Be aware and ride a lifetime
Before getting into any sport, it’s wise to know what you’re up against. I will quickly summarize some aspects of bike riding on trails in Ontario that everyone needs to be aware of.
My intention is to inform and warn everyone of the possible (yet unlikely) perils of trail riding. A little education will lessen the concerns of anyone apprehensive about riding.
I’m not trying to scare anyone away from bicycle riding; actually, I’d like to encourage people. Just be aware of your surroundings and what to expect so you can go out and enjoy the good times.
I have been bike riding for decades with next to no injuries to speak of. Was I lucky, prudent or both? Knowing what to expect on a ride and how to circumvent problems keeps me going injury-free every year.
A lot of these concerns are for MTB riders and Park forest rides. Doing an asphalt path in a city park is safe with few hazards. Just the usual park traffic to avoid hitting – other cyclists, walkers, dogs, strollers, kids…
Getting mugged or worse could happen, but thankfully here in Canada, a very rare occurrence.
So here is some basic information (with links at the bottom) on how cycling trails can be enjoyable with few real dangers.
Trees, and a few Nasty Plants
Objects to avoid hitting and plants that have thorns and toxic sap.
Obvious objects to avoid are trees. The woods have plenty of them and hitting one with your handlebar or shoulder tells you they are not moving. Firmly rooted, trees will not give, hence measure your ability to navigate around them wisely.
A fallen tree can be fun to hop over with a mountain bike when approached with enough speed and confidence. Otherwise, carry your bike over the log or ride around.
Thickets of Raspberry bushes close to a narrow trail can scratch and cut you with thorns on the larger canes. These plants often like to grow on the path if not cleared by trail maintenance crews. Plowing through an overgrown path slowly is possible, but if they are Blackberry bushes, stop! These plants have dreadful thorns that shred and entrap you.
The next category to avoid are plants that have toxic sap. Brushing against these plants, or touching the sap on broken branches could cause allergic reactions on your skin, blindness, or worse if eaten. Yikes!
Stick to the middle of the trail, or ride in early spring when the plants are low, or late fall when the frost has killed them off. To avoid skin contact, wear high socks or pants, long shirts, gloves and then contain and wash these clothes well afterwards if contaminated.
Avoid spreading these toxic oils around. Don’t scratch an itch or rub your eyes. Handling your bike may lead to oils transferring from your tires. The sooner you wash with soap and cold water (not to open the pores) the better the chances of containing any stray residue. Perhaps the bike needs a scrub too. Jeez, this sounds like some kind of nuclear fallout. lol
Poison Ivy – This plant is common in Ontario and grows in sandy soil on the side of paths. In the spring it starts small but can grow waist high by late summer. Easy enough to avoid at the beginning of the riding season, later it can fill in a path and be impossible to avoid.
The sap from these plants can cause an allergic reaction. Not to say you will have one, as my many encounters with this plant suggests I am not affected or just lucky. Not wanting to find out, I avoid close encounters.
I also heard recently that new strains of Poison Ivy are affecting many who had tolerance over the older strains.
Giant Hogweed, Wild Parsnip, Spotted Water Hemlock – All these plants are to be avoided, touched, eaten or fallen into, oh dear. Get to know what they look like. Not as common as Poison Ivy, yet more alarming as they are multiplying and spreading around in ditches, by roads, around moist thickets and giant they can become.
The last plant I’ll mention is Stinging Nettles. Not nearly as dangerous, but when you brush by a few bushes it gives you a short burning sensation. So do not fall into this either.
Biting Bugs & Bears – Beware
Lessen the typical party of mosquitoes, black flies and other insects wanting to dine on you by avoiding a few things. Late May through June into mid-July, the bugs are active, plentiful and hungry, so doing a forest ride then is sure to keep you busy. High humidity and high heat gets them frisky too.
Black flies are the first to breed in spring water runoff, then the mosquitoes move in where there is standing water.
Perhaps stick to a more tame city park or Rail trails at that time of year. The open areas with less water and more wind will likely reduce this problem. By the fall, the bugs are all gone, which is wonderful.
Wear loose clothing, avoid black and dark blues as those colours seem to attract their attention. Favour white, yellow, or orange colours. Outride them if you can and then use bug juice when it gets bad. I put Deet on my clothes rather than my skin, and sparingly.
I have encountered Fire ants in the Don Valley. Not native but there are pockets of these aggressive critters. So if you are standing around too long on their home turf and they bite, it burns.
Ticks are the new threat to our biking enjoyment. With warmer winters, ticks are moving north into Ontario. There are many species of ticks, the Deer tick is the one that can carry Lyme Disease. A nasty aliment that can debilitate you, in a few weeks or stay dormant for years until triggered.
This can be a serious condition that I have seen occur regrettably in friends. You do not want to get this.
Ticks take their time feeding on you. There is no stinging feeling like other biting insects. They say you have a day to find any on you before their saliva could infect you.
