In the past five years, I have ridden a 15-mile stretch of the Burke-Gilman Trail more than 700 times, through winter downpours and mudslides, springtime robin calls, the pungency...
In the past five years, I have ridden a 15-mile stretch of the Burke-Gilman Trail more than 700 times, through winter downpours and mudslides, springtime robin calls, the pungency of summer blackberries, rotting fall apples and the hard knocks of tens of thousands of tree roots.
For a cyclist, it is hands down one of the premier features of the Seattle area. It gets you out on the bike but away from the most choked and treacherous traffic. It’s so flat you could efficiently ride it on a three-speed. You can take it to a beach. You can bring the kids and not be in abject fear for their lives.
Well, almost. The trail has a way of enfolding some people into a feeling of security, like a soporific walk in the park, when it pays to watch for certain key pitfalls. Meanwhile, it’s fun to think of the trail as having multiple personalities, each with different features to be appreciated.
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So here is a user’s guide aimed at helping you wring the most out of what is already, foot for foot, the most precious ribbon of asphalt in town.
Biking with kids
It can be like herding cats to direct young bicyclists down the trail, but do your best to keep them to the right and looking around before they start a U-turn.
Require that they wear a helmet. It’s the law in Seattle and much of King County, as well as a good idea.
Especially if you are ferrying a child in a special seat, Trail-A-Bike or trailer, wear a helmet yourself. You want to hear your kid commenting on the weather or the trees, not telling you to wake up after a crash.
Pack treats and drinks. Turn around long before the youngest gets tired.
Not-so-fun fact: Per mile traveled, you are more likely to have an accident on a bike trail than a roadway. This accident is less likely to kill or disable you, but the blessed lack of cars on a trail can make a cyclist sloppy.
“People feel safe and act unsafe,” said David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club. “They’re just not watching.”
Hence the chief safety tip of the Burke-Gilman: Trust no one, including yourself.
Watch for dog-walkers with long leashes, young golden retrievers, people walking three abreast and lost in conversation, people walking with a cell phone and lost in conversation, people wearing headphones and any group that might have a toddler hidden among its legs and ready to dart into your path.
Don’t trust your ability to stop quickly, particularly if you’re coasting into the intersections.
There’s no posted speed limit on the trail inside Seattle city limits, but be reasonable. If you’re training for a triathlon, get off the Burke-Gilman. You don’t need to be swerving between strollers and senior citizens. Wait until it’s safe to pass. Don’t play chicken with the oncoming traffic.
Watch out for those posts put in the middle of the trail to keep cars from driving on from intersections.
Like the signs say, yield to peds and use your bell or voice when passing. “On your left” or “bike on the left” aren’t bad as warnings go, but they can come off as harsh and autocratic and, frankly, can leave a lot of bejeezus on the pavement if you shout hard on someone’s heels. Try an alloy bell. They’re nearly weightless and start at $5. Make that happy bell sound 20 or so yards before passing and walkers will actually wave and say thanks.
The trail is lousy with traffic signs, particularly on the north end, and some days it seems like everyone ignores them. That’s not a good idea.
In Seattle, the stop signs for cyclists are at busy cross streets for good reason. Heed them. Stay frosty.
Police were writing tickets on a stretch north of Northeast 145th Street this summer, prompting veteran trail riders to start slowing as if they were suddenly driving through Colfax or Concrete.
Stop and yield signs get more numerous above 145th, King County’s bailiwick. The Cascade Bicycle Club is fighting those at private roads and driveways, where the trail traffic is far greater than the vehicle traffic. King County Parks plans to review the signs in the coming years as part of a trail redevelopment. But for now, said Tom Eksten, trails program manager, you ignore the signs at your legal and personal risk.
Cool (and warm) gear
You don’t have to treat a bike ride like a mountaineering expedition, but a little gear goes a long way.
Keep a frame pump, a patch kit, tire irons and a spare tube on the bike. The Crank Brothers Alloy Power Pump is a spendy $30 but it has a pressure gauge, the ticket to optimum tire performance.
If you worship the gods of hydration, a water bottle and cage will set you back about $10. But, call me sacrilegious, it is possible to survive an hour of cycling in Seattle’s mild climate without tanking up.
In the dark: Lights with AA, C or D cells are weak and a waste of batteries. To really see and be seen, use a single lamp, a 10-watts-or-better rechargeable light and a red, flashy LED thing on the back. The Light & Motion Commuter headlight is bright, lightweight, compact and a relatively affordable $99. Cat Eye taillights start at $9. You might also consider decorating your bike with about $5 of reflective tape.
In the rain: Install wrap-around fenders (models start at around $28), not the short clip-ons that will still paint your bike in mud and leave a stripe on your back. Wear Windstopper gloves (models start around $30), an impermeable jacket like REI’s Rainshadow ($54) and some sort of a warm-when-wet undershirt and Lycra leggings. And for diehard riding in the rain, the best idea since oilskin: Gore-Tex socks ($50).
One warning: After an hour, you will be wet no matter what you wear.
Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253 or firstname.lastname@example.org