Cycling Safety Tips for Riding Alone

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor

My junior year of college, I spent a semester enrolled at a university in Mérida, Mexico.  In part, I considered it an experiment in what would happen if I went out in the Real World where sports (forever and always swimming and at the time only recently, cycling) weren’t at the center of my universe.  It took less than a month to answer that question as I befriended a few Mexican triathletes who found me a loaner bike, let me join their training group, and invited me on their race trips. When they gave me the bike, however, they also gave me one very important piece of advice: “Nunca rodas solita en el Periférico”.  Never ride alone in Periférico.

Periférico was the highway that encircled Mérida.  While riding at the beach an hour’s drive away was fine, their last friend who rode alone in Periferico was stopped by a truck of ne’er-do-wells who stole his bike and sunglasses and left him stranded on the side of the road.  It wasn’t very hard for me to follow this advice. Once I returned home, however, and throughout my professional cycling career, only very rarely was solo riding a conscious safety concern.

Plenty of blogs and magazines have published lists of ways for runners (particularly females) to stay safe, but the topic isn’t as widely discussed for cyclists.  When a colleague recently pointed out the unique ability of the cyclist to get very far away from civilization in shoes incredibly poorly suited for either fighting or fleeing while necessarily attached to several thousands of dollars worth of equipment, I was startled by the obvious argument and curious as to whether others felt unsafe out riding.  Unsafe, that is, not because of cars but as a matter of personal safety.

According to a week of admittedly unscientific research: not usually. By and large, hostile motor vehicles aside, cyclists seem to fear wildlife (anything from squirrels to bears) far more than predatory humans.  Of course, last week was also when veteran pro Oscar Sevilla was violently attacked in his hometown in Colombia. “It happened to me in the place I least expected,” Sevilla said later.

Should we be more concerned about personal safety while riding?  Attacks on cyclists aren’t terribly common, but they have happened – sometimes on roads, sometimes in neighborhoods, sometimes in parks or on trails.  Regardless of our perceived odds, it is worth considering some simple things we can do to stay safe on our bikes. One of the great parts about cycling is the freedom to jaunt off on an impromptu solo adventure – and in most places we ride, I certainly wouldn’t advocate giving the habit.  That being said, here are a few tips to keep things safe when you venture out alone on two wheels.

Recruit virtual support 

Consider wearing a RoadID or some other identification badge that lists emergency contacts and important medical history.  My mom even has a simple handwritten sticker inside of her helmet, so it doesn’t have to be expensive or complex. Make sure that someone knows roughly where you are going and when you will be back.  My dad and I have a deal when my mom is out of town that he lets me know when to expect a “safe return” text message when he goes on mountain adventures. Leave a note for a roommate or send a message to a friend.  If you’re tech savvy, there are even options for apps that let pre-selected contacts track your progress on GPS such as BSafe, Glympse, or even “find my iPhone”.  A few of the options I researched can even send an alert to your contacts if you are stopped for more than five minutes – be careful with the coffee stops with that one.

Lose the shoes

I have decided I am indeed a fan of the idea of getting rid of your cleats as soon as possible – if you’ve got a triathlete friend in your network, they might even be able to offer some hot tips on how to do it on the fly.  Also on that topic of equipment – if you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, I know how much your bike is worth and I know that it means even more to you than the money. For goodness’ sake though – don’t try to protect your bike.  There will be others.

Stand tall

Know your route and the surrounding area well so that you give an aura of confidence in your direction – and can skillfully detour if necessary.  Consider learning a few basic self-defense moves. They could save you in a sticky situation and allow you to feel more generally confident and secure regardless.

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Think strategically

Particularly if you are a bike commuter (and thus more likely to be out after dark) consider whether your daylight route is appropriate at night.  Will other people be around? Is it well lit? Sometimes it can be better to divert to a busier road (don’t forget your lights!) or ride a chunk (politely) on a sidewalk if you find yourself somewhere you feel uncomfortable.  If you’re out on a long ride, consider if you will be going through areas without cell phone service – and whether you’d rather save those areas for when you have a companion.

