Bike to Work Month: Riding Safely

Bike to Work Month: Riding Safely

May is “Bike to Work” month. With winter weather behind for most of us, it’s a great time to use your bicycle more often for transportation, and not just for recreation. Cycling for transportation for most of us means that we often ride in the city. Safety is a major concern, so this month we are preparing a series of posts about cycling safety.
To start with, let’s look at one of the greatest dangers to cyclists: poor riding skills. More than half of all cycling accidents and 16% of cycling fatalities do not involve collisions with other vehicles. So how can you improve your riding skills and avoid crashing?
The biggest step is learning to control your bicycle with confidence. It may appear counterintuitive, but riding timidly makes you less safe. Not only is your bike more stable and maneuverable at higher speeds, but if you know its limits, you are better able to respond to unforeseen hazards. You can stop faster or change direction quicker without risking a crash.
Here are four things you can practice to improve your confidence in handling your bike. Do this only while riding on a traffic-free stretch of road:
1. Ride in a perfectly straight line.

  • Why? Not wobbling will make you safer and more predictable in traffic.
  • Where to practice: Ride on the white “fog line” at the edge of the road.
  • How to do it: Relax your grip on the handlebars. Your bike will go straight, if you let it find its own way. As you sense your bike’s movements, decrease your inputs until you are riding in a very straight line.

2. Place your bike on the road with accuracy.

  • Why? If you can place your wheels exactly where you want, it’s easy to avoid hazards like potholes and debris.
  • Where to practice: To practice, go between two lane marker dots without touching them with either wheel.
  • How to do it:  Your bike goes where you look: if you look at a lane marker dot (or pothole), then you’ll hit it. Focus instead on the gap between two lane-marker dots. Here, too, relax your grip on the handlebars. You only can go where you want if you don’t wobble.

3. Brake hard.

  • Why? You will be amazed how quickly you can stop.
  • Where to practice: Braking is best practiced on a downhill. Let the bike roll, then brake hard. Repeat and brake even harder.
  • How to do it: Use only your front brake. Shift your weight back and lock your elbows to brace yourself against “going over the bars”. (This is the only time you want to grip your handlebars with force.) The photo at the top of the blog shows the correct technique.

4. Jump your bike.

  • Why? Being able to jump over cracks, steps in the road or small potholes greatly increases your safety in traffic. Jumping also is helpful when faced with railroad tracks that run at an oblique angle to your direction of travel.
  • Where to practice: First work on just getting the wheels off the ground a little. Then pick a line in the road and jump over it.
  • How to do it: For those of us who did not grow up with BMX, this will work best with clipless pedals or toeclips. Make sure your feet are secure. Bend your knees and elbows, then launch your body upward. Your bike will follow.

Once you master these four skills, you’ll be a much more confident and safe rider. What exercises do you use to improve your confidence and ability to control your bike?

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Comments (27)

  • Damian

    Thank you for this Jan. I’ve been commuting to work in Dublin (Ireland) for the last 10 years, and in London before that. Your point about riding confidently and assertively (but not aggressively) is very well made. Timid cyclists are not only more unstable (as you point out), but also make drivers nervous as a timid cyclist is more unpredictable.
    Assertive cyclists know when to take “ownership” of the lane they’re cycling in (cyclists have just as much right to the road-space as cars) and this helps drivers to know the cyclist’s intentions and thus drive appropriately.
    I don’t know about the traffic culture in the US but here there is a lot of noisy and antagonistic talk between cyclists and drivers online and in newspaper letters. However, in practice most cyclists and drivers are courteous and this reality also needs to be expressed.

    May 2, 2013 at 2:59 am
  • Patrick Moore

    I’ll add: don’t hug the curb. I’ve found cars give me *more* room when I ride closer to the left line in a bike lane. And when passing parked cars on the right, you give yourself room to avoid suddenly opening doors.

    May 2, 2013 at 6:38 am
    • Tamaso

      Amen! Non-buffered bike lanes that are almost completely in the door-zone of parked cars seem to be encouraging some pretty bad riding habits, that I have observed.

      May 2, 2013 at 7:02 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        In those, I ride just to the right side of the white line between bike lane and traffic lane, as far to the inside of the bike lane as possible.

        May 2, 2013 at 7:14 am
  • bryanwieyes

    Great topic. A related one is to get comfortable really seeing where you are going and who is coming – if you are staring at your front hub, there will be unpleasent surprizes. Looking ahead will help with all of the things suggested above.

    May 2, 2013 at 7:50 am
    • Damian

      And being able to glance behind you over your shoulder without turning the handlebars!

      May 2, 2013 at 8:34 am
  • Bill Gobie

    Along with riding assertively, signal your intentions whenever possible.
    Don’t trust metal surfaces. The picture of the rider (is that your son?) turning across the railroad tracks gives me the shivers. I went down three weeks ago when I turned across a traffic-polished manhole cover I failed to notice. The weather was dry but there was probably some dust on the metal that made it slippery. Rubber on clean steel has nearly the same coefficient of friction as rubber on asphalt, so most of the time crossing metal plates and tracks seems safe. But add some dust or water and all bets are off.

    May 2, 2013 at 8:31 am
  • Matthew J

    And remember the little maintenance checks.
    Not sure if someone tried to steal it while I was at the grocery store or what, but one of the mount bolts on my RacerM brake came loose the other day, leaving me with no front brake.
    Fortunately I had to stop almost as soon as I started and caught the problem right away. If I had not noticed until approaching an interstection, there could have been a disaster.

