The Confident Cyclist

Being a small, slow bicycle driver on roads full of large, fast vehicles can be quite intimidating. Decades of cheap fuel and urban sprawl have made it that much more difficult to drive a slow-moving vehicle in a fast-moving culture. But even in this less-that-perfect environment, cyclists can learn the skills and techniques to operate safely and confidently on the road.

Have control of your bike.

The majority of all cyclist injuries are the result of cyclists falling, hitting an object, pedestrian, animal or other cyclist. A cyclist needs to learn basic balance and handling before venturing onto the road or trail:

Mount, start, stop and dismount properly (Mighk Wilson has an excellent video clip).

Ride in a straight line. Find a quiet street with a white edge line 2-3 feet from the edge of pavement and practice riding on that line. Keep the bike on the line while using hand signals.

Turn your head without swerving. Scanning for overtaking traffic is critical. A cyclist must be able to look over her shoulder, see and communicate with motorists in order to merge. A common mistake is to turn at the shoulder, pulling the handlebar along with your head.

Balance and control the bike at slow speeds. Learning to balance and turn at slow speeds will give you control of your vehicle in a congested environment.

Ride on the road.

Bicycles are vehicles. They do not belong on the sidewalk. Riding on the sidewalk is unsafe for cyclists and pedestrians. Sidewalk cycling is not only inconvenient and slow, it actually increases your risk of being hit by a car. Metroplan’s Orlando Crash Study revealed that 44% of cyclists hit by cars were riding on the sidewalk.

Know and follow the rules

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

Effective Cycling by John Forester

The rules of the road exist to facilitate safe traffic movements for all vehicles. Bicyclists who violate the rules are far more likely to be hit by a car.

The basic rules:

  • First come, first served: each vehicle driver has the right to the space he is occupying, a safe buffer to each side, behind and in front of him. Any vehicle driver wishing to use that space, must first yield to the one who is using it.
  • Always ride on the right side of the road with traffic.
  • Yield to traffic on more important roads.
  • Yield to traffic when moving laterally across a road.
  • Use the proper lane, and position within that lane, to move through intersections.
  • Between intersections, position according to speed – slower traffic to the right (but not on the edge of the road or against the curb!), faster traffic to the left.
  • Obey all traffic control devices.

Integrate in the intersections.

Intersections are where the conflicts are. Ninety-five percent of bike/car crashes involve crossing and turning movements. The common mistakes are: motorists underestimating cyclist’s speed; and cyclists riding through intersections in the wrong lane or position.

Intersection safety:

  • Always use the rightmost lane that serves your destination.
  • Turn left from left turn lanes. If there are two, use the rightmost one (unless you plan to make another left turn from the new road).
  • Never ride straight in a right-turn-only lane. Do not use right-turn lanes to “get out of the way” – you have a right and responsibility to manage your space on the road.
  • When using a dual-destination lane, position yourself in the lane to indicate the direction you are traveling (ie: ride in the center or left side of a lane that allows right turns and thru traffic).
  • When approaching an intersection in a wide lane or a bike lane, merge left into the main traffic flow or lane. Even if you plan to make a right turn, take your place in traffic so you are not cut off by other right-turning traffic.
  • It is far safer to transition an intersection in a traffic lane, than a crosswalk!

There’s more than one way to turn left.

One thing that scares novice cyclists is having to make a left turn at a major intersection.

The most common, vehicular left turn is done the way you would in a car. Merge left, one lane at a time until you reach the left turn lane. This is best done well ahead of time. Plan ahead. Traffic typically comes in waves, if you find yourself in a gap a block or two before your left turn, merge left and use the left lane for a few blocks. This is perfectly legal and much easier than trying to negotiate through a wave of traffic (especially if they have a green light). Also remember that when approaching a red light traffic will slow to your speed. This makes merging and negotiating fairly easy. When you communicate your intentions, most motorists will accommodate you.

Another easy way to make a left turn on a high-speed multi-lane road is with jug-handle or box turns. The jug-handle involves turning right at the intersection, making a U-turn (where it is legal) and then proceeding straight through at the next green light. The box turn is similar, but instead of turning, ride through the intersection, then reposition yourself in the travel lane on the new road and wait for a green light.

You can also, dismount your bike and use the crosswalks. This isn’t recommended in Orlando due to the total lack of motorist regard for pedestrians in crosswalks.

Protect your space in the lane.

Most of the roads in Central Florida have “substandard” lanes. This means the lanes are not wide enough to be safely shared by cars and bikes operating side-by-side.