Be prepared

Be sure that you have the tools and skills to fix a flat or a simple mechanical so that you don’t have to go looking for help.  Carry a well-charged phone, and stash a small light stashed in case you’re caught out after dark. Some folks even advocate carrying pepper spray.  I confess that the thought had never actually entered my mind, but that doesn’t mean it is a terrible idea – though I don’t know what happens to pepper spray if you crash on it. Several companies make sleek containers you can strap directly to your bike.

For those of you worries about the wilder hazards out there, here are some tips from personal experience:

  • Cows – be very careful of riding a path that goes between a mama and her baby.
  • Deer – watch out for dawn and dusk, take it easy on fast canyon descents.
  • Squirrels – hit them dead on. Usually you will win.
  • Geese – You think it’s funny? They hiss and travel in packs. Don’t let them bite you.  Run away (see: “lose the shoes”).

Take care, enjoy the ride and stay safe out there!

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Comments 23

  1. Great tips Mara!
    The RoadID is pretty cool. I set up my health info on my iPhone and First Aid app. Yet, if I would crash hard and would not be able to use my phone – it is useless. This makes a RoadID a clear winner.
    Also, some apps like Strava offer a so-called Beacon feature – so you share your location with a person you want (unfortunately, only for a premium subscription). Luckily, you can use sharing location using apps like Messenger, WhatsApp, Find my iPhone, etc.
    Another tip I would like to share is using a taillight combined with radar by Garmin. If you connect it to your phone or head unit, it informs you about cars that approach you from behind.

  2. That’s a great article on cycling safety. I regularly go on long rides, sometimes with friends sometimes alone and safety is always a great concern when riding alone.

  3. Very informative write up Mara!

    The RoadID point is spot on. We have a stranger who turned up on our bunch ride recently and had a fall. We didn’t know who to contact when sending him to the hospital. He had his cell phone screen locked with no emergency contact info displayed.

  4. That’s a really nice explanation on cycling safety. You have included some useful and important safety tips and it will be very useful. Thanks

  5. Very informative write up Mara!

    The RoadID point is spot on. We have a stranger who turned up on our bunch ride recently and had a fall. We didn’t know who to contact when sending him to the hospital. He had his cell phone screen locked with no emergency contact info displayed.

    At the minimum (if you’re unwilling to spend the $10+ for a RoadID), put your emergency details on the cellphone lock screen.

  6. Olá,
    Quanto aos cães posso por experiência própria dizer que a melhor arma é o bidão da água !
    Aperte o bidão e atire água na direcção deles, e eles recuam.
    Boas pedaladas.

  7. Ignore people who honk at you, yell at you, come too close, whatever. Don’t engage, just let it go. They have all the advantage and you have none. It’s not worth it for the short lived satisfaction.

  8. Re shoes: use mountain bike type pedals/cleats instead of road pedals/cleats when solo riding. You can walk/run if the need arises.
    Re: self defense: while some basic training may prove helpful in extreme cases, it often develops an unwarranted over confidence in one’s capability. Any worthwhile instructor will strongly emphasize avoidance (i.e. run away + the strategic planning, standing tall & lose the shoes mentioned) as the first, best tactic. There is ALWAYS someone better, stronger and with more skill than you. But if and when a physical encounter is inevitable you must absolutely become a berserker.

  9. I’m carrying a small air horn on the top tube now after being bitten by a dog I’ve been past dozens of times. On my normal training route when the dogs come out to say hello, or otherwise, I have the horn in hand. A blast in their face when they start circling me or being otherwise aggressive stops them dead in their tracks while I just move on by.

  10. I’ve found that if I make a hiss/clicking sound while leaning low towards the goose, they seem to get out of my way.

    Squirrels -Yep dead on! A flat squirrel is a good squirrel.

