How to bike responsibly during a pandemic

Infectious-disease experts and bike-advocacy groups have a few healthy tips for you.
Break away from the pack and try a solo ride. And practice bike safety while you're at it.
Break away from the pack and try a solo ride. And practice bike safety while you're at it. Jack Young/Unsplash

This story originally featured on Cycle Volta. Read more about how cities are shifting to bike-friendly streets here.

If you’re one of the 2,000 members of the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club and you’re plotting a group ride, club president Anne C.M. Hyman doesn’t want to know about it. All official rides and events for the DC/Maryland/Virginia-area cycling group are canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All rides led by PPTC members from now until further notice are not PPTC-sanctioned rides,” Hyman writes on the club’s homepage. “This means while you will have access to the club’s Ride With GPS account and member directory to find a route and a buddy, if anything happens to your riders, the liability is on your shoulders.”

Lest you think Hyman is being overly cautious, know that she’s approaching the situation not only as an avid cyclist, triathlete, and advocate, but as a laboratory scientist and infectious disease expert. Or, as she puts it herself: “I have a Ph.D. and background in things that are tiny and want to kill us.”

“When you’re on your bike you’re creating a cloud that poses a problem for others riding around you,” she tells Cycle Volta. “You can be an asymptomatic carrier and expose someone and kill them and never even know it.”

The “cloud” she refers to is your “respiratory signature”—the footprint of particles left behind in the air by your mouth and nose from exhaling, talking, coughing, and sneezing. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend maintaining a six-foot radius from other people to prevent transmission of the virus, the same buffer—at least in front of or behind a cyclist—is not effective when moving at speed.

“On a bike you’re basically creating this trail behind you. Not necessarily spreading out much wider, but when you think about it, you’re moving at velocity, and your respiratory signature is still going to be where you were if you’re moving quickly. We have some smart and vigilant members of our club who are going out and riding with masks. Even if they’re not wearing them all the time, if they notice they’re going to be riding near someone or will be passing someone, they’ll put their mask on because they understand, thankfully, they could be potentially endangering someone else in their overtake,” Hyman says.

The “respiratory signature” is made up of the particles left behind from exhalation, talking, coughing, and sneezing.
The “respiratory signature” is made up of the particles left behind from exhalation, talking, coughing, and sneezing. Juan D. Puerto/Potomac Pedalers Touring Club

Several bicycle advocacy groups are advising their members to ride solo as their communities grapple with the pandemic.

Lauren Jenkins, communications director for the Washington, DC-based League of American Bicyclists, says: “The League is advising folks to ride alone, or only with people in their household for the time being, pass other people with plenty of space, and cover your face with a mask or neck buff, if practicable.”

“While most of us love group rides, they’re going to have to wait for now. Even with social distancing measures, it’s still best to fly solo for the time being,” PeopleForBikes states on its webpage about “Safe Cycling During Social Distancing.”

The Boulder, Colorado-based bicycle industry group also recommends tamping down the intensity of your ride to avoid crashes and unnecessarily burdening a health care system already under unprecedented strain.

Hyman agrees. “Our health care systems are maxed out right now. The last thing they want to see is a banged-up cyclist,” she says.

“At this time, it’s worth riding with an overabundance of caution, to include riding within your abilities (to minimize risk of injury), and riding near home,” the League’s Jenkins says. “But most importantly, ride. It’s good for your physical and mental health.”

Here in Cycle Volta’s home state, the California Bicycle Coalition (aka CalBike) offers similar guidance.

“Ride alone, or only with people you’re quarantined with. Keep aware to maintain a physical distance of at least six feet from others you pass on the road. Avoid following closely behind other riders. Do not go on any organized group rides,” CalBike advises. “Also, don’t be a daredevil. Now is not the time to test your limits and risk a broken bone or other injuries that would require a visit to the hospital.”

But is going solo and riding cautiously enough? Hyman recommends additional measures:

  • Ride early or off peak hours for cyclists and pedestrians on your local paths, trails, and roads. “You don’t want to be out when it’s ‘walk-a-dog o’clock,’ ” she says.
  • If you see other people, maintain at least 40 to 60 feet in front of you.
  • Take up indoor virtual training to maintain a group dynamic. (Hyman does a weekly 50-plus-mile Zwift ride with her triathlon team.)
  • Practice bike handling skills outside—cornering at different speeds, turning small circles, holding lines, and panic braking.
  • Be mindful of local rules and restrictions. “Don’t think just because you’re a cyclist, the world is open to you,” Hyman says.
  • Use good hygiene if you stop somewhere. When you get home, wash all your kit and your bike frame. Clean sweat and mucous off the bike.

Safe, responsible riding out there, everyone!