Back to the Crash Study: In all daytime crashes involving cyclists hit by overtaking motorists, the cyclist was too close to the edge of a narrow lane, and the motorist misjudged while trying to squeeze past.

How wide is a lane you can share?

FDOT uses 14 feet as the minimum for a lane that can be shared. This is known as a Wide Curb Lane (WCL). Here’s how they get the minimum:

  • A cyclist is defined as being 2.5 ft wide with a minimum operating space of 4 ft. This includes the minimum safe distance from the edge of useable pavement (2 ft).
  • The legal minimum passing clearance for an overtaking vehicle is 3 ft.
  • A typical passenger vehicle is 5.5 ft (car) – 7 ft (SUV) wide.

Basically, a WCL is about the width of two large passenger vehicles. A lane that looks smaller than that should not be shared, and it’s typically up to the cyclist to discourage motorists from trying to pass within it. If you let them think they can, they will. Most of them just can’t resist.

NOTE: The minimum does not account for commercial vehicles and utility trailers which are 8.5 ft wide and can have mirrors extending to ~10 ft. Those vehicles MUST use part of another lane to pass safely.

Ride big!

Most cyclists think of themselves as being narrow and not needing much space. As a result, they shortchange themselves by trying to be unobtrusive. This behavior greatly increases their risk of being hit by the cars they are trying to avoid. For this reason, the law specifically acknowledges a cyclists right to the full use of a substandard-width lane.

No matter what the width of the lane, give yourself room. The law says as far right at practicable, not possible.

It is not practicable to:

  • place yourself out of the focus area of crossing and turning motorists
  • ride through debris or bad pavement to stay out of the way
  • allow right-turning motorists to pass you on the left and cut you off

Riding big makes you visible, encourages most motorists to give generous passing clearance, it also gives you someplace to go if a motorists does come too close.

Understand the limitations of bike lanes.

A wide curb lane allows passenger vehicles to pass cyclists within a lane, thus reducing a cyclist’s impact on them. This offers a slower cyclist the psychological benefit of not feeling like he’s in the way. The cyclist still needs to be aware of proper positioning at intersections to avoid conflict.

A bike lane adds a dividing stripe to a wide lane, creating an “exclusive” space for bicycles. Some cyclists feel more secure to the right of the stripe, because they believe it keeps the cars out of their space. Unfortunately, it also keeps uninformed cyclists and motorists from approaching intersections in the proper position, and decreases motorist attentiveness to the presence of cyclists on the road (out of way, out of mind).

The illustration to the right shows safe intersection position. As you approach an intersection, scan for overtaking cars, signal, negotiate if you need to (most motorists will cooperate), and merge left into the traffic lane. Make this move early to give yourself plenty of time.

Riding toward the left side of the lane makes you visible to left-turning motorists who might think there is a gap if they can’t see you. It also allows right-turning motorists to make a right on red if you are stopped at the light.

This procedure applies to bike lanes and wide curb lanes. In narrow lanes, you should already be in the flow of traffic, but moving farther left as you approach an intersection will discourage unsafe passing before the intersection.

Stay out of the door zone! Bike lanes next to on-street parking are often striped partially, or entirely, within reach of car doors. There is no way a cyclist can avoid a door that is opened directly in his path. This can be a deadly collision. Typically, the handle-bar hits the door, turning the front wheel to the right and sending the cyclist flying to the left – where the cyclist is then run over by overtaking traffic.

Always keep your body and handlebars 5 feet from parked cars, no matter where the bike lane stripe is.

Learn emergency maneuvers.

By following the rules, using proper positioning at intersections and riding big, you will avoid 99% of the conflicts. But we all lose focus from time to time.

There are evasive maneuvers you should know that can help you avoid major motorist mistakes or dodge obstacles. Knowing how to stop and turn quickly helps you avoid motorist mistakes that aren’t discouraged by lane positioning. These skills are not instinctive and must be taught. You can learn them in a CyclingSavvy class.

Let it go: don’t escalate harassment.

Some forms of harassment are a fact of life for cyclists. There is a small, but significant, percentage of the motoring population that is angry and selfish. They will honk or yell at you to get off the road and then speed away like cowards. Let them go. Smile and wave (with all five fingers), or pretend you heard nothing. They will simply move on with their negative selves and you can remember the nice motorist who smiled and waved you through a merge a few minutes before.

Road Rage

It is rare, but scary, to encounter someone who wants to pick a fight with you. Do not react. Get out of the way, get yourself to a public place or pull off the road and call 911. Producing a cell phone will usually make these bully’s go away in a hurry. Get a license plate number and definitely report it.