Cycle commuters of Mefi: how did you get confident on the roads?
February 11, 2016 1:37 AM   Subscribe

After 20-ish years of not cycling, I recently bought a bike for getting to work. It's a nice route - about two-thirds of the way is off the roads on dedicated cycle paths, and most of the rest is on quiet streets. But I cycled to work and back yesterday, and the roads just TERRIFY me.

I have read a lot of good advice about cycling in traffic. I know about primary and secondary position, about signalling and checking over my shoulder, about staying out of the door zone around parked cars. But the reality is just really intimidating. I was constantly scared: crossing junctions, navigating round parked cars on a very narrow residential street, overtaking parked coaches (yes? no? will it pull out? will it flatten me?). Even having cars driving slowly behind me waiting until it was safe to overtake felt scary. It was like having a constant soundtrack of I could dieeeeee! playing in my head, and it was not much fun.

There's one really busy main junction near my work that I didn't even try to cycle through - hopped off and pushed the bike on the pavements. So that's fine as an option for the worst bits (although I still felt like a nervous idiot for doing it), but I can't do that on all the roads! And nor do I want to - for most of the ride, I really loved cycling in and I really want to make this work.

Possibly relevant: I was hit by a car when cycling as a kid and had to spend a couple of days in hospital. So I think that has something to do with my nervousness now. Also possibly relevant: my vision is worse than it was then, and looking over my right shoulder means having to turn my head past 90 degrees to get a really good view.

There is one-to-one cycling training available locally that I've had recommended to me. I will definitely sign up if it would be useful, but it's not cheap and I'm not sure if it'll help the underlying ARGH CARS NOOOO fear.

So, all those of you I see on road bikes whizzing along through the main road traffic in the mornings: how on earth did you get to a place where you felt able to do that?
posted by Catseye to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It really is just practice - start on quieter roads at quieter times (weekends, or if you have any time off work you can try the same route at 9:30 or 15:30, it will be much quieter).

I would take the cycling proficiency course, you'll feel more confident.

And the fear will wear off if you keep doing it - you'll get acclimatised to the traffic and won't perceive it to be risky after a few weeks without any accidents.
posted by tinkletown at 1:45 AM on February 11, 2016

You can get helmet-mounted rear-view mirrors if checking over your shoulder is tough for you. My boyfriend has one and likes it a lot.
posted by phoenixy at 2:15 AM on February 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

One answer to this question is simply: Practice. The best kind of practice is with a dedicated cycle trainer, the second best kind of practice is with other experienced cyclists. The slowest and least productive (but still effective in the end) practice is cycling by yourself & just working things out. If you could find some regular cyclist friends to ride with for a bit, then I bet that would make a huge difference.

A couple of thoughts:

1) Don’t weave in and out round parked cars: You are behaving unpredictably which is a recipe for trouble. Also, I bet that you are too close to the cars & at risk of getting doored (ie, someone in the car opening the door as you go past & knocking you off into the road). On narrow residential streets *take the road*: be assertive & let use gaps in the parked cars to let vehicles coming the other way pass just as the driver of a vehicle would. If you cycle down the edge next to parked cars then at some point you’re either going to get squished by a driver trying to squeeze past you or someone in a parked car is going to open a door into you. Neither of these are good!

2) It’s totally OK to pull off the road & walk over junctions that you don’t feel confident enough to cycle through yet. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

3) Coaches / large buses that have parked up / are at bus stops: the question I always ask myself is “Can I see the driver in the mirror?” If I can see the driver, then they can see me: if I can’t then I’m probably not in a safe place to overtake. Playing hopscotch with a bus along it’s route is annoying for everyone, so until you get a bit fitter & faster it may be simpler just to let the bus go first. This is the kind of decision that comes easier with practice and experience.
posted by pharm at 2:46 AM on February 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I will never be comfortable riding alongside cars. I wear a helmet and gloves to help protect me from common bang-ups, use lights to make myself visible to drivers (especially in the winter when my commute time is dark), scan left and right all the time to watch for cars popping out in front of me, and try not to ride too quickly to allow me to react to what's ahead.

Also, I tend to wobble and swing off to one side if I turn around too far to see what's behind me. (Probably my sense of balance is not great.) If I spent more time on the road instead of on safe bike paths I would get a mirror to let me watch the cars coming up behind me without having to turn around.