    May 2, 2013 at 11:37 am
  • Daniel

    Ride confidently – absolutely! Brake with rear brakes only? I go for both but much more front than rear. And follow the rules. I’ve been commuting the last few weeks and the lack of respect for traffic laws is appalling here in Boston.

    May 2, 2013 at 7:10 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Brake with the front brake only. We tested this for Bicycle Quarterly. The rear brake is only a distraction when you brake hard. Consistently, we got the shortest stopping distances if we used only the front brake – at least on dry pavement. (The rear wheel is barely touching the ground, so it cannot transmit much brake force.)

      May 2, 2013 at 7:31 pm
      • Daniel

        I’ll see how this feels for me. I definitely tend towards the front brake. I’m no fan of ,skidding. Which BQ issue?

        May 2, 2013 at 7:36 pm
      • Garth

        Using my left hand to signal left usually means I need my right hand to utilize the rear brake in modulating speed, as I go to the left part of the lane and into the intersection.

        May 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The blog post talks about braking hard. You need both hands on the handlebars to brace yourself when braking really hard.
          Even when “modulating your speed,” it may be best to keep both hands on the bars and indicate before you brake. Otherwise, you may wobble, which is not conducive to safety.

          May 3, 2013 at 6:12 am
      • Doug Peterson

        I’m not much of a fan of signaling for this reason. Basically all I do is point to the next lane before I switch. And only if there’s actually a car in the other lane. I return my hand to the bars before I make switch. Anything else seems like waste if time.
        I find most other situations make signaling extraneous: I’m in the left turn lane? Well, that means I’m turning left. Taking the right hand lane the middle? Doesn’t matter if I turn right or go straight, as cars aren’t getting past me in either case.

        May 3, 2013 at 9:53 pm
        • Bill Gobie

          Being able to signal and use the front brake is a reason to swap your brake cables to put the front brake on the right lever. A right-handed person’s right hand is stronger and has finer control than the left, so you will be able to use the front brake more precisely and powerfully as well. If you ride a motorcycle this will harmonize the front brakes between your bike and motorbike.

          May 6, 2013 at 11:11 am
  • Conrad

    Once you have riding in a straight line down, try looking behind you or pulling a water bottle out of its cage without veering off your line. Its important to be able to do these things without going all over the road.

    May 2, 2013 at 10:06 pm
  • ted kelly

    Doing bump and touch drills with a friend (or group of friends) on a grass field also helps to build confidence and control on the bike. They are often recommended for racers doing crits and other close quarters cycling but I think they can help a lot even if you don’t do that sort of riding.

    May 2, 2013 at 10:44 pm
  • Tim Potter

    Great post Jan. Conidering the ever increasingly highly distracted motorist I feel being highly visible is likely the most important part of staying alive on any road. Too bad that most cyclists seem to think of their time on the bike as a fashion statement. I save my fashion for social group rides when there’s much more safety in the numbers.

    May 5, 2013 at 8:06 am
  • Allen

    Here’s the most dangerous thing I deal with on my morning commute: using a bike path that runs opposite of the direction of car traffic. Why is this dangerous? Because when you cross an intersection (and I have three of them in quick succession in my little half-mile section), perpendicular traffic looks left, but not right, before turning right on a red light. I’ve had SO MANY close calls because of this. I now make sure to see drivers look my way before proceeding on a green light (usually they don’t). Additionally, cars coming in my direction will make fast lefthand turns when they see a gap, but they will oftentimes fail to see me riding thru the intersection. Having a green light is no help when drivers refuse to see you. I must approach certain situations with caution even when I have right-of-way. I look behind me and double check that there’s nobody coming thru the turn lane at high speed. This is scary every single time. Using the street is not an option in this section as traffic is very fast and tight. It would be even more dangerous.
    On the street, I don’t have any real issues that I can’t handle. Drivers make bad moves, but I generally have an out. I ride hard and I always take the lane when I need it. It’s been stated above, but I’ll reiterate that timidity is not a rider’s friend.
    I use lights and I have a white helmet. I think this is helpful.

    May 5, 2013 at 7:46 pm
  • Tom Petrie

    Thank you for not leading with “wear a helmet”. Thanks for not even mentioning it. So often, the knee-jerk response/advice on the issue of bicycle safety is “wear a helmet” as if a styrofoam hat is some shield of invulnerability, a single magic thing that will protect you against any eventuality. Your advice is dead-on.

    May 6, 2013 at 6:22 am
  • Drew

    Not sure why your advice is so front brake oriented, like the rear brake is next to useless?
    95% of my braking is rear brake. The front brake is best for stopping fast, but most of my braking is just slowing down; speed modulation. Using the front brake for me represents a lack of planning, an unexpected road obstacle, really steep hill, or emergency maneuver.
    Perhaps a racer would more frequently apply their front brake hard; I don’t know. But would that not invite a rear end crash from a less attentive racer following behind? I can see it useful for carrying speed into a curve to save seconds on the descent, but is it good advice for a non-racer who is not counting the seconds?
    The front brake applied hard on a clean, dry surface give much more stopping power than the rear, but on a wet leafy road it is more likely to result in a crash. It’s not as hard to regain control of the bike if the rear wheel skids.

    May 11, 2013 at 8:48 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I agree with you that the rear brake comes in handy when the road surface is too slippery to brake hard. The context of this post is how to minimize your stopping distance by practicing to brake hard. In that situation, focusing on the front brake alone gets you the shortest stopping distance.

      May 11, 2013 at 9:18 pm

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