Commuting by bike to work is a great way to stay fit, avoid traffic and save money on public transport or driving costs. But you may have heard some horror stories about bike vs car accidents and are wondering how to stay safe? Or perhaps you are just not sure where to start or what you need.
As with anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it. But you have to start somewhere, so we have compiled some top tips for beginners for riding to work.
Invest in the safety equipment
If you’ve just dusted off your old faithful bike from the early 2000’s and it hasn’t been ridden lately, it is worth giving it a full service or check over before your commute. Otherwise, you are risking mechanical issues or flat tyres, which could be a safety issue and time consuming if you have to fix your bike on route.
Likewise, if it’s been some time since riding, take some time to get to know your bike. There are a variety of different bike types out there, each with unique features and specs. These may include commuter bikes, hybrid bicycles, racing bicycles and many more. Figure out how long it takes to pull up in an emergency situation and test out your brakes. See how long it takes you to get through an intersection (it is obviously much slower than in a car). This way you’ll know when to stop or when to pedal harder to get through before the lights turn red.
If you bought your helmet some time ago, check it for cracks or signs of deterioration. If it’s in bad shape, it’s time to throw it out and buy a new one. Protect your head!
Be visible. Don’t think that lights are just for night time. Turn on those flashing lights (white on the front and red on the rear) at all times. You also don’t want to get caught out somewhere when the sun goes down and you are stranded without lights, so get into the habit of charging them regularly. There are some cheap “flasher” lights that you can strap on your bike permanently (front and rear). Or you can get a small light that clips onto your helmet (as an emergency for those times when your main lights go flat). Light yourself up like a Christmas tree with reflective clothing and bright colours so that vehicles have every chance to see you.
Don’t forget sunglasses and sunscreen for during the day or wear Sun Sleeves for arm protection. Ensure you have enough water for your commute too, with either with a bottle in a cage on your frame or a water bladder in your backpack. If you are working hard and sweating a lot, you could also add some sports nutrition like electrolytes to your water.
Plan a safe route
So how do you choose a ‘safe’ bike route?
The ultimate route is one with stand-alone bike paths or shared pedestrian and cycle paths. This way you can stay off the roads and avoid cars, but unless you live in a cycling wonderland, it is unlikely this is possible for your whole commute. The next best option is to use roads with designated bike lanes over those without.
You can also use Google maps. Just make sure you change the mode of transport to ‘cycling’ and it will give you a proposed route. Sometimes it won’t choose the best sneaky bike paths for you, but it will give a general idea of the route and the time it may take you.
Strava is also another option to give an indication of common routes and segments, but you have to have a paid subscription to use the route builder option (to plot a course from A to B).
If you know someone at the office who commutes in, ask them for recommendations on the safest route. It is even better if they are living in a similar suburb to you and they can show you some options or you could ride together.
Don’t be afraid to explore and find your own way too, that’s part of the fun!
If the roads are sketchy, there is also the option of riding on the footpaths (check if this is legal where you live first). This can also be handy for intersections where you need to turn over the incoming traffic. It is daunting getting across lanes of traffic, but remember that in places you could always pop up onto the footpath and cross over at the pedestrian lights. Be courteous to pedestrians if you do this.
Always give yourself extra time and pre-ride your route
Once you have mapped out your safest route, you will realise it is probably not the most direct or fastest option. Test out your route on a weekend for the first time to make sure you know where you’re going before hitting it up on a busy weekday. A pre-ride gives you the chance to see where those dodgy intersections are, where the school zones might be (think of all those distracted parents driving 4WDs!), and where you need to get off and onto the bike paths.
Time yourself (in both directions) so you can allocate enough time in your day. My commute home has more uphill in it, so it takes longer. It has caught me out on occasion for childcare pickup. I have maxed out my heart rate rushing to get there before the obligatory $1 per minute fine for being late. Rushing can result in accidents, lack of attention leading to silly decisions.
Give yourself enough time so you’re not tempted to go the ‘faster way’ via the main road.
The time of day is important too. Try to avoid peak hours if possible. If your workplace is flexible, head in early and leave early (or vice versa); avoiding the worst of the traffic.
Know your cycling road rules
Follow the road rules. This may sound obvious, but there are a lot of riders out there that give cyclists a bad name by breaking the road rules. Make sure you understand what the markers and signage mean in bike lanes. Some are obvious like the shared pedestrian and bike paths, others are more cryptic like the bike symbol painted in the middle of the road. No, this doesn’t mean you can ride safely in the middle of the road! (It is a general bike awareness zone for common cycling routes).