But your immediate problem is a specific route to and from work, so I would work on solving that specific problem. Could you ride it on the weekend when you are under no time pressure? Look at the map and identify danger spots. Use Google street view to step through it. Get comfortable with specific intersections you need to negotiate each day. Maybe ride it with an experienced rider? Someone who lives around you and knows the route? A friend might be able to show you route-specific things to do and help boost your confidence.
posted by pracowity at 2:46 AM on February 11, 2016

Totally agree with practice, but also focused practice. Continue learning about the realistic realities and good practices. I also find I'm more comfortable on a busy street that has significant bike commuters than some "safer" roads that cars would be less expecting of bikes. It also varies with something about my mood or personal awareness of the day I'll just slow down and get on the sidewalk when most other days I've just plowed on.
posted by sammyo at 3:02 AM on February 11, 2016

This recent question has a lot of tips for beginner cyclists.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:17 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am terrified too but getting less terrified. Things that helped me:

1) Getting off the bike and pushing it past tricky bits is absolutely the right thing to do. You will look far stupider if you fall off (and could get hurt of course).
2) If there is a tricky bit that you always get off for, stand there for a bit and watch how other cyclists tackle it.
3) Most cyclists go up the inside (left in the UK) of stationary traffic but it is actually safer to go up the outside.
4) And sometimes it is safer to just sit behind stationary traffic, as if you were in a car.
5) This sounds silly but remember that oncoming traffic can see you. Even if you do something really stupid and pull out in front of them (not that I am recommending you do this) they will brake and avoid you. If you make eye contact with them, they will probably gesture you on and then you know it will be safe to go.
6) Remember that traffic you are overtaking might not be able to see you. If in doubt, don't overtake. If you do overtake, give them plenty of room. With your coach example - give it plenty of room in case it does suddenly pull out without indicating and think - if I were forced into the wrong side of the road to get out of its way would I be hit by oncoming traffic, or is it clear enough to get round.
7) Parked cars - give them plenty of room in case they aren't parked after all or someone fancies opening a door in your face. Narrow residential streets aren't the best routes for cyclists.
8) Plot routes that avoid the worst hazards (parked cars, tricky junctions, lots of people crossing, etc) even if they are longer. The best bet is wider roads where the cars keep moving.
posted by intensitymultiply at 3:27 AM on February 11, 2016

I was a year round cycle commuter in somerivlle/ Cambridge/ Boston for three and a half years or so. My commute ended when I did not anticipate a driver doing something dumb which resulted in a spinal body fracture of T12 (no edema no impingement). Afterward I couldn't cycle commute, but I could hurtle myself down a mountain bike trails at breakneck speeds.

Confidence comes from knowing your route and experience. When my route changed (I cooked at the time, so that meant relatively frequent job changes) the best time to refine/ perfect a route was Sunday morning. Many roads are low key then, so you can approach an intersection and find your space in it.

Next, I carried a bikelock, which when a driver literally swerved at me and tried to run me off a road several times - just to be a dick - I chased him down at the next light and removed his driver's side side mirror with it. (The driver and his passenger kept their eyes forward and looked horrified). Note: this is not a recommended strategy for conflict resolution with drivers.

As far as cycling is concerned, assert your position on the road. That means you need to recognize that you are not an obstacle in the way of drivers. When space permits occupy 3' of your lane and don't give it up unless you have to because you have to be ready for drivers to open their door, for idiots to back out into, and for any manner of emergency where that 3' is necessary space.

When I was a cycle commuter, I preferred high traffic two way roads over two lane one way roads, and I preferred quiet residential streets where few people were driving when I was heading to and from work. At lights I would either work my way to the front of the line of traffic, or if I couldnt, I would place myself in the middle of the lane so drivers behind me wopulent tap me while trying to pass me stopped.

Beyond that, it's just accept that you are able to be killed in a lot more ways, and relax, enjoy the fresh air, the slower pace, the bus fumes, and all the wonders of putting your car on grandma insurance mileage levels and bimonthly gas trips.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:56 AM on February 11, 2016

Practice is important, but not all practice is constructive. You need to continue to push yourself and you skills to improve. That doesn't mean take more risks---the opposite if anything.

Think skills development. Are you consistent on the bike? Can you ride smoothly, in a straight line without wobble? Can you maintain cadence? Can you put the bike where you want it, around cones and obstacles?