    I had a friend who t-boned a deer at 50 MPH. The ungulate walked away. We too my buddy to hospital. The bike was totaled.

  11. I hit a goose on a bike path on a cycle cross bike it was like hitting a cement block yes I got the worst of it as I went down hard and the goose just waddled off ,so much for playing duck duck goose on a bike

  12. Timely and important blog Mara! Good additional comments as well! As a retired LE officer of 24 years, including as a bike cop and on-going bike patrol instructor, here are a few more tips…
    1. Always be aware of your surroundings and be alert to ALL types of potential hazards (including cars, surface/visual/moving, animals, humans).
    2. Plan and practice in advance of your actions, should any situation arise. Includes “fight or flight.”
    3. If necessary, USE your bike (and other equipment) as a “barrier” between you and the threat. The bike can also be used as a defensive weapon as well. Chainring punctures really hurt!
    4. Inaction in any type of situation is very BAD! So ACT (appropriately, safely and legally)!

    Be Safe out there everyone!

  13. I do a lot of cycling in Ontario, Canada, maybe half of it solo. My experiences vary, but outside of riding responsibly, my most effective safety device when riding solo is lighting on the front and rear of my bike. I do not ride at night. Lights during the day seems to get drivers’ attention and I get more room when they pass.
    I have ridden in other parts of the world where dogs routinely run out of yards and take after cyclists … 1st defense is confidence and Cesar Milan’s Shhhhhhht!!! with a pointing finger, which really works. Persistent dogs get a squirt from the water bottle.

  14. I carry a rechargeable stun gun, much smaller than a cigarette pack and cheap on Amazon.
    If someone hassles you they might think twice if you pull that out and fire it off into the air. It makes quite a nasty sound.

  15. Good article. As a woman riding 5,000 miles a year (solo, with my husband and in groups) all of these concerns have entered my mind. My son says, “First they’ll have to catch you!” But the reality is, many dogs can run over 20 mph and if a couple of people block a path in an effort to stop me, I better be able to turn on a dime and flee! We have just moved and I although I’ve learned some in-town routes, the great paved trail we ride has very few entrances/exits and parts are isolated out in the country and not always very populated. My husband and I use “share my location” which is helpful as well as informing each other of our route. As far as cars, the Chicago suburbs where we used to live had many irate drivers who purposely would try to intimidate us and of course those who were kind. In Wisconsin and Iowa where we now live we’ve experienced more regard for our presence on the road. Maybe it represents a slower paced vibe of living(?). We wear road ID with contact info and special health needs. I’ll consider the mace but I wonder how they work in the wind(?)

  16. This was an interesting and thought provoking article for me. I have never had fear of personal attach, I am more concerned of someone striking me with their vehicle with their obvious disregard to human life. Usually out of a misplaced thought of “Bicycles don’t belong on the highway, get off!”, not leaving enough room to live on narrow roads, speeding up to pass instead of slowing down with 12 inches or less between me and their vehicle.
    I do think it wise to carry pepper spray with some of the angry bursts coming from cars that could stop and truly share their thoughts. A woman friend of mine did have some young gentlemen (a misuse of the term here) have a beer bottle thrown at here from their car as it passed her.

  17. I do a lot of solo gravel riding in rural eastern KS and do adventure planning. My wife rides as well usually separately but we use “friends” app on phone so that each can always know where the other is and expected time home. This does not solve the problem of an immediate emergency. I was bitten by a dog last year. Called sheriff and complaint filed. Trip to ER. I always carry Mace but for the dog I didn’t have time to get it in hand as previously the dog only barked. I use mirror on the drops to keep an eye on my 6. Have considered other defensive tools as some areas are fairly remote. Remember that in most cases you will have to deal with the problem alone as help will be some time away. Must also consider the rare drug labs that may have guard dogs that could take you down. Mace or knife would probably not be sufficient. When you least expect it, you’re elected. Have fun, plan well.

  18. “…the topic isn’t as widely discussed for cyclists”. This probably makes sