Bicycle Handling Skills are an Important Part of Safe Cycling

One way to assure that you stay safe while riding is to understand and practice the proper techniques of bicycle handling.  This isn't always intuitive and you probably were never taught this when you first learned to ride a bicycle.  If you're like most people you've adapted over time.

Bicycle handling is important because it's one of the ways you communicate with other road users while on the bike.  If you appear confident and in control in traffic, you're sending a subtle yet powerful message that you belong on the road.  Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.  Here are the critical skills to focus on and practice in order to better handle your bicycle and become a more complete cyclist.

Starting and Stopping

When riding in traffic, you're legally obligated to follow all traffic laws.  That means stopping for traffic signals.  Motorists expect certain behavior of other road users at intersections.  Smart cyclists come to a complete stop and remove one foot from the pedal.  This effectively communicates to the motorist that you're stopping.  If you stay on the bike, they have no idea what you're going to do and that creates confusion and stress.

By taking one foot off the pedal while leaving the other in the two-o'clock position, the cyclist signals clearly that he is stopped, but can also move forward quickly.


When it's your turn to go, start quickly and with confidence.  The easiest way to do so is by assuring that the foot still on the pedal is in the "up" or "two o'clock" position.  This allows you to put  your weight on the pedal and push down powerfully to propel yourself forward.  If you're using clipless pedals, don't worry about clipping in until after you've cleared the intersection.

Speed and Cadence

If your bicycle comes equipped with multiple gears, use them to keep your cadence, or pedaling speed,  at a comfortable level.  In most cases, that's between 75 and 95 revolutions per second.  If your feet are spinning furiously on the pedals, upshift.  If you're working too hard to push yourself forward, downshift.  Focus on cadence first and speed second.  You'll find that you can go further with less effort, and this will make you a more alert and safer cyclist.

The right cadence makes it possible to ride longer and more comfortably.
The right cadence makes it possible to ride longer and more comfortably.

Scanning and Signaling

It's also important to know how to scan for and signal your intentions to other road users. This is not intuitive and it takes practice to become proficient.  Learn to scan first and signal second.

Scanning is the process of looking over your shoulder to identify approaching traffic.  In most cases, you'll look over your left shoulder but you can use both.  Until you're experienced, you'll find that your bike will typically turn the direction you're scanning.  You can use a helmet or handlebar mount mirror to assist, but there's really no substitute for scanning.  Learn how to do it effectively and you'll be safer as a result.

Signaling requires removing a hand from the handlebars. Practice to keep moving straight ahead.

Signaling is how we communicate with motorists and other road users while riding.  Common hand signals include those for right and left turns as well as slowing down and stopping.  The traditional right turn signal, which is to extend your left arm out and upward, may confuse motorists who have never seen it.  Remember that the object is to communicate effectively.  You'll want to signal whenever you feel the need to communicate your intentions to other road users. This includes not only when you're turning, but also changing lanes.

Steering and Riding a Straight Line

Bikes steer differently than behicles with four wheels.  It's mostly about leaning.  Every time you push down on a pedal, the bike leans away from the direction you're pushing.  As a result, moving forward is a combination of many small left and right movements.  With practice, you will become quite adept at riding a straight line and steering simply by leaning the bicycle the direction you want to go rather than turning the handlebars.

Turns (and riding in a straight line) are mostly about learning how to properly lean the bike.
Turns (and riding in a straight line) are mostly about learning how to properly lean the bike.

Learning to properly start and stop, shift gears, signal, scan and turn are important skills that will add to your enjoyment of cycling.  Be thinking about these techniques while riding, and you'll find that your confidence while riding in traffic will grow as well.


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!