How to Ride on the Road

No matter your cycling skill-level, a prescribed mixture of safety-consciousness road knowledge and a few drops of common sense are enough to cure even the worst case of “Unridden Bike Syndrome.”

By Benjamin van Loon

Surveys show that about 60 percent of North Americans are curious about cycling, but are reluctant to take the next step. Our Bike Curious series is designed to teach you the basics, give you helpful tips and encourage you to share the message that biking is easy and fun!

With the weather finally turning in our favor, it’s high time to dust off our bikes, pump up the tires and get back on the open road. The problem is, if you’ve been off the road for a while, or you’re planning on hitting it for the first time, the idea might seem a little haphazard. Don’t worry, it’s not.

Of course, there are a few guidelines (written and unwritten) that riders of all levels should follow. Riding on the road can be dangerous, whether you’re on a bike or in a car, but this shouldn’t be an excuse to let your bike go unridden.

No matter your cycling skill-level, a prescribed mixture of safety-consciousness road knowledge and a few drops of common sense are enough to cure even the worst case of “Unridden Bike Syndrome.” The formula is simple: it’s a matter of knowing where to start.

Use the following points to equip yourself with the courage to log some miles on your cyclometer. Once you’ve been on the road a few times, these approaches to cycling become second nature and make getting in the car that much harder (which isn’t a bad thing).

Know your road

Some roads have two lanes, some four; some have shoulders, some don’t. A busy, high-speed road may be the shortest distance between two points, but that doesn’t make it safe. Use maps and local resources to chart safer alternate routes using any combination of slower roads, roads with shoulders and bike-specific avenues, such as bike lanes (where bikes share the road), bike paths and separated bike lanes (which are exclusive to bikes) and trails or even the occasional sidewalk (if allowed).

Know your conditions

When the weather is adverse, things become more precarious for everyone on the road. Try to keep your bike off the road when there isn’t a lot of visibility, as in a rainstorm, blizzard or heavy fog. Different road textures, like gravel or sand, can be equally precarious. If the going gets tough, walk your bike.

Know your drivers

You’ve heard of “Defensive Driving?” This is “Defensive Cycling.” Ride confidently, but watch for bad drivers (and cyclists). When passing a parked car, keep at least three feet between you and it and watch for opening doors. When passing other cyclists or pedestrians, call out to notify them of which side you’ll be passing them so you don’t catch them off guard. Don’t assume drivers will signal their turns. And if you’re near an intersection or corner with traffic, don’t overtake anyone or cross without first looking both ways for oncoming cars and bikes.

Know your rules

In some places, cyclists are subject to the same laws as automobiles. In others, different laws apply. Most municipalities will have cycling laws publicly listed on a website or other civic resource. No matter where you are, however, you should form a few basic conscientious habits: Use the appropriate hand signals to indicate when you’re turning or stopping, use flashing front/rear lights at night, consider wearing a helmet and don’t ride on busy sidewalks. Though some cities are more serious about enforcement than others, cyclists should apply these common practices whether they’re in Miami, Cincinnati or Toronto.

Know your bike

While this may seem obvious, this point is often the most ignored. Think of it as “Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance.” Keep your derailleurs in line, your skewers tightened, your wheels trued and your tires filled to the correct pressure. If you’re not comfortable doing this, bring it to your local bike shop at least once a season for routine maintenance. Check your tires once a week, too, because tires lose pressure periodically. The best bike is not the newest or the fastest, it’s the bike that’s best for you and the roads you choose to take.

Ride with others

Many cities have local cycling organizations that run riding skills courses. Check with the one nearest you for information about how to ride on the road safely and legally. Riding with a more experienced cyclist is also a great way to learn the tricks of the trade. Consider recruiting a friend or coworker to ride with you to work, home or on your lunch break.

4 Comments

  • Sara Shoemaker

    I live in a very rural MOUNTAINOUS

  • Alison P.

    Great thoughts except for the part about keeping your bike off the road during a rainstorm. Living in the Pacific Northwest, my poor bike would sit in the garage 8 months of the year. I’ve found it can be safe to ride in the rain as long as you allow extra time to stop, assume every car is out to get you, and light yourself up like a Christmas tree!!!

  • Todd Scott

    IIt’s not conscientious but rather ridiculous to ask cyclists, but especially beginner cyclists to use a stopping signal. The last thing they should do is remove a hand from the handlebar (and on most/many bikes, the brake level) while braking. Certainly in some group ride setting, a verbal signal makes perfect sense.

  • Gellér Mihály

    As a long-time bicycle commuter (and cycling tourist), I’m often a little shocked when I return from Europe to Seattle and see just how few people here ride as a means of transportation. It’s clear from our county’s (King County, WA) attitude recently regarding a highly-used paved bike thoroughfare being closed for the next year and suggesting that cyclists either put their bikes on a bus or ride a circuitous 31-turn detour including hills and sidewalk riding that the mentality is that “bikes are toys, not transportation”. This is a mentality that needs to change. We need fewer adverts/commercials telling people to mountain-bike and more telling them to enjoy their trips to and from work on a sensible and affordable bike.

    In my many years of bike commuting I’ve heard a bunch of negativity from coworkers and friends suggesting that bike commuting is “dangerous” and “difficult”. In some cases some of those people feel safer WALKING miles than biking them. I think there’s two main points that need to clear some things up:

    1. Bicycling is safe, the number of accidents per rider per year is LESS than driving, and reduces the demand of petrol/gas, thus reducing the price thereof, PLUS providing an excellent source of exercise

    2. The best way to see if bicycle commuting is for you is to find someone you work with that does it and ask them if they’ll RIDE WITH YOU a few times. Most people seem frazzled by the experience because they’re simply unaccustomed to bike routes, rules, and rights. Having a more experienced rider meet them at home and show them a good safe and non-hilly path to work on streets they might not even know exist (because they’re accustomed to driving on the freeway) can be what changes a frazzled possible bike commuter into an avid bike commuter.

    CONVERSELY, if you’re already a bike commuter, grab a sheet of paper and a permanent marker, put up a sign in a common area that has the outline of a bike and the words, “WANT A BIKE COMMUTE BUDDY? TELL {your name} WHERE YOU LIVE!” Who knows, you might not only take one less car off the road, but get a biking buddy too :)

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