This is the first part of the three part Safe Cycling Series. The goal of this series is to help you learn how to ride more safely on the road.
In approximately 15,000 miles & 50 races, I have crashed twice. The first time occurred just after my first collegiate season, when I hit a set of wet railroad ties at a bad angle and slid out. The second time was during a race in the 2012 collegiate season, where a fellow competitor went down in front of me and I hit him at a relatively low speed, going over the handlebars with no damage to myself or my bike.
I’ve never been in a serious collision or collided with a vehicle, but there have been many close calls, giving me significant experience and giving me the tools to ride safely on a regular basis.
Defensive cycling is about risk mitigation. There is risk in everything we do, especially cycling. There are just some things that are out of our control and therefore it is futile to practice “crash prevention.” The goal is to stay as safe as possible given the circumstances.
Types of incidents:
In this post, I’ll give tips on how to decrease the risk of Cyclist-Motorist incidents.
Cyclist-Motorist incidents are the ones that get the most publicity because they are typically much more serious (in both health and legal implications). Over the years, I have adopted the following philosophy when it comes to drivers:
- They don’t see cyclists
- They don’t understand that cyclists typically have the same rights to the road
- They can’t make rational decisions when they see cyclists
For the majority of the time, this is not the case. But to really minimize risk, it’s important to keep these principles in the front of your mind when riding in town and out in the country.
I typically worry most about visibility while in town, rather than on country roads. This is because drivers tend to make dynamic changes (i.e. lane changes, turns, stops, etc.) with much more frequency in town. It’s these sort of changes that can be hazardous to cyclists (as it’s harder to see or react to cyclists in a high-paced town environment).
What to watch out for:
- Turns. There are two main types of turns. Those of cars going around you:
And those of cars going out in front of you:
- Doors. “Dooring” is especially common in cities, as motorists fling their doors open without checking their side mirror, potentially resulting in a nasty crash:
- Pedestrians. Okay, so pedestrians aren’t motorists, but they tend to (at least in Newark, DE) start jaywalking across the road at seemingly random moments. This is quite dangerous for you (and them) so it’s very important that you remain alert that a pedestrian might jump out in front of your path.
- Rule Breakers. Motorists run red lights quite often, so it’s wise not to venture into the intersection until you know no one is going to blindside you.
Once you get out of the town, you’re number one concern is assuming the correct position on the roadway.
Many drivers don’t understand that cyclists have the same rights to the road as themselves. For your safety, it’s important to position yourself such that you have every right to the road. Most country roads will have one of these three layouts:
- Large Shoulder (2-6+ feet of pavement)
- Small Shoulder (1-2 feet)
- No Shoulder (<1 foot)
Large shoulders are usually the best option of the three. They allow you and the motorists whizzing by you to coexist with minimal interactions. That being said, there can be issues with large shoulders. Because they are generally not kept to the same standard as the roadway, they can have rough, uneven, or missing pavement.
Then, we get into an interesting predicament as we don’t want to be riding on most or any of the shoulder and are forced to ride closer (or over) the white line. The key, if you see rough pavement ahead of you, is to pick a safe, straight line in advance & stick to it (even if it’s over the white line). That way you’re not swerving around nasty pavement and potentially into the path of car coming from behind you. If you’re already there (staying along that straight line), the driver will be annoyed, but they’ll give you the room you need.
It’s all about being predictable.
Pretty much the same rule applies when you’re riding on a road with small or nonexistent shoulder. I typically pick a line ~2 feet from the edge of the roadway and stick to that path.
Getting Motorists Around You
I always try to ride respectfully. This means helping motorists get around you as fast as safely possible. When a motorist comes up from behind me and doesn’t have enough room or line of sight to be able to pass, I usually do the following three things:
- Give them a quick look over my shoulder. This lets the motorist know that I know they’re there
- Move over to the furthest right I’m comfortable with. This gives them the impression that I don’t want to hold them up. I should note that there are circumstances where I will not do this. For example, if I’m approaching an intersection where there really isn’t enough room for them to pass, I’ll shift more to the middle of the lane to discourage the motorist from making a rash move.
- Wave them through when I know definitely that there are no close oncoming cars. Most drivers will go around before or as I’m waving them through, but there are some motorists (particularly older drivers) that need stimulation. Also, this action hopefully inspires mutual respect. On the other side of the coin, if I see an oncoming car that the motorist behind me may not be able to see, I hold out my arm to try to discourage the motorist to pass.
Plan Your Exit Strategy
The more you ride, the more experience you get in developing exit strategies to various situations. Exit strategies, in order of decreasing preference are:
- Slamming on your brakes and stopping before collision
- Swerving inside designated bike lane to avoid collision
- Briefly going into the motorists’ lane to avoid collision (a good awareness of your surroundings will tell you if this is a safe option)
- Going off the road (if it’s fairly level)
- Colliding with the least harmful object
As an exercise while riding, try to think of what you’d do if a motorist encroached dangerously in your path.
When it comes to being safe on the bike, it’s all about predictability. Drivers should be able to predict what you’re going to do (so you shouldn’t be riding aggressively or making dynamic side-to-side movements around cars, ESPECIALLY in towns/cities). Just as importantly, you should try to predict what the driver is going to do, especially when their potential actions could result in a collision.
As you gain more experience, you’ll pick up on the general tendencies of motorists and will be better at anticipating their actions. If you’re relatively new to cycling, just be sure to use caution when around motorists, making sure to keep a sharp eye out.
As always, if you think I missed anything or you think I should have emphasized something more, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments. The next two posts will focus on riding in groups (including races) and riding in hazardous zones/conditions.