In some states it is legal to ride on the footpath (which is sometimes the safest option). In other states only children can legally ride there.
Remember that even though you may have the ‘right’ to do something it may not be the safest option.
Yes, it is legal to ride up the inside of stationary cars at traffic lights. But before doing this (when there is no bike lane present) consider whether it is really worth it. Cars will take off faster than you and then will need to overtake you again, which puts you at risk. Especially because cars don’t like being stuck behind a cyclist and they get frustrated that you pushed to the front of the queue at the lights. As a cyclist it is tempting to get to the front, but sometimes it is just as safe (and courteous) to stay in your ’position’ at the lights and don’t go up the inside of the cars. The cars tend to respect you this way. Be respectful, stay in your place in the queue and continue on safely when the lights turn green.
Remember when you were young and you learnt how to put your arm out to ‘indicate’ which direction you were turning on a bike? These hand signals still apply as an adult. Over exaggerate the arm signalling so it’s really obvious and predictable where you are turning.
It is great that shared bike paths are safe from cars, but you have the added bonus of kids on bikes/scooters, runners, parents with prams, dogs, electric bikes and electric scooters doing 40 km/h. Don’t be too complacent just because you are off the road. Stay alert, be friendly and remember your cycling etiquette; slow down around the kids, talk to the walkers, ring your bell (in a nice way) and let them know you are there. It’s not a race and we are all enjoying the fresh air and want to get home or to work safely.
Always assume that a car might not see you
You are not invincible, and even though you may be in the ‘right’ legally, that doesn’t help you if you are splattered across the windscreen of a car. So even though you may not have to ‘give way’ to a car pulling out of a side street, you need to anticipate that drivers won’t see you and will pull out in front of you (or into you) anyway. Assume all the cars are out to kill you. Yes, that’s right. Don’t assume that they will see you. Scan ahead to see what cars may do to cause a risk or an accident.
Always have an exit strategy. Be hyper-aware of your surroundings.
Try to make eye contact with drivers if you can when they are stopped giving way. Usually, once you have eye contact you can relax a bit to know they have seen you. But don’t get complacent! Even if they are in the wrong (failing to give way), you as a cyclist are going to be worse off in any encounter that is bike vs car. So just assume that no one is going to give way, have your hands over your brakes ready and slow down, just in case the car pulls out in front of you.
Yes, you may not be the fastest if you’re on your brakes in anticipation. But it’s not worth it – as you’ll be the one injured in a split second if that car pulls out and you haven’t already started to slow down.
Be vigilant of car doors opening
Being ‘car-doored’ is unfortunately a common incident for cyclists. This usually happens when there is a combination of skinny roads with no bike lane and the drivers of parked cars opening their doors without checking behind to see if a cyclist is approaching. When a car door opens without warning the cyclist has nowhere to go and ends up riding directly into the door (or the driver!).
Here are some ways to try mitigate being hit by a car door:
- Maintain a safe position on the road. Keep a decent distance (~1 m) from parked cars. But not too far into the middle of the road that you are blocking the traffic. This is really difficult to do when the road is not very wide. But try to give as much room as possible in case a door swings open in front of you; then you hopefully have enough space to avoid it.
- Be alert and watch ahead for any movement or signs that there is someone in a parked car about to open the door.
- Have your exit strategy in your head; ready to brake or ready to swerve (be aware if there are cars driving behind you).
- Be visible, wear bright / reflective clothes and have lights on your bike.
This sounds like a lot to remember, but it will become second nature with time and experience.
Aim to stay alive – avoid distractions and be predictable
Yes, that is a sombre title, but it needs to be reiterated.
Stay alert and avoid distractions. Be aware of everything around you. This means you need to avoid the temptation of live Strava segments, unless it is safe to do so. Don’t try to listen to your favourite podcasts or e-books! There are many fancy electronic gadgets that may distract you. Don’t be tempted. Just focus on the ride and aim to stay alive.
Be predictable in your movements. You want to give vehicles the best chance at seeing you and giving you the space you need. Be decisive / know your route / no last minute decisions or change of mind (use those hand signals to indicate of turning). Pull over to a safe place if you need to check the map or a phone message. Don’t make those last second decisions to duck across and change lanes. If you don’t know where you are going or what you are doing then a motorist won’t have a clue either. Try reduce the risk of being hit.
