How to play in the street — Part 2: riding defensively

Defensive riding means a lot more than just learning where — and where not — to ride.

The key is accepting that you can’t control what anyone else on the road is going to do. But there simple steps you can take to influence the situation and be prepared for whatever might happen. And help ensure that every ride is fun, safe and enjoyable.

Be bright

These days, bike shops are full of throw-back style jerseys in muted blacks and earth tones. But you will never, ever see me wearing one, no matter how stylish it may be, because what you wear on top makes a big difference in whether drivers actually notice you. Bold patterns and brilliant colors get more attention, and fire truck colors — bright reds, yellows and whites — work best. And oddly, my blue jersey seems to make me invisible.

Be seen

Always be aware of your position on the road — especially near intersections — to ensure that everyone on the road can see you. For instance, riding behind a large vehicle makes you invisible to oncoming traffic, and dramatically increases the risk of a car turning into your path without knowing you’re there. So either speed up to pass it, or slow down to increase the gap and make yourself seen. Always stop at the front of an intersection if you can do it safely. Never, ever ride in a driver’s blind spot. And follow this rule of thumb: if you can’t see the driver, assume the driver can’t see you.

Be obvious — especially after dark

Last fall, I found myself working onsite at a client’s office and driving home after dark every day. One evening, I saw a cyclist up ahead wearing a reflectorized orange safety vest and lit up like a Christmas tree with lights, reflectors and flashers. I thought he looked ridiculous. But the key is, I thought so from nearly three blocks away. And as I passed — safely, I might add — I realized it wasn’t about how he looked; it was getting home in one piece.

Be predictable

One of the biggest complaints drivers have is that they’re never sure what a cyclist is going to do — which is pretty much the same complaint we have about them. But while can’t change them,  we can try to be more predictable ourselves. Ride in a straight line. Signal for turns. Stop for red lights and stops signs if there’s anyone else at the intersection. Observe the right of way. (First one at the intersection goes first, in a tie, the one on the right has right of way; through traffic goes before turning traffic — unless traffic signals indicate otherwise or some jackass insists on going anyway.) And always, always, always look over your shoulder and signal before moving into the traffic lane.

Be human

It’s human nature to distinguish between ourselves and others, and to use those differences as justification to blame them for whatever problems we may perceive. Which is exactly how many drivers respond to cyclists (and vice versa, unfortunately). The way around that is to treat drivers like human beings, and encourage them to see us the same way. So smile. Make eye contact. Nod or wave to indicate they can go, or thank them for letting you go first. It may not seem like much, but the rewards can be enormous — for you and for the next few riders they meet.

Watch out for squeeze plays

The other day, I was riding through San Vicente in Brentwood, where the bike lane stops and it becomes a Class 3 bike route. As usual, I rode at the edge of the right lane, just outside the dooring zone. When traffic backed up, I glided past the slower cars, but as I passed one car, it seemed to inch almost imperceptibly towards the parked cars — and me. So I watched closely, and sure enough, he drifted right as he prepared to turn at the next corner. I squeezed my brakes and dropped behind him, unsure if he even knew I was there. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have been a car sandwich. And I only saw it because I was watching for it.

Turn signals lie

My junior high football career lasted one season before I blew out my knee, but one thing I learned has stuck with me ever since. If you want to know where your opponent is going, don’t watch his body, because bodies lie. Watch his feet instead; he’ll go wherever they do. The same holds true for cars. Don’t be fooled by a turn signal — or the lack thereof. Many drivers don’t signal until the last minute, if at all. Or they may signal one way, then swerve the other. So watch their wheels, because the car will go wherever the wheels point. Just watch closely, because they sometimes change their minds.

Always expect the unexpected

The single biggest problem with cycling is that virtually everyone else you encounter on the road will be human. And humans do stupid things. So as you ride, keep an eye on the traffic and parked cars around you, and imagine the dumbest possible thing the other driver, dog, pedestrian or, yes, cyclist could do. Then mentally anticipate and prepare for it. Nine times out of ten, it won’t happen. But that tenth time, when they do it — or something just as dumb — you’ll be ready. And that just might make the difference between getting home safely, and not getting home at all.


Flying Pigeon notes L.A. has discovered Cycle Chic, while the NY Times questions whether fashion keeps women from riding (as my sister likes to point out, spandex is a privilege, not a right). Alex tries to get the Westside dancing. Mickey Wally continues his cross country ride somewhere in Pennsylvania. Manhattan Beach installs a new bike sculpture. Streetsblog discovers higher bike funding in the Metro budget. LAist reports on the new bike hitching posts sprouting around town. L.A. Creek Freak covers ground breaking for the L.A. River bikeway extension. I ran into bees on the beach; an Austin rider flips over a bunny. The WSJ notes cyclists are demanding respect from our government, while the LAB keeps tabs on who’s talking trash. A Florida cop responds to insults by slashing a homeless riders tires. A Fresno rider is murdered for his bike. And finally, a driver in Iowa knocks a rider off his bike, then rushes him to…an auto parts store?

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