Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Quick! Check Your Six!

We cyclists love our high tech devices. These gizmos tell us fascinating details about our ride, such as how fast we are going, how far we have gone, how high we have ridden, our pedal rotations, our metabolic heart rate, how many watts we are generating and even our global positioning. All fascinating data, but really this stuff does not contribute to the "big picture" of the ride in the moment.

What if you had a device, like a radar screen, that relayed to you what was going on behind you: other cyclists coming up behind you and the position of cars and trucks about to overtake you. This sounds like it would be very useful and enhance safety, right? Well, this device already exists and many of us are using it every time we ride. This backward sensing device is not radar but rather gathers light from behind you and projects the photons directly into your eye's retina where it is instantly compiled by your brain into a realtime 3D image as real as reality itself. WOW! I can hear you thinking, "where can I get something like this? I WANT this no matter how much it costs!" Here's the good news: this technology is cheap, readily available, and time proven.

It's called a Rearview Mirror.

I can hear some of you groaning. " But Flash, I've got my $5000 carbon race bike, my $500 Rapha kit, my embrocation smells like Tahoe Pines, and the Pros don't use a mirror, and I want people to think I'm a Pro too, so no way am I going to use one---it would make me look like a Flash-spastic* Dork!"

My reply to this is that if you are not a pro, then you already look like a Flash-spastic* Dork in some other way but you're in denial: too old, white hairy legs, wide butt, knees akimbo pedaling style...the list goes on and on for indeed road cycling fashion and form is not to be trifled with. I can say this with authority because is does take one to know one. Seriously, the pros are skinny, emotionally still developing young people who think shaving their body of what little hair they have makes them faster, are into riding at masochistic pain levels, and receive real-time information via radio about where they are at pretty much all times by a coach riding in the air conditioned comfort of a team sportswagon---so they don't need mirrors. If you are old enough to remember, this is the same group of athletes who opposed the mandatory wearing of helmets on the basis of these safety devices impugning their machismo.

(*all references to cyclists named Fred amended)

If the pros started using mirrors, believe me, almost everyone would start using them. It all boils down to the fickle fashion of what is cool and what is not.

This is one of those times when I say screw cool---I'd rather be safe. I can hardly ride without a mirror these days---I just feel too vulnerable from the rear without one. They become that important, that vital to my ride awareness.

Of the riders I know who use mirrors, they relate this funny behavior that comes from using a mirror long enough for it to become like a 6th sense, and it happens to me all the time. I'll be walking down the street and hear something unusual behind me. This causes me to automatically turn my head 10 degrees to the left and look into my mirror---which of course is not there. This always makes me crack self up. It happens in the most unlikely places---at the supermarket or while I am working.

It just shows how vital the rear view is when cycling. I can see cars far behind me coming up, I can predict with accuracy which cars are going to give me a wide berth and which are going to cut me close, based on how they are driving and what traffic around them is doing. I can get all this information in a glance and I can be prepared to act to save myself if necessary.

A local rider was recently hit from behind up in the hills and knocked into a ditch, suffering broken ribs. Hit and run. I wonder if he had used a mirror would he have been able to sense that the car was coming too close and saved himself? Who knows really, but I can tell you I have steered myself off the road to avoid a collision that I could see about to happen thanks to my mirror. In fact I might go so far as to say this little piece of plastic has probably saved my life more than once.

I lead bike club rides and the mirror allows me to effectively lead from the middle of a strung out group. From the middle I can see ahead to the front runners, but also way behind to the slower members. I can see when people didn't make that last light, and adjust pace accordingly. And how many times have you glanced over your shoulder to see something and nearly collided with a slowing rider ahead of you? That almost never happens in mirror mode because I am always looking ahead.

Mirrors come in 3 varieties: bike mounted, helmet mounted, and glasses mounted. I've used all 3 types but I prefer helmet mounted as it is sturdier and more adjustable. The mirror I use is by Cycleaware called the Reflex. It has a bendable arm and the mirror is on a ball pivot, so adjustment is infinite. It also rotates 360 degrees and is detachable. I have purchased 4 of them over the last 5 years, and have gotten my wife to use one as well. I'd like to add that Cycleaware has great customer service, going so far as to give me a free mirror repair kit at the Death Ride '09 when I visited their booth. (being on the side of a helmet will subject the mirror to banging around and eventually things break, but like I said, I've gotten years of use out of mine and repairs are very simple)

What you need to know is that a helmet mirror 3 inches from your eye is like having a rearview mirror on your car the size of a pizza pan, I mean the view behind is fully realized. It is truly like having an eye in the back of my head. Using a mirror takes some adjustment as at first it is distracting, the image vibrates and you are seeing two distinctly overlapping scenes. Over a few weeks, your brain adjusts the image no longer moves, and the scenes stop overlapping. Its just like getting a new pair of prescription glasses, your eyes don't adjust, your brain does. I think this is what some cyclists complain about when they say they tried a mirror but didn't like it---they didn't give the process time to complete. After the process does complete, you don't want to ride without one anymore than you want to walk down the street naked.

One other hugely cool thing about the mirror is once you are completely adept at its use a miraculous thing happens---you can look ahead and behind---at the same time! Split screen! Picture in Picture! Think about that and what that could do for your situational awareness.

So I urge you to think beyond cool and purchase this most useful tool in whatever mountingway you prefer. In my view it is equal to my helmet in terms of keeping me safe. Take important tools like this and put them to use to reduce the dangers of riding out on the roads. The best I can wish for you is that nothing bad ever happens out there, so help me make my wish come true.

Ride On and Ride Safe My Friends


  1. Moosie and the Pink LadyJune 6, 2011 at 2:19 PM

    Hi Flash,
    As always, you are so right-on and say it so well. I had to laugh when I read the paragraph about looking behind at the supermarket or while crossing the street. I do it all the time. I cannot imagine riding without a mirror.
    See you sometime soon I'm sure!

  2. Just back from the R2R Memorial Challenge. Your blog is the first I'm catching up on. :-) This is a great topic and you've made some very important points about why we should use a mirror. I'm still not as proficient as I could be with my mirror, but that will come with time and experience. I'm using the one you use now. When my last bike helmet came apart {conveniently in a bike store ;-)} I found out my other mirror didn't work with my new helmet because my visor is set up higher.

    The only thing I didn't like about this blog is that I would have preferred a picture with YOUR helmet, mirror and handsome mug. :-) Keep those tidbits of wisdom coming!

    Smart (wearing a helmet, mirror, etc.) should be the new cool!

  3. Alright! Two smart ladies right there taking the lead to see who's behind. Hey Pink Lady, a woman I work with mentioned "that cool woman biker who has all pink stuff". I could answer smugly that you are a friend of mine and she was all like " NO WAY! YOU KNOW HER?" Score 1 for Flash.