Safe Cycling 101: Basic Bicycle Handling

This is the fifth article in an eleven article series on Traffic Skills 101, the League of American Bicyclist's premier vehicular cycling course.  For more information, please contact the author, visit MoBikeFed's Bicycling Safety and Skills Page, or visit the Bike League's website.


It's part of cycling that many people don't give much thought, but if you're serious about safety, then learning proper bicycle handling techniques is of critical importance.
 Basic Bicycle Handling 
Think back to when you first learned to ride a bicycle.  Maybe you were just a child.  If your experience was typical, the focus was probably more about balancing than anything else.  You learned how to get from one place to another without falling off the bicycle.  That's a good start, but if you're going to ride in traffic you need to know more.  Here's what you should focus on.
Starting and stopping
If you're sharing your space with automobiles and other motor vehicles, it's absolutely critical to ride in a predictable and confident manner.  How you start and stop goes a long way toward communicating to motorists that you belong on the road.  When stopped, keep your weight balanced on the "up" pedal in the two o'clock position.  This makes pushing off and gaining speed quickly a breeze.  When stopping, use both brakes.  Apply a little more pressure to the front brake and you will stop more quickly. Turn the handlebars slightly as you stop.  This will cause the bike to lean, making it easier to step off.
Choosing the right gear
Optimal cycling cadence is between 75-95 revolutions per minute.  That's one to one-and-a-half pedal revolutions per second. If you're riding a multispeed bicycle, it's easy to use the gears to maintain a steady cadence.  Choosing the right gear will allow you to go further and faster with less effort.  It will also allow you to maintain a constant speed, which makes it easier to share the road with motor vehicles.
So when should you shift gears?  It depends, but you probably need to shift gears if you're working hard and simultaneously slowing down.  If it's too hard to pedal, downshift to an easier gear.  If your feet are spinning furiously, upshift. Remember, the object is to maintain a constant cadence.  Speed is of secondary importance.
Scanning,  Signaling, and Steering
Communicating with other drivers is an important part of vehicular cycling.  Since bicycles aren't typically equipped with warning devices like turn signals and brake lights, you'll need to scan traffic and use the appropriate hand signals to let motorists know what you're intentions are.
Scanning involves looking over one or both shoulders to determine the position of approaching traffic.  Many beginneers struggle with steering a straight line while scanning.  This is potentially dangerous as it's possible to drift into traffic if you're not careful. Over time, you'll become proficient but youcan speed up the process by practicing.  Always scan well in advance of changing lanes or making a turn.
Once you're comfortable with the position of other traffic on the road, signal your intention.  At a minimum, you must know the common hand signals in your state for turning (both left and right) and stopping.  Be sure to maintain eye contact with other motorists while signalling.  This often (but not always) causes motorists to slow down and exercise additional care.
By focusing on the basics of bicycle handling, you'll develop the skills that will allow you to bicycle safely and with more confidence.  Regardless of your skill level, plan to attend Traffic Skills 101 taught by a Bike League Certified Instructor. It's a great way to brush up on these critical skills and, in the process, become a better cyclist.



Bob Sharpe is a League of American Bicyclists Certified Cycling Instructor and founder of Bike 5, a movement that encourages people to bicycle for short trips of five miles or less.  You can reach him directly through the Bike 5 page on Facebook.

This article is one of a 12-part series on the basics of riding on the road and covering the primary topics found in the League of American Bicyclists Smart Cycling course.

Read all 11 articles in Bob's Safe Cycling Series here.

Find more resources for better bicycling on our Bicycle Skills and Safety page.


Improving safety for Missourians who bicycle, walk, and drive is one of the primary goals of MoBikeFed's Vision for Bicycling and Walking in Missouri. Work to educate and inform Missourians about important safety and skills topics such as those found in this series on safe bicycling is an important part of that effort.

Your ongoing membership and generous financial support help turn our Vision into reality!