Just like many things in cycling, everyone has an opinion about safety. Opinions don’t save lives, but making wise choices about how and when we ride can. If absolute safety is your goal, then stay home (though that’s not particularly safe and not particularly healthy, as it turns out). But if cycling for fitness, adventure, and fun are your goals, then you probably have to interact with auto traffic at some point. Remaining visible, staying out of the path of on-coming traffic, knowing what’s around you, and sharing the road wisely are your best bets for getting home injury-free.
Wear your Helmet. Helmets are not just for interactions with motor vehicles. Wet or slick pavement, gravel, flats, other cyclists, pedestrians, potholes, and other unforeseen conditions can cause you to fall. Even a relatively minor fall can cause you to hit you head on the pavement. And the only thing which can help avoid concussion is a barrier. We call that barrier a helmet.
You can find lots of websites that buy in to the false assumption that helmets are only to protect you from auto accidents. These sites allude to research showing that helmet-less cyclists are safer because cars avoid them more. (See, e.g., What’s wrong with bicycle helmets?) But all the “safe cycling” skills such sites tout will not protect your head when it hits the pavement. Research shows that helmets are extremely effective in preventing head injury when that happens. Be smart and make the right choice.
You may also have seen smug depictions of cycling in Holland. There, according to the commentator, cyclists are carefree and can ride safely without helmets. But, as explained, auto traffic is not the only reason to wear helmets. A collision on a well-segregated bike trail can be just as deadly. Besides, even in Holland if you riding many miles (30 or more), you are, eventually, going to have to leave the safe confines of a bike trail to hit the open road — if for no other reason than you can travel to more places.
Stay as far to the Right as is Safely Possible. (I’m guessing in the UK you should ride “as far to the left as is safely possible”.) Automobiles are used to their privileged position on the road. A cyclist unnecessarily in the flow of traffic is likely to fuel tempers and cause unsafe driving. As a single cyclist, you can help that by being courteous and staying to the right. Where possible, remain in the shoulder or bike lane. Keep an eye out for gravel and other hazards so you can signal before moving over to avoid them.
A group of cyclists is no different. Just because the group has more people, doesn’t mean that motorists will understand. Instead, a peloton of cyclists using the center of the lane for miles, especially on a busy roadway, is unlikely to be able to keep up with traffic and is likely to piss drivers off. You may have seen articles like “why we ride abreast” and memes ostensibly showing that riders taking a whole lane is better for drivers (who supposedly can more-readily pass). These arguments do not take the whole picture into account.
Riding out in the lane (more toward the left) means that you may have to cross the yellow line into oncoming traffic to avoid obstacles. Riding several abreast and in tightly-knit packs is rude to and dangerous for other cyclists. Also, riding in tightly knit packs makes it easier for motorists to pass only if there happens to be a passing lane and clear traffic on the other side. The fastest cyclists cannot achieve the speeds of the slowest cars, so those memes about passing pelotons are BS.
Take the Lane When Needed, but Only When it is Safe to do so. Sometimes you simply need to be out in the lane. When there is no shoulder. When crossing a bridge, When descending at speed. When passing. In California — and despite the presence of bicycle lanes — bicycles are considered vehicles. So, unless signs say otherwise, a bike is entitled to take the entire lane of traffic. Don’t let a driver tell you otherwise.
If you need to take the lane, be definitive. Look behind you to make sure that you have room. Use a hand signal to indicate your path of travel. (Point to the lane and gesture.) Call out to cyclists behind you to indicate what you are avoiding: Car right! Car door! Gravel! Cyclist up! Then move over to a safe place in the lane — sometimes the safest place is the center of the lane. When moving back, look ahead to see if the lane is clear. Look to your left to make sure there are no cyclists behind you. Then smoothly merge into the bike lane.
Always Signal Your Intentions. That means calling out before you pass: On your left! Pointing out road hazards or calling them out. Looking behind you when passing and signaling to the riders behind you that you will be passing. Using hand signals to indicate right turns and left turns. Using hand signals to indicate a potential stop and calling out: Stopping!
Don’t be Afraid to Call Out LOUDLY. If you see a motorist doing something dangerous, I want you to scream at him or her. Don’t swear, but call out something useful like: “Watch out!” or “This is a bike lane!” or just, “HEY!” If the driver cannot see you, adding the dimension of hearing increased the chances the driver will notice you and either stop his or her dangerous behavior, or slow so you don’t get hit. And I’d rather field accusations of being a jerk rather than a hospital bed.
Keep a Buffer Zone Between you and Other Riders. The ALC rules require you to keep one bike length between you and the rider in front of you. As you become more experienced, you will learn that sometimes you need less (when stopping at a stop light, for instance) or more (when descending at speed). If you find that the person behind you is uncomfortably close, slow to let them pass and then you have control over the buffer zone again. Or ask them to move back a bit.
Even the peloton sites recommend “protecting your front wheel.” Thats because your front wheel is far more unstable. If you tap someone’s rear wheel with your front, you may wobble uncontrollably, while they barely notice. The question is: how do you protect your front wheel if you’re in a pack? Cyclists who have expressly agreed to ride in a peloton should know how to do that. But for the purposes of the AIDS/LifeCycle, for beginners, and for endurance cycling, one bike length is sufficient.
Always Look Where you are Going. Before you merge into traffic, look behind you to your left. Before you merge back into bike traffic, look behind you to your right. When cornering, look where your bike is going, not where it is right now. Make sure you know the quality of the road surface for the next 100 to 1000 feet. If things look rough, call out and slow down. If the road is going to narrow, stay behind traffic rather than moving up to a light next to the cars.
Stop at all Stop Signs and Stop Lights. The ALC rules are that you must stop at all stop signs and stop lights. That means you must put one foot on the ground and cease all forward motion. On training rides and on the AIDS/LifeCycle, you must ride that way. However, there may be times when you can fudge this rule. But when you’re wearing an ALC jersey, you’re representing your fellow riders. So ride sensibly, predictably, and remain alert. And REPRESENT!
Wear Bright Colors, use Lights, and Don’t be Sheepish. Drivers can only avoid you if they can see you. If you’re TOO far to the right, a driver might enter the shoulder because he or she could not see you. If you’re wearing black on a cold, rainy day, you might blend in with black pavement. If you’re riding at night with a feeble light, you might be lulled into a false sense that drivers can see you. Don’t be fooled. Drivers don’t want you to be there, so you have to be present on your bike so that they remember to share the road.
These are only some tips and explanations for the AIDS/LifeCycle code of safety. There are many more and I’m sure you have other examples. Please message me or leave your thoughts in the comments.