How to make your next bike ride safer than the last

Road positioning for cyclists

Have you ever heard any of the below advice that is frequently thrown around:

  • Wear high-vis
  • Wear a helmet
  • Wear appropriate clothing

Typically, this will come from a journalist writing for a car publication or someone with a deadline, and not enough time to really research what cyclists can do to stay safe.

There’s nothing technically wrong with the above advice. However, it completely ignores the important road positioning techniques, taught by cycle safety experts in one on one classes. These techniques I believe can really make a difference on your next bike ride.

If you are interested in taking one of these classes yourself, take a look at non-profit organisations such as Cycle Training UK.

If you don’t have the time to attend a course, read on.

The secrets to road positioning

Correct road positioning seems to elude most cyclists. There’s a really important psychological reason behind this. It feels safer to ride near the pavement. Let’s compare two cyclists following a different strategy:

  • Joe average cyclist: Rides near the gutter. Often wonders why cars end up buzzing past dangerous close, with only inches to spare. Has to swerve to avoid drains, broken glass and ends up with more punctures. Wonders why cars don’t give him any space and feels cycling is dangerous. Struggles to cross lanes of traffic. Has had a bump in the past where a driver claimed “sorry mate, I didn’t see you”.
  • Bob advanced cyclist: Rides further out of the kerb and sometimes in the middle of the traffic. Drivers some times beep their horn at him, but he doesn’t care, as he recognises that he has as much right to the road as any driver. Likes that drivers respect him on the road and give him more space when overtaking. This makes him feel safer. Drivers see him in advance and are able to plan their manoeuvre around him. Finds it easy to cross lanes of traffic. Doesn’t have to suddenly swerve, to avoid as many road debris.

Riding further from the kerb feels counter intuitive at first, but it is safer. Drivers get annoyed as they can be short sighted. They simply see a cyclist slowing them down, in their race to the next traffic light. What they don’t see, is that you are saving them the emotional pain of hitting a cyclist (not to mention the legal and insurance fees). You are doing the driver a favour, even if they don’t know it.

How far from the kerb should you be?

When riding you should be around a metre from the kerb. Often however, you’ll need to be further. In particular, when passing stationary cars to avoid the door zone. This is called the “secondary position”.

What is the primary position?

The primary position is also often referred to as “taking the lane”. In the primary position you are in the centre of the lane, preventing cars from overtaking you. Essentially this position is so that you can stop drivers from doing something stupid.

You’ll want to do this when approaching a traffic light, in queues of stationary traffic and when overtaking parked cars. You’ll also want to do it at cross roads and on the approach to roundabouts.

Essentially, anywhere that it is dangerous for a car to overtake you, you should take the lane. In particular in London, I find myself using this on narrow streets.

When not to take the lane

It’s not always necessary to take the lane. If you are happy with cars overtaking you and you feel they have enough room to safely do so, you can keep slightly closer to the kerb.

Remember that cyclists are allowed to ride two abreast, despite most drivers (in particular my grandad!) being unaware of this. However, it’s a courtesy to drivers to ride single file, to allow them to overtake on fast roads.

We’ve focused on road positioning in this article, but for more advice on cycling safely I recommend reading:

7 mistakes you are making with your cycling and how you can correct them

Note: This article was inspired by a great write up on the Cyclescheme website on road positioning, that was forwarded to me by a London Cyclist reader.

Join 9,241 fellow cyclists who are subscribed to the London Cyclist newsletter

Sign up for our free newsletter to get...

  • Advice on the best cycling gear
  • A Friday roundup of all the latest London cycling news
  • Exclusive content not available on the blog

Subscribe today, and get exclusive access forever! (It's free)

*No spam, ever!

As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

,

32 Responses to How to make your next bike ride safer than the last

  1. chris 10/10/2012 at 9:42 am #

    I will kindly disagree with 2 points you have made:

    “There’s nothing technically wrong with the above advice.”

    There is. It’s fallacious, flawed and anti-cyclist. It’s the equivalent of saying to women: “Don’t dress like a slut”. It is, as you point out, lazy journalism and is dangerous because it will do nothing to improve road safety, just make cyclists more visible targets!

