Photo by Chris Combs/Express
ALLEN MUCHNICK IS UNFAZED. It’s rush hour on Clarendon Boulevard in Arlington, and drivers are pushing 35 mph in a 25 mph zone. And, astride his Bianchi bicycle, he’s (gasp!) abandoning the bike lane.

As he approaches a cross street, Muchnick keeps rolling as he signals with his left arm, continually looks from side to side and eases into the right lane, then the left lane of exhaust-spewing traffic. Cars slow and part to make way for him.

“See? See how they stop?” he asks. “See how easy that was?”

He’s right, as harrowing as it may sound. Bike lanes, says Muchnick, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, aren’t always the safest place to be. For one thing, a carelessly opened car door can fell even the savviest biker.

Given last week’s tragedy — in which 22-year-old Alice Swanson was struck and killed by a garbage truck one block north of Dupont Circle — his advice carries particular weight. Police believe Swanson was riding on or adjacent to the designated bike lane, with a green light, when she was hit by the truck as it turned right onto 20th Street.

“There’s this mind-set in this country: If you bicycle in front of a motor vehicle, you’re going to get run over,” says Muchnick. “It’s nonsense. It’s the safest place to be. Especially in the cities, where traffic speeds are fairly comparable — in fact, most bicycles are faster than cars downtown.”

Which lane to ride in is just one aspect of the often foggy rules of the road. And with the debut of D.C.’s SmartBike bike-sharing program in August and Arlington’s within the next year, the situation’s even stickier. There’s concern that the more cyclists there are on the road, the more accidents will occur. Education becomes even more critical.

Back to bike lanes, for example. Muchnick, who teaches Confident City Cycling classes for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (Waba.org), is not always a fan — ride on or close to the outer line if you must use them, he says. WABA executive director Eric Gilliland agrees but adds that they still show “drivers that you should expect to see cyclists on this road.”

The important thing, says Gilliland, is for riders to look at those painted lines as guidelines, not barriers. When approaching intersections, a cyclist in the bike lane could end up in the blind spot of a right-turning vehicle. “We tell people to ride the safest way possible: If it’s out of the bike lane, it’s out of the bike lane.”

Yet the responsibility of keeping the roads safe doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of two-wheelers, says Paul DeMaio, bicycle promotions and car-sharing manager at the Arlington Division of Transportation. Drivers need to learn, too. One tip: If it’s necessary to alert a cyclist, he says, “eye contact is the best thing instead of a honk. It’s frightening, in fact. It’s not the best way to communicate.” Checking blind spots in the rearview and right-hand mirrors before turning is essential.

DeMaio is not concerned that the coming surge in cycling will mean more accidents. “With more cyclists on the streets, it will make motorists even more aware of them.” He cites a July 2008 Rutgers University study that showed cities and countries with higher percentages of cyclists on the road had lower fatality rates overall.

Besides, says DDOT’s Jim Sebastian, SmartBike will initially be recruiting WABA members, not newbies: “I don’t want the first time they ride the bike to be on the SmartBike.” Even experienced riders will be encouraged to take Muchnick’s class when they enroll at Smartbikedc.com.

Also upcoming (well, maybe) is the emergence of what Gilliland and Sebastian call “bicycling ambassadors.” The idea is to take cycling safety literally to the streets, in the form of visible, uniformed bikers who would not only serve as behavior role models, but would also pass out safety brochures and bike maps, and offer tips to others. But it’s just a concept for the time being.

For safety now, Muchnick’s your man. Even though it may not seem so. Spinning along the Key Bridge sidewalk, he slows and looks back: “Want to ride on Whitehurst?”

A glance at the freeway’s entrance ramp — Beamers zooming along at 45 mph — causes a shudder and a moment of hesitation: Is this even legal? It is: Sebastian says it’s a great bypass for M Street that isn’t any more dangerous. You’re allowed on every street in D.C. unless otherwise signed.

Muchnick navigates the intimidating rush hour traffic with ease, with Georgetown to his left and the Potomac to his right; a cycling confidence class sounds like a fantastic idea.

» Rules of the Road
When it comes to cycling in traffic, says Muchnick, “If you’ve got a driver’s license, you know how to operate a bicycle properly.” Helmets aren’t required for riders 16 and up in D.C. and Maryland (15 in Virginia), and a warning bell is required only in the District. All areas require front white lights and rear red reflectors for pedaling at night. Regarding hand signals, Muchnick stresses being emphatic, a la traffic police officer style. “The more predictable you are, the safer you’re going to be.” For more tips, order a “Safe Bicycling in the Washington Area” guide ($1) or download the PDF at Waba.org/areabiking/safecycling.

Photo by Chris Combs/Express