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Complete Beginner’s Guide to Road Cycling Safety

by Zach Nehr

Blog ▸ Complete Beginner’s Guide to Road Cycling Safety

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.

One of the biggest deterrents for people getting into cycling is the dangers of the road. Unless you live in the Netherlands, the cycling infrastructure in your town or city could be a lot better. However, cycling doesn’t need to be scary. If you follow our guide to road cycling safety, you will stay safe on the road and enjoy cycling much more. 

This post will tell you everything you need to know about road cycling safety.

First, we’ll discuss the rules of the road and why cyclists need to learn them. Then, we’ll run through several things to watch out for when biking on the open road. Finally, we have a list of accessories you can use to stay safe while cycling. 

man in red jacket riding bicycle on road during daytime

Everything You Need to Know About Road Cycling Safety 

How to Stay Safe When Riding on the Road:

  • Rules of the Road
    • Hand Signals
    • Bike Lanes
    • Cars
  • How to Stay Safe While Cycling Around Cars
    • Parked Cars
    • Potholes
    • Traffic Furniture and Hazards
  • Accessories to Keep You Safe on the Road
    • Helmet
    • Lights
    • Rear Radar Detector
    • Clothing
    • Phone
  • What to Carry in Your Pockets to Stay Safe While Cycling

Rules of the Road

We must preface this section by saying that the rules of the road may vary among cities, states, and countries. Here, we will talk about the rules of the road that apply to most places in North America in 2022. Still, it is your responsibility to know the specific traffic laws in your area.

In general, cyclists have the same rights as cars on the open road. That also means that cyclists have the same responsibilities as cars and their driver. This includes stopping at stop signs and red lights, signaling when turning, and safely making lane changes. 

person in black jacket and black pants with green backpack riding on black motorcycle during daytime

It is unsafe and often illegal to haphazardly ride through intersections, refuse to signal, and weave in and out of traffic on a bike. Just as we expect vehicles to give us respect and safe space, we must provide the same for them. 

Sharing the road should be your main goal as a cyclist interacting with cars. They are not in your space and you are not in theirs. You are both sharing the road with each other, signaling to each other when necessary, and giving each other plenty of space to go where you need to go.

Hand Signals

One of the first things cyclists learn in bike safety is hand signals. These basic commands signal to other cars that you are stopping or turning.

At least in North America (where cars drive on the right side of the road), all hand signals are performed with the cyclist’s left hand to be visible to drivers. 

While not all cyclists use hand signals, they are crucial for those who ride in busy areas such as cities. Cars are often in a rush, and cutting across traffic or turning without hand signaling can be very dangerous. 

Bike Lanes

red and white love print on road

When possible, cyclists should always ride in the bike lane. Contrary to what some drivers say (or yell), bicyclists do not belong on the sidewalk. Riding on the sidewalk is illegal in many towns and cities. The sidewalks are reserved for pedestrians, while cyclists are meant to ride on the road. 

Bike lanes are most popular in cities and towns, but they are rare to find on rural or country roads. When there isn’t a bike lane available, cyclists will have to ride on the shoulder, or the narrow portion of the tarmac in between the traffic lane and the edge of the road.

Avoid riding in the middle of the traffic lane unless you need to, such as riding around construction or a parked car. This will give drivers plenty of room to safely pass without endangering you or any other cyclists.

What To Do if the Bike Lane is Blocked

Of course, it is impossible to ride in a blocked bike lane. Suppose you come up on a car parked in the bike lane, for example. In that case, it is your responsibility to check over your shoulder before moving out into the driving lane. 

Cars

man riding bicycle on a road with cars during daytime

The #1 fear of most cyclists is that they will get hit by a car. Sadly, interactions between cars and cyclists never end well for the latter, and that’s why we cyclists need to be careful around cars. 

You generally want to avoid riding on busy roads with many cars. That is the simplest answer to solving the car versus cyclist problem, but it is not the most practical.

Many cyclists commute by bike or just enjoy riding through the city. Interacting with cars is part of their daily life, which is okay. 

Cyclists will also come across cars, trucks, and other vehicles on all other types of roads. It is best to look and listen for cars at all times, and give them plenty of space to pass when the road is clear.

