The Art of Taking the Lane on a Bicycle

“Get yo’ bitch ass offa the road!” yelled the guy in the truck at me. That’s because I was in the middle of the narrow car lane, since there was no room for cars to safely pass me a bike lane or alternative road, and the sidewalks suck. I was in Southeast Austin, Texas in a neighborhood called Govalle (a Swedish, not Spanish word). It’s a less wealthy part of town near the airport that billionaire Elon Musk is transforming with a huge Tesla manufacturing plant. (Teslas are still cars, and they still pollute, albeit less than a standard gas engine car. And those lithium batteries are hugely wasteful to make, even if recycled.) Anyway, it’s a car-centric neighborhood. Traffic wasn’t heavy, so I chose to take the lane — which is completely legal in Texas. Anyway, it was not a pleasant interaction and it got me thinking about how and when to take the lane.

The first thing to know is that this is not for beginners. I’ve been at this a while and I’m still nervous each time. All it takes is one careless or angry driver to wipe out a bicyclist. The guy who yelled at me clearly had forgotten his driver education — if any interactions with bicycles is even taught, I don’t recall. Personally, I think everyone should be required to submit to a written and road driver test every five years when your license is up for renewal, and especially once you are of a certain age (whatever that is). But as a beginner cyclist, you should stick to sidewalks or alternate routes. Because taking the lane is not for the weak at heart.

The second point I would make is I recommend a rear view mirror. Whether it’s the small kind that glues to your glasses or helmet, goes on your handlebar, or something else, it’s a very good tool to have. When you’re more advanced you can get away with just looking over your shoulder, but you have to pretty much do that constantly and be able to hold your line and not veer left into the next lane.

Before you start to try this maneuver, you should be sure your city, county, state, etc. allow it. Know the law and follow it! A good way to avoid having to take the lane is to pre-plan your route. If you can find trails, sidewalks, or side roads that avoid a main road where you would need to take the lane, why not do your best to try to avoid it?

When you are comfortable enough to try it, try riding in slower neighborhood traffic with wide lanes. You’d be well advised to go with a more experienced buddy and follow what they do. Riding two abreast is safer and also totally legal. Note that this tactic is for when the lane is not wide enough; if it is you should ride as far to the right as practicable. Take care to not get too close to the curb, or caught up in debris and weeds.

So, you’ve come to a place where the only safe option is to get off and walk, or ride in the middle of the lane. You need to assess it. How much traffic is there? What’s the speed limit? Can cars go around you into another lane? Never attempt this on a road where traffic is going so fast you can’t evade it in an emergency. If it’s a very fast road, you really should backtrack if possible and try harder to find another way — even if that way is putting your bike on a bus rack. Is it dusk or dawn? What are weather conditions? You do have bright red rear lights and bright white front lights if it’s dark, overcast, raining, etc., right?

British cyclist "taking the lane", as advised in poster (inset) by UK Department for Transport
Source: UK Dept for Transport by CARLTON REID, Forbes

OK, so now it’s go time. Obviously, you want to be sure the coast is clear. Look in your mirror or over your shoulder and for cars turning off of side roads and from parking lots, too. Enter the road, and if cars are around, signal clearly for a count of 15 at minimum. Then edge into the center of the right lane. (If you’re in the UK or former colony, S. Africa, Australia, etc., this will be opposite.) If there isn’t a lane or more to the left, you will need to be very aware how much traffic you might be holding up and if it’s really worth potentially aggravating a whole line of cars. When there is no one there, move to the middle. I like to be about 40% in the middle, so I can move right a little quicker in an emergency.

Ride in a straight line at a constant speed. And here’s the main point: keep checking your rear constantly. You can do this by listening, but looking is better. Frankly, when I’m not feeling safe on a road, I look back at every car. Also, a study I saw once said a car driver seeing a bicyclist’s face is much more likely to think of them as a person and not hit them as opposed to just seeing the back of your head.

Be sure to wave give a thumbs up, smile, or all three to drivers when they pass without murdering you. As soon as possible, exit the road and find a good sidewalk, trail or parallel street. If your gut is telling you this isn’t safe, abort and get the hell out of there. Always be prepared to bail out by jumping off your bike out of the street. I’m totally serious. Bikes can be replaced. Bodies, not so much.

Here’s a good article from Forbes on this topic.

Well, there you have it. The A Dude Abikes unofficial guide to taking the lane. Let me know what you think in the comments.

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9 thoughts on “The Art of Taking the Lane on a Bicycle

  1. Here it’s called the “Primary Position” with the verge being the “Secondary Position”. It’s my normal position when passing parked vehicles, approaching pinch points (usually pedestrian crossings), in slow moving traffic queues and on sections of road when it’s dangerous to be overtaken. I ride pretty aggressively but predictably and feel much safer. Virtually all my close pass experience comes when I’m riding close to the verge.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s probably a sweet spot somewhere between 30-40% into the lane, obliging cars to change lane to overtake but not overtly occupying the whole lane (which can appear provocative). When climbing and moving slowly I’ll stay right over as close to the verge as possible. Most drivers are respectable people, but it only takes one fool to ruin your life!

    Liked by 1 person

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