt like magic cycling protection."

Nevertheless, now may be the most dangerous time of year for Alaska riders. Drivers aren't quite used to it being dark much of the day, and there's no snow to reflect light that would make hazards easier to spot.

Both cyclists and drivers are anxious.

"Encountering bicycles at night is downright frightening in Anchorage and surrounding areas," said one motorist in the draft Anchorage Bicycle Plan issued in August.

"Ninety percent of my close calls with vehicles have been coming off designated bike paths crossing roads," added a cyclist. "I have luckily only been hit once. Generally, people looking to turn don't turn their head enough to look 90 degrees to their right, but do to their left when turning."

And, unfortunately, not even the best lighting system can completely prevent collisions if drivers or riders are either inattentive or ignoring the law.

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