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How can I make it clear to other road users that I'm an inexperienced cyclist?

Bicycles Asked on April 21, 2021

I’m in my mid-20s and I’m currently learning to bike, on my own, as I don’t have anyone to teach me. My goal is to be able to commute to work when I want to, be able to travel to nearby towns, and more generally to get over the frustration of not knowing how to bike.

Practicing turns, signals, maneuvering and the like on an empty parking lot is one thing, but I figured if I wanted to do the above, I’d have to actually get on the road at some point, so I’ve begun biking in the city. I had no extremely close calls so far, but I’m occasionally given "weird" looks by other road users, or honked at. When it’s cyclists or pedestrians, I explain that I’m currently learning and ask them what I did wrong; folks are usually receptive ("we’ve all started somewhere!") and describe what I shouldn’t have done, what I did by the book but they didn’t expect me to, etc.

However, I can’t stop motorists, and shouting "SORRY I’M NEW TO THIS" is unlikely to be heard, and more likely to be misheard as an insult. I have no way of knowing whether I was honked at because I was doing something dangerous, or the driver was just annoyed by me biking slowly, as my current average speed is about 10 km/h (6 mph). At the same time, the driver has no way of knowing whether I’m a cyclist unconcerned by road rules, or just an inexperienced one: people will make the natural (but wrong) assumption than mid-20s me being on a bike means I know what I’m doing.

I’d like to have something to make it blatant to other road users that I’m a newbie. My goal here is twofold:

  • Motorists being a bit more cautious around me (though they should be to begin with, since as a cyclist I’m more vulnerable than they are)
  • Not harming the cyclist community by having people think stuff like "cyclists are jerks who behave like they own the place, just look at this one".

Since I’m mostly thinking of high-speed users here, it should be something that can be seen and acknowledged in a second or so. For instance, in my country, young drivers (driving license obtained less than 3 years ago) have to stick an "A-disk" to their trunk:

Back of a city car with a magnetic A-disk: red A in a white circle

I’ve thought of patching one up with a white cloth and red marker, but I’m not sure it’s the best thing to do:

  • I’m not sure how I could make it stay on my backpack;
  • I have very long hair (it reaches the middle of my butt), which I have trouble keeping tucked under a jacket while biking. I’m afraid my hair may hide the A-disk;
  • I’ve never seen a cyclist with one, so I’m not sure motorists would understand it’s a serious thing and not some kind of accessory.

What else could I use, or how could I improve the A-disk idea?

Some precisions, if relevant:

  • Location is a French city with more than 30k inhabitants. From my inexperienced cyclist’s point of view, it has a decent amount of bike paths and bike lanes, and the car drivers seem pretty patient (compared to the "cyclist nightmare situation" I’ve heard of in the biggest cities like Paris, Marseille, etc). I’m careful of taking the routes I’ve judged to be the most cyclist-friendly, but there are still cars (i.e. danger) on them.
  • I have a helmet, a bell, a (weak) front light, a pump, side and back reflectors. I am thinking of buying a rear light and a high-visibility jacket.
  • I can signal but only with my left hand.
  • I can’t bike while standing up on the pedals (yet).
  • I don’t have anyone to ride with me, and I can’t attend the biking lessons given in my city (I’m at work when they take place).

I’ve searched this site for beginner signal, inexperienced, without success; and Googling variations of this question’s title only bring up results about learning to bike as an adult, what to think of when biking in the city, etc, not this specific point about "beware the newb" signalling.

12 Answers

Around here the most highly-correlated sign of a new cyclist is a high-visibility vest:

High visibilty yellow vest

They're not expensive (a search on Amazon UK pulls up several under £5), lightweight enough to not be hugely uncomfortable in the summer, and loose enough to go over a light jacket in cooler weather.

Answered by DavidW on April 21, 2021

This is an interesting and thoughtful question, and just the fact that you are thinking carefully about how other road users think about you is very valuable and will contribute to your safety on the road.

Your question makes a lot of sense. How do you indicate to drivers that you need and deserve their consideration and patience, especially when you have doubts about your own skill on the bike and the road right now?