    The other is there is more than either primary position or gutter riding: secondary position.

    I will ride secondary position for the vast majority of the time. This will be about 1 – 2 metres from the kerb and asserts my position that cars have to negotiate around me rather than blast past with no concern to me, if I was in the gutter. A good guide is that I ride on the line that the nearside (passenger side) car tyre makes on the road.

    I ride primary position when I am approaching junctions and mean to turn (left as well as right as I give room for pedestrians that will invariably not be on the kerb), going through pinch points (this is essential and I cannot emphasis how much it is) or drivers WILL try to squeeze past you (Just see how many youtube helmet cam videos there are! http://bit.ly/Qgbfyi ) and generally when downhilling as I can reach speeds of 45 – 50mph.

    The best advice I can offer is ride as though you are on a motorbike: assert your space but dont hog the road.

  2. John Rawlins 10/10/2012 at 11:03 am #

    Excellent advice. While learning to take the lane is fairly easy for cyclists who are also car drivers, it can be very difficult for non-drivers to learn. This is because it is so very counter-intuitive to the inexperienced learner (a loud voice in their head is constantly shouting ‘get out of the way of the proper vehicles and make yourself small’).

    For this reason, it makes a lot of sense to take a proper cycling class or contract one-on-one classes with a professional instructor. By the way, I’m not a professional instructor.

    • chris 10/10/2012 at 11:12 am #

      Taking a short cycling course is excellent advice and there are some very cheap (subsidised) options.

      I contacted cycle training (http://cycletraining.co.uk/) after seeing them at various junctions where they offer advice and a quick tune up for people. I wanted to do the maintenance course and a proviso was that I took a 2 hour cycle training course.

      Doing so was great as it consolidated what I knew, ironed out a few bad habits, installed some new ones and altered my perspective. Because I’m a Lambeth resident, it was subsidised so that 2 hours of training and 8 hours maintenance course was the grand total of £8!

      Maybe Andreas will sign up, go along and do a write up?!

  3. Andrew 10/10/2012 at 12:10 pm #

    Here’s a good tip I learned from a colleague; from your normal cycling position glance down at the end of your left handle bar, if you don’t have line of sight to the kerb, you are too close to it.

    • David Cohen 12/10/2012 at 8:26 pm #

      All I can say is, ‘wow’! I practised this on my way home tonight (still in daylight) and found it very useful – it also meant I was riding slightly further away from the curb and parked cars. So, you can always learn something new – quite amzed really.

  4. Liz 10/10/2012 at 12:12 pm #

    I can’t say enough good things about cycle training – my council (Southwark) offers free lessons, and even though I’ve been cycling for a while, having an instructor help me plan my route to my new office, and show me how to best negotiate tricky junctions, was invaluable. Charlie (from Kennington People on Bikes http://kenningtonpob.blogspot.co.uk) tailored the lesson to my level, so even cyclists who’ve been riding for a while can learn from it.

  5. barton 10/10/2012 at 1:30 pm #

    thanks for the reminders about safety. A refresher of knowledge is always a good thing.

    Also, thanks for making the example who cycles in the gutters a GUY. Strange as it seems, most written examples you see make this person a female, and it gets a teeny bit annoying as a female cyclist to keep hearing/reading that my sisters aren’t doing it right. Especially since that isn’t my experience (well, except for groups of teenage/young college age girls who are out and about together on bikes jabbering away…)

  6. Amanda O'Dell 10/10/2012 at 7:33 pm #

    I’ve gotten a lot braver about taking the lane with experience, but I’ve had a couple of very scary experiences from drivers who just can’t accept having the road in front of them blocked and so overtake by pulling out into the oncoming lane – at a t-junction or on a roundabout!

