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On the Road

01 May 2013

According to legend, Jack Kerouac wrote his seminal road trip novel 'On the Road' in just three weeks, on a continuous 36 metre scroll of paper that he cut to size and taped together. We can now reveal that literary scholar and eBay shopper Ernie has discovered a previously unpublished manuscript of the sequel 'On the Road Skills' where Kerouac applied his caffeine-addled brain to the art and science of navigating the concrete jungle on two wheels.

On the Road Skills

The bike is a great tool for getting around town. But many of us have developed bad habits that add risk and annoy drivers - which in turn adds more risk. The wisdom of many experienced commuters and advocacy groups is summarised here. Some may seem counterintuitive but don't be tempted to cherry-pick those that suit - the approach only works as a whole not in isolation.

1. See

Traffic awareness is your first line of defence. Take a continuous stock take of what's around you. Glance over your shoulder every ten seconds or so - your peripheral vision lets you see what's back there with only a minimal twist of your head. There are good reasons for doing this. Firstly, there are no nasty surprises and you can take evasive action if necessary. Finally, drivers act with more courtesy when they are being watched, eye contact is a powerful thing - a bit like a flashing light, increasing the probability that you're not ignored.

2. Be Seen

The most frequent 'learner' mistake is to hug the kerb. It feels safe tucked away from speeding cars but it's actually quite a risky place to hang out. Drivers seldom wait for an appropriate place to pass. They'll squeeze past as soon as they can without altering their course - often dangerously close to you. Better to guard your lane - about a metre or two into the road - away from car doors and the assorted hazards that linger in the gutter. Occupy the centre of the lane when you are able to travel at the speed of the traffic or if it feels unsafe to be overtaken. Move to the side and let cars pass when you feel they can do so safely.

3. Hold Your Lane

If a car pulls up next to you at an intersection, you are instantly vulnerable in your 'narrow' position when it moves off again. Block this by moving into the centre of the lane as you approach the intersection. This prevents cars from marginalising you, letting you move off safely.

4. Light Up

Wear bright clothing with reflective bits - especially at dawn and dusk or when grey and stormy. Use a headlight, tail light and reflectors at night.

5. The Invisible Man

Make every effort to be seen, then assume you're not. Watch drivers' eyes to see if they look in your direction. Guard against them turning in front of you even when you've got right of way. Position yourself where drivers expect to see other traffic... so avoid riding on the footpath, especially against the flow on the 'wrong side of the road'. Never launch across a side road from the footpath.

6. Be Predictable

... but never boring. Avoid erratic movement, weaving though traffic, manualing along the kerb and the like. Ride smooth and straight so cars can avoid you with ease.

7. Communicate

Use hand gestures correctly. And we ain't talking flipping the bird to bad drivers or half-heartedly raising a limp arm. Instead, check behind, then stick your arm out assertively to indicate your intentions. If this feels scary or wobbly then "more practice riding with one hand, grasshopper". Remember: look, signal, move .

8. Start With Care

Before starting off, position yourself to be seen from a distance. Wait for the Red Sea to part then hop on your bike from the left hand side. Starting on the footpath or between parked cars makes it more difficult for drivers to spot you. Select an easier gear before stopping so you can get up to speed quickly and without the wobbles. Practise slow riding in a straight line at your local park.

9. Hazard Warning

Scan ahead for poor road surfaces or obstacles. Avoid, or treat carefully, slippery painted surfaces, metal service covers, autumn leaves, gravel and oil patches.

10. Prepare to Stop

Fingers should be permanently resting on your brake levers so you can stop on demand. If this feels unnatural then adjust your levers closer to the handlebars. When there is interrupted visibility be ready to slow down - spinning rather than accelerating out of the saddle like Alberto on the Col du Galibier.

11. Anticipate the Left Hook

The dreaded slip lane, standard left turn or roundabout all invite vehicles to cut you off as they turn while you continue straight ahead. Be aware of the 'courteous driver' waving a car across your path when you're in a cycle lane undertaking a queue of stationary traffic. Sadly cycle lanes are often poorly designed - be on your toes where they fade out or are crossed by other traffic. Also guard against car doors opening on you and vehicles (especially buses) pulling away from the kerb directly in front of you.

12. Beat the Blind Spot

Don't ride or stop where a driver is unlikely to see you. Long vehicles like trucks and buses cut across corners when turning. Never cycle on their inside when approaching intersections. Be wary of the vortex created by a bus or large truck when they pass. Even at 50 kph the suck is sufficient to tug you towards them.

13. Give Way

It's staggering how often cyclists sneak a furtive free-left turn without checking for other traffic. Don't assume there isn't a car driving on the shoulder, a bus pulling over or another cyclist occupying the left hand corridor that you're turning into. Pedestrians are often guilty of jaywalking without looking for traffic, relying on aural rather than visual alerts. Not so effective with a fast, quiet bike bearing down on them. Best to assume a pedestrian is always about to walk off the kerb.

14. Defensive Riding

Go all Buddhist-like and bite your tongue in the face of aggressive or abusive drivers. Inciting road rage might feel good at the time but is seldom constructive and can escalate into an ugly scene.

15. Ride with a Friend

Getting around by bike is convenient, healthy and fun. Ride with an experienced cyclist to learn good habits and scout quiet cycling routes.

And if this list is too lengthy to ingest, tattoo this into your top tube: see, be seen, communicate.

Further reading