Unfortunately, I am not sure that being seen as inexperienced will result in drivers being more considerate. I think it is likely to have the opposite effect. Just look how impatient and inconsiderate drivers can be when dealing with a learner driver who holds them up or inconveniences them.

Even children, unfortunately, don't in my experience get treated with more patience or consideration.

My warning would be that making your inexperience clear to other drivers is likely to have negative results.

Three points

Instead, I believe that the key things are to be:

  • noticed - the driver has to see you in the first place
  • thought about - can you give the driver reasons to think more carefully about you?
  • respected - can you give the driver reasons to consider your value and needs?

One of the best things I've read to help think about this is David Martin's Theory of Big. I won't repeat its points here, but I think it's well worth reading.

Regarding those points above:

To be noticed

Are you brightly lit, visible, do you stand out, catch eyes? Do you ride in a visible position, make clear, large signals? How do you dress, and move?

Mostly, these are easy things to do. Riding in a visible position needs confidence though; that's not always so easy.

To be thought about

It's not enough merely to be noticed. You want to take up some space in the thoughts of drivers. What can you do to achieve this?

Unfortunately, once again it often does take some confidence to ride in a way that helps you get thought about.

For example, on a road that I know has pot-holes or gravel in awkward places, I will ostentatiously signal and move widely around them; this can help a driver think "oh, this person moves around and does stuff" (not: "I can slip by this cyclist without a moment's thought or without leaving much room").

If you need to signal, signal in big, clear, impossible-to-miss ways that look like they express meaning. What you signal are your intentions. The physical act of signalling will get you noticed, but the expression of your intention is what will get you thought about.

More: at a traffic light on a busy road, if I am stopped in front of a car, I might pretend to fiddle with a brake or pedal or gear, or tug at the strap of a pannier, just to occupy some attention of a driver while we wait for the lights to change (when? sometimes I just get a feeling that this might be a useful thing to do).

Or, if I spot an on-coming car on a narrow country lane, I will make sure to move clearly across the line of sight of the oncoming driver before slipping in to the side of the road to make room. I don't disappear into a hedge before the driver has seen me.

Generally, you want to ride in ways that are cautious and predictable but without appearing to be too predictable. If a driver is sure that they know what you will do, that can be very dangerous. Better that they are never entirely sure what you will do, so that they stay alert for what you actually do.

I try to look as though I might do something that needs them to respond to appropriately. I want them to imagine that the wheels might suddenly fall off my bike, that my bags might burst open strewing shopping in their path, that I might suddenly stop to admire a flower or greet a friend.

It's important to note: I am absolutely not recommending foolish or dangerous behaviour. Weaving around unnecessarily around other road users is dangerous. Doing unpredictable things is dangerous. Riding on unreliable equipment can be dangerous. Actually having a loose bag is dangerous.

There are two more important ways that help you get thought about. They are to:

Make strong, clear eye-contact

Eye-contact is valuable. You exchange a lot of information - for example, you can communicate an intention - but you also simply place yourself in another's thoughts by it.

Avoid eye-contact

Sometimes, the opposite is called for. If a driver thinks you haven't seen them, they will be thinking about you and wondering what you will do. That's exactly what you want. So sometimes, I studiously avoid catching a driver's eye.

Which of these two techniques you adopt in any particular case will depend on the precise circumstances; I'm not sure I could formulate a clear rule. Both require and demonstrate a kind of confidence.

But either way, you don't want to appear as an uncertain, diffident road-user whose intentions and future actions are of no consequence and don't need to be thought about.

To be respected

Finally, you need to be respected. There are two senses to being respected:

You need to be respected as a human being

People, mostly, will recognise and respect another's humanity. Show that you are a human being, a being like them, to whom they have a duty of care.

The acts described earlier that help you get thought about flow directly into this. Now, as well as being thought about as a road user or as another vehicle on the road, you want to take another step, to be thought about as a human being.

So do human things, and look human.

I might take my hat off (I don't bother wearing a helmet, but it's not a discussion I'm much interested in having) and scratch my head on a long downhill stretch. "Oh," thinks the driver, recognising that I am a person just like them, "that person has an itch." Or I will tuck my top in, or pull it out. I might blow my nose at the traffic lights. Something that shows that I have a human body will never be to my disadvantage.

