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Patrick, my husband of 15 years, is more of a man than when I met him. At the very least, this means that there is simply more to him, and it makes him sad. When he decided to get rid of his spare tire, he bought a $500 bike and took up riding through our hilly neighborhood. But when the bike went out of tune -- gears skipping, brakes loosening, etc. -- he quit riding. He blamed a couple of near misses with cars. After that, we had tire trouble -- his spare tire came back, and we had three flats in two weeks on the kids' bikes. I went looking for biker help. The San Diego County Bicycle Coalition (858-487-6063, www.sdcbc.org) looked like a good place to start. They're offering free safety and maintenance classes throughout the summer (call or check online to register). I met with Executive Director Kathy Keehan and instructor Jim Baross to learn more.

"We're a nonprofit advocacy group," explained Baross. "We like to think of ourselves as the voice for bicyclists in San Diego." The classes, normally $50, are free because the Coalition received a grant from the city this year. Keehan says education is important to the Coalition because "people think that if they know how to pedal, steer, and balance a bike, they know how to ride. That's not the case."

The curriculum, put together by the League of American Bicyclists, offers two different levels, Road 1 and Road 2, with each class consisting of three-hour classes on three Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon. Four hours in the classroom, five on the bike. "One of the first things we go over is the bike itself. We start with how to handle the bike. Most cyclist crashes happen because they fall over, hit something, shift incorrectly, or use the brakes incorrectly." Added Keehan, "We show them how to use the front brake, how to use the rear brake. How to do a quick stop or quick turn -- basic hazard-avoidance maneuvers."

In the classroom, said Baross, "we go into what the laws are, and teach bicyclists that they have equal rights and responsibilities for use of the road. Vehicle Code 21202 says that bicyclists are supposed to ride as far right as practicable on the roadway. People -- including some police -- interpret that to mean as far right as possible. But there's a big difference. If you're coming to an intersection with a right-turn-only lane, and the bicyclist wants to go straight, then if he rides next to the curb and heads into the intersection, he's going to either get hit or impede traffic. The cyclist should be in the rightmost lane that offers his destination. If you need to make a left turn, you merge over to the center and make your lane change. Of, if that's too scary, get off your bike and cross the intersection as a pedestrian. We stress that, because there are intersections in this town -- Pacific Highway and Barnett, for instance -- where traffic moves like a freeway. It's a little scary to get into that left-turn lane."

But the very first part of Road 1, said Baross, is talking about "choosing the right bike for what you want to use it for. Sometimes, people buy mountain bikes because they have an upright seating position, but you don't need those knobby tires on pavement." After that, "we show how to set the bike up mechanically. Many people try to ride with the seat so low that they can touch the ground with their feet, but that makes for very inefficient pedaling, because their legs are so bent up. We show people how to shift those darn gears, when to be in a low or high gear -- some bikes have 30 gears now, and it can be confusing."

Then it's on to maintenance. "We teach people how to change a flat tire. You need to have a pump with you, tire irons to separate the tire from the wheel, tools for getting the wheel off if the bike doesn't have a quick-release, a spare inner tube, and maybe a patch kit. And we teach them to remove whatever is in the tire that caused the flat, so that they don't get another one."

Continued Baross, "We also show how to make basic minor adjustments. There are adjustments you can make to tighten things up even while riding, using just your fingers. We show how to keep your chain clean, how to adjust the cables on the brakes when they get loose, and how to fix squeaky brakes. And we tell you when you need to take your bike to the shop, because after a while, adjustments you can do with household tools aren't going to work."

After Road 1, said Keehan, students could take Road 2. "There," said Baross, "we cover more difficult traffic situations, like double-lane on- and off-ramps. The maintenance gets more exciting. We show you how to 'true' your wheel, to make it round so that it doesn't wobble, by replacing or adjusting spokes. We're going to show you how to measure your chain, so you can tell when it's worn out, and how to change worn-out tires and brake pads."

The two left me with a few essential basics; no class required. Baross recommended the ABC Quick Check before every ride. "A is for air -- check the air pressure on your tires. B is for brakes -- squeeze the brake handles to make sure the brakes aren't loose. C is for cranks or crank set, which is the

drivetrain. Look at the connection of the pedals and the chain link to the drivetrain, and understand what's there and what gear you're in. Quick is for making sure your quick release is set to hold your wheel in place, and Check means take it for a super-short ride, maybe just in a circle."

Concluded Keehan, "If you learn nothing else, learn the big five: use the right equipment, wear a helmet, follow the rules of the road, be visible, and don't ride impaired." The next Road 1 class begins April 16. Call for more details and schedules.

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