How to Stay Safe While Cycling Around Cars

When cycling in busy areas with many cars, it is vital to slow down and pay close attention to your surroundings. Never ride with headphones in a busy area; your sense of hearing can alert you to how many cars are around you and how quickly they are approaching. 

Always give cars the right of way unless they wave you through first. Even then, ensure that every lane of traffic and every car sees you before proceeding through an intersection. 

When possible, try to anticipate a car’s movement before it happens. This may take some practice, but if you ride in the city for a couple of weeks, you will know exactly what we are talking about.

If you are riding down the street and you see a car about to pull out of a parking lot ahead of you, keep your fingers on the brakes and anticipate them not seeing you, just in case. It is better to slow down two mph and be safe than trying to blast by the car and make contact with their hood. 

Parked Cars and the Door Zone

The most important thing you need to know about parked cars is that you should never ride in the ‘door zone.’ This is the area next to a parked car that will be blocked when the car’s door is completely open, and this area is typically 2-3 feet wide. 

To avoid the door zone, you will probably need to move from the bike lane or shoulder into the full-width lane where cars drive. This is the safest practice as it will protect you from people opening the door of their parked car. 

Pointing Out a Parked Car While Riding in a Group

When riding in a group, you need to point out parked cars when a new line of them is coming up, and your group will have to shift your paceline from the bike lane or shoulder into the driving lane.

Make sure you point out the parked car early and give every rider plenty of time to check over their shoulder, communicate that they are switching lanes, and move out into the lane so they can safely pass the parked car. 

Potholes

wet road close-up photography

Potholes can be a cyclist’s worst nightmare. They can pop out of nowhere and cause a flat tire or a cracked rim. At worst, they can even cause a crash. 

While riding solo, you should always look at the road ahead. Of course, you can gaze around at the scenery, but you should also know what is coming in front of you. 

Traffic Furniture and Hazards

Traffic furniture is defined as all the little markings, curbs, islands, and other things that stick out in the road. They are all designed to increase safety, but cars and cyclists deal with them very differently. 

pedestrian lane with stop sign

A car won’t be bothered much by running into a curb, whereas a cyclist who’s not paying attention could end up flying through the air.

Traffic furniture is prevalent in the city, so pay close attention to the road surface as you round each corner and roll down each block. You may also run in to (not literally) traffic furniture such as rumble strips or cattle grades when riding outside the city. Make sure to yell and signal to other riders as you approach theses minor obstacles.

When biking in a group, call out traffic furniture just like you would call out a pothole or parked car. Point at it and call it out early, giving everyone plenty of time to navigate around the obstacle safely. 

Accessories to Keep You Safe on the Road

Learning bike safety is a huge part of keeping you safe on the road, but there is much more to staying safe on the road. Here we have a list of the best bike accessories to keep you safe while cycling. These affordable gear and kit can help you stay safe and seen on the open road. And in some cases, these small pieces of kit could even save your life. 

Wear a Helmet

man wearing white shirt riding bicycle during daytime

Many studies have shown the importance of wearing a helmet and how a helmet could even save your life. Helmets are a simple piece of technology, yet hundreds of thousands of cyclists choose not to wear a helmet. 

Helmets can save you from a traumatic brain injury in the event of an accident, which is more likely to occur in certain conditions. Biking on busy roads with many cars, riding in wet or icy conditions, or competing in a bicycle race puts you at a much greater risk of crashing and hitting your head. 

How to Choose the Safest Cycling Helmet

black plastic ball on gray wooden plank

Long gone are the days when helmets were nothing but unfashionable buckets that covered our heads. There are thousands of helmets to choose from nowadays, including sleek and stylish versions and aerodynamic and race-ready helmets. 

When choosing a helmet, the most important factor for your cycling safety is that the helmet fits your head. It doesn’t matter when the helmet’s safety rating is if it slips off of your head during an accident. 

A well-fitting helmet is essential for kids who are still growing. To maximize kids bike safety, make sure they get a helmet that fits their head snuggly. We recommend cyclists always wear a helmet on the bike (unless you’re on the indoor trainer).

Simple Helmet Fitting Guide

When fitting a bicycle helmet onto your head, there are a few things to look out for to make sure the helmet fits properly.

