Monday, March 30, 2015

The Bicycle Safety Check: from Mnemonic to Automated Ritual

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If you've ever gone on club rides as a beginner cyclist in North America, chances are you have heard of the ABC Quick Check. Not sure whom to credit for its original composition, but I'll quote the League of American Cyclists:
A is for Air,
B is for Brakes,
C is for Cranks and chain,
Quick is for Quick releases,
Check is for Check it over.
This mnemonic is meant to encourage riders to get into a habit of performing a basic safety check on their machines before setting foot to pedal. But how many of us actually perform such a check? It took a rather disconcerting incident for me to realise that I do.

It was during a recent stay in Boston, and I was returning from an errand across town one evening. On my way home, I stopped by a small grocery shop. I locked up my bicycle to the bike rack outside the shop, spent a few minutes buying what I needed, came out, placed the food in my pannier, unlocked my bike and was about to set off. Just then I noticed that something felt odd about my front brake lever: when I gave it a perfunctory squeeze, it felt strangely loose and floppy in my hand. On further examination, I realised that it was disconnected from the brake caliper. The evening was dark and cold, and it was hard to examine the brake thoroughly to determine what happened. But the rest of the bike seemed absolutely fine, including the rear brake. So I cycled the rest of the way home cautiously, then dragged the bike indoors to look at it in the light. There was no question about it: the brake cable was disconnected from the lever and, in addition, from the (centerpull) caliper itself.

Not wanting to jump to the conclusion that someone had deliberately tampered with my front brake, I called a bike-wrenchy friend over to get a second opinion. Perhaps I could have knocked the bike against the rack carelessly to cause this, or there might be some other explanation. My friend examined the brake with a deepening frown: "I hate to say it, but this looks deliberate. It's a good thing you checked your brakes before setting off."

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I expected to feel shaken up by the whole thing once it had sunk in. But it never really hit me that way. It was disturbing, and disappointing. But stuff happens. And people have weird impulses. For instance - a year earlier someone had placed a bouquet of roses in my bicycle's pannier while I'd left it locked up in the same neighbourhood. So one day it's roses, and another day it's disconnected brakes... that pretty much sums up life, doesn't it?

But getting back to the point of this story. "It's a good thing you checked your brakes before setting off," my friend said.

And I answered "I guess... though I don't remember doing it, to be honest!"

But as I thought about it more, and, the following day, paid attention to what it is exactly I do when I get ready to cycle, I became aware of how ingrained and automatic the process is for me. It's not like I stand there, saying "Right, I need to conduct a safety check!" before each time I mount a bike, with a list in my hand. I do it unthinkingly, unconsciously. But according to several people I ride with, I do do it, to the point that it's a "thing" they have noticed. Apparently, before I ride any bicycle I compulsively squeeze the tires, squeeze the brake levers and check the quick releases, if applicable. I do this quickly. I can be doing it while carrying on a conversation or any number of other things. But I definitely do it.

When actions take on the form of automated ritual, we can perform them without the explicit awareness of having done so. And it was funny to realise that the ABC Quick Check had become such an action for me. Although I suppose I leave out the cranks/chain part of the check - so it's really an "AB Quick Check," without the C.

Do you have a safety check process before you set off on your bike? Chances are, you might - even if you don't know it.

25 comments:

  1. I am assuming this is sabotage? Or do you think the cable just slid free? I've had a cable come free from the lever, but never the brake arms themselves.

    M.

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    1. It appears to have been deliberately disconnected by a person. The cable was disconnected in two separate places: from the brake arm itself, and from the city-style brake lever (the design of which is a sort of hooking mechanism, that makes it difficult for the cable to come out accidentally). One theory is that the person who did this intended to quickly take my front wheel, not having noticed in the dark that it was bolted on. But I will likely never know exactly what happened.

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    2. An aborted theft would be my thoughts as well I had something similar happen to me once when my bike was parked outside some shops at night and when riding off, I discovered the front brake had been disconnected. I think the thief did this so they could remove the wheel easily but must have been disturbed before they could take it off.

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    3. Isn't this the bike with the SON generator hub? If so, does that make wheel removal even more problematic? It's surprising that someone interested in theft would even both disconnecting instead of just snipping the cable or opening the quick release. I've seen brake cable hangers and cables disengage and cables pop out of levers…It's not entirely impossible.

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    4. Ah, I'd not even thought about attempted wheel theft. Obviously the dark must have concealed the bolt on wheels and dyno, otherwise they'd probably not have tried...