I'm not suggesting to make your bike rides into an unrelenting pantomime of extravagant gestures and unnecessary actions. You don't need to put on any kind of absurd performance (which in itself would be dangerous). It's rather that what you do, when you do it and who you do it in front of makes a difference, so you need to think about it, and use it to your advantage.

You need to be respected as a respectable road user

As well as automatically deserving respect as a human being, which you'd hope would be recognised by all, it also helps to earn respect. Maybe this shouldn't be necessary, but unfortunately, it often is.

Ride politely and considerately. Obey the rules of the road, and make a point of doing so. Stop at lights. Courteously invite motorists to pull out or pass when it's safe to do so.

If a driver makes way for you, make it clear that you thank them. Don't just wait to notice it, try to catch drivers in the act of being considerate so that you can acknowledge it.

Finally, people often respect people who behave as though they deserve respect. That is a good way to ride: confidently, as though you belong on the roads, as though you expect their consideration and respect. Diffidence and uncertainty will unfortunately lose you that respect from some drivers. Act confidently - such as making signals and decisions - even when you don't feel like it, or at least, as much as you can.

This is why I think that advertising your inexperience can do you more harm than good.

It's really hard to do many of the things that I have advocated above. They take confidence, and experience, and practice. Many of them involve demonstrating your vulnerability as a road user, but not your weakness.

I hope this helps, and I hope it helps think about how you need to appear in the eyes of other road users.

I wish I could offer more useful advice about how to do this, for a person who doesn't know already how to. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy your riding and acquire the confidence you're looking for.

Answered by Daniele Procida on April 21, 2021

Cars drivers are not going to give you any breaks because you are new at cycling, so you need to learn how to not be a newbie.

If you have trouble controlling the bike you need to go somewhere safe and practice. Ride on grass if you think you may fall off. Practice stopping. starting, signaling, taking either hand off the bars to signal, looking over you shoulder to get a good look for cars behind on both sides, executing emergency stops and tight turns etc. Standing up on the pedals or going faster are not required, but being able to lift your butt off the saddle a little to cushion the jolt of going over bumps is a very useful skill for comfort and to keep control.

Learn the rules and laws of the road where you live. Find out what you are expected or required to do as a cyclist.

Learn defensive cycling techniques. These involve positioning on the road, predicting what car drivers will do, finding safe ways through intersection etc. use Strava, Google maps, Komoot or other routing apps to find the most bike friendly routes.

You may not have cycling fiends to teach you but there’s a lot to be learnt online. YouTube especially is a great resource.

Answered by Argenti Apparatus on April 21, 2021

As someone who both drives and rides a bike, I'm a bit paranoid about being the cyclist in a car/cyclist collision. Thus, when riding, I try to (a) avoid the possibility of physically "interacting" with a car and (b) be highly visible.

Personally, I'd rather ride on the sidewalk (if legal in your area) or a car-free trail or low-traffic sidestreet even if that slows me down (my normal pace is about 14mph). I also wear multiple bright blinking red tail-lights, at least one on my bike and one on the back of my helmet.

It gets dark late these days in the northern hemisphere, but try to think about visibility from a driver's point of view. If you're young and have good vision, put on a pair of sunglasses at twilight, ride in a car or bus and see how much more difficult it is to spot riders then. Remember, there are plenty of drivers out there with much worse vision than you, and who are likely concentrating more on other cars or being late than looking out for cyclists.

Also, don't wear earpods/headphones while riding -- your sense of hearing can alert you to danger from the side or behind that you can't see. Good luck!

Answered by Armand on April 21, 2021

To add to the other excellent answers:

Be predictable, proactive, and be visible

I am a cyclist in a largish French city (Versailles), I also drive a car - and looking at cyclists from the perspective of a driver is what made me change my behaviour.

Predictability: make sure that what you do is expected by the drivers, even if it means thinking way ahead. You need to avoid a parking car? Start to deviate way before the car to make sure the car behind you understands what you want to do. Some will honk, does not matter - you made it alive.

Visibility: I look like a Christmas tree when I bike. Several lamps flash, I have reflective gear around. It looks really silly until the moment you realize that this is what made you visible to the car.

