Tips for defensive cycling

Cycling on British roads can feel like a battle between David and Goliath; in an accident between an SUV and a bike, there is only going to be one loser. There is always going to bad driving on the roads, but the only thing we can control is how we cycle and react to situations. Defensive cycling is just a term to describe the different things we can do to give ourself the best chance of cycling safely. Yes, it would be great if we all had Netherlands style cycle infrastructure. But, until cycling nirvana arrives, we have to make the best of the current situation. Some of this advice is nothing more than common sense, but hopefully will give people more confidence to cycle.

Tips for defensive cycling


  1. Look and signal before moving. Cyclists are not always great at looking over their shoulder and giving an indication where they are going. Develop the confidence to look over your shoulder; this is important for manoeuvres such as moving into an outside lane to turn right.
  2. Take a good position in the road. Don’t always hug the curb. You are more visible if you ride a 1 metre from edge of road. In the diagram below, it shows how a car can better see the bike cycling further out in the road.
    When I stop at traffic lights, if possible I move to the centre of the lane so the car has to be behind me, rather than allowing the car to squeeze past. cyclists-stay-back
  3. Be very wary of riding on the inside of large vehicles. This is a potentially very dangerous move. Many fatalities occur because cyclists get caught in a driver’s blind spot when the lorry turns left. I know those stickers ‘Cyclists stay back’ are annoying, but you have to be wary of this danger.

  4. Anticipate the unexpected. For example, a car may be signalling left, but it doesn’t mean the car will actually turn left. Therefore, just because a car is signalling, it doesn’t mean it is safe to turn right. The car may have forgotten to turn off the indicator or on a roundabout they may be signalling for the next turn off. Alternatively they may not signal at all.
  5. Steer clear of car doors. Give yourself distance for a car door to open. It can be a very nasty accident to get ‘doored’.
  6. Try to scan through car windows for pedestrians and cars which may come out of side lanes.
  7. Be aware. Don’t get distracted with music or daydreaming. When you are cycling in UK / US you really need your wits about you. I’ve never felt the ability to relax; I’m always trying to anticipate potential dangers and problems before they occur.
  8. Plan your route. Some routes are more cycle friendly than others. It can be worth not taking quickest route, but looking for better cycle paths, which help you avoid dangerous junctions or roads.
  9. Be wary of pedestrians. They can often cross the road without looking; they are used to listening for traffic. A bell can be a good tool. However, a real problem is that when a pedestrian is crossing the road you start to anticipate that they will continue walking therefore, you take a line, which will miss them. However, if they suddenly hear your bell, they will freeze and stop right where you are, then you will have to change your line.
  10. Avoid getting drawn into road rage. If a motorist makes you angry by behaving in a bad or dangerous way; it is best to avoid ‘escalating the situation’. If you maintain silence, he has nothing to escalate this. The best thing is to get the number plate and report illegal infractions. If people drive badly, they are rarely in a rational frame of mind.

    Cyclists can be hard to see – a frequent complaint of motorists
  11. Be seen. In 70% of accidents you will hear the excuse from drivers “but, I didn’t see them…” Do the best to be highly visible. If you ride in dark clothes and no lights, you can only increase the chance of being another accident statistic.
  12. Be willing to avoid a particular very busy road. Sometimes you find yourself on a really busy road with cars flying past at 50mph and it’s really risky to turn left or right. There are occasions when I consider using pavement and pedestrian crossings to avoid the craziest junction. If there are pedestrians are around you can get off and push your bike

    traffic lights can be very social places too
  13. Be willing to stop. It may sound silly, but sometimes as cyclists we get tired and we’re trying to conserve the considerable forward momentum – we become too concentrated on saving energy we forget we may need to come to an abrupt stop.
  14. Common sense. After 20 years of cycling and driving, a lot of problems occur simply because road users ignore basic common sense – seeking to save a few seconds they take unnecessary risks. If you ride defensively and with common sense, you can really make your ride a lot safer. You can’t avoid all dangers, but you can minimise the risk.
  15. Wearing a cycle helmet may protect against some head injuries. But it is no substitute for safe cycling. Don’t feel over-confident just because you have lights, helmets and all the gear. Some argue if you dress up as an old lady with no helmet, you will actually be given more space by motorists!
  16. If all else fails.


If all else fails take a cardboard tube to defend yourself and push those pesky buses away.

5 thoughts on “Tips for defensive cycling”

  1. Also maybe don’t always do what the cyclist in front of you does, do what you’re comfortable doing. Sometimes you see other cyclists weaving in front of cars at traffic jams and you think you need to do the same but if it looks dangerous then you are better of staying where you are.

    • There is definitely a lemming effect for going through traffic lights and on inside of buses, you see it when taking photos of cyclists in Oxford

  2. I would add one more to that sensible list.

    A mirror.
    It is no substitute for looking over your shoulder, but the reverse is also true.

    Cycling in traffic, you tend to need to look over your shoulder more often than is safe.

    Re: 11, it is advisable to imagine yourself to be a cycling ninja, as the reality is that a lot of drivers, for various reasons, will not see you.

    It is possible to use your mirror to manage the traffic as vehicles approach from behind.

    When you see that the driver is moving out to overtake, raise your right hand in thanks as they are about to pass. Reward them with a big wave, if they give as much space as they would another vehicle.

    If it looks like the driver has not seen you, then raising your hand to thank them for moving out
    is usually enough for them to do so.

    Also useful for pilates, practice holding your core, so that your balance does not shift,
    when you lift your hand from the bars.

    Cycling is a lot more relaxing when you can see forward and back at the same time.

    If the Gov’t had the cyclist’s interests at heart, they would advise use of a mirror, not a bell.

    When driving, you need to check your mirror frequently. You tend to need a horn/bell very rarely.
    Why do we imagine Cycling is any different?

  3. …it would be great if we all had Netherlands style cycle infrastructure.

    It seems that it took decades for that infrastructure to develop in the Netherlands.

    In fact some of these steps still apply even with the cycling infrastructure mentioned. Cyclists still need to know what to do when encountering other bicycles, even on a dedicated bike path. You still need to cycle defensively even with that infrastructure.

    Here are the steps for getting through an intersection, including roundabouts, and this applies to dedicated infrastructure:

    *Know the rules.
    *If anything not required to give way to you (including another bicycle) could hit you, wait, or change direction. Otherwise…
    *Go as quickly as you can manage, but be prepared for any misjudgements you have made.

  4. Good article thanks. I’d also suggest: Appropriate speed. If the environment has a higher risk level (e.g. busy, poor visibility, or reduced escape space) slowing down can improve your odds.


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