  7. Scott Dougall 11/10/2012 at 11:30 am #

    While I completely agree with your advice and would advocate every cyclist to take to the road knowing they have every right to use it in a way that makes their journey safer – you do have to realise that there is a minority of drivers that just dont get it – they are happy to express this confusion with their vehicles meaning that if you buy into this behaviour then you in a sense enter into conflict… the law does not protect you from these idiots but if you retaliate it will have you in an instant – for me I do my very best not to hit drivers – or break bits off their cars – but neither do I find it to be psychologically healthy to absorb their threats and smile riding on… for me I find verbal rants to be the way to expunge the tension engendered by drivers who inevitably can be found stationary at the light just seconds after they had remonstrated you for holding them up… its a difficult and combative environment out there if you are positive with your cycling – take care and be safe.

  8. Jules 12/10/2012 at 10:56 am #

    I find I tend to do the following;

    - always ride to the right of a yellow/white line next to the Kerb giving space to manoeuvre.
    - If I hear a car speeding up from behind, I look back so that they know I am human and also give the back wheel a slight nudge which tends to focus the driver into thinking, ‘perhaps this cyclist is unsteady’ This normally works and they tend to slow down. (dont over nudge!!)
    - on country lanes take a wider road position so that you are seen, from both directions.
    - lights, helmet high-viz…the usual!

    There was one time however where I was out on a night ride on well lit streets, I was lit up like Blackpool illuminations (bike and helmet) and with a high viz vest on. A car completely cut up a bend on the wrong side of the road coming towards me at high speed and fortunately only just saw me at the last second and swerved out of the way, unfortunately they sped off at high speed so I could not get the reg number. Put me off night riding.

    Be warned no matter how much H&S you do or follow there are unfortunately drivers out there who think they are on a race track or rallying…..

  9. bish 12/10/2012 at 10:58 am #

    Its a basic premise of Health and Safety Assessments on major construction sites that PPE (helmets, boots, etc) are the last thing you do to minimise risk. For one thing they’re not that effective, at their worst they can result in an over-confident attitude.

    First you look at behaviours of staff and the physical environment and make changes there. You only consider helmets boots hi-vis jackets when you’ve done everything else.

    now personally I wear hi-vis and a helmet when riding. But that’s just to maximize my safety by that extra 5%, its my riding line and decision making that make the real difference to my safety.

  10. David Cohen 12/10/2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Brilliant article, and very good comments.

    I’ve always felt that hi-viz is overrated in terms of ‘safe’ cycling, and that, as the article states, where you are on the road is paramount, It’s the total over use of the ‘safe cycling’ phrase which has elevated hi-viz, helmets, appropriate clothing and the like, to the level where these things are seen as the main priorities. The use of the ‘safe cycling’ phrase just plants the idea in some people’s minds that cycling isn’t inherently safe, which is not the case in my mind.

    ‘Primary position’ and ‘taking the lane’ have been championed very much by John Franklin’s Cyclecraft. The downside is that they’re cycling jargon, and most other people who you might end up communicating with one way or another about some cycling incident (police, doctors, lawyers, judges, bus companies, other road users, even many other cyclists) have never heard of these terms, so it’s not always helpful.to use them.

  11. Phil Russell 12/10/2012 at 2:47 pm #

    JULES—–I agree. It’s a good idea to wobble (a little) when traffic’s streaming past your right elbow—(a) because drivers will be more aware of you, and (b) they will give you a bit more room as they go by, because very few drivers actually want any sort of collision….don’t overdo it though, or you’ll be seen as a silly plonker!
    Also, when I HAVE to move right (or left, come to think of it), I hand-signal my intention, because when I’m DRIVING I respect cyclists who do that, and when I’m CYCLING I want drivers to respect my style of riding, and I want them to know that I’m aware of their presence behind me. After all, mutual respect is what we all want, and will surely result in less road-anger, less impatience, and hence fewer collisions.
    P.R.

  12. Giles 12/10/2012 at 7:02 pm #

    This (and the advice at http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/7-mistakes-you-are-making-with-your-cycling-and-how-you-can-correct-them/) very much reflects the training I received when I did my Direct Access motorcycle test with a Police instructor. Other the absence of an engine and therefore less acceleration and speed, I ride my bike much as I would ride a motorbike. His approach had three principal elements: 1) own the lane (ie, primary position); 2) ‘lifesavers’ – ie, regular checks over both shoulders, especially when about to manoeuvre; and 3) a deal with yourself that any off you have is down to you not taking sufficient account of how stupid, negligent and unskilled the driver of the car / van / London bus inevitably was. It’s served me well over the last 15 years – and made me a better car driver also.

