Cloaks of Road Cycling Confidence aside… 😀 I’ve often thought it’d be to the benefit of all if motor vehicle drivers were subject to, as part of their driving test, a spell of riding a bike on a busy public road alongside motor traffic. Why? Because it would be an enlightening way to provide drivers with a perspective that non-cycling drivers just never appreciate. Hello, Dear Reader and welcome along if you’re considering cycling on public roads in traffic but you’re feeling a little trepidation. Fear we might otherwise call it. It’s perfectly normal to feel fearful for something we haven’t experienced that’s potentially dangerous. But you needn’t let that trepidation prevent you from enjoying your cycling or from getting where you need to be on your bike. I hope this article might shed some light on how to get a handle on that fear and work to overcome it.
If, as a cyclist, you agreed with the idea of educating drivers from a cyclist’s point of view, what might that imply? Do we think drivers aren’t focused on their driving? I suspect from experience that that’s unfortunately often true. So do we think some drivers might be deliberately inconsiderate or selfish? Maybe others just plain stupid? I guess that’s the case too often as well. But then again, same goes for cyclists! I mean, I can’t unilaterally defend cyclists, many of whom I witness riding on the roads, or even on cycle paths in an aggressive manner. And that right there is the crux of the problem with shared roads…
It’s the sharing. Or more accurately, the not-sharing!
Honestly, I get it, space is tight, specially in cities without isolated cycle ways or that just aren’t designed for safe co-existence of all road users. And that results in our little egos painting the situation as a competition for turf. And that’s never going to end in the kind of polite cooperative co-habitation on the roads that I’m sure we’d all love to be part of. However, Dear Reader, it seems to be what we’ve got. So it’s with that in mind: riding in the real world and an understanding of how and why people do what they do, that we’ll look at some easy techniques for confronting and overcoming fear of cycling in traffic – and it’s probably justified to a degree – and how to get you riding on the road if that’s your goal 🙂
Fear? What is it good for? Absolutely nuthin!
Well now, hold on just a minute! 😛 Fear is simply our psychological response to a threat. It’s an inbuilt self-protecting mechanism. It causes physiological reactions within us that urge us to protective action. But I guess the crux of dealing with or coping with fear is in evaluating and possibly rationalizing what constitutes “a threat”. Everyone’s gonna be completely different on that. Everyone has different outlooks on risk. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s not for me to try to persuade you to the idea that our public roads are perfectly safe. That wouldn’t be, objectively-speaking, true. I think if fear is prohibiting you from doing something you want to do – in this case riding on the roads – then that’s one reason to re-evaluate that fear.
Q: Re-evaluate my cycling fear? Why, when it’s a perfectly rational fear to have?
A: It’s not so much that this fear is – to a degree(!) – a rational fear, it’s more the case that fear itself, or the brain’s neural networks responsible for rational cognition are highly sensitive to threat. When we feel fearful, our cognitive response to problems tends towards more reactive, emotionally-based, and possibly, what should I say, injudicious or imprudent views and/or actions. Every road vehicle then could potentially be seen as a moving execution device with your name embossed on the front grille. And if we perceive each and every road vehicle this way then our primitive brain sets us in a state of even higher alert. Unfortunately this feedback loop can foster anxiety at best and panic if it continues unchecked. And the most expedient solution to those two things is complete avoidance.
All of that’s by no means suggesting that taking certain precautions before cycling in traffic is unwise. Not at all 🙂 However, avoiding cycling in traffic because of what could be an overestimation of the danger doesn’t serve us well either because that’s impacting on our free choice to ride as we want. And that can, if we don’t have alternatives, lead to reduction or loss of motivation. Fair enough? Good 🙂 Oh, if you’re interested, I’ve written more about what to do to overcome loss of ride motivation in another article.
Q: But what is it that’s causing the cycling fear in the first place?
