Busy roads can make cycling to work seem daunting, especially if it's been a while since you've been on a bike. These ten tips should help you cycle more capably and confidently.
1. Don't undertake lorries
Never cycle up the inside of a lorry. Lorries account for just 5% of road traffic but 18% of cyclists' road deaths. They are highly dangerous. There are massive blind spots around a lorry, so it's likely that the driver will not see you. If the lorry then turns left, you could be crushed to death underneath the wheels because long vehicles cut in across corners when they turn. If you want to overtake a lorry in stationary traffic, overtake on the right. Do this even if there's an inviting cycle lane painted on the road between the lorry and the kerb; it won't protect you. It's a bad idea to undertake buses too, although the greater amount of glass in the side of the vehicle – particularly the door – makes it more likely that you'll be seen.
2. Don't hug the kerb
Riding close to the kerb 'to keep out of the way of cars' might feel safer. It isn't. You should be at least half a metre out, and often a metre or more; sometimes you should be in the centre of your lane. Here you'll be where drivers are looking rather than in their peripheral vision. Being seen is being safe. You are not inconveniencing any driver who obeys the Highway Code: Rule 163 tells drivers to give cyclists 'at least as much room as a car' when overtaking. That means pulling out, going over the white line, and coming back in again – not squeezing past with inches to spare. Riding further out into the road forces drivers to overtake properly and prevents them overtaking where it would be dangerous to do so.
3. Don't ride erratically
If a driver knows what you're intending to do next, he or she can react accordingly. Don't veer or turn without warning. Observe where other road users are and communicate with them by eye contact and hand signals. While any passing driver should give you plenty of 'wiggle room' (again, see Highway Code Rule 163), you should only change your position on the road after you have checked over your shoulder for following traffic and, if necessary, signalled your intent. If you're overtaking a parked car, check over your shoulder, then move out gradually to take the lane rather than riding right up to the car and swerving out. If you're turning right, check over your shoulder, signal, check again, and move gradually out until you're just left of the white line. Predictable is safe.
4. Never assume a driver has seen you
Don't pin your hopes on what a driver should do, even if that's something simple like 'obey the Highway Code'. Assess what the driver is doing. Where is the driver looking? Which way are the wheels turning? What sound is the car making – is it accelerating or braking? And be ready to take evasive action. Some drivers are careless, pulling into or out of junctions without looking properly, or without accounting for the fact that you're not a stationary object but one that's travelling at 15mph. A small minority seem to believe that 'might makes right' and will bully their way through junctions even if they have seen you. Don't get too dispirited: most drivers are considerate. You just need to be ready to react to them even if they're not ready to react to you.
5. Ensure your bike is roadworthy
To be ridden on the road legally, your bike must have two functional, independent brakes. (If the bike has a fixed wheel, the ability to slow the bike by back pressure on the pedals counts as one brake.) At night, your bike must also have a white front and a red rear light, a red rear reflector, and amber pedal reflectors. It's easy to meet these requirements, so long as you don't forget your lights (or charging them!). There's no MOT to pass for bikes, but commuting is more efficient and more pleasant if your bike is in good condition. Keep the tyres pumped up hard, using a pump with a pressure gauge, and oil the chain. If you don't want to look after your bike beyond this, take it to your local bike shop at least once a year for a service.
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6. Don't run red lights
And don't flout other traffic laws either. A red light means stop; it's green that means 'go on if the way is clear'. Don't slalom around pedestrians on zebra crossings: stop. 'Give way' signs and road markings mean just that. Footpaths are for pedestrians: if you want to use one, get off and push your bike. All kinds of road users ignore the rules of the road from time to time, but a speeding driver doesn't justify you jumping a light. For one thing, it puts one or more road users at risk – and on a bike, that's usually you. For another thing, it just gives people ammunition to moan about 'bloody cyclists'. And there's a bigger picture here. If you ride responsibly and act like traffic, the greater the odds that you (and other cyclists) will be treated respectfully – treated like traffic.
7. Don't listen to loud music
It's not illegal to listen to an MP3 player as you cycle along. It is a bad idea on trafficked roads. While you can only look in one direction, you can hear through 360 degrees. So you'll often hear and locate cars before you see them. At least, you will if the engine noise isn't drowned out by the sweet beats thumping in your ears. Dulling your awareness dulls your ability to react. The same might be said for talking on a mobile phone while cycling. It's not illegal either but it is distracting, especially if it's not a hands-free setup. You're better off stopping and phoning back. If you have genuine hearing difficulties, incidentally, it's well worth fitting one or more rear view mirrors to your bike.
8. Only use useful cycling facilities
Cycling facilities such as off-road cyclepaths and on-road cycle lanes are optional. It's your call which, if any, you choose to use. Some cyclepaths are fantastic, offering quiet corridors through or to busy towns and cities. Others are badly surfaced, badly lit, or take you miles out of your way. Cycle lanes on roads are a mixed bag too. Those that are wide enough for two cyclists, so one cyclist can overtake another within the lane, can remind drivers to give you road-space. Those that direct you to ride where it's not safe to do so – in the gutter, for example, or at the edge of a roundabout – are best avoided. Don't feel obliged to use a facility just because it's there. Drivers aren't forced to use motorways, which were built specifically for motor vehicles at infinitely greater expense…
9. Avoid slippery surfaces
It's not just ice and snow that can skittle cyclists. Take care on wet days too, especially if the rain comes after a dry period. Spilled oil or diesel, which you often find at junctions such as the entrance to roundabouts, will rise to the surface, creating a greasy skid patch. If you happen to be turning when you hit the oily patch, you could come off. The same can be said of wet drain covers, road studs, tram tracks, or level crossings. Wet metal has little traction. If you can't avoid these road hazards, cross them perpendicularly and don't try to steer as you go over them. Mud on the road is obviously slippery too. Take care around roadworks and the entrances to ploughed fields.
10. Don't covet thy neighbour's bike
It doesn't matter what bike your neighbour or workmate rides or what it cost. A bike that's good for the cycling that you do and the way that you prefer to ride might be completely different from someone else's. So take anyone else's opinions about bikes with a pinch of salt. When it's time to scratch that new bike itch, get the bike you like best. A bike that you like is, by definition a good bike for you. If your bike is comfortable and you enjoy riding it, you're doing it right.
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