Safety On The Road
The main generalization one can make about roads in the region is that it is impossible to generalize about them. The quality of paved roads that are considered safe for cyclists varies from quite good (wide, smooth, good visibility, occasionally even a bit of a shoulder) to acceptable (fairly good surface, fair visibility) to fairly poor (narrow, very winding, rough, moderate potholes). That said, most roads are quite acceptable. Note the following:
To the east and northeast of Charlottesville, the countryside is more open and roads tend to be a bit wider and less winding, so visibility tends to be greater.
Conversely, to the west, northwest, and south of Charlottesville (particularly as you get closer to the mountains), roads are narrower, hillier, and more winding, so visibility tends to be less.
The narrower the roads and the lower the quality of the pavement, the more you can expect potholes. However, you can encounter significant cracks and potholes on any road.
In hillier areas in particular, it’s not uncommon to encounter gravel which has washed across the road from driveways.
There are very few roads in the region with paved shoulders. Where there are shoulders, they are usually narrow and tend to disappear without warning. By Virginia law you are not required to use shoulders even when present; you have the same right to the lane as do cars. Exercise caution.
One major contributing factor to safety in the region is the fact that in most areas, traffic is quite moderate. But as population in the area increases, so does the traffic. Note the following:
US 29, which runs from well to the south of the region to northern Virginia, is very busy and is not used by cyclists at all except for a few very short sections in rural areas to get from one back road to another.
There are a few other major highways which should be generally avoided, although some cyclists use them in places. Some of these are US 33 (Spotswood Trail) which runs east/west through Greene, Orange, and Louisa counties; US 250, which runs east and west from Charlottesville; and Route 151 from western Albemarle south through Nelson and Amherst counties.
There are only a few routes in and out of the City of Charlottesville, and these tend to be busy, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours. Riding from town to starting points away from town is best avoided or left to very experienced riders.
Many of the rural roads are hilly or winding or both, and people sometimes drive faster than they should. Always be alert.
Drivers in the region, in general, tend to be accommodating when encountering cyclists. However, like everywhere there are exceptions. Always be alert and protect yourself.
Most of the region discussed on this site is very rural, and dogs are an inevitable part of country life. Outside of the city, dogs are clearly involved in more bicycle accidents than motor vehicles, although cars of course can cause much greater damage. Several comments:
Invisible fences are becoming more common even along rural roads, and seem to be effective, so perhaps dogs who get out in the road are becoming a bit less common.
Most dogs who come into the road and chase bicycles are not so aggressive as to try to bite a rider; many are simply being playful. However, it’s impossible to predict which dog will be the exception. Always be alert.
Saying “NO” to an approaching dog in a firm, loud voice will get the dog to stop or slow down more often than you might think.
Beyond that, riders vary widely in how they deal with a potentially threatening situation, whether they try to madly outrace the dog, try to spray it with a water bottle, or slow down and be ready to stop and confront the animal.
If you are riding in a group, the “mad scramble” approach probably creates more risk from the other riders than there is from the dog. Whatever tactic you try, stay alert to the entire situation and don’t focus only on the dog.
Rules for Safe Riding
ALWAYS wear a helmet. No exceptions. Rear view mirrors, front and rear lights, and wearable identification, such as a Road ID, are highly recommended.
Make sure your bicycle is in good condition and working order. Check you tire pressure and wear. Do NOT ride if your tires are worn or cut. Do a quick brake test of the front and back brakes in the parking lot before starting a ride.
Ride predictably. Avoid sudden swerves, decelerations, or accelerations. Maintain control and focus when riding at ALL times. Glance ahead periodically.
Do not overlap wheels. Slow gradually if you have overlapped the wheel in front of you.
Wearing a mirror, particularly one mounted to your glasses or helmet, may be the simplest single action you can take to protect your health. With them, you can safely pass other cyclists, prevent brushes with approaching cars, and keep track of other riders who have dropped back for mechanical or other reasons.
Communicate verbally and with hand signals about road hazards such as potholes, debris, road kill, gravel, puddles, railroad tracks, bumps, and slow moving vehicles. Point out joggers, turning vehicles and car doors opening in your path.
Observe all traffic rules, including stops signs. Cruising through stop signs or other intersections, especially at full speed or when traffic is visible, forces those behind you to choose between getting dropped or taking dangerous risks to stay connected. Putting other people’s lives in danger is not acceptable. After going through an intersection, ride easy until the group has reformed.
Ride single-file as often as possible. Virginia law requires this when cars are approaching you from behind.
Stay off the roadway when not in motion.
Pass on the other rider’s left. You should NEVER pass someone on their right! If that rare exception must occur, be ABSOLUTELY certain that you are loudly communicating to them that you are doing so.
If you are a lone rider and have a group about to overtake you, stay to the RIGHT!
If a dog approaches, strongly yell “NO!” before it reaches the road, while maintaining a predictable course and speed. Don’t slow down drastically and swerve, causing others in the group to go down.
Use lights and reflectors if riding at dusk or in early morning fog.
Wear high visibility clothing to make it easier for motorists to see you, especially in low light or high contrast conditions. High viz clothing is good, high viz clothing in motion is even better.
Signal before pulling off the front, and drift to the back as quickly as possible. If someone is on your left when a car approaches from the rear, give that rider some room to pull in ahead of you.
In nasty weather (wet roads, fog, etc.), give yourself a bigger buffer between yourself and other cyclists and cars.