7th September 2016

What is defensive cycling and how can you benefit from it?


bicycle armor

In an ideal world, all road users would be courteous, and everyone would be paying attention all of the time. (There would also be free cake stops.) We know this isn’t the case, so cyclists often have to take special precautions.

Almost ironically, the way to make yourself safer while cycling on the road is by being in the way. ‘Defensive cycling’ helps you do that by preventing other road users from taking advantage of your relatively small size and slow speed.

Here’s a couple of pointers to start (for UK cyclists):

the edge falling off stage

  1. Stay away from The Edge

If you’re slightly nervous about cycling on the road, the tendency is to cycle as far over to the left as you can so that you take up as little space as possible. This encourages some motorists to take little notice of your rightful space on the road, and instead they drive dangerously close.

Instead, cycle two to three feet away from the edge of the road so that you command space like other vehicles do; motorists are forced to actively overtake you as if they were overtaking another car (which they should be doing anyway according to the Highway Code).

Don’t be afraid to take up space, particularly on a bend or on a narrow street. This stops impatient motorists from trying to squeeze past you.

Another advantage of taking an assertive position on the road is that a motorist pulling out from the upcoming junction on your left hand side has a much better chance of seeing you approaching if you’re not hugging the curb.

clint eastwood eyeballing


  1. Make eye contact with other road users

A strange thing seems to happen when people get on the roads: They start seeing other people as the vehicles they’re driving, and stop thinking about them as fellow humans. Similarly, drivers often don’t ‘see’ cyclists, even though they can physically see them.

Making eye contact with drivers not only makes them notice you instead of seeing through you, it may also remind them of your shared humanity.

man on stilts running on treadmill


  1. Stand on the pedals

Motorists are (usually) normal people that don’t set out to actively harm cyclists, so you can encourage motorists to be careful by making yourself appear more vulnerable than you are.

When you hear a car approaching from behind, stand on your pedals. This means you’re not only easier to notice as you take up more space, but it also makes you look like you’re about to do something unpredictable. As such, motorists give you a wider berth.

cat wiggling

  1. Wiggle your handlebars

WARNING: Controversial

A quick wiggle of your handlebars makes your bicycle waver slightly without making you lose any control. But it does give the illusion that you’re not as in-control as you could be, and so motorists are more careful in giving you the space you deserve.

Pro road safety tips from Simon, regular cycling commuter:


  1. Watch out for car doors and pedestrians

It can be difficult to give parked cars enough space to avoid an opened door, but this should be done where possible. You should also be aware when cycling that a car door can be opened in a split second; look and listen.

The same goes for avoiding pedestrians. A favourite of many pedestrians is to step out onto the road before looking (we’ve all done it.) You can pre-empt this by being aware of pedestrians who are striding towards the pavement edge with their backs turned. Having a bell on your bike is handy.

muhammad ali

  1. Don’t pick fights with things that are bigger than you

Be wary of being on the inside of a large vehicle like a bus or a lorry. Even a slight leftward bend in the road can mean that your road space quickly runs out. Proceed with caution.

itchy and scratchy on a plane

  1. Indicate

It can be difficult to indicate on a bicycle if you’re not used to it, because you have to fully control your bike with just one hand. However, indicating saves lives, so it’s worth practising. If you’re about to stop and dismount, also indicate on the left to let other road users know what you’re doing.

car crashing into other cars in carpark

  1. Don’t be a douchebag

You’re not entitled to run through red lights and cycle on the pavement just because you’re physically able to. Whenever the topic of bicycles and road safety comes up, motorists are quick to interject with anecdotes of rampant cyclists running through red lights, crushing entire flocks of innocent ducklings under their careless wheels before disappearing laughing into the night on their (un-lit) bicycles.

Don’t fuel the fire.

It would be great if we had the cycling infrastructure of places like Denmark and the Netherlands, but we can assume that’s not going to happen within the next week. Until then, cycle safe!

For a definitive guide on safe cycling we recommend the book Cyclecraft by John Franklin.

