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“How to stay alive as a cyclist in North America”: Florida man spotted riding with ‘Armed Cyclist’ jersey, close passing flags and countless bike lights sparks cycling safety discussions

James Whelan says he’s just on a cycling trip across the country, but the reaction to his choice of attire and accessories has ranged from respect to uneasiness that such a set-up might be necessary to feel protected

Images of a man riding across the US with a vast array of lights and technology and the message 'Armed Cyclist' on the back of his jersey have led to discussions about cycling safety, and just how much is too much when it comes to protecting oneself from harm on the bike.

The pictures were taken by Jonathan Maus, who explains on his BikePortland website that he happened across the 'Armed Cyclist' on the Interstate 90, east of Coeur d’Alene in the US state of Idaho.

"When I looked at the images, I was amazed at what I saw", says Maus.  

"This guy was not messing around."

As pointed out by some of those replying to the original Twitter post, it turns out the cyclist in question is James Whelan, a resident of Florida who has built up something of a cult following on his Instagram page and YouTube channel (called Armed Cyclist, of course) where he posts images from his cycling trips across America and, sometimes, run-ins with local law enforcement officers. 

Whelan told road.cc that he runs 28 lights on his rear rack and eight on the front handlebars.

"I don't get people turning left or right in front of me at all because they pay attention when they see a bright burst of light coming towards them", says Whelan.

"For the tail light I came up with that idea because I got tired of people not seeing me. Now people typically change lanes a half mile behind me when they see my lights." 

Whelan also attaches flags to his bike to stop drivers from passing him too close, runs two GPS computers and carries a search and rescue beacon. He says that motorists bother him much less while wearing the Armed Cyclist jersey compared to a regular one. 

"In South Florida there is a lot of road rage against cyclists just for being on the road.

"Most people can read what it says. When they see my jersey it has a huge calming effect on the people that don't like cyclists." 

> Texas cyclist shoots driver who deliberately crashed into his riding partner

With statistics showing that cyclist fatalities have been steadily rising in the US over the past ten years, the extreme set-up has led to some conversations about cyclists' safety in the country, and some mixed reactions.

Some praised Whelan for exercising his rights, suggesting that the not-so-subtle warning could do much to deter careless or dangerous drivers, while others expressed dismay that someone would feel the need to take such drastic action to feel safe. 

While the message on the back of Whelan's jersey informs those around him that he is armed, whether his provocative outfit would break any local laws or customs in US states that allow concealed or 'open' carry of firearms is a grey area (Whelan says he always openly carries a gun where it is allowed).

Indeed, the video above that Whelan uploaded to his YouTube channel in 2020, that has racked up 3.4 million views at the time of writing, shows two police officers pulling him over due to alleged complaints from members of the public about his Armed Cyclist jersey. Whelan refuses their request for identification, saying he is not breaking any laws and goes on his way, leaving the cops "speechless" as he puts it. 

Whelan is currently on a bike ride across America, having embarked on 27 previous trips over 43 years. He says he's been stopped twice by the authorities on his latest adventure. 

"One time the guy just asked me about my lights. It was a consensual stop. The other some deputy didn't like my jersey. I reminded him of the First Amendment and then went on my way", he said. 

Whelan's current trip started in Key West, Florida and will have to end in a different location to the one he originally planned -  Prudhoe Bay in Alaska - due to wildfires. He said he has met some "great people" along the way, and we're assuming he wouldn't count any law enforcement officers who might want to disrupt his journey for spurious reasons among them... 

Arriving at road.cc in 2017 via 220 Triathlon Magazine, Jack dipped his toe in most jobs on the site and over at eBikeTips before being named the new editor of road.cc in 2020, much to his surprise. His cycling life began during his students days, when he cobbled together a few hundred quid off the back of a hard winter selling hats (long story) and bought his first road bike - a Trek 1.1 that was quickly relegated to winter steed, before it was sadly pinched a few years later. Creatively replacing it with a Trek 1.2, Jack mostly rides this bike around local cycle paths nowadays, but when he wants to get the racer out and be competitive his preferred events are time trials, sportives, triathlons and pogo sticking - the latter being another long story.  

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69 comments

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NOtotheEU replied to mattw | 8 months ago
5 likes

Interesting, I wonder why this is. Maybe the amount of huge pick up trucks with limited visibility?

Purely anecdotally in the thousands of miles I've travelled in the US as a car and bus passenger I've always felt a lot safer than in the UK as most drivers don't seem in much of a rush and the odd idiot in a hurry really stands out. Over here every driver always seems to be late for something really inportant

Being a pedestrian in New York however is another story altogether.

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chrisonabike replied to NOtotheEU | 8 months ago
3 likes

Lots of factors, but looking at just one - average distance driven?  That is somewhat related to time driving which obviously has bearing!

Lots of not-quite-comparable figures but it seems that Americans (unsurprisingly) drive more - quite a lot more.

USA 11,467 miles per car (2019)
Or 13,476 miles per person (2022 it seems?)

UK - this source say 7,400 miles per car (with some analysis about "less miles per car but more cars" here).  I tried to calculate this but got something a bit less using data from here)

And in the UK "only 4.5% of vehicles were driven over 15,000 miles in 2021".

UK Distance markedly dropped in 2020 but is well on the way to being back to 2019 levels again.

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NOtotheEU replied to chrisonabike | 8 months ago
5 likes

I think that's a good point. There's been many times we've been with American friends and they've said "let's go out to eat/drink/shop, there's a great place about two hours away". Cheap petrol compared to the UK means they haven't really cared about it until recently.

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OldRidgeback replied to NOtotheEU | 8 months ago
3 likes

You may feel safer on the road in the US, but you most certainly aren't. Ironically, NYC is one of the safest places to be on the road in the US.

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OldRidgeback replied to mattw | 8 months ago
4 likes

You're about 4x as likely to be killed in a road crash in the US as in the UK/head of population if you compare NHTSA and DfT statistics. Some states are better than others and some worse. NY State is one of th best for road safety while FL, NC, SC and TX are amongst the worst. TX has the dubious honour of being worst for DUI. To put things in persepective, there were about 1700 people killed on the roads in NC (pop 10.6 million) in 2021 compared with just over 1500 (pop 67 million).

There are various reasons for this. The US scores poorly for enforcement of speeding and DUI laws and both are rife. Driver training is poor in much of the US. Many states have no mandatory vehicle inspections and some of the heaps you see on the road are shocking.

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jaymack | 8 months ago
1 like

While his polite demeanour with the Police officers was comendable advertising that he's armed still doesn't stop a dickhead driver ploughing into the back of the rider and leaving him for dead.

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Cugel replied to jaymack | 8 months ago
0 likes
jaymack wrote:

While his polite demeanour with the Police officers was comendable advertising that he's armed still doesn't stop a dickhead driver ploughing into the back of the rider and leaving him for dead.

Indeed. In fact, the jersey message might well induce another of the same mindset but carrying a larger weapon (aka the car) to perform a stand-me-grounder" action. "I had to run him over, officer, as he was cycling my ground and coulda shot me first".

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OldRidgeback | 8 months ago
0 likes

Only in America. Or maybe South Africa or Brazil!

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ErnieC replied to OldRidgeback | 8 months ago
1 like
OldRidgeback wrote:

Only in America. Or maybe South Africa or Brazil!

Definitely needed in the "Rainbow Nation", Been there, done that. 

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