A: It could simply be that traffic and motor vehicles, particularly large ones, are noisy and can seem intimidating to a cyclist. That can leaves us feeling diminutive, or lacking confidence. In turn that exposed or endangered feeling can precipitate concerns over trying something completely new and unfamiliar – possibly before you’re ready for it! It’s all of those things that can ultimately lead to worry about crashing, being crashed into and injury.
So you can see that while some of the concerns are justified, it’s a cumulative effect that gives rise to our ultimate concern that we’re gonna get hurt, injured or killed. But that’s despite a wealth of evidence demonstrating the infrequency of serious injury, particularly compared to other sports and other general activities such as work tools and situations.
Q: So how do we set about overcoming fear of cycling in traffic?
A: Again, because of our individual risk profiles, how we cope with, manage and then overcome fear will differ for each of us. Nevertheless there are some common threads in handling our road-cycling fear. Here’s what I do myself and what I’d suggest so you’re out on the road, riding safely and getting to where you need to be, or get the ride in that you want.
1. Declare your willingness
Before you can even begin to determine your goals and utilize the following techniques, it would behoove you to make a commitment to a road cycling undertaking. In other words, we need a firm decision to follow through on all the talk and thinking that we might do you and I from here to the end of the article. You with me? I’m not talking about being cavalier about what we’re going to do, just that we are going to do it!
All this does is to signal to yourself a willingness to give it a try. For me, I find this helps give me a buffer between my doubts and the act of doing 🙂 Just a way of hacking our cycling minds!
2. Set sensible goals for your new road cycling
Usually I’d talk about long-term goals overall and ride-goals for each time we go out. And I guess our long-term, or end goal is to ride confidently and safely in traffic. I think that’s a given. But the best direction from which to approach our cycling fear might be to first of all understand where we are with our cycling fear right now before doing anything. After that, I’d suggest we imagine if we were to take one small step towards our end goal, what might that small step be?
And, at risk of my examples sounding be too difficult for one cyclist and too easy for another, the small step might be riding a road you have in mind, but doing so at a time when the traffic is lighter, usually early morning or late night. The small step might, on the other hand, simply involve riding a quieter road and mentally envisioning the traffic around you with a view to stepping up your confidence in the actual situation. Remember, when it comes to confidence, it’s ok to fake it ’til you make it. Contriving up a confidence you haven’t yet acquired is a useful technique because, unfortunate maybe, but often it’s only through doing something we’re not able to that we gain the confidence to do it. It’s a pig that it has to be that way, but it’s how it is.
Getting soapy? Not quite!
So what will give the small step its power is in setting it sufficiently small for you that you guarantee success. No cheating though! In cognitive and other therapies, usually for anxiety, fears and phobia, I’d use a metric known as Subjective Units of Distress (SUD). Briefly, for any given situation, in this case our fear of riding in traffic, we’ll have a number of scenarios ranging from the very tame, say riding on a deserted public road whose only other users are discarded newspapers, which would be a zero on the SUD scale, right up to negotiating the Arc de Triomphe roundabout at rush hour, which would likely be a 10 on the SUD scale.
Now, for the greatest effectiveness of our small step, we don’t want a zero on the scale. That takes no doing. It’s no challenge. And what we’re doing here is challenging our idea of how dangerous this task is. So it has to be a challenge, but it has to be one we can indeed accomplish. So what we want is a small step, a task that lies between a 5 and 7 on your own SUD scale. Everyone has their own. Maybe a 5-7 for you is riding a particular road at rush-hour time, but on a public holiday or on a Saturday maybe some time when traffic is present but lighter.
It might be useful here (or in any situation you find fearful) to brainstorm a SUDs list. Not just for its own sake, but I’ve found with clients that taking a moment in the middle of a situation they find fearful and evaluating their SUD is not only a grounding to cap any anxiety or panic, but it also gives that headspace, even for that second it can take you out of the fear. Often that’s enough for a kind of reset back to rational thinking 🙂 Hope that’s not too much information!
