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How to Navigate Busy City Streets on Two Wheels

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The benefits of making a trip by bicycle are abundant. You're substituting a healthful, active, environmentally sound, economically advantageous activity for one that is passive, polluting, and pricey. You're swapping the soul-stealing ennui of your typical daily drive with a nice rush of endorphins, the satisfaction of calories burned, and a lingering zip in your walk. What's standing in the way of more people biking to work or on leisure trips to the city? Fear.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, bike riders are overwhelmingly fearful of cars more than any other safety issue. While the presence of dedicated bike lanes and paths improves the perception of safety, which inspires more people to ride, as it stands, the Triangle biking network needs significant improvement before most people will feel comfortable biking from Chapel Hill to Durham. Biking within the Triangle's cities is surely less intense than on a highway with trucks whizzing by, but it too takes some skills and know-how.

Riding your bike in any urban environment is always going to be a more complex operation than out on the open road. Cars, foot traffic, irregular surfaces—there's a surprise in every ride, at least one. Finding one's place on city streets among automotive traffic requires good habits and, above all, good sense, says Paco Marshall, a Chapel Hill-based bicycle enthusiast who has spent lots of time making his way around the Triangle on two wheels.

"Biking on public roads in the United States is treacherous," he says. "You can quote me on that. I've been biking on public roads in the U.S. since I was twelve, and I'm fifty-one now. I guess it's a lot of practice."

Marshall chronicles his bike trips on a blog whose subtitle reads, "Thoughts while pedaling." His accounts mix the quotidian details—the route he took, what he ate—with deeper reflections on his reasons for biking to places like the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield and making a pilgrimage to Bristol, Virginia, often referred to as the birthplace of country music. There's an undercurrent of introspection and self-discovery in his postings, too. In one, posted along with a photo of farmworkers by some desolate highway, he admits that he rode away from them feeling a little guilty.

Even with the joy he derives from these excursions, Marshall says he would rather ride in the city.

"I find the open road kind of boring," he says. "I really like looking at buildings, and that's what I do. The Triangle's not the easiest place in the world, but there are places you can ride."

To the first-time urban biker, Marshall's pieces of advice are few but emphatic. People get killed at intersections, he says. So behave in predictable ways so that cars can predict your movements.

"Always ride in a lane that is predictable to cars," Marshall says. "The classic example is riding on the sidewalk going the wrong way. Lots of times, people think that getting away from cars is of prime importance; the primary place that people get killed by cars is at intersections. It's not by being hit from behind, and we need to make sure that we ride in a particular way that normally means acting like a car, much of the time, including making left turns."

This is a common—and potentially deadly—rookie mistake. "Constantly I see people seeking refuge from cars by going the wrong way on roads," Marshall says. "Traversing areas cars can't predict, such as against traffic or on the sidewalk. Most of the time you have to take the same routes as cars."

Another danger zone for bikers is the right hook. When he's at a red light, Marshall says, he either gets in front of all the cars or lines up behind one. "You don't want to be alongside a car as you're leaving an intersection. Because they can make right turns and flatten you," he says.

This is particularly true in the Triangle, which is "no one's idea of an ideal place to bike ride," he adds. "Some places are good to bike ride, and some places are extremely difficult. Chapel Hill is difficult because everything revolves around going up and down that giant hill."

There's no direct bike path from downtown Chapel Hill to Durham, he points out. Somewhere along the way, you'll have to ride along a road that wasn't made with bikers in mind.

"I've been riding my bicycle from Chapel Hill to Durham for years, and there's still not a good way to do it," Marshall says. "If you ride to Durham, no matter which way you go, you end up riding either on Estes Drive or on Old Chapel Hill Road, both of which are extremely narrow. I do it all the time, but there are still several sections where it's really not very safe."

As for Raleigh: "I feel like it's taken me years that I now have a fairly safe way to ride all the way from Chapel Hill to Raleigh without going on any major roads, but it took me a long time to figure out it was [made up] of a whole bunch of little roads. It's not exactly inspiring—you have to make your way through numerous pretentiously named subdivisions—but it'll get you there."

In terms of equipment, Marshall says that bike maintenance—meaning basic knowledge of how to lubricate the thing and keep tires inflated, or having it regularly serviced at a good shop—is more important than getting a top-shelf bike. But don't go too cheap: "Department store bicycles are inherently unsafe. Don't buy a bike from a department store. The quality can be horrific."

You'll also want to invest in a good lock, for obvious reasons—he recommends a Kryptonite u-lock attached to a quality bracket. Vigilance is key: "Don't ever leave your bicycle even for a second."

And, when on the road, he always keeps his phone handy.

"The map function of Google Maps frequently helps you find a route that takes you through a combination of neighborhoods and bike paths," Marshall says. "Sometimes it just puts you on a main highway because there's no other way to go. It won't tell you that; you'll find that out."

This article appeared in print with the headline "On the Road Again"

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