Gears and Gaps

Gears and Gaps: An Important Safety Message from Older Drivers to Cyclists

Three years ago, I started a group on “older drivers” at the Ottawa Seniors Transportation Committee, a project of the Council on Aging of Ottawa (COA).  Seniors face the serious issue of knowing when their mental functions and other declines dictate that they need to stop driving and get rid of their car.  One of the signs of aging is described by the 64-dollar word proprioception.  It describes, according to Wikipedia, “ the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.”

What!!!?  Most people don’t need to worry about experiencing it very often until they get older, but those few times could be lethal if it occurs while riding a bike.  And the likelihood of it happening is when one is trying to enter traffic without the aid of a traffic signal that controls the cross traffic.

The proprioception issue for cyclists is the derailleur gearing, which prevents the cyclists from shifting gears when stopped, since shifting requires the rear wheel to be turned while the crank is simultaneously turned forward (back pedalling won’t work).  That requires remembering to down-shift each time one stops, hard to do when done quickly, and harder to always remember to do.

A few years ago, I found this out as a 66-year-old riding a tandem with my wife, a non-cyclist and for some time, a non-driver.  A few months after getting her to agree to me buying the tandem, I had ridden with her to the Rideau Centre, a large downtown shopping mall near our downtown home (having a garage but no car provided us with a solution to where a tandem can be stored securely, along with two other bikes).  I dropped her off for a session at the Goodlife Health Club.  I had just come back to pick her up after her session, and had forgotten to downshift to low on the 12-speed derailleur gears.

She mounted the bike, and got herself situated with her feet on the pedals, with me holding the bike erect.  I pushed off while pointed to the wall where the parking garage and the centre wall met at a right angle.  I needed to turn quickly, which would have been easy if I was starting out in the low gear.  But I got a big surprise when it found out I was in my top gear and could not accelerate enough to handle the turn in the space available, I brought my left foot down while my wife, as per my instructions, kept her feet on the pedals.  I probably shouted “I got it” (like Mel Brooks in High Anxiety) while I was losing the balance battle in slow motion.  I avoided being under the bike when it toppled, but her leg was under it, and it got bruised and scraped, requiring us to seek first aid (at least health clubs have kits handy), and she never rode the tandem again (although we hung onto it for two more seasons before she admitted she wasn’t going to ever engage in being my stoker again).

My proprioception problem was partly the result of the fact that my other bikes – and prior bikes for many decades – had a design peculiarity in common: they had internal gears.  That means they could be shifted while stopped.  If I started up while in a gear too high for what I needed and expected, I could quickly remedy it.  Sometimes it was a balance issue, but more likely it was when I was trying to get into and/or through moving traffic, such as exiting a driveway and simultaneously making a left-turn to merger with traffic on the far side of the road (approaching from my right).

This manoeuvre, requires the skill of watching oncoming traffic in both directions, quickly turning one’s head and handling the calculations of the when gaps approaching from the two 180-degree opposing direction (or higher angle if inside a curve in the road) would coincide in front of me, and calculating when it was propitious to push off.  Sometimes, after a longer-than-average wait, I would do a “pedestrian turn,” crossing to a safe spot on the opposite side (often requiring me to come to a complete stop| again), and then, as a second manoeuvre, merging with traffic when a second suitable gap approached.  Going through this process and finding at the last moment that one’s gears are not going to deliver quick acceleration is a shock and disappointment, a potentially lethal one.

Being a newbie to derailleur bikes meant that I was more likely to make the mental error – just as seniors, as depicted by media when they drive into a drive-in restaurant after forgetting to  first put their transmission into reverse get into a heap of trouble, imperil innocents inside the restaurant or store.

The other time when humans are likely to make proprioception errors is when they are young.  Yet as parents, we make the double error of buying our kids bikes with terribly over-designed derailleur gears and giving in to their desire to have and ride their own bike on streets – probably emulating adult behaviour and status.  The design peculiarity of needing to remember to downshift before coming to a stop is something they will not always remember – until it is too late.

So for your sake and that of  your kids (or grandkids) buy them single-speed or hub-geared bikes.  And do the same as you extend, wisely, your cycling into your later years.

Thankfully, one of the bike designs that appeal to seniors is folding bikes.  They have the low crossbar that makes mounting and dismounting easier and safer, which – if you choose the more expensive models – have hub gears (Dahons and Bromptons).

But if the bumpier ride of small-wheeled bikes bothers you (or the lack of a suspension system that is hard to include in such a bike), internal-hub gearing is making a comeback with a vengeance: hub gears have been redesigned to have more than was offered by the venerable Sturmey-Archer company: 4- to 14-speed (Shimano and Roloff), but at a premium.  They are common on the so-called European models that are appearing in smaller bike shops in the older neighbourhoods, especially on “Amsterdam” bikes or cargo bikes (e.g., “bakfiets”), both adorned with something that derailleur bikes made obsolete: chain guards that isolate dirty chains from our hands and clothes.  Carrying cargo, by the way, is a good capability for seniors who realize that having a car in their post-commuter, fixed-income period makes little financial sense, especially when keeping fit and healthy is so important.

Or there is the option of getting an “antique” with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed.  I bought a mint-condition Raleigh Twenty fold-up with one a year ago to replace my Brompton.  But the casual cyclist could turn to Right Bike rentals that have expanded to cover pretty much the same older neighbourhoods as Vrtucar (disclaimer: I co-founded the company in 2000 and co-managed it until late-2006), and offer only vintage “girl’s” bikes (complete with low crossbars) all of which have three-speed shifters.

Happy – and safe – cycling!  And watch both your gaps in traffic, along with your gears.



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