Avoid ticks, prevention is important.
So when riding, stick to the middle of the path. Avoid brushing up against tall grasses. Ticks wait there for a host to come by and latch on to. Check each other after a ride for the little beasties. They can be very tiny and work their way up your shirt sleeves, shorts or in your hair.
If you find a tick, you must remove it whole or you will leave the mouth part embedded in your skin. Squeezing it from the back will possibly transfer a nasty infection.
Other than pesky insects, there are no tigers or alligators to warn you of here in Ontario.
We do have a few bears and they do not like to be surprised. If you ride a remote forest trail, having a bear bell or chatting among other riders makes enough noise for bears to head the other way.
Watch where you are going.
Bicycle trails and paths vary greatly in Ontario. For some who cycle leisurely city parks their expectation of hazards is low, while a veteran mountain bike rider may want those “challenges” and tricky sections on their loops.
Everyone has to be aware that any bike trail can have hazards like rocks or tree roots. Riding a paved park trail certainly adds comfort in knowing the path is designed for easy, safe navigation. But here is where you may get too comfortable and drop your guard.
Any trail can have sudden surprises in the terrain caused by rain washouts, fallen trees, flooding, sinkholes and animal burrows. On any path that is new to you, watch for the unexpected.
Never assume anything!
That goes for finding some fun structures and just blindly flying
off the end of a ramp, unaware of what comes next. When in doubt, scout your log jump, skinny bridge, or giant boulder drop on the first run. The next time around you are now aware of the thrills and consequences.
Of all the potential objects found on a path, my most troublesome is a fallen short branch around the thickness of a broom handle. When this stick is parallel to the path, your tires may suddenly roll sideways when you ride over it. This could throw your weight and tip you over on a fast hill.
If this stick lays across the trail then what can happen is, your tire snaps it in two as you ride over it. The two ends may flip into your spokes and rip you derailer off. This now leaves you two options, walk the bike back or shorten the chain and ride out on one gear.
On trails, recent weather conditions can give you surprises that you need to be mindful of.
Whatever makes the terrain slippery, you need to be conscious of any impending accidents it may produce. Water, snow, ice, mud, wet moss, algae and leaves all reduce traction and can cause a fall.
During and after rain or snow, you now have a lubricant between the rubber tires and the terrain. Certainly, knobby treads with save you from sliding out, but only to a point.
Testing those limits cautiously will give you a new reference for the day as to how much play you have in maneuvering. This a good thing to know in a pinch when you need to make a sudden move.
Avoid crossing patches of ice, and if you must, stay straight. After the length of your bike, there is no grit left between the ice and the tire. You can easily have the bike slide out from beneath you. Boom!
Rain can also bring with it trail washouts. Rivers can totally erode the banks of a path or wash sand and gravel onto asphalt routes. They can become a hazard to even unsuspecting regular riders.
Last bit of advice…
Plan to Fall –
At any given moment in the back of your mind have an exit plan. As the trail continually changes form a plan to exit a crash with the least amount of damage to you and your beloved velo. That plan should continually change in tandem with your surroundings.
Think over what may happen and where you would fall.
Try to dissipate the energy in a fall by rolling your body or walking off the momentum. Avoid straightening out your arms and legs to lessen breakage.
Eject the bike in the process. You do not want to fall on it, or it on you. Make sure if you use pedals that clip in, you can quickly detach. Or unclip your shoes at any precarious sections.
Wear Protection –
Enough of the perils of this bike riding gauntlet, let’s ride anyway.
Though only kids and teens are required to wear a bicycle helmet in Ontario, you would be a fool not to. Your bike gives you lots of freedom, so wear a helmet, one day it may spare your life. Not convinced, imagine whacking yourself with a 2×4 in the head with and without a helmet.
I wear riding gloves (not only to look cool) but in case I fall and instinctively put my hand out. A sure road rash is lessened.
Forest trails can have a lot of pointy branches ready to jab your eyes. I wear on narrow trails clear sport/safety glasses. (Dark sunglasses in the woods would not be my first choice.)
Those mountain bike riders game to push boundaries and take on rocky terrain and wooden structures should wear armour. Wearing knee, shin and elbow pads is a good policy if your ride that day warrants it. The ladies can spare themselves leg bruises and odd looks at the office.
And let’s not forget getting too much sun has its risks. Lather on the sunblock before you need it.
Be Seen ! –
My pet peeve these days is all the black clothes I see. Riders dressed in black on black bikes. Trendy yes, but just the worst colour to be seen by others. Being visible to other riders, hikers and cars, will avoid possible collision, injury, and deadly trauma. Why would you wish this? So why do I see even cycling club jerseys in black? Think this through everyone and...Be Seen!
You might think looking at this list that it’s scary to go on a bike ride and a sport to avoid. On the contrary, get off the couch and get in some fun!
Just know the facts and make good decisions. I leave to you to follow the links to sort it out and feel confident you can take on the wild kingdom safely.