Keep your eyes open. Scan the road for obstacles at all times, be alert and ready for the unexpected. Pot holes, gravel or rough edges on the side of the road could all be problematic.
Electric bikes and scooters are the new hazards on the street. It’s important to stay predictable on the bike paths and indicate with hand signals even if you think there is no one around. The electric bikes and scooters are very quiet and can approach quickly without you even knowing they are there.
Have your cycling kit ready and a change of clothes
One of the fun parts of cycling is the kits! There is something special about wearing a colour coordinated kit, socks and gloves…or is that just me… I digress. Ok, so there is no real need to be colour coordinated, but you should be wearing clothes that are bright and visible so cars can see you. Think 80’s fluro or light colours. Avoid wearing black or dark colours that make you blend into the bitumen. Create your own kit with our unique men's cycling jerseys and women's cycling jerseys at Cycology.
Have weather-appropriate gear. Make sure you are warm enough or cool enough, taking into account any changes in weather. A light weight jacket is easy to pack in the backpack. Our women's cycling jackets and men's cycling jackets are a great choice for providing comfort in cool and windy conditions. Arm warmers and base layers are great for early morning commutes, then you can put them in your bag for the ride home when it has warmed up.
It is really hard sometimes to get motivated to ride to work when it’s early, or raining and cold. Get your gear ready the night before, pack your ‘day clothes’ into your backpack to reduce the excuses to not get on the bike. You won’t regret it once you get going.
Get a backpack that fits everything you need
You will need a backpack or paniers to put your things in (e.g., work clothes, toiletries, towel, laptop, tube, tools). This may all start to sound like you need to buy a whole lot of new gear, but you can mostly make do with what you have. The cycling specific backpacks and clothing just make riding to work more comfortable and safe.
Commuting back packs are designed to fit comfortably on your back and have special pockets and sleeves for all your goodies so things don’t flop around while pedaling. They also tend to not sit too high on your back, which avoids blocking your vision when checking over your shoulder and it also avoids rubbing or hitting your helmet.
It is also useful to have a backpack with a rain cover on it. But it’s not a necessity, as you can keep items dry with a good ol’ plastic bag (put your clothes, laptop inside the plastic bag then inside the backpack).
Invest in maintenance gear in case of flats
Put together a basic set of tools (multi-tool and tyre levers, tube, pump or CO2 canister) so you are prepared for mechanicals or flat tyres. Figure out what size tube you need or whether your bike is tubeless. Remember you need to carry these items with you so a bike tool storage bottle is a great idea so the weight is on the bike or keep the tool kit minimal so it fits compact in your bag.
If you are a real newbie, perhaps do a trial run of changing your tube at home so you know exactly what to do if it happens on the commute.
It’s not a bad idea to stash some cash (yes real money) into your tool kit, plus a piece of paper with the phone number of your emergency contacts. Just in case all the planets are against you and you get a ‘non-fixable’ mechanical, phone goes flat and you have no access to your digital wallet. You can at least get yourself a coffee while you borrow someone’s phone to dial your friend or family for pick up.
Lock Your Bike
If you need to leave your bike in an unsecured location like on the street, you will need a bike lock. Even in shared ‘secure’ office bike storage you will want to lock it up.
Look at light weight options if you have to carry it with you (like a coiled cable lock with a mounting bracket). If you have a place you can leave the lock permanently (in the office bike storage), something more robust is a better option (e.g., a U-Lock). A longer cable means you can thread it through the frame and wheels (so no one nicks your wheels and leaves your frame!).
Have a think about whether you are more likely to lose a key or forget a numerical combination? This can guide your choice!
If you’re commuting on a fancy expensive bike, consider insuring your bike for theft. If a criminal really wants your bike, they will figure out a way to get it. Alternatively, consider commuting on a cheaper bike that won’t break your heart so much if it gets stolen (noting that you will have heart break with any bike theft).
Have fun, but remember to be visible, ride politely, predictably and defensively.
Written by Jayne Rutter.
Jayne lives in Brisbane, Australia. She is a mother of three. Drinks beer and races mountain bikes. She recently placed 2nd at the AUSCYCLING National Mountain Bike Champs 2022 in the masters category. What a pinner :-) Follow her on Instagram. Read some of her older blogs at jaynerutter.com