With the conflicting advice of what you should and shouldn’t be doing while exercising outdoors under shelter-in-place orders, doing the right thing can be confusing for cyclists. While the CDC recommends staying six feet away from others when you head outdoors, there has been talk within the cycling community that more distance is needed because of the higher rate of speed, resulting in an increased likelihood that air particles can be spread to others.
To help inform those of us who still want to receive the physical and mental benefits of cycling while staying as safe as possible, we got together with two experts to discuss how cyclists should go about exercising during our current pandemic.
IS SIX FEET ALL THAT’S REQUIRED?
The controversy surrounding the required distance needed by cyclists began with a research paper published by Bert Blocken that explains how dispersed air particles by cyclists may travel a greater distance, requiring a 10-meter distance from others when cycling slow, and a 20-meter distance for faster cycling.
Unfortunately, exactly what distance you need to maintain can be complicated, and according to Linsey Marr, a civil and environmental engineering professor who researches how particles are transported through the air.
“The risk (for cyclists and others) depends on so many factors,” Marr says. “How many people are around? How long is the cyclist in close contact (with others)? What direction is the wind blowing? How fast is the wind blowing? Things are not as clear-cut as we would like, and we have to think about higher versus lower risk. There is no exact distance that is advisable in all situations.”
While Marr can’t recommend a specific distance, because there’s little research on how infectious the aerosols actually are, she does think it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution of, at minimum, the required six feet.
“Because cyclists are moving, their breath ends up spreading out behind them. Thus, they should consider leaving greater space between them and other people or cyclists.”
HOW SAFE IS CYCLING?
Cycling can have numerous benefits to your physical and mental health. With people spending more and more time indoors during quarantine, cycling and exercising, in general, has become even more important. But is cycling outdoors actually safe right now, and are the potential benefits actually worth the risks?
Dr. Jonathan Rosaasen, a physician at SteadyMD who specializes in treating cyclists and athletes, believes most risks can be minimized as long as you follow a few basic principles.
“I think riding alone is pretty safe,” Rosaasen says. “In most cases there’s enough wind blowing by that you’re not going to be picking up anything from walkers. I suppose that if you were to come up right behind somebody you could get into their droplet area. If you’re coming up to another cyclist, you definitely need more than six feet. The faster you’re going the more the (droplet) spray there’s going to be. At slower speeds, it’s probably not as big of a deal.” In a situation when you might be worried about getting into a pedestrian’s or another cyclist’s airstream, Rosaasen recommends waiting until you can pass at a greater distance or utilizing a face covering.
“You can mitigate most of the risk by being careful. You can use a buff that can be worn around the neck and be pulled up when you’re going by pedestrians and pulled down when you don’t need it,” he says. The mask is to protect others who may be exposed to your airstream and not necessarily provide additional protection you as a the cyclist.
THE POTENTIAL RISKS TO PEDESTRIANS
With roads having less traffic and more space, cycling during the pandemic may, in fact, be pretty low risk and as safe as it’s ever been in terms of car traffic. With that said, in certain instances, you may be the one increasing the risk to others.
In situations like those common on recreational paths, the danger may be cyclists passing too close to others, increasing the passersby’s chances of coming into contact with your airstream.
“(When cycling on the road) pedestrians are usually to the side at a distance that’s far enough away,” Rosaasen says. “On a recreational path, this may be an issue, especially if you’re inside that six-foot range. This is more of a risk for walkers than it would be for the cyclist.”
This sentiment is one Marr also agrees with. “I would recommend avoiding recreational paths that are crowded and instead looking for alternate routes that have fewer people,” Marr says. “If the rider will be passing a lot of people and cannot avoid passing closely (say 10 feet), then a mask could be a good idea.”
Rosaasen adds that, “the benefit of the mask is to the people you’re passing. If I was walking and a cyclist came close by and I was suspicious of the community activity (of the virus), I would appreciate seeing that person with a mask. If possible, I would advise against recreational paths because it’s not fair to pedestrians.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
In any case, your safest option appears to be utilizing areas with low traffic, cycling alone and maintaining as much distance as possible when you come across another cyclist or pedestrian. When you can’t maintain a safe distance, you should have a face covering available to slip on. As long as you can adhere to these rules, cycling can be done relatively safely and with minimum risk to you and those around you.