Defensive cycling on rural roads

A reader offers this comment about cycling on rural roads:

I have cycled most of my life in a city. I’ve recently taken early retirement so now cycle purely for pleasure. Last night I went for a ride which took me through some rural roads and also busy A roads.

On the narrow country roads the motorists, though much less in number, didn’t deem it necessary to slow down as they passed me. Also, there were some blind bends and I was concerned that drivers would cut corners not expecting to meet a cyclist.

The derestricted A roads were just as challenging because of the speed of passing vehicles.

I am well used to defensive riding on busy town roads where the vast majority of car drivers are expecting to negotiate cyclists. The speeds are lower which allows more thinking time for the cyclist and the motorist. Consequently, I felt much more at ease when I left the A roads and small rural roads and once again entered the city boundary. As poor as they are, cycle routes in the city feel safer and offer some protection.

I’m not convinced that drivers on smaller rural roads and fast A roads are expecting to see cyclists and they appear to be less careful. If a collision was to occur a cycle helmet would certainly be of no use due to the speeds involved.

I wonder if I will eventually feel at home on rural roads and faster A roads? Time will tell.


Unfortunately, this is a pretty standard experience for cycling on rural A roads. Often cycle safety initiatives focus on city cycling, where there is the largest concentration of cyclists. But, you feel rural A roads tend to get left out of any initiative to improve road safety. I spend more time cycling in the rural environment, my main strategy is to avoid these roads where possible. But, some races and some training routes to go on these kind of roads.

Some issues on rural roads

Most dangerous. Firstly, twisty rural A roads are statistically the most dangerous.

  • In 2006, 58% of road fatalities occurred on rural roads, despite carrying only 18% of total traffic volumes Rural Road safety, D of T)

Speed. A big issue is speed. On some twisty roads, the maximum speed limit would be an inappropriate speed to be travelling at. There are calls for more 40mph speed limits, which would make a big difference for cyclists and pedestrians. It would make roads feel more endurable, and reduce the risk of accident (see: 40mph speed limits for rural areas) To really slow down traffic, speed signs are usually insufficient. Actual obstacles in the road, rumble strips, speed humps e.t.c would be needed. Cyclists would actually be excellent traffic calming measures. The presence of cyclists would make motorists have to concentrate more, and avoid the syndrome of cruising at top speed. But, who wants to act as a mobile traffic calming measure?

Safety in numbers or lack of. Because rural roads are often considered ‘unsafe’ many cyclists avoid them completely. This means that motorists may get used to the idea that cyclists don’t use this kind of road, and so drive without expecting any cyclists. If the roads were a little slower and safer, it would encourage more cyclists and increase the visibility of cyclists on roads. But, it’s a vicious cycle with perceived dangers being a major deterrent for the majority of cyclists.

The overtaking syndrome. If a motorist came across a slow moving vehicle, they would slow down and wait for an appropriate moment to overtake. But, many motorists have the mindset, that you can always squeeze past a cyclist, and so appear un-ready to slow down and just overtake regardless. This puts both cyclist and oncoming traffic at risk. It’s only a matter of waiting a few seconds. At the end of the day, you wouldn’t really get to your destination any slower.

It is hard to see what can be done. Lower speed limits might help. There is a scope for better education and awareness, but there are no easy solutions.

How to deal with situation?

The situation is unlikely to change unless we have a revolution in perceptions and ideas. So we tend to mug away. Where possible, I try to avoid the busiest and least welcoming A roads. For example, the A59 from Bolton Abbey to Harrogate, used to have a race a few years ago. But, when I trained on the road, it was too much with heavy lorries overtaking on a road not really designed for articulate lorries. My training routes, are just designed to avoid this road where possible.

When I do ride on A roads. I’d like to be able to say I ride 1 metre out from the kerb making traffic wait for an appropriate time to overtake. But, I don’t. I stay pretty close in.  I just kind of wait for the road to end. If anybody wants to prove me wrong and ride the length of the A59 1 metre out from the kerb, good luck, and let me know how you get on.

6 Responses to Defensive cycling on rural roads

  1. jonty pritchard October 20, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    at my age i try not to ride on the road tooo often prefer the velodrome and the velodrome circuit very safe jonty

  2. JonF July 25, 2013 at 9:56 am #

    I use a zefal spy mirror to help manage overtaking traffic, and always try to remember that motorists tend to give cyclists as much room as they give themselves.
    Cycle in the gutter and they will assume you are letting them squeeze past.

    As they approach, I raise my hand in a thank you style gesture that helps communication and gives an extra subtle please give me this much more space. (arms length).