Think observation: do you ride with your head down? Train to keep your eyes always on the road. Are you cycling defensively, scanning your environment and thinking about what cars and pedestrians will be doing 2 or even 10 seconds in the future?

There is good training you can do for this. Adult bike skills are a place to start. Cycling clubs almost always have beginners rides in groups. Do rides on the weekends with more experienced friends. Those are great skills builders too, with friendly coaches. Organized distance bike events (look for a local ride the hills/lakes/desert event) are another friendly way to do this, with the support of an organization behind you.

Also, don't neglect defensive driving training for car drivers. That's probably the most important road skill I use every time I'm on a bike in traffic, cycling defensively. The training and practice transfers really well. As a better cyclist, I'm a more observant driver as well.
posted by bonehead at 6:19 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

It does get easier.

How many other cyclists do you see on your chosen surface-road routes? Although I have my preferred routes, sometimes I choose the road I like less which has heavier cycling traffic because it feels more normal and thus safer for me on those roads. It's a similar benefit to trying some group rides but has the added benefit of being something you can do ad hoc, during your commute.

As noted above, it's okay to dismount and walk a block or two, too, if there's construction, poor road surface, a bus, an asshole looking at his cellphone a scary driver. Whatever. The benefit of being on your bike is you really can go anywhere.

Finally, be engaged with your local cycling infrastructure/pedestrian safety/complete streets/vision zero network. I don't mean "make friends with your local cyclists!!". I mean, find out who the advocates for non-car-infrastructure in your community are and stay informed about their activities and engage with the advocacy by signing petitions, writing the mayor's office or whatever. You'll learn a lot and you might help make your city safer, more pleasant and more accessible for everyone.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:36 AM on February 11, 2016

It's supposed to be a little scary. Driving in a car when you're not used to it is scary too. You need to trust that the drivers around you aren't insane, but you also need to be alert and careful too. Like crossing the street, flying in a plane, living in a society where it's legal to carry guns, you take acceptable risks.

I find the main thing to consider is whether those around you can see you. If they can't, it's totally up to you to keep out of their way. If they can, they generally don't want to run into you.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:23 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been bike commuting here in Maine (US) for about ten years now. There is already lots of good advice in the thread (practice, be assertive and predictable, get off the bike if you feel uncomfortable, try alternate routes) but I'd also recommend watching the Cycling Savvy videos out of Orlando.

When I started I didn't do much about finding the best route which was unfortunate, but on the other hand it helped me acclimate to traffic more quickly and moved the focus from worrying to cautious enjoyment.
posted by mikepop at 7:47 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've biked to work most days for the last eight months. I've got a hobby of watching tons of commuting videos on YouTube and think that's helped me ramp up my confidence fairly quickly. My commute is 5 mi each way, all along streets, about 20% downtown, about 90% in a choppy bike lane. My front and rear lights are always on. I think the most important thing I think I've gotten good at is being able to judge cars' speed and movement, and how cars act at certain intersections. It's all the same every day, except when it's not, and then you notice it.

Filtering is not legal where I am, but I do it when it's a good idea, such as slowly splitting between two rows of stopped cars, when one row must turn. This way I'm seen and I'm not blocking anyone or slowing them down. I follow every other rule I should, even if I'm alone at a stoplight.

A couple sections of my route are in bike lanes around sharp corners. Cars instinctively cross into most of the bike lane. I try to protect my space by going right to the edge around the corner. It's easier for them to see me than the line. Buses and trucks: just fall back and let them cut.

I peek down each side street when I pass it, and also to the left to see if a car is sneaking through. When cars are trying to pull out into the street, I make eye contact. If they're not looking my way, my hands are on the brakes.

When I have to make a lane change, like to get out of the bike lane, I hang my left arm out for a sec first, then stick it out if I think it's good, then peek, then go.
posted by dta at 7:53 AM on February 11, 2016

Best answer: I'm going to reinforce what bonehead said, because I think it's the most underacknowledged* thing about the difficulties people face when they start cycle commuting. You really need to be able to just move left, move right, speed up and slow down without even thinking about it. And you absolutely have to be able to stop without wobbling and being able to restart immediately. There's a nice video on Sheldon Brown's page on stopping and starting as well as his page on braking and turning. If you've got somewhere with space to practice those, such as railway lines that have been converted to bike paths, then do so.

Once your technique's fine, you can relax into things when you're cycling along, and people who are driving treat you better, too. Hopefully while you're getting used to things you can use off-road routes to get yourself really comfortable in the saddle.

As for getting comfortable on the road, there's one truth that I think's worth confronting head on: as far as a lot of people are concerned, you're already breaking an unwritten law just by riding a bike. It doesn't matter that you're going to work, and they're driving half a mile to get a pint of milk: as far as they're concerned, you're in their way and you're using a child's toy while interrupting their essential journey. So remember, if anyone shows you impatience, the thing that they're objecting to is that fact that you exist. Which means that you're right and they're wrong.

You say you're worried about passing parked cars and parked coaches. For passing parked cars, you need to start thinking about them quite a long way ahead of time, and working out where there will be a gap in the passing traffic that you can merge into, then merging across without losing any speed as soon as the car at the beginning of the gap's passed you. You don't need to look round much: glances should help you to work it out, and you can use your hearing to work out what's happening with the speed of the passing traffic. Making the move smoothly and decisively and communicating with your road position is more important than indicating, in my opinion.

For passing parked coaches, you need the whole of the lane that you're riding in. I think it's the only time I really use the primary position. As long as there's not enough space for someone in a car to pass between you and the coach, you're fine, and you're visible in the driver's mirror (coaches have much better mirrors than buses, despite the fact that buses need them more).

In terms of the bigger picture of managing around traffic, the eventual aim would to keep a dynamic mental picture of the 5 or 6 vehicles and obstacles that impinge on you the most, and be developing strategies for how to make your way through them. Put like that it sounds impossible, but it's actually exactly the same as playing rugby or football or basketball or American football. Our brains are pretty good at this. And of course it's nothing like as urgent as it would be if you were actually playing a team sport.

I looked in your profile and saw where you live. When I lived there, all the bike shops were very friendly places, and if you go in for a bit of a chat about commuting and tell them where you're going too and from, I'm sure they'll be able to talk about the specifics of the route for you. In the UK as a whole, there's the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, whose aim is to make this type of AskMe question redundant, and they're involved with a few campaigns.

I've written a lot of words here**, which might make it look more like an uphill challenge than it actually is. It's one of those things where the devil's in the details and you need to precisely describe things that people mostly do pretty fine subconsciously. It's like trying to write down instructions for how to scramble an egg for someone who's never cooked before: "heat gently while stirring" is a true description of how to do it, but you need minute detail to describe what gently is and how you know when to stop, and everything. But even the first try probably leaves you with an edible breakfast.

*Not unique to cyclists either: most people who are driving past my window at the minute are, quite frankly, making a dog's breakfast of getting round the very wide, low speed, big turning radius 90° curve outside my house, whether they're in a car or a bus or a truck.
**Mainly because it's things I wanted to think through more thoroughly for my own benefit, obviously.
posted by ambrosen at 9:21 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've only bike commuted a handful of times to work, but things important to me:

Mirror. I just got a simple mirror that straps to my handlebar - it prevents a lot of attempts to look over my shoulder (which might cause me to veer somewhat) when I try to time taking the lane in anticipation of a left turn (or when riding on the side of the road might become dangerous / infeasible.

Route. The most direct route to work is 14k. My first trip I took a 15.5k route because it had a much better percentage of time on trails and lower volume roads. After the first time I took this I changed one particular part to be about still another 0.5k longer, and has a significant hill in the middle all to avoid one particularly bad intersection. Even while going up this steep hill I never regretted this change. I'm thinking that when it gets warm enough for me to try again (I'm not going to be a winter commuter), I might test a 19k route which helps me to avoid the current worst road of my route (about 2k of highly commercial area (malls and strip malls (for lots of turners), mixed with commuters (lane hoppers trying to avoid the mall shoppers)).

Predictability. If I see that every 200 feet there's a giant storm drain that will require me to move a foot over to avoid it, I'll move that foot over from the road the entire time so my bike isn't veering left/right. If it's a one-off obstacle, almost as soon as I see it I look for (and then seize) an opportunity to move over and take a straight path. I (rightly) assume that cars will not to looking in front of me to see if I'm likely to veer to avoid obstacles. I keep a frequent eye on my mirror to watch for larger verhicles; busses and semi's disrupt the air and you want to be ready. Weaving around cars doesn't seem like a good idea.

Eye contact. I assume every driver about to turn doesn't see me unless they are actively looking at me. As soon as they look away from me, I assume they've forgotten me. Fortunately, since I know if there are cars in my lane (yay mirror!) that helps me judge if they're likely to try to turn if they're not making sustained eye contact. If a driver isn't actively looking at me, and if there aren't any cars near me, I'll slow/stop to avoid a potential accident. Yes, I want to get home as quickly as possible, but it's more important to get home than for it to be quick.

Visibility. I reserve two of my running shirts; one bright orange, the other bright green, for riding to/from work. If they weren't available, I'd be using my reflective orange and green safety vest. My bike has all my reflectors on, and have reflective yellow clips on my legs and generally also have a reflective yellow snap bracelet so my hand signals are that much easier to pick out. This is all as someone who doesn't cycle during the night and only picks days when rain is all-but an impossibility. I think that when I next ride I'll get an additional safety vest and strap that permanently to the bag on the back of my bike as another cycler at work does. I feel safer knowing that I've made myself harder to ignore.

Know when to give up. It's ok to get off your bike, and take the sidewalks and controlled intersections as a pedestrian.
posted by nobeagle at 9:47 AM on February 11, 2016

Seconding the mirror option, and adding that handlebar mirrors exist too; that's what I use because I don't wear a helmet and because it's bigger. I use it CONSTANTLY and love it and it means I never have to turn my head away from the road. (Which, since I'm a klutz, means I ride straighter too.)
posted by metasarah at 10:52 AM on February 11, 2016

You really need to be able to just move left, move right, speed up and slow down without even thinking about it.

Bike skills are a huge part of being safe, and one we don't emphasize enough, in my view. A cyclist who can ride in a predictable straight light with smooth corners is much safer, much less an erratic hazard to drivers (or pedestrians or other cyclists). Part of this is bike fit---an ill-fitting bike can produce wobble---but much is simply skills.

Here are two simple drill you can try, that I've found helpful.

1. ride through a puddle to wet your tires (some schools use chalk powder for this, but water works great), then try to ride as straight a line as you can. Go back and look at your result. Success is a single straight line. A wobbly rider looks like a series of figure 8s joined together. If you really what to see how dramatic the effect on steering while moving your head around is, try looking back over your shoulder while doing this.

2. when riding a (safe) strightaway, release the handlbars (keeping your hands hovering just a fraction off the bars). This should not affect balance or posture. You should be able to pedal just as hard. When you're more advanced at this, you should be able to slightly stand off the seat too, with only your feet on the pedals and the nose of the seat guided by your inner thighs. This is a pretty important drill for racers, but almost any skilled rider should be able to hold this for some extended period of time.
posted by bonehead at 11:55 AM on February 11, 2016

A lot of it is posture. Think you as sheep dog, cars as sheep. You'll get into more trouble trying to hide or squeeze away than asserting your right to be there.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:59 PM on February 11, 2016

A resource i've used for route picking is Strava's Global Heatmap.

Zoom in on your town, and the thicker lines have more cyclists. You may be able to discover that lots of people are using an alternative and potentially superior route.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 2:50 PM on February 11, 2016

You know, it can be pretty unpleasant to make the switch the other way, from biking to driving. I hardly drove until I was in my thirties. Then I started doing a long car commute. Ye gods! Driving is crazy, exasperating, constricting, and stressful!

You can't see very well. You're going WAY faster than you did on your bike but you can't see what's around you as we'll as before. Yet things are coming at you faster. And your "body", the car, sticks way out to your right and you're not sure how close pedestrians are to it.

You can't hear things around you; no aural cues.

You're constantly hemmed in by things: other cars, right-turn-only lanes, one way streets, etc. (bikes can cut across sidewalks, and between things.

You may get somewhere a little faster, but then you have to drive around looking for parking. Find a spot, but will you have to walk far? Is the spot legal? More to worry about.

And through all this stress, you're just sittin', immobile. Your legs are cramping, and your ass is getting wet from perspiration, Not healthy!

So- this may be further evidence that it's just a matter of what you're used to.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 6:32 PM on February 11, 2016

Response by poster: Marked ambrosen's comment as best answer because it was so amazingly comprehensive, but thank you all for a wealth of useful and encouraging information here. I now have a handlebar mirror fitted (so brilliant!), have sent off an email about one-to-one training, joined my local city cycling forum, and already feel better about riding on the roads. Took the bike in to work again this morning and - hellish hill aside - it was pretty good!
posted by Catseye at 2:35 AM on February 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

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