Hi! Today in my blog I am going to talk about the realities of riding your bike in the San Juan Islands, one of the most beautiful places in Washington State. I write this based on two data points:
1) I am from Lopez Island, now in my 40s, I know the island and the people.
2) I am a fairly serious cyclist, who averaged 150 miles per week in 2016.
Drivers:Hello Lopez people, it’s me, CedarBough. Yes, Gregg and Edi’s daughter (and if you don’t know at least my parents if not me, I’m not sure you actually qualify as being a Lopez person yet). I have a few things to say to you about cyclists, and you should listen to me. Please. Please.
I know that you’re in a rush. I know that due to that cyclist you might be a little late to pick up your child, to get to work, to volunteer at the library. I know. I understand. But that cyclist is barely protected a tiny bit with a helmet. They’re super vulnerable. You just have to be the responsible one here and watch out for them. Lopez has a reputation as an "easy" place to ride a bike, and if they are attracted to that, they're probably not too experienced. Or they brought an inexperienced spouse or children. You really need to watch out, especially for inexperienced cyclists.
By watch out for them, I mean you need to give them half a lane. If you can’t give them half a lane, you just have to wait. I know you don’t want to wait. Sorry about that. But I know you don’t want to hurt anyone.
Really, half a lane. Let me tell you a few reasons why:
1. Maybe I can't hear you. Wind can make it hard to hear you. I might be riding at 25 miles per hour. I frequently hit 40 as I approach Hummel Lake. Wind is generated by my ride, even if it’s a flat calm day. If your vehicle isn’t some big V-8 that needs a tune up, I might not hear you until you’re very close to me.
2. I avoid things on the road so small you didn’t notice them or they’d never bother you if you ran over them. Gravel. Clods of dirt. A pine cone. A roadkill rabbit carcass (okay you probably saw that one). All of those things are more common the closer to the edge of the road I am. Hence the edge of the road is not very safe for me. I will be riding 1.5-2 feet from the edge of the road almost anytime. Asking me to move over more is unsafe.
3. Maybe you never noticed, but our road crews sometimes create a bit of a slope right at the edge of the road. I think this is so that water runs off, and not along the road when it rains. Sometimes this curve towards the grass gets more severe and that also scares me away from the edge of the road, as I’ll be riding on a slanted surface there, and a flat surface a little further into the road.
4. Cornering: When I go around a sharper corner, esp. when I’m traveling fast, I need to use the whole lane. I can’t safely hug the edge of the road at the bottom of the hill that goes past Woodman Hall, if I’m heading downhill. I’m going 35 miles per hour (sorry about the speed limit, but I’ll be slowing soon as gravity starts working against me) and if I stay at the edge of the road I’m going to have to brake to get around that corner safely. And braking at speed while cornering is not very safe… forcing me to slow down, which, again, I'll have to do soon anyway.
5. The chip seal. The chip seal is horribly bumpy and annoying, and it’s worse everywhere except on the roads that are most traveled and where the passage of cars pushed the chips down for a smoother finish—so yes, in the track where your right tire travels is where I find the smoothest travel, least rolling resistance, etc. So yes, you’ll find me there.
A couple other things that can increase safety if you understand them:
6. Many of you don't estimate bike speed well. I think some of you pulling out of driveways and other roads think that you can safely get out and get to speed in front of me, or cross my lane and move towards me just because I'm on a bike. But, again, I might be traveling the speed limit (the car speed limit), so please estimate my oncoming speed and only pull out if it's safe (I have nearly hit the side of the Aeronautical Services vans THREE times, and others of you, too.) Trust me, it scares the living daylights out of me when you do that. You wouldn't have seen an oncoming car traveling 36 miles per hour towards the intersection of MacKaye Harbor Road and Mud Bay Road (past the little fire station) and pulled out and across lanes in front of it—so why did you do it to a vulnerable cyclist?
7. Braking. Bikes have two types of brakes—cantilevers (that pinch the rim of the wheel) and disk brakes. Cantilevers are still more common, as disk brakes cost a lot if they aren't super heavy, and cantilevers make it so that stopping is harder for me than for you. Not to mention the fact that getting going again requires effort. So cyclists can't really stop on a dime, and braking while cornering, esp. at speed, is particularly dangerous.
Cyclists:Sorry, but you’re not helping things. I know you may have come to Lopez because it’s the island that’s supposed to be good for biking, easy, no hills (ha!), or whatever and super rural. But if these are the things that are attracting you to Lopez there are a few things I need to say to you:
1. Lopez drivers have limited experience with cyclists. Urban drivers in cities with lots of biking are MORE experienced at watching out for cyclists than rural drivers who rarely see bikes (except in the summer, and even then, the concentration is pretty light—you can go on five rides on Lopez Island without having a single Strava flyby (because even if there is a person on a bike, they aren't on Strava, which of course is sort of inconceivable, but…). So, you may not be passed by as many cars on Lopez, but many of those drivers are more experienced at predicting what deer on the roadside will do than what you will do.
2. The roads on Lopez are narrow. Almost all of them. There are shoulders/bike lanes on perhaps 5 miles of road (basically from the ferry to the village, that's it). Many of the other roads have zero shoulder—the white line on the side of the road can be half obscured by grass if the road crew hasn't mowed recently. If vehicles need to pass each other (traveling in opposite directions), there is no room to avoid you, too. So when people are approaching some blind corner (there are many), they have to wait behind you, or risk darting by you even though they can't see what's coming.
3. The majority of people on the island, the majority of drivers, are locals (going to work, picking up kids, getting the ice cream home before it melts). And they think they don't benefit from you. They think you come to the island between two ferries and just ride around and buy a soda pop and leave again. Their exposure to bike touring is van loads of cyclists with organizations like Backroads—and those guys def. need to give their clients more orientation to how to be good guests. Locals usually have no idea that your bike might cost more than their car (probably does if the car is an "island car" – a car you shouldn't take off the island cause then it will break down and you'll be far from home without a network to help you or access to your local mechanic). They don't necessarily realize you might stay in a B&B and ride tomorrow on Orcas and then take the ferry back from Orcas for another night on Lopez. Which you should do, because seriously, it's the best island, and inter-island bike trips on the ferry are free—so drive to Lopez (the cheapest ferry fare, since it's the closest to Anacortes), set up your base in some nice place to stay (we've got plenty although in the summer you better make reservations far in advance), bike the other islands, come back to Lopez in the evening—ideal! They don't realize that you can buy wine from our Lopez Island Vineyard and the Vineyard will ship it to your house, or buy art at one of the galleries and they'll ship that, too (if you don't have your car with you to carry it home). The vast majority of people who work on the island won't be aware that you're actually spending money (beyond a lunch in one of our excellent restaurants including everything from down-to-earth wraps at Vortex to upscale hipster hyper-local Ursa Minor). You and I know that cycling is the new golf-- real exercise, fun, outside, with friends, and you can always show off the latest and fanciest gear like that 15,000 dollar bike you're riding-- but there are people who still think you don't have enough money for a car. The point being that some of those locals who have no idea you're able to drop some serious cash into the economy might resent the fact that you're treating the road that they need to get to work on time like a playground.
4. To summarize—the roads are narrow, and drivers may not see the benefit to having you on the roads. The situation grows worse when cyclists think it is okay to stop on the road or ride two or three abreast because to them it feels practically deserted. When cyclists stop at the intersection, or on the hill, but without moving onto the grassy shoulder, to consult a cell phone map (which may be getting really bad service by the way—so don't rely on that—get a paper one) or to discuss the absence of roadside restrooms (there are plenty of bushes) it creates a real hazard and increases bad blood between cyclists and drivers. You may not mind since you may never come back, but I have to ride on Lopez again, so pretty please, be super aware that Lopez is a place that people live and work, not just a destination. Ride single file at all times, except when overtaking and passing another cyclist. Get your bike all the way off the road when you stop—there are even bike pullouts near the top of some of the hills—they are there because when a cyclist stops right on the top of the hill oncoming cars can't see around you (if you're not hidden by the crest of the hill!) and so they can't pass you without slowing almost to a stop. So please, use the turnouts when they have them, or get all the way off the road.
5. Avoid ferry traffic. If you see 4 or 5 or 15 cars in a row, it's because of a ferry. Just pull off the road and wait in the grass for them to go by, particularly if you're not timing your ride and you brought little people with you. The ferry traffic will be gone soon, and everyone will be thankful.
And a few words just for cyclists who bring their families or friends:
6. There is nothing more unsafe than letting your kid ride on your left. Kids should also ride single file, or if necessary, pin them between the shoulder and your bike (your movements are at least somewhat more predictable than those of a child). No one wants a tragedy. Don't make car drivers responsible for protecting your kid. A tightly strapped on helmet and keeping that kid near the shoulder is a bare minimum, and yet I see too many parents (perhaps tired of arguing with junior) who let the kids stray all over the roadway. I imagine that junior may also feel less safe in the smaller slot between a parent and the shoulder than he/she feels riding on the left of the parent—but of course junior is wrong. Likewise if you bring your husband or new boyfriend with you and he's not much of a cyclist – keep that inconsistently riding newbie to your right, and of course make him ride single file as much as possible. Ride a tandem if that's what it takes to keep him from being all macho and "shielding" you from cars.
7. If your friend, husband, or partner really is slowing you down (maybe he thinks cycling is supposed to be some romantic thing where you recite poetry, take frequent selfies, and coast along at 10 mph), consider Lopez's many, many, many dead end roads. Out and back, blow off some steam, catch back up to your partner. Most dead end roads end in a steep downhill (cause they head towards the water) and then you'll have to climb to get back to where you sweetie is lollygagging along at some slower-than-recovery pace. It'll make things better for you—you can do more climbing, more speed, more distance, and of course, gain more sanity.
Routes for Cyclists:Drivers on Lopez would prefer that you were on the side roads, of course, but there simply aren't side road options in some places. In fact, a map was made that tells cyclists explicitly that they are the softest thing on the road and they should stay to certain routes. Let me make this clear: I don't. Those routes are sometimes good, and sometimes horrible. For example, they want you to take Lopez Sound Road. It's the worst chip seal on the island (except perhaps the part of Aleck Bay Road that goes past Hughes Bay over the hill).
Here are some of my rides:
the re-live video of this ride (this is one of my slowest rides-- in my defense, there was quite a bit of wind, and I really bonked (ran out of energy and food), because I was too stubborn about finishing-- and I never expected it to be so many miles.)
On this one I got a nice 30 mile ride in, up and down the island-- other than the facts that you probably start at the ferry, don't want to see my parents, and might want to go out to Otis Perkins Day Park, this is a pretty good route for you, too.
Here are some places (circled) you can get to easily if you want to picnic on a beach, and still see your bike. Some other areas they want you to leave your bike near where cars park—and I don't know about you, but I don't carry a lock with me.
And here are the hills on the south end of the island, if you wanted to get some climbing in, park your family at Agate Beach and go hit them all.
The island is Strava segmented and ready for you to visit. But don't take all my QOMs, because (really, truly) I have never had a chance to draft any cyclist on the island. All my accomplishments are my own hard work, almost 100% riding by my lonesome.
And if you need some bike support, Village Cycles (next to Paper, Scissors on the Rock and across the street from Holly B's Bakery) has great mechanics and whatever you're looking for, including Lopez cycling gear.