      A few years back someone decided to go about "pranking" parked bikes by carefully greasing rims so brake pads do you no good at all. Could be a similar case. Either way, these experiences really highlight the importance of pre-ride checks!

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    5. I caught a guy trying to steal the wheels off of my bike after making the mistake of locking up only the headtube to the bike rack at work. He managed to get the rear wheel off, but somehow couldn't figure out the front wheel. It's a late 80s mountain bike with little safety tabs that secure the wheel to the fork, even when the quick release is open. After cursing him, I whipped out my cellphone, called 911 and a walking-speed chase through downtown ensued. I stayed on the phone with the dispatcher until the cops arrived. Mr Caught Red-handed had ducked into a wrecked car that was parked at a rental lot. About three other guys rolled out of the car when the police rolled up. After my wife arrived, we hunted all around for my wheel. We finally found it attached to the dude's bike. The manager of a nearby quick-lube store came up and apologized for lending him a pair of pliers which he used to cut my brake cable. It was a valuable lesson in locking strategy. Now I keep a lock and cable at work and always secure both wheels. Lesson learned.

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  2. Before setting off with my bike, I was like you before your initial breaking bad brake (season 1).
    After reading the “ABCQC” advice I am still only a “B” checker, but I trust in my own instinct to be an unconsciously “ACQC” watcher.
    Best,

    L.

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  3. When I worked in a bike shop it was surprising how often folks brought in bikes because 'something wasn't working right' and it was often related to your list. They simply had no idea. Usually it was normal wear, lot's of stuff loosening up and about ready to fall off, or sometimes something which could not be easily explained as to cause but easily repaired. So it was easy to conclude there were a lot of folks who rode bikes without paying attention to what was and wasn't working or in need of adjustment. Kinda scary.

    I'm mostly sensitive to the sounds and feel of my bike and am constantly checking break wear and adjustment so it's normal to keep an eye out for all the basics. Carrying a small tool kit means I can also repair or adjust most things on the road.

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    1. This doesn't surprise me, considering the conversation I've had too many times to count with persons admiring my transport bike:

      PAMTB: So cool you cycle everywhere, I'd love to do that!
      Me: Oh yeah?
      PAMTB: Yeah. I even got a bike to try it out, but it was a terrible bike.
      Me: Oh that's too bad. What was wrong with it?
      PAMTB: Well the tires kept going flat! I even bought a pump, but it kept happening. The bike was no good.
      Me: Hm. You mean that after you replaced the tubes, you immediately got flats again?
      PAMTB: After I what?...

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    2. ^ That said, it's only fair to draw a distinction between bicycle enthusiasts/obsessives and people who just want to ride a bike. And I think it's perfectly reasonable that the latter category might not know (or even want to know) even the very basics of bicycle anatomy and maintenance. That is why bike shops exist after all. And that is why, in European cities where cycling is an unremarkable transportation choice, they exist less than a mile apart. That way, a cyclist experiencing even the teeniest of problems can immediately stop by a shop and get it fixed, without dirtying their nice work clothes.

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    3. I don't think it's necessary to draw a distinction at all. There were many bicycle enthusiasts in the former category, also many who weren't what one might call an enthusiast but were regular riders who just waited for something to break or fall off before bothering to concern themselves with getting it repaired. There were also many in the latter category who were quite responsible and concerned with all aspects of their bikes, whether they were being ridden or not. Just different personalities and we would see all types. I'm not sure with this particular post if your referring to club riders who are always in a group and going reasonably fast and need to make sure their bikes are safe so as to not lead to a group crash, or if your referring to all riders (transportation, recreational, competitive) when mentioning basic safety checks before rides. I think it's a good idea in general….like flossing…and we'd be happier and healthier if we learned to make it a habit, however one chooses to do it.

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  4. Brakes are the easiest and most natural thing to check. I noticed that while mounting my bike I always squeeze both brake handles in order to keep the bike stationary while I either clip in or throw my leg over the frame. If anything was disconnected it would reveal itself before getting under way. The rest of your list is less automatic -- well, maybe unless one is going on a club ride.

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  5. If you're a tourist or regular commuter perhaps you've got your own checklist. A reminder of what failed previously and I don't want to go through this again type of thing. Today I pedaled to the laundry mat and unhooked the two bags of laundry, went it to load the machines and back out to head to the coffee shop. This time I remembered to look for the dangling bungie cords so they don't get caught in the wheels. It's a safety issue I will not forget!!

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  6. I usually remembered to check the front break (everyone writes it this way so shall I) midway through a failed stoppie.

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  7. Also C - check crank for what, microscopic hairline fractures? Check the chain to make sure it's on? Ride bike, feel weirdness, stop.

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    1. I agree - you will know almost immediately if something is amiss - particularly if that 'something' is serious - during 'bindi-eye' season here I may check my tires simply because if there is a 'bindi-eye' attached to the tyre, the pressure from the first wheel turn may be sufficient to embed the nasty little thorn in the inner tube. A bike, particularly one which is ridden often, will quickly relay to the rider if there is some problem which requires investigation.

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    2. I imagine C could be useful for people with pervasive CDS (Chain Drop Syndrome).

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    3. Rack, panniers, enclosed chain guard...there's a chain down there?! Ew.

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    4. Well that's true - though if the chain on my bike was habitually dropping I would have that rectified immediately, because checking it before riding would not prevent it from happening at any point during a ride e.g when changing gears.

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  8. Wondering which neighbourhood this happened in? I live in your former Camberville area, and this makes me nervous! Though, reading the comments above, if it is run-of-the-mill theft I suppose it could happen anywhere...

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    1. Corner of Washington & Beacon. I've left my bike there a gazillion times before without incident, so I wouldn't attribute it to the area ...Unless you hear of similar incidents reported there lately.

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  9. If you've been driving in the rain (or snow!) It's good to check the chain for rust or grit. A quick wipe down and relube is clean and easy with practice

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  10. Thinking about what you wrote about automated ritual I realized that I always check the levers on the quick-release before taking off. Just looking at them and seeing that they are in the right position. Somewhere in the back of my mind I worry about the wheels coming loose. I think I´m going to get me a couple of those safety tabs that "MT cyclist" wrote about.

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    1. Nearly all bikes today have those safety tabs already molded into the =front= fork dropouts. To check, open the brake release tab and loosen the quick release lever. If the wheel doesn't immediately drop out, you've got them. The rear dropouts typically do not have these "lawyer tabs."

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  11. The Pre-Ride Checklist is a funny thing, it helps some people be more in-tune and engaged with their bike and for others it just allows them to disengage and forget about everything that isn't on the pat-down.

    I spent last week in Florida hiding from March, I got to hook up with a couple of group rides and had a great time on new roads with a bunch of Cool Kids instead of just hanging out at the pool glaring at the boys leering at my daughters or drawing birds at the beach. When I rolled up to one ride, the self appointed "Health and Safety Officer" (not the ride leader), was audibly going over a checklist of his bike and gear and that of anyone who hadn't edged away from him already. He asked me for my name but before I could open my mouth he told me that I needed to lose the fenders and pump up my tires and that they were too wide for Florida in any case. Later he came up from behind, grabbed my seat-bag and gave it a healthy tug before slapping me on the back and telling me I was now "CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF!"

    I didn't want to be a jerk in front of my new Best Friends,( or risk a beat-down by a magnificently tanned 73 year old guy 8 inches shorter than me who's last remaining bucket wish is to use the groin punch they taught him back in Basic (Don't mess with old farts, they don't get old by being wusses and most of them really don't give a shit anymore)) but I was annoyed. A lot. Anyway, the nice lady on the tiny SEVEN told me not to take it personally, he does that to everyone, including the former Canadian National Team Coach who rides with them in the winter. The funny thing was, for all his obsessing, his was the bike that chirped and squeaked like a Methed-up Dolphin. It was spotless though, and his seatbag was probly' barnacle-tight.

    I admit, 90% of my behaviors are driven by my insecurities and superstitions, but those are MINE, and well reasoned and common sensical insecurities and superstitions. So why can't people just be like ME? Then we could have a nice time, get a good ride in and have each others backs against the really dangerous stuff. Stuff like drinking from the bottle on the seat-tube before draining the one on the down-tube, rolling your spare tube with the valve pointing out or talking to the guys on recumbents , that kind of crazy assed shit.

    But instead, he had to be a freak.

    If going over your laundry list of fears and worries soothes you and helps you relax and have a good time then that's a good thing. Just do it under your breath. And don't touch my bike. Otherwise I have to pull the front brake, push the bike up onto the wheel, release, then the rear brake, rock up on the back wheel, release, turn the bottles half a turn(counterclockwise, Duh.) then kick the cranks back half a turn before we clip in and roll off.

    So me and my bike don't die. That's why.

    Spindizzy

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