It’s late March and my friend Erik and I are on the first leg of our 2,000-mile bicycle trip from Los Angeles to Denver. After sweating my way up a hill in Southern California, I bask in a glorious downhill. To protect myself from stumbling off the edge and make myself more visible to cars, I do what I normally do on long, steep downhills: take up the full lane. Through my eyeglass-mounted mirror, I watch cars inevitably pile up behind me. When the terrain flattens out and I move back to the shoulder, a stream of cars pass me.
A woman in one of the passing cars rolls down the window, and instead of the typical words of encouragement, her shriek nearly scares me off my bike as she yells at the top of her lungs, “SELFISH BITCH!”
The hard truth is that bicycles are still largely seen as a nuisance on the road. We’re on the margins—literally. Cyclists are reminded of this every time we get skimmed by a car. According to the World Health Organization, over half of international traffic deaths involve vulnerable road users such as cyclists. And because Americans are among the least avid cyclists in the world, they’re among the most likely to get killed by a car.
But I’ve discovered a life-saving device that allows cyclists to protect themselves and take back the road: the pool noodle.
Find one for about $2 anywhere: dollar stores, shopping malls, even the supermarket. Choose from the array of fun colors and use a bungee cord to strap this light, flexible toy to your bike rack so that it sticks out to the left side (or the right side, if you’re in a country where cars drive on the left). Start pedaling and watch as car after car moves over to the other lane.
The pool noodle may look silly, but since strapping it on our loads, it has made our lives safer every day. (Plus, it’s a fun conversation starter at pitstops, and it also reminds us not to take life too seriously.) On roads with zero road shoulder, the pool noodle becomes our shoulder. It makes us more visible to passing cars and the 18-wheelers that used to skim us constantly.
The pool noodle is also a tool for advocacy. To every other vehicle on the road, that $2 piece of foam visualizes what the minimum three feet of safe passing distance looks like that is our legal right in more than 30 states in the US. As more urban dwellers take up cycling, think of the attention we can bring to sharing the road if we all strapped a pool noodle to the back of our bicycles.
Of course, the pool noodle is not a substitute for the helmet. While the helmet protects your head just in case you fall, the pool noodle lowers the chances of that potential accident being caused by a car—and a lot of calamities happen sans car. (Personally, my helmet has saved my life twice: in 2008 when my friend, who had been drafting behind me, ran her bicycle over my head, and in 2011, when I got a concussion on a gravely bike path.) While studies have shown that helmetless cyclists are given slightly more room on the road, the pool noodle guarantees that most cars will not only move over, but often move over to the other lane.
In this way, the noodle is powerful. When it works, I feel like Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, parting the soup and parting the traffic. Upon approaching my riding partner from miles away, his neon green noodle is the first thing I see. It has even calmed my Dutch father’s concern over my safety on the road in the US. (And as people in the Netherlands cycle more than any other country—a whopping 1,000km (621 miles) a year by some estimates—his worry worried me.) After visiting me in Tucson and seeing my noodle from behind the wheel of his rented car, he says he now sleeps easier at night.
All in all, the pool noodle gives cyclists more of a presence on the streets. For the first time, I don’t feel obliged to ride the balance beam that is the strip of asphalt between the rumble strip and the edge of the road. Although we can’t say that the noodle eliminates road rage, we can say that every time a naysayer hollers at us now, at least they’re doing so from a safe distance.