So our takeaway tasks from this are to determine our SUDs, find one at 5-7 on that scale, set our mind to it, and do it. It’s important that you do this part and feel your way into the accuracy of your SUDs. If not, what can happen is that you choose one registering 5-7 and go try it. If you haven’t given your thought to it and that task turns out to be an 8 or 9, then what? What’s going to happen? You’ll back out and possibly see that as a fail. So evaluate best you can and choose your small step wisely to ensure it’s both a challenge and achievable 🙂
And you don’t have to spend long. Just long enough that you can count it as a success. If you turn onto a massively busy street and turn off at the next block, maybe that’s enough for you to feel a sufficient level of success. If it is, job done, congratulate yourself for your achievement. And if it isn’t, stay on that street until you feel you’ve done what you set out to do, then turn off.
After this, you can move to your next step if you’re ready. If not, just repeat the previous one until you feel your confidence has grown sufficiently that the task has dropped below 5 on your SUD scale. The next task can be a repeat of the previous, maybe for a few blocks longer say or at a busier time of day. Or, if your whole SUD scale has needed re-jigged following the success of the last small task, then just go back and choose another 5-7 for your next step.
It’s by taking a series of small steps like these, one at a time towards the end goal is the way to begin instilling in us a ride confidence that ensures we can confront this fear. By confronting it, by finding ways through it safely, small steps at a time, our fear of it diminishes, and eventually disappears 🙂 And it’s unlikely to take as long as you might have initially thought!
3. Moderate your attitude
Yeah you’re attitude stinks! Lol, just kidding! 😛 No, by this I just mean consciously checking how’s our mindset before we start this small step task? It’s perfectly normal to have a little apprehension. That’s fine. If, on the other hand, we’re predicting certain doom, well we can set ourselves into a downward spiral. Those thoughts can cause the release of stress hormone cortisol which can encourage recall of previous negative events in our lives which persuades us to the dangers and urges us to respond in a way it deems appropriate. Yes, it’s a hardwired primal safety mechanism that tries to keep us safe. Unfortunately we don’t live on the plains these days. And that sense isn’t always fully apprised and brought up to speed on our current position. No matter how dangerous road cycling may appear, it still remains somewhat dissimilar to swimming from a starved shoal of piranha 😮
I mean I’m just an average Joe, been cycling on roads seriously for the last 30-something years and haven’t had any notable incidents in that time. And that’s not random chance and luck, cos I ain’t lucky! If I can do it, so can you 🙂 That’s all I mean here: you got this. Remind yourself of that fact. Thank your nay-saying inner voice if present, but we don’t need that advice for now. It ain’t well-founded.
4. Reconnoitre your route
Not essential by any means this one. I’d suggest if it’s your first ride in traffic choosing a route that doesn’t involve lane changing. That’s possibly a few steps along the process if you’re just beginning. But if you’re at that stage, yeah, a reconnaissance on foot or even in your motor vehicle can be helpful 🙂
Q: Even if I reduce my road cycling fears, there are still risks, right?
Q: Uh, thanks, so how do I minimize the risks associated with cycling in traffic?
1. Wear a helmet
Honestly, it’s a no-brainer. Irrespective of the science proves its efficacy or not, I’d say, what’s your reason not to?
2. Be seen
As above, you can’t absolutely guarantee a vehicle driver is gonna see you no matter what. Specially if they’re on their phones or driving without due care and attention. But we might as well do what we can to give ourselves the best chances. You don’t have to wear day-glo clothing if it’s not your thing. I’ve seen cyclists suffer near misses dressed like beacons. So it’s not the be all and end all. It’s nice to have plenty of reflective elements built into clothing, particularly in the darker seasons to illuminate you in vehicle headlights.
Lights are another essential. I keep my rear light in dayflash mode which is fairly bright, Some might say inconsiderately so, but I’m all for making my presence known to passing motorists. I’ve tried the front in both steady and various flashing modes. I’ve had drivers fail to spot me in both modes. Nevertheless I ride with a rear illuminated all the time now, day or night. I like the feeling of having piece of mind whether it’s well-founded or not!
Ultimately though, I wouldn’t rely solely upon my clothing and lights to guarantee I’m seen by forever-late motorists. Instead I try to simply be aware…
3. Be aware
I think this is a case of not assuming anything about drivers. Don’t assume they’ll give way when the road markings dictate. Don’t even assume they’ll stop. As cyclists we shouldn’t have to, but it’s incumbent upon us to assess the road continuously in order to stay safe.
Be aware of vehicles emerging at junctions or from buildings or houses. I’m particularly observant at roundabouts where I’m always prepared to (and have had to) stop where I’ve had right-of-way but haven’t been seen despite my 1200 lumen front light! Yep, it happens.
I can only guess drivers don’t always pay attention, or get confused by either the brightness of, or the flashing lights? I’m not sure. As a driver I’m happy to wait for a bike to move by safely. But then I, like many of you I’m sure, know the road from both sides of the story!
Listen for vehicles approaching too. Get used to looking over your shoulder from time to time to keep yourself apprised of the traffic situation.
This isn’t an exhortation to paranoia, rather it’s simply a matter of watching drivers’ actions like a hawk to stay safe.
4. Be confident (or just fake it ’til you make it!)
It’s not always as simple as it sounds this. If you’re feeling fearful or nervous about riding on roads among traffic, the very idea of being confident can seem like a clueless sentiment. And it is. But acting that way until it becomes real is a simple hack that can and does work if you allow it to.
Q: So how do I act confident on my bike on the road when I’m not confident?
A: Assume an assertive position on the road. Be cognisant of the fact that on most roads besides motorways or freeways, you have the same right to use the highway as any other road vehicle. Don’t feel therefore that you must ride with your wheels scraping the kerb and riding in the gutter. Claim a third of the lane to give yourself presence. It’s not about staking a claim to anything, it’s simply about putting yourself in a position where you’re firmly in the field of vision of drivers you can’t be missed by them scanning the road. Adopting this assertive position in a lane allows you to move in if a driver passes without giving you the amount of space they ought. If you’re at the kerb and they do this, you’ve nowhere to go besides bunnyhopping up!
When stopped at lights I move right into the middle of the lane. Why? Because drivers have a tendency to pull alongside which doesn’t afford us the few seconds side-to-side wiggling we often need to step onto the saddle or clip into the pedals and get going on green. Once I’m past the junction I pull back over to the third-way out mark.
While we’re not looking to stake any claim, neither are we looking to be selfish…
The less competitive you are on the road, the better. Lacking space causes that inbuilt competition in us. My advice: avoid it for your own good despite the competitive actions of other road users. If you can manage courtesy that’s fine. If you find you can’t manage to signal when you’re turning off the road or you can’t stop yourself from jumping red lights, it suggests you’ve bought into the competitive road user syndrome. A recipe for stress I tells ya! 😀
So it’s simply a case of acting out that confidence. Stay your course as you would were you completely assured. You’ll find the confidence you’re alluding to by your actions will be yours to own in a short time.
5. Ride with someone or in a group
It may not be practical nor feasible for you, but often when riding with someone we create a bigger presence on the road. That’s all this is. If you have someone to ride with, or if you’re able to seek out a route that has a bunch of other cyclists on it, drivers may be more accustomed to safely interacting with those cyclists.
6. Choose the quietest roads
Yes, I know this article is about overcoming fear of riding on busy roads. But all that does is give us the option to do so if needed. For me, if I can avoid a busy road by riding a quieter road, I totally will. It’s not a question of fear or danger. I just prefer less bustle. Again, this isn’t meant to circumvent giving you that confidence. After all, unless you live on a quiet street and where you need to go is on a quiet street and there are nothing but quiet streets connecting, then the implication is that at some point, we gotta go ride in traffic! All I’m saying is that for any parts of your journey where you can take alternate less-travelled routes, it might benefit your equanimity to do so! Works for me 🙂
So as ever, thanks for reading to here. I hope there’s been something here to help organise your thinking and motivate you to be that confident road cyclist that I would guarantee you have within you. Meantime, best wishes for the small steps, stay cool and ride safe, David.