  13. Steve 12/10/2012 at 10:59 pm #

    About 15months I was on my normal commute home when I felt it necessary to take the primary position however some car drivers are not too keen on waiting to overtake. In this instance a car tried to overtake me and misjudge the space sending me flying and causing a severely broken arm and various other injuries.

    To make matters was the car driver was recently found NOT GUILTY of driving with undue care and attention.

    My point is although you may feel safer taking the primary position please bear in mind that some motorists will always be too impatient to wait behind you until they can overtake

    • David Cohen 13/10/2012 at 9:18 pm #

      “My point is although you may feel safer taking the primary position please bear in mind that some motorists will always be too impatient to wait behind you until they can overtake”

      This leads onto the (somewhat -ve) “rules” for these type of motorists:

      1. I must never be held up by a cyclist
      2. I must always get past a cyclist as soon as possible
      3. I can always beat a cyclist to a left turn (or right turn)
      4. When a cyclist approaches and I’m turning into their road, or waiting to turn right across them, I will continuously nudge out so that the cyclist doesn’t know if I’ve seen them

  14. K 13/10/2012 at 8:52 am #

    Steve, how were they found not guilty? I would have thought the very fact that they’d knocked someone over and injured them was evidence of their guilt… Would be interested to hear why they got away with dangerous driving. Thanks!

    • chris 13/10/2012 at 1:57 pm #

      Feel free to look through CTC’s SMIDSY campaign page for reports of cyclists hit by drivers who then claim they didnt see them, the sun was in their eyes, blah blah blah and get clean away with (at least) careless driving:

      http://www.stop-smidsy.org.uk/case-studies

  15. Phil Russell 14/10/2012 at 2:20 am #

    STEVE———well, there’s not much we can do to avoid schmucks like the “driver” who knocked you off….one of them shaved past me, leaving (I swear) one inch between his vehicle and my right leg, on an otherwise clear road, while glaring at me through his nearside window.
    I shouted: “Oy! Move over, you effin’ plonker!”…..He immediately pulled in to the kerb, wound his driver-side window down, and told me i was a fornicating vagina riding in the middle of the road.
    Me:” I’m riding slap up against the parked cars! What do you want me to do—ride over the tops of them? YOU’RE the one using the middle of the road! Drunk again, are yer?”
    He looked and sounded like a bricklayer, about my size, and twenty years ago I might have punched his teeth out. However, I’m wiser these days, and he didn’t want to pursue the matter, so I rode on. He stayed where he was, I’m happy to report, as I’m sure he briefly contemplated ramming my rear-wheel with his smelly substitute-for-a-male-appendage….
    What’s the moral of the story? I suppose there ain’t one, but as has been suggested elsewhere, these twerps can threaten our safety when we least expect it, so it’s probably wise to pack a pen & paper to take down the registration.number of drivers who offer violence, and maybe remind them of two things on the rise—-their blood-pressure and their insurance premium……assuming they have insurance, of course.
    P.R.

  16. Adam Jackson 15/10/2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Amazing tips for bicycle lovers like Wearing high-vis, helmet and appropriate clothing is essential for safe biking. I think while riding especially at night time bike lights also plays and important when we talk about safety.

  17. barton 15/10/2012 at 3:53 pm #

    This morning, while cycling to work, I hit another cyclist – technically HE hit ME. I had taken primary position in the road (as parked cars on either side were creating too many shadows to properly see what was going on, IMO), had strong lights on the front and back (poorly lit residential area). He failed to stop at the stop sign (I had none) and buzzed right into the side of my front wheel. He was wearing all black, no reflectors, no lights (obviously from the aforementioned, you know he didn’t have a helmet on, but that isn’t important to the story). As it was a warm(ish) morning, I had on shorts instead of long pants, so as I went down, the skin on my knee to ankle got nicely mangled.

    The ninja cyclist started screamin at me. I grabbed my mobile and he asked what I was doing. I said calling the police, as we’ve been in an accident. I am still on the ground at this point, when an amulance pulls up (happened to be heading back after a call), lights flashing. The ninja cyclist takes OFF in a flash. I am fine (besides the missing skin), the bike is fine, and the EMT’s were helpful (and cute).

    The point of this (besides needing to complain to people who would understand)? It doesn’t matter how safe we feel, what measures we take, there are always knobs out there who think they are immortal & the rules don’t apply to them (be they pedestrians, cyclists or drivers) or they are just stupid gits.

  18. Bean Counter 15/10/2012 at 6:54 pm #

    An interesting article which I mostly agree with. A couple of points to raise –
    - considerate road usage by all road users (cyclists too) is a must – I was riding behind a gentleman on a bike last week whose ‘lane taking’ involved riding 3 inches from the middle of the road, rendering the entire road unusable to traffic in both directions. He was an angry, fist shaking, shouty sort of bloke, which had a predictable effect on other road users.
    - Connected with the above, slow and wobbly ‘lane takers’ (two abreast or not) can often prevent other cyclists from overtaking them, which causes the most horrific rush hour bike peletons with swarms of irate motorists in hot pursuit.
    I have no definitive answer other than to respectfully ask everyone to be aware of their felllow road users…

  19. Adrian 29/10/2012 at 7:34 am #

    As a motorcyclist with many years experience the road positioning advice is very well made. I will always give cycles a wide berth but many car drivers are cocooned and oblivious to the potential danger and that’s scary. Take extra care when filtering past queuing traffic where there are right turns or parking spaces on the right, especially when the traffic is slow moving rather than stationary. But the point about visibility is also vital. I am shocked at how invisible cyclists are, especially when the weather is poor at night. In London I so often see inadequate or non-existent lighting, combined with a cyclist wearing black or dark clothing. Wearing a helmet is your affair, but without good and effective lighting you might have me off my bike, as well as yours.

  20. Lee Fisher 06/11/2012 at 2:06 am #

    I would just like to point out that although all the comments made are relevant and true, if this well written and presented article would have been posted on a lesser cycling friendly site, you would have had a tirade of angry motorists arguing about how unsafe cyclists are in the middle of the road.

    I live in Dudley in the West Midlands, where cyclists are classed as second rate citizens, IF you see a cyclist commuting, they will be on the pavement, even when there are cycle lanes for them to use.

    This attitude of cyclists has lead to drivers believing that cyclists shouldn’t be on the road let alone cycling in the primary position.

    I have a couple of friends that cycled in London for some years before they moved to Birmingham where they say how vulnerable they feel whilst cycling on the roads.

    It is time to educate every body that use or police the roads how cyclists should ride, even the pcsos and police officers cycle on the pavements in Dudley. This is a town that was rated in the top 10 Virgin Money Most cycle friendly town or city.

  21. Dave 23/12/2012 at 10:46 am #

    Long, long ago, in a universe far away, the Highway Code had a little verse in it.

    “Here lies the body of Johnathon Grey,
    Who died maintaining his way.
    He was quite in the right as he rode along
    But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong”

    I don’t want to offend any onebut sometimes right can also be wrong

  22. Baljeet Degun 07/01/2013 at 6:51 am #

    1. We concentrate too much on changing cyclist behaviour, yet driver education is the problem.

    2. I ride assertively; drivers pick up on such body language very quickly; it helps a lot.

    3. All road users should be mutually respective. At times, this means I give priority to cars when I don’t have to.

    4. The best boost to your safety is to ride with 2 front and 2 back lights – day and night: 1 flashing, and 1 steady. Modern lights are cheap, powerful and USB re-chargeable, so it’s stupid not to.

    Have fun & be safe.

  23. Baljeet Degun 07/01/2013 at 7:00 am #

    … and one more comment:

    5. Slow down and give a wide berth when near to pedestrians & cyclists. Just as you’d expect, say, a truck or car to treat your safety. Newbie cyclists forget how intimidating & dangerous they can be. Don’t be in a hurry around them – save your testosterone for the next big hill.

  24. BecksMoo 10/01/2013 at 11:45 pm #

    I am a female cyclist who cycles a fairly busy route from Canary Wharf to Croydon 5 days a week during peak hours, many things I have found through out my years of cycling in London have been discovered through trial and error, and hearing other peoples stories.

    -I find always checking over your right shoulder at key points helpful to indicate to cars that you are about to pull out further into the road, it works well for me as it signals to the driver that you are aware that they are behind you.
    -It is useful to have the car driving basics in your mind at all times; check, signal, manoeuvre and check, check and check again.
    -Always ride confidently and respect other drivers, take a dominate road position and thank drivers who let you cross their path at junctions
    -It is always best to slow down when approaching junctions with cars waiting as they often don’t realize how fast you are going and tend to pull out at the last minute
    -Always assume that you haven’t been seen by the driver
    -When approaching a junction behind a HGV it is always safer to hold back behind them than pass through on the left as so many causalities with cyclists are because of left turning vehicles
    -Where possible use quieter routes (Cycle streets is a good phone app to show you easy routes)
    -Always position yourself in front of other traffic at junctions and are in the right lane
    -When going fast down hill pull into the middle of your side of the road (if possible) as it allows for better control
    -Be patient
    -Wear bright clothes wear possible
    -An interesting point about high viz clothing though; one customer once asked me what the alternative is for the yellow high viz as he and a friend had came up with the idea that because so many cyclists wear high viz yellow they must become just part of the back ground to most car drivers, one colleague who always wears black said that high viz gives drivers something to aim for. Each to their own I say.

    • David Cohen 11/01/2013 at 6:56 am #

      BecksMoo – Excellent post, good points, especially about looking over your shoulder. If there’s one thing I would advise it’s doing that – make it a habit – frequently (not just when you hear or are aware or surrounding traffic)
      David

  25. Angus Geddes 22/11/2013 at 6:57 pm #

    This is all good stuff, but as a regular cyclist for best part of 60 years i am amazed and disappointed how many people insist on riding on the pavement in Swindon where i live now. When i did my cycling proficiency around 1960 all us kids rode on he road. I am sure if cyclists rode as suggested in the above comments and NOT on pavements there would be many more cyclists on the roads. Thus motorists would be more aware of the needs of the cyclists. I also drive a truck and tow so i feel pretty clued up on road use from that aspect as well.

  26. Feli 24/11/2013 at 6:02 pm #

    In response to these messages I have to say, as a safe and thoughtful driver, and a cyclist (although not for a while as I can’t afford a folding bike at present!) my experience is quite stressful.

    I am a careful driver with a very good record of over 30 years. My great concerns with cyclists are 1) Those who think it is acceptable to ride on pavements, often straight at pedestrians! I walk most of the time now as I live in the city centre, and 2) The cyclists who seem to think traffic lights DO NOT apply to them – I cannot count the number of occasions I have set off when lights have turned to green only have to slam my brakes on because of a cyclist going through a red light!

    I always look over my shoulder, in my mirrors and check carefully, I will usually give a pedestrian or a cyclist, and often other drivers a nod to pull out or cross before me. It stresses me out because although I would not be in the wrong if I hit someone who came through a red light, I would be devastated if they were hurt by me, even though it was their own fault,

    I think training cyclists is imperative.

    • Alehouse Rock 25/11/2013 at 3:48 pm #

      [[[ FELI----yes, fair comment. But I take it you are equally worried about the thousands of motorists seen every day, boosting a ton or more of metal, through red traffic-lights, at 35mph or more..Take a look at the junction of BRIXTON HILL and BRIXTON WATER LANE, to cite just one example, and then extrapolate to any (un-camera'd) t-junction in any town in GB.
      And what's being done about that? Not much, despite years of promises of "Camera's at every traffic-light in London". Pedestrians, and cyclists, take their lives in their hands just crossing the street these days.
      A.L.

Leave a Reply