First, make sure the front of the helmet is sitting on your forehead. One of the most common beginner mistakes is wearing your helmet too far up on your head, leaving your forehead exposed.

As a general rule of thumb, you should be able to fit 1-2 fingers between the bottom lip of the front of your helmet, and your eyebrows. Your helmet should not be sitting on top of your eyebrows, nor should it be completely above your forehead.

In the picture above, notice wear the helmet sits on the rider’s forehead, with just a small gap between the helmet and eyebrows.

Almost all helmets have a tightening strap or Boa on their rear, which sits under the back of the helmet and just above your neck. Make sure to tighten this down, but not so hard that it hurts your head. You can check to see if it’s tight enough by lightly wiggling your head side-to-side. If your helmet doesn’t move around on your head, then it is tight enough.

Lastly, you need to check the chin strap. First, make sure the chin strap fits comfortably around your ears. Now, you need to adjust the tightness so that the chin strap is secure under your chin.

When your helmet’s chinstrap is buckled, you should be able to fit about two fingers between the chinstrap and the bottom of your shin. If you can fit more than that, you need to tighten your chin strap. Conversely, if you can barely fit one finger in between the chinstrap and your chin, then your chinstrap is too tight and it will be quite uncomfortable.

Lights

black bike light

Even if you don’t ride in the dark, having lights on your bike is hugely beneficial. Being seen by others will maximize your road cycling safety regardless of the light or weather conditions. 

In most cases, a rear bike light must be red while a front bike light must be white or clear. This helps drivers identify which direction you are riding and how quickly you might be approaching. 

Rear Radar Detectors

The rear radar detector is a step up from your basic bike light, and it is a relatively new piece of technology that has vastly improved road cycling safety. Rather than just a constant or flashing rear light, a rear radar detector will respond specifically to cars approaching the bike from behind. 

Most rear radar detectors have a range of 100-200 meters, which means they will start flashing as a car approaches from this distance. You can even connect your rear radar detector with your cycling head unit to see the cars behind you and how fast they are approaching. 

The warnings work both ways, with the rear light alerting drivers behind the cyclist and the radar alerting the cyclist themself that a vehicle is approaching. 

Clothing

Visible clothing is one of the most important aspects of bike safety, especially in low-light conditions when the visibility range is low. It is nearly impossible to spot a cyclist kitted out in all-black while riding at night or on a foggy day. 

Road cyclists and triathletes needn’t wear full-fluorescent gear, but there are certainly more visible socks, knee warmers, and helmets, for example, that stand out to drivers. In the above picture, just the light socks and bright accents in the cycling kit will catch the attention of cars.

You don’t need to be decked out in fluorescent yellow from head to toe. Still, it would be best if you had a few aspects of your clothing that are reflective or highly visible to drivers. 

High-Visibility Clothing

Suppose you want to stick with the black color scheme. In that case, many cycling clothing manufacturers make black kits with reflective panels visible from over 50 yards away. Combined with front and rear lights, reflective or bright clothing will help keep you visible on the muggiest days. 

Phone

In an emergency, it is always best to have your cell phone on you in case you need to call for help. Most cyclists carry their phones anyway, but here, we have some pro tips for carrying your phone while cycling. 

What to Carry in Your Pockets to Stay Safe While Cycling

At the very least, you should carry your phone in a plastic bag, protecting it from rain or sweat. Since you have a plastic bag, you can also carry a credit card or $20 cash. 

While it might not seem necessary to carry money, there may be times when you run out of food or water, and your only option is a gas station. Or perhaps you flatted far from home, but you are close enough to a bike shop that you can buy a spare tube. 

Most cyclists carry their phone in one of their jersey’s rear pockets, but you could also put it in a saddlebag, handlebar bag, or top tube bag. Some companies sell handlebar mounts or stem mounts for your phone, which is perfect for cyclists who don’t have a GPS head unit. 

person holding white iphone 5 c

However, if you keep your phone in front of you on your handlebars or stem, ensure that you have the notifications turned off, so you don’t get distracted. You already know not to text and drive; the same goes for texting and riding. It’s never worth checking your phone and ending up with a broken collarbone. 

You can still have your phone in front of you if you need to use GPS to follow a route. Turning the voice commands on will help prevent you from constantly checking the screen, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road.

person riding bicycle

Sources

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.