I love riding in Florida. I occasionally get the opportunity to visit the Palm Harbor area and I usually arrange to rent or borrow a bike while I'm there. Last weekend was such a visit. A friend of mine who lives in the area has inherited my old Cannondale, but before he took possession of it I used it to get in a few days of riding.
I love the area for riding because the Pinellas Trail is nearby and because many of the roads have bike lanes. Having flat terrain helps, too. Some of my riding buddies don't like bike lanes, but I prefer them to mixing up with traffic in the regular lanes.
But riding in a bike lane is far from care free. There are still plenty of things in a bike lane that can hurt you. Being hit from behind is far less likely, but a cyclist isn't as visible when traveling outside of the regular traffic lanes. So there's still no room for relaxation.
I don't spend as much time looking behind me, but I spend much more time looking ahead and to the side. In fact, my only near death experience on a bicycle happened while I was riding in a bike lane and on the same route that I took this past weekend.
Why is a bike lane hazardous? The primary reason is most drivers aren't expecting anything to be there and tend not to look. So my strategy is to make myself as visible as possible. Granted the very loud and obnoxious colors of most of my riding jerseys contributes, but I don't rely on that alone. I am constantly on the lookout for cars that are poised to cross my path. This include opposite direction traffic that is waiting to turn left, cars waiting on side roads to the right, and especially cars waiting to cross from the left.
When I see a vehicle in one of these positions I slow down, prepare to brake, raise my right hand as if to wave, then attempt to make eye contact. Usually (but, sadly, not always) if I can get the driver to look at me then he or she won't pull out in front of me. If I don't make eye contact then I assume the worst. In the limited times I have used bike lanes this strategy has proved very effective. Indeed the one time I failed to do this I was nearly hit.
Last weekend had a close call, but nothing as close as the one referenced above. I was approaching the entrance to a neighborhood that was on my right. I saw a car waiting at the intersection to turn left. I made sure the driver saw me. As I approached the intersection another car sped up alongside the first and prepared to turn right on to the main road. In an instant I realized that if this driver saw cars behind me she might attempt to rush through the turn to get in front of them, and run me over in the process. Without waiting to see what would happen I started to brake and also yell ("HEY!"). I don't know if she saw me all along or if my yelling made a difference, but she waited until I went by. I do know that I succeeded in startling the bejeebers out of the dog walker that was on the sidewalk! Even in a bike lane vigilance is required to stay out of harm's way.
There was one other noteworthy item from my weekend rides. In the bike lane I am not as worried about what goes on behind me. So I don't look back very often. Suddenly and without warning a paceline of 4 triathletes whizzed passed me. I had no idea they were coming up behind me. They made no noise and gave no warning. C'mon guys, would it have killed your concentration to say something?