Shop bicycle lights for day and night time use

5 comments on “What is defensive cycling and how can you benefit from it?

  1. Red Roulette Retiree on

    I frequently attend Community Council meetings in North Sutherland – the land of single track roads. Cyclists are often discussed – widely perceived as a problem and widely (and wildly) condemned. Cycling assertively is roundly criticised as being rude and/or branded as the behaviour of ‘suicidal cyclists’ – a common and oft heard moniker. I’m virtually a lone voice trying to defend cyclists and I need help and suggestions as to how combat what is an almost universal animosity. There is a need for north scot motorists to better understand the issues – but there is also a need for cyclists to understand that this quaint single track by-ways are in fact our arterial routes and cyclists have as much responsibility to pull into passing places as any other road user. And would you recommend the sort of assertive cycling suggested here on the A9? It’s a pertinent question because these little by-ways are our A9. “cyclists” is an agenda item on a Community Council meeting next month. What should I say?

    • Web Master on

      Hi Simon,

      Hope yer weel.

      I know assertive cycling might appear to be a bit bolshie to people who believe that a cyclist’s proper place is the gutter or, if they’re feeling liberal, no more than 10cm to the right of it.

      To understand why it makes sense to ride in the primary position, as described in Cyclecraft, just consider this everyday scenario.

      Your driving a car and you’re about to make a right turn from a side street onto the main road. If you look right, which cyclist are you most likely to spot? The timid cyclist hugging the kerb – perhaps momentarily obscured from the driver’s sight lines by trees, street furniture, pedestrians and so on – or the assertive cyclist riding in the primary position a good metre to the right of the kerb?

      The answer is obvious. If you want to minimise the chance of cyclists being knocked off their bikes with potentially catastrophic consequences, you should champion riding in the primary position.

      It’s worth noting that Cyclecraft isn’t a pamphlet propagated by extreme lefty environmentalist Corbynista cyclists.

      Cyclecraft is published by the Stationary Office as a sister volume to their best selling book – the Highway Code. I would nominate it as essential reading at the Bettyhill Community Council’s Book Club

      As with all these issues, we would always advocate consideration rather than confrontation. For instance, while the Highway Code makes it clear that it’s legal for cyclists to ride two abreast (a paragraph not all drivers are aware of) it’s good manners to revert to single file on narrow country roads when it’s safe for following traffic to pass.

      As for Passing Places, any cyclist I know who’s enjoyed riding the Highlands and Islands knows to pull into these spaces to let following traffic past. I reckon that cyclists who don’t do this come from far off lands that don’t have Passing Places and don’t know the etiquette. I would suggest imaginative signs might address this issue.

      Aw ra best,


  2. Martin Gemmell on

    I cycled to Ayr the other day on the A70 then the B743. The A70 is a main artery but very narrow in places. I pulled in twice to let lorries past and was given a friendly toot from the drivers. I did this a third time near Sorn and the lorry driver took a right turn not sure he even saw me? So was a waste of time but still the thing to do. When I did the same route back in Feb I pulled in to let car past but it followed me as I had coincidentally pulled in to their driveway. We had a laugh. One problem with community councils, eg the murrayfield one in Edinburgh is that they are not representative of the community. There is a good programme about the North Coast 500 thT takes in the Bealach na Ba and a local cyclist there has some gruesome stories of treatment he has received from drivers. So my view after this ramble (quite short for me) is that we need to treat each other well. Cyclists should be asked by signs to pull in to passing places. I think on Mull there are signs warning tourist drivers to pull in to make way for local speed merchants? But the community council should try to understand that the community includes cyclists local or visitors and that being friendly encourages return visits and that cyclists are good for the local economy.

  3. Malcolm on

    Intersting to see the make eye contact advice. In Aberdeen that’s near impossible even if you’re in a car never mind on a bike. I seem to recall Midlands Police putting out advice saying you’re better off watching the cars wheels for that wee bit extra warning they’re about to pull out or change direction. This was at the same time they started their excellent operation to clamp down on people driving badly around cyclists, something I think we’d all welcome being rolled out nationwide.


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