If safety makes you think twice about cycling in the city, then you’re not alone.
It’s tragically rare to find totally protected bike lanes, let alone intersections that force drivers to slow down and pay attention.
In these circumstances, it’s sad but true that we cyclists need to take extra precautions.
Based on years of bike commuting and practical urban cycling, here’s what I credit with avoiding disaster. It’s not an all-encompassing guide to safety, but a quick list of essentials that are too easy to forget.
Many of these apply when walking, too, so take heed even if you don’t always travel by bike.
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1. Assume you’re invisible until proven otherwise
It’s hard to believe at first, but even a reflective high-viz jacket and glaring lights still won’t get every car to notice and respect your presence.
All the more so on rainy, dark days.
Those visibility aids are helpful, but they’re only aids, not guarantees.
That’s why prudent city cyclists assume they’re invisible, period. It’s no exaggeration to say I owe my life to this tactic.
It sounds paranoid, and it can be quite a mental strain when your route traverses several intersections or other “high-conflict” road features. You may have the right-of-way, but it’s not worth betting your life that others will respect it.
Assuming you’re unseen is (sadly) the surest to navigate a chaotic trip unscathed—especially without proper bicycle infrastructure.
Ride the road less traveled
Of course, it’s best to minimize interaction with traffic in the first place.
Dense areas usually have an alternate route (or two or three) that see less car traffic than the more direct ones.
It might even be safer to ride with traffic on a slow, narrow road than to use a painted “bike lane” alongside a big arterial where drivers tend to zone out.
True, the friendlier route might add a mile or two. But in my book, it’s well worth the extra time to avoid major intersections or high-speed traffic.
File this one under “things that shouldn’t be necessary, but are anyway.”
2. Lights aren’t just for nighttime
Even drivers who want to heed cyclists can’t always identify us among countless cars and signs and buildings. Street design is often the underlying problem, but we have to play the hand we’re dealt.
It’s also well-documented that we start to miss details in our surroundings at around 30 mph. (Thankfully, some cities like Seattle have slowed many streets to 20 or 25 mph for exactly this reason.)
Given all the distractions inherent to city driving, you can hedge your safety bets by running a bright headlight and taillight at all times.
Flashing beams are bad news at night, since they’re highly disorienting and tough to judge distance by. But it’s another story during the day, since all the bright ambient light makes them bearable without being overwhelming to look at.
Just two things to note:
- If you’re on a dedicated two-way bike path, then turn off the flashing pattern out of courtesy
- A flash is fine but a strobe is not. Strobe lights can (albeit very rarely) induce seizures at any time of time, and they’re rather brutal to look at—far above and beyond what it takes to be seen.
3. Use reflective apparel and accessories
High-visibility clothing can be impressively noticeable during the day.
At night, it’s another story. That awesomely garish chartreuse jacket hardly standard out when there’s little ambient light to bounce off of it.
The best tactic, then, is to incorporate as much reflective material as possible.
Cycling-specific clothing often has a little bit, and I’d say Showers Pass incorporates reflective bits more effectively than most.
At the same time, I’m not a huge fan of cycling-specific clothing that I hesitate to wear elsewhere. Reflective vests/straps—like any of these on Amazon—accomplish the same thing no matter what you wear underneath.
They’re a staple among touring cyclists and whoever else spends a lot of time amid cars.
Whether you pick the classic or culinary option, just attach it to the back of your saddle as a minimal but surprisingly bright precaution.
4. Use this technique for better braking in rain
If your bike has any sort of rim brakes, then this one’s for you.
Well-adjusted rim brakes work terrifically when it’s dry, but wet and gritty conditions are their Achilles’ heel.
You’ve no doubt noticed that it takes a split-second longer to get full braking power in the rain. The friction of the pads pushes water and debris away, but it takes a couple of wheel rotations to do so.
Bearing that in mind, the trick is to gently but frequently feather the brake levers as you roll along. This way, when you actually need to brake, the rims are a little closer to a clean and dry state.
To be clear, this is a marginal improvement, and will never make rim brakes as consistent as discs in wet conditions. (Then again, it’s easy to get over-confident with disc brakes in the rain, and find yourself in a skid that a little more foresight could have prevented.)
5. Consider how cargo affects handling
After you discover the convenience of doing local errands by two wheels, it’s tempting to cram everything but the kitchen sink onto your bicycle.
But unless you’re riding an actual cargo bike or a beautifully quirky Dutch bakfiets, your bike won’t handle like you’re used to.
That’s probably not the end of the world while cruising in a straight line.
But it can become quite a handful when you’re braking hard or trying to turn at low speeds.
Significant cargo means more momentum (at a given speed), and that extends your stopping distance. Panic-braking is never ideal, so it’s best to plan for the longer stopping distance as well as to keep speeds lower in general.
The biggest challenge, however, is with a heavy front load.
Without getting all mathematical, the issue is that the axis of steering (the imaginary line going from the headtube and straight out the fork) actually meets the ground a bit ahead of where the front tire meets the ground.
Due to that offset, a loaded front basket can cause a heavy, flopping feel to the steering. The bike will seem to resist small steering adjustments yet dive suddenly dive into large ones.
It’s a little hard to explain, but you’ll immediately know it if you feel it!
Some bikes are optimized specifically for front loads. From frame geometry to simply mounting a rack to the headtube (as opposed to the fork or axle), there are at least a couple of ways to engineer around it. Those designs aren’t all that common, however, and tend to end up on rather pricey models from niche brands.
All that to say that it’s best to take it easy with cargo. Start with no more than 5 lbs up front (including the basket/rack itself) and perhaps 15 lbs in the back. Get used to how the bike does (or doesn’t) handle before increasing your load a couple pounds at a time. And, as always, observe whatever load limits manufacturers give!
From being seen to staying in control, there are a few ways to make biking around town as safe as possible.
It’s not about technical riding skills (although that never hurts) so much as planning, preparation, and assuming nothing when it comes to cars’ awareness of or respect for right-of-way.
Here’s to relaxed riding, and getting home safely, for a long time to come!