It can sometimes be terrifying. A car whizzes by much too close and much too fast for comfort. You didn’t hear nor see it coming. It’s not the first of the day either.
Sometimes it has happened so often that it can’t be down to malicious intent. It can’t be. Surely.
No, it seems more like it is a lack of awareness as to how vulnerable a cyclist can feel when passed by big fast moving metal objects. We can’t change that, but we can be vigilant against it.
As I’ve cycled my way up the Americas (having cycled in 12 countries beginning in Argentina and now in the USA) I’ve rarely encountered any cycling infrastructure and had quite a few traffic related experiences that have left me feeling shaken. I’ve not been hit, and that is mostly down to good fortune. However, I also cycle in a way that I think protects me a little bit and I’d like to share that here as it may be helpful to those venturing out on a bike tour.
Using a wing mirror
The most important thing for me is having a wing mirror. I’d never cycled with one before during my journeys in Europe as I never felt I needed one. However, I have felt a need on this trip and this is the single most important thing I’d recommend.A mirror helps with awareness of what is coming from behind. What, how fast, and when, all reduce the surprise element, which is what can result in me feeling the most afraid. It also enables action to be taken if necessary.
Ideally there is enough space on the road for other road users to pass. Often there is a hard shoulder on busy roads and I ride on that. However, often there is no such hard shoulder. If there is not, then that increases the likelihood of a close pass. When there are vehicles coming the other way some vehicles will slow down and wait but some vehicles will still try to pass if the driver believes there to be ‘enough’ space. There are also times when there is nothing coming the other way yet other vehicles don’t use the whole road and still might pass a bit too close for comfort.
I try to create space for myself. First, I don’t cycle tight to the edge of the road. Second, I use my mirror so that I know what is coming up behind me. As a vehicle approaches, and that could be a long way back, I begin to gauge the road (what’s happening on the other side, is there ‘enough’ space to pass, what type of vehicle is it – see below on vehicle types).
I will often intentionally move out a little more into the road. This not only increases my visibility but also reduces space meaning a driver may more likely judge the space to be insufficient to pass and then not do so. Then as they are about to pass I will move back inwards. This means that if they haven’t given me enough space so that I feel safe when they pass then I will have created it myself.
I sometimes wobble about a bit intentionally when they are quite some distance away as this will help them realise I need space.
Perhaps this is a risky strategy – but it seems to work for me. I feel less afraid because I’m more aware of what is happening on the road but it requires a near constant vigilance with what is happening behind in the mirror.
But always be wary of the double overtake
The double overtake, whether it is coming from behind or towards me, is my biggest fear on the road. Drivers sometimes pull out to overtake and are often not fully aware of the presence of a cyclist. When I see the double overtake coming, other than try and raise their awareness of my presence, I often feel near powerless to do much about it. But here are some tips.
Often when the overtaking vehicle is coming towards me it is so far up the road it doesn’t matter, but when it is dangerous there is little time to do anything other than to just feel the fear as another vehicle passes close coming toward you. Sometimes moving more central in the road causes them to reconsider overtaking but this requires time and foresight that is not always present and in any case they may just consider it a risk worth taking.
If the overtaking vehicle is coming from behind, then the vehicle that is on the inside basically has not much space to overtake you and may be able to nothing other than pass closely. If I see this coming and there is enough time I just move out into the road to slow down the non-overtaking vehicle who is normally aware of you.
Knowing the type of vehicle that is about to pass
I am more wary of some vehicles than others. I again use my mirror to know what type of vehicle is about to pass and I often act differently.
It is buses that worry me the most – especially the big modern buses. Not only are they often wide (thus they may not be able to move out to give sufficient space if traffic is coming the other way yet nonetheless still try and pass) but they can also be incredible fast and quiet and all of a sudden without warning they can be close beside you. Thus if I see a bus approaching in my mirror I will without doubt move out further into the middle of the road as soon as possible (see above) and then I might also indicate to the driver (pointing to the other side of the road).
Big but often not as scary as buses. Truck drivers appear to be considerably more aware than bus drivers when it comes to cyclists. I can’t recall any close calls. They will typically slow down and wait for a safe moment to pass, drivers might even give you a toot and a wave, and when they do pass they generally give plenty of space. Vigilance is still important and especially when on the inside of them on corners.
Cars are a mixed bag. Sometimes car drivers seem to be patient and overtake with enough space, other times not. It is car drivers who are more likely to try the double overtake. I just take my usual precautions.
There are a lot of motorcyclists in Latin America – especially in cities but I’ve not had many problems with motorcyclists. Sometimes they are too close and in cities they seem to zig-zag in and out of traffic. Generally, motorcyclists are friendly and will say hello, and puzzle as why you are not riding one yourself.
As well as the local traffic there are quite a few travellers doing exactly the same thing as touring cyclists. There are always friendly and give plenty of space.
I prefer really quiet roads with not many vehicles. That way there is nearly always plenty of space to overtake. As long as the alternative isn’t too much longer or takes me on an uphill non-tarmacked road I prefer to avoid busy roads. I’d recommend taking knowledge from local cyclists as to alternative routes. There are times when I’ve been advised to take different routes than I intended and they have been some of the best roads I’ve ridden. Although for safety I’d probably take a busier road over a road with quite a bit of traffic but no space, yet they are often a bit less enjoyable to ride.I always find it stressful cycling in cities and so I try to avoid doing it. I try to stay ultra-aware and get to where I need to go fairly quickly and then stick to going everywhere on foot.
Awareness of cultural norms and differences
There are differences between countries. For example, in Peru there is a tendency to honk the horn before passing. This helps with awareness (you know they are there, and you know that they know you are there) but it also comes with an expectation that if there is space a smaller slower vehicle should get off the road. There is a road hierarchy (which runs down from bigger vehicles to the smaller ones) and as much as I feel outraged by this and would like to assert my right to be on the road it is actually just safer to get off the road if you can. Perhaps it was because I was just starting out but I found the buses in Argentina (particularly tourist buses) particularly hazardous. They’d pass by so closely. I felt safer in countries, such as Colombia, where there are generally more cyclists on the road. No doubt because of greater awareness of cyclists on the roads.
Objects to increase visibility
I don’t do this myself but attaching things to the bicycle for greater visibility can help. Lights, reflective strips, etc. Someone once suggested attaching a pool doodle to my bike. Great idea. Other road users don’t know what it is and give space but if they do hit it then it is soft so won’t be a problem.
Other things to think about
Sometimes I get so angry when I perceive a disregard for my welfare and I don’t know what to do with it. If there is opportunity, I like to register my frustration with a hand single (such a flicking them the bird or something similar). I’m not sure what good it does but it seems to happen spontaneously and it releases some tension in me. I think registering emotional distress is important for me but I try to do it in a fairly skilled manner. Occasionally an offending vehicle will stop further up the road (traffic lights, parking, or something similar). I’m normally much calmer at this point and I try to express myself clearly using my non-violent communication skills. I might, for example, express the vulnerability and fear I feel as a cyclists and that I, and other cyclists, need more space. Then I just continue on.
So that’s it. I hope this helps. Feel free to let me know if there is anything missing that you think I could address.
Safe and happy cycling…