    I have just survived two weeks cycling in the Highlands.

    Your couch is much more likely to kill you than a car.

  3. Chris July 6, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    I agree with most that has been said regarding this subject, wearing black for heavens sake, but would add, no light’s, riding two or more abreast, not looking when making a manoeuvre.

    We cyclist’s can be daft as well, but by and large I now believe that the motorist is generally to blame. A few (luckily) could not care less, I know as I have had roadside discussions with them, the rest are just ignorant of how to deal with cyclists when behind the wheel, but behave impeccably when confronted with horse riders ? and what’s this latest craze of walker’s moving WITH the traffic, not against.

    If you are riding tight country lanes like in Cornwall, take your time, I have met cows being herded to another field, escaped pigs, walkers etc, if overtaking an intermittent line of parked cars keep out in the road, if you try going in and out that’s asking for trouble. Group riding on Sunday, one man in front, one behind and the rest chatting in the middle as a bunch, but the moment the rear or front man warns of cars, single file. We just have to try to stay alert and second guess motorist’s, if in doubt stop.

  4. georgie July 5, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    I cycle on a mix of roads as living in east lancs and commuting between towns gives me little option but to use these twisty, narrow, national speed limit routes. I also drive and as a driver, I feel that most of these roads should be no more than 40mph to be safe. It’s a complete disgrace that authorities do not change and enforce this. Slowing to 40 doesnt loose you that much time off a journey in a car and lets face it, if you’re going vast distances, you’re going to use either motorways or those A-roads that appear to act as motorways.
    Everyone would enjoy the countryside so much more (aside from those boy racers I sometimes see, who I half expect to see up a tree at some point)

  5. Ben Knowles July 5, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Hey Tej,

    I agree that A roads where speed is high without many junctions are pretty hairy to ride down. Where I live (Reading), however, traffic speeds are not that high on the whole due to congestion – so I continue to ride out from the kerb – generally in the middle, or even to the outside of the lane to maximise visibility.

    Motorists see an obstacle far out from the kerb, and while it might make them angry, they pretty much always slow – as they get closer, if I think it’s safe for them to overtake then I move in, with a cheery wave to say thanks and an acknowledgment that I appreciate their sacrifice of seconds for my safety.

    Where it is more congested, I move between the centre of the lane and about 1 metre from the kerb. Very occasionally I move closer in to the kerb, if a car has been stuck behind me for more than about 30 seconds and I have confidence that they’re patient enough to pass at a reasonable speed and far enough away from me that I won’t have to bail out to the left.

    I also wave drivers past me when I think it appropriate – as I can see further along the road in front than they can. I’m aware this may have legal implications, but I’d rather risk the legal implications than being run over by an impatient driver taking on a risky overtake!

    I used to commute down an A-road regularly (the A327, to Farnborough), and I felt that over time that with a bit of communication with drivers, that the overall standard of driving around me improved (I was commuting at the same time each day, roughly, so a considerable proportion of the drivers, and the most dangerous and likely to be impatient – regular commuters in a rush – would have passed me before/been passed by me).

    In my opinion, it’s the combination of fast and close that makes an overtake dangerous. My policy is: don’t let anyone run me over by mistake! They either deliberately run me down in cold blood, or they wait until it’s safe to get past me.

    Having said all that, I when I rode down the A30 in Cornwall, where speeds were frequently 70+, I felt that cars would not have time to reduce speed in the space that they could see in front of them, so I went against my principles and cowered in the gutter just like everyone else, and pedalled as hard as I could to get it over with as quick as possible….terrifying!

    I guess I’m saying that most rural A-roads are rideable using the bikeability/vehicular cycling model for fit and strong people, but there are a minority that aren’t and should be avoided at all costs even by the fittest.

    Dear gov’t….please build us some cycle lanes….


  6. Alex Bretherton July 5, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    I cycle exclusively on rural roads and understand the points that you are making. I particularly agree with your comments on A roads. The issue is the speed differential. The first car sees you and times the gap. The cars following too closely behind become aware of your presence too late and have no time to react.

    I would, however, suggest there are things we can do to help ourselves.

    Firstly, the more visible we are the better. What is with the current trend for black cycling gear? Wear bright colours and run a bright flashing light. Anything to get there attention.

    Secondly, anticipate problems. Drop back into single file when you go round a blind bend, hold the middle on tight twisty sections to stop stupid overtakes, let cars through that get stuck before the do something stupid.

    You sound like an experienced cyclist who does this already. As a cyclist and motorist, I am constantly amazed at how stupidly both groups behave at times!

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