When you drive a car, you do not see everything. Some rain and you see 30% less. So always assume that the car does not see you until you see that they see - which means your eyes meet their eyes, or you see them stopping for you.

Answered by WoJ on April 21, 2021

That's a good question, and is great that you are taking the time to think about these issues. You have stated your goals clearly, so I am going to address those rather than your specific questions, since, as I will try to explain, I don't think your goals are best met in the way you are now imagining.

You say you want

Motorists being a bit more cautious around me (though they should be to begin with, since as a cyclist I'm more vulnerable than they are)

Not harming the cyclist community by having people think stuff like "cyclists are jerks who behave like they own the place, just look at this one".

Drivers knowing that you are inexperienced will not make them more cautious or considerate around you: Walker et al. 2014 (the paper is sadly paywalled, but one of the scenarios they tested was a hi viz jacket with a prominent "novice cyclist" sign on it; this did not lead to wider overtaking space).

This is in line with my personal experience - cycling "cautiously" is more likely to attract frustration than consideration. Drivers are more likely to employ "usurping" behaviour (things that are illegal and dangerous to cyclists but avoid an inconvenience to the driver) if they think they can intimidate you into, for example, yielding to them even if you have right of way.

Slightly tongue in cheek, your long hair may be your best bet. The same author Walker 2007 found that drivers did leave him extra space if he wore a long wig. This comes from a place of patronising sexism but, if it helps you keep safe, go for it. My hair doesn't grow long, but I cycle in dresses a lot and I have the impression that it helps (I do end up showing a fair bit of leg, so there's also that).

I cannot speak for the cycling community as a whole, but my position is that you should not worry at all about the second point. As long as you follow the law (no riding on pavements, unless it's legal where you are, no running red lights etc) you have the same rights to the road as anyone else. There's a subset of the driving community that does not agree with this, and will consider all cyclists on the road as an inconvenience and an imposition. Nothing you can do will change their mind. Unfortunately these people are the most likely to cause you trouble. You will develop a sense for them over time. I fully acknowledge that this will be inflammatory and contested, but I am extra wary of professional drivers (taxis and delivery, buses depending on road design), drivers of oversized urban suvs and similar "macho" vehicles, and of course erratic/bad/reckless drivers.

There are a couple of things in your post that could be improved, in particular

  • do learn to signal with both hands. In France, the right hand will be less important but you still need it in roundabouts (which can be very unpleasant on a bike) and in general you want to be confident enough to be able to take either hand off the bike in an emergency (ask me about wasps!).
  • some emergency braking practice in a parking lot will never go amiss - mostly so that you do it without having to think.
  • get good lights front and back, probably the detachable type if you expect to leave the bike in public places. I would go so far as to recommend a main detachable set (I use usb rechargeable led lights) and a cheap backup set permanently attached for when your main run out of batteries/are in the other bag/you didn't expect to stay so late and now it's dark.
  • you don't necessarily need to know how to fix your bike, but you need to be able to tell when it needs fixing and have someone who can do it for you. This is particularly important re: brakes.

More broadly

  • Really look into defensive cycling techniques. They are very much not what you may imagine. Others have mentioned a lot of good tips on positioning, eye contact etc, and see also this article. The core of defensive cycling is never to put the driver in a position to choose between your safety and their convenience: sometimes, this means specifically reducing their convenience (e.g. cycling in the middle of the road, or "taking the lane", so that they can't overtake you by squashing you to the side). Please use normal road user courtesy where you can (and acknowledge it when others do it for you) but never to the detriment of your safety.
  • Do not try too much to make drivers "care" for you. The most dangerous drivers are those who will never care about a cyclist anyway. You can't know which those are, so the safe and sensible position is to assume that each driver is a bloodthirsty incompetent cnut. This is obviously unfair in most drivers' case, but they will never know, and will keep you alive in the small proportion of cases when you turn out to be correct.

And remember: you gain more years of good, healthy life with the cardiovascular benefits of cycling than you risk (on average) in an accident!

Answered by Guest on April 21, 2021

Answer: Don't.

People won't be more careful around you, but might feel an increased need to "educate" you (by honking at you when they think you shouldn't be in their way, for example).

Instead learn to cycle and be assertive and defensive, ask questions here, join a cycle club, etc.

As anecdotal evidence, a guy recently stopped his car, got out and physically attacked me while I was wearing a high-visibility vest. In a similar incident when I happened to be wearing a black wet suit including mask, the guy in the car didn't dare to get out and attack me.

In traffic, there is the rule of the strong. Don't show weakness.

Answered by Nobody on April 21, 2021

I noticed something in your question that I want to address directly and I'm not sure if someone had already.

Riding a bicycle with long hair requires taking safety precautions. Please tie your hair up and away from any moving parts on the bicycle.

I rode bicycles for many years with my long hair and it does feel quite good. I think, as a general rule, when you're wearing a helmet and riding a bicycle the hair needs to be secured, just like if you're working around moving machinery.

Answered by American Garbage on April 21, 2021

I ride in Paris a lot, and I'm often seen as inexperienced because I use a lot of shared bikes (Velib). I'll add that my personal criteria to judge a cyclist as inexperienced is their ability to keep a straight trajectory, so in my opinion that's the first thing you should work on, which includes indicating when you are about to change said trajectory.

In my experience, being seen as a newbie driver will make other drivers a bit more wary (they usually don't want to hit a cyclist) BUT will also make them angry, so it's up to you to make sure you want to display your inexperience.

One thing I find reassuring is to have a side mirror like this one. It shows to the drivers that you see them and will usually prompt them to use their turning signals more often when they pass you (since you can see it thanks to the mirror). You can also use some dissuasive plastic clips like this one, but it might hinder you, your call.

If you happen to have a bad interaction with drivers, my take on it is to notice the honkings / angry rants and reflect on it. If you are genuinely doing something wrong (e.g. forgot to go back to the right lane) then correct it, maybe thank the driver with a hand / foot sign and that's it. If you are doing nothing wrong, just riding slowly for example, just ignore it, they are being the bad driver, not you. As many people said, some people honk learning drivers' cars, can't do much about it.

Answered by true on April 21, 2021

In The Netherlands kids have an orange flag attached to their bike making the young, vulnerable (and inexperienced) biker more noticeable and signaling that the there's a vulnerable road user present:

enter image description here
(Sorry, I couldn't find another photo of the flag so I used this photo of a kid. No offence meant w.r.t. your biking abilities)

The flag "pole" is flexible and by its wobbly movement attracts more attention to the flag. Perhaps you can attach such a flag with the letter A on it to signal you're a new biker?

As noted in the comments, recumbent bicycles also use these in NL, so it's not only for young/inexperienced riders.

Apparently Erlkoenig already noted this idea in a comment, but I only saw that comment after I posted this answer.

Answered by Saaru Lindestøkke on April 21, 2021

  • The go-to book in the UK is Cyclecraft by John Franklin. ISBN 9780117037403
  • You won't educate car drivers. If you think ahead and avoid well-known traps then you should be fine.
  • See and be seen. (Keep about 1m from the curb. Space never killed anybody. You are entitled to be on the road. If they honk that's fine -- It shows they've seen you.)
  • Cycling safely is NOT intuitive: https://vulpeculox.net/cycling/qcktest.htm
  • Key points on one page: https://vulpeculox.net/cycling/pedalpoints2.htm
  • You will find some particular places very tricky/scary. A simple strategy is 'avoid' but another is to be bold with a bit of help from a more experienced cyclist.
  • Find a buddy. (Ask at work. Chat to fellow cyclists while stopped at the red light.) Even just 45 minutes with an experienced cyclist will free you from of a lot of habits you never knew were bad and help you claim your bit of space on the road.

Good luck and happy adventures. You are not a victim!

Answered by Peter Fox on April 21, 2021

My recommendation would be to relax.

Do not excessively worry about drivers around you.

Just stay to the right of your bicycle lane like most laws specify.

I have seen riders not caring to stay to the right of the bicycle lane.

They are just asking to be hit.

Do NOT run stop signs or lights no matter how tempting it is.

When I am driving a car, I will go to the left lane to allow clearance for the bicycle rider.

But many drivers do not do so.

Take care,

Andy

Answered by fixit7 on April 21, 2021

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