Tips for Defensive Cycling

Cycling on British roads 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 may be a lot of injustice, but we can cycle defensively and minimise the dangers to ourselves. Riding in New York has made me reconsider this article and add a few 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. (turning 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.
    See: Best position to cycle on the road

  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.
  4. Anticipate the unexpected. For example, a car may be signalling left, but it doesn’t mean the car will actually turn lef. 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.
  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 will inevitably 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. Never expect pedestrians to do the obvious thing of 1) Looking where they are going or 2) continue in a certain direction.
  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 making an obscene gesture. Usually, this will be a signal for an escalation and subconsciously the motorist feels he has succeeded in riling the cyclist. If you maintain silence, he has nothing to escalate this. The best thing is to get the number plate and report illegal infractions.
  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
  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. ‘ Confident, but not arrogant’ is a good motto.
  15. Wearing a Cycle helmet may protect against some head injuries. Though it’s no substitute for safe cycling.


24 Responses to Tips for Defensive Cycling

  1. Laura November 14, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    Agreed: slow down! Having fallen off my bike several times while riding in London, I know from experience that going too fast causes crashes. If you are flying along, you just don’t have time to react to obstacles or unexpected pedestrians and vehicles in front of you. Concentrate and use your brakes as much as possible in cities; riding slower would definitely have prevented my falls.

  2. anthony roberts September 19, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    defensive cycling , just a thought how many cyclists use a mirror on there bikes, I would never go on the road these days without one ,how about you !!

  3. anthony roberts September 7, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    Hi just a thought about bikes with small wheels i had one, you know the one , and i have been a cyclist for sixty years ,How ever i was going down quite a steep hill took a left turn because the angle of the front wheel was about a little to sharp straight over the top nasty , it was a new bike i sold it..this on a conventional bike wold never of happened

  4. pj August 29, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    just a query (excellent article), isn’t this assertive cycling, rather than defensive?

    • tejvan August 29, 2012 at 11:17 am #

      maybe. I guess to be assertive without over-confidence can help protect. But, it depends on the situation. I’m a pretty confident cyclists but, occassionally I’ve got off and walked or gone on pavement

  5. CBK December 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm #

    As a pedestrian I suspect my road crossing occasionally leaves something to be desired – I do have a habit of starting to cross roads before it is properly clear. That said, I make sure that the line I take and the speed I go at means I should miss everything / everyone – which is where the predicatability (from everyone – I’m including myself here) comes in – and that includes other road users being able to predict what I’m going to do.

  6. David Smith November 18, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Enjoy cycling – Enjoy your life
    Ride to survive!
    How many times have you seen cyclists without lights? Now I don’t mean that everyone should be using the best cycle lights but any form of lighting is infinitely better than having none at all.

    How many times have we seen riders without helmets? Again, wearing helmets may not protect in every type of accident, but surely having some protection is again the order of the day!
    Come on cyclists, come on Government, lets make people more aware of the risks.

    Of course, we all know that the benefits of cycling outweigh the dangers, but the safety message must still be made very clear.

    • Shane May 8, 2012 at 9:27 am #

      Wearing a helmet is all well and good but it doesn’t PREVENT an accident. Put some lights on, wear something reflective and get a BikeGlow

    • Graham Wilkinson July 9, 2013 at 8:09 am #

      Helmets are all part of the image of ‘cyclists’. If people believe they need these extra items when getting a cycle they could well be put off. Shouldn’t we be aiming for more cycles on the road? That would probably increase the awareness of motorists and make riding safer. The more special ‘kit’ that is needed the less likely it is that people will take up cycling. In Holland helmets are rare. People simply ride in everyday clothes. Surely that is the way to encourage a critical mass of cyclists and safer riding.

      To many motorists a ‘cyclist’ is the devil and not simply another user of the road. This special equipment (helmets, high vis, Lycra) identifies them as different. We will never be accepted as just another road user until we are seen as such.

  7. Fred lowry October 10, 2008 at 10:26 am #

    Coming up to junctions or crossing roundabouts, if a car is waiting to pull out, I have heard that ‘eyeballing’ the driver drags his attention towards you. I’ve tried it and it seems to work, in that I haven’t been pulled out in front of…..yet!


  8. Tejvan Pettinger April 27, 2008 at 7:21 pm #

    It’s the best attitude to have.

  9. thePig April 27, 2008 at 4:36 pm #

    Very helpful set of tips.

    One extra thing I always try and do when cycling in London is ride far enough out from the curb so Cars have to properly overtake you rather than trying to SQUEEZE by as they so often do.

    • Shane May 8, 2012 at 9:32 am #

      Ditto. I figure if a car is honking his horn, you know he can see you. You’d be surprised how far an actual safe distance from a parked car is.

  10. Andy R April 27, 2008 at 1:32 pm #

    This is kind of the same as item 6 in the list!

  11. Andy R April 27, 2008 at 1:31 pm #

    Good points all! As one who commutes 30 miles a day through Manchester, I’d like to add another. I found that by choosing to be positive and friendly towards other road users, I have a much more relaxed, focused ride. There’s no point in getting angry at a driver who behaves badly, tempting as it is. If I get cut up then, if I can, I try to explain to the driver what s/he did without feeling that they are a bad person; rather, they just made a mistake. I think that anger leads to potential bad decisions further down the road – and it makes the world a slightly less pleasant place. Sorry to be so hippyish but it works for me.

    • Paul June 26, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

      I commute 20 miles through Leeds and all Andy says is true. Relax hang back and enjoy your ride


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