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Savannah's cycling season
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“IN THE SPRING a paradise, in the summer a hell, and in the autumn a hospital.”

This old adage describing our local climate is relayed in the 2011 book African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee, edited by Phillip Morgan.

I’m not sure what the hospital part is about, but perhaps it’s meant to cast fall as a time to recover from hot and humid summer. Or maybe as a time to recuperate from yellow fever.

I’ll go with the first idea, and I think that’s why I enjoy bicycling in Savannah in autumn more than any other time of year. If you’ve pedaled along through the sticky, sweaty summer, the arrival of fall does indeed feel like a refreshing reward.

I especially like riding at night when streets are blanketed with crunchy sweetgum leaves and the air’s cool. The late Ken Kifer asked, “Is there anything more enchanting than riding after dark with your headlight lighting up the swirling and falling snow?”

Snow’s rare in Savannah, but I insist I saw flurries once riding my bike home from work, for 90 seconds or so. Still, riding after dark is suitably enchanting, even without the snow.

Others have tried to get at why this is, noting that one’s perception of speed and spatial orientation changes after dark. However it works, the result is sort of magical.

Unfortunately, drivers’ perceptions of cyclists also change after dark, requiring us to ensure we’re seen. Countless police reports include statements like: “I didn’t see him!” or “She came out of nowhere!” Accounts of invisible or suddenly appearing cyclists are common at all times of year, in all hours and all weather.

When I was hit, on a sunny Saturday in 2005, the driver was mortified, but insisted she didn’t see me before she turned left into my path. Perhaps she was suffering from change blindness (because she was looking for another car, her brain may not have registered me on my bike) or maybe she just wasn’t paying attention.

At night however, the “I didn’t see the cyclist” claim is more credible. Those who ride in dark clothing and without lights are unnecessarily putting themselves at risk.

Georgia law ponderously describes a cyclist’s illumination responsibilities: “Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a light on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of 300 feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the Department of Public Safety which shall be visible from a distance of 300 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful upper beams of headlights on a motor vehicle.”

But wait, there’s more, says the Official Code of Georgia: “A light emitting a red light visible from a distance of 300 feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector.”

It’s smart to go even further. There’s no reason to settle for a single headlight and taillight. Savannah’s bike shops stock a wide range of lights in a wide range of prices, from small LEDs that wrap around seat posts or handlebars to advanced models that will light up the whole street.

Reflective clothing is also available from a variety of sources including industrial supply and home improvement warehouses, and you can find reflective tape at auto parts stores. Placing this tape on moving parts – cranks, pedals, between spokes on rims – is particularly effective as it helps motorists identify the vehicle in their headlights as a bicycle. Reflective ankle straps serve the same function.

Taking these extra steps will make you more visible and less vulnerable. But even if the worst happens, if you and your bike are as bright and blinky as a slot machine paying out a jackpot, a motorist’s complaint that he or she didn’t see you likely won’t hold much water or hold up in court.

To quote Morgan again, “the lowcountry climate both ravishes and ravages in equal measure.” Let’s get out there and enjoy the weather before the ravaging returns. 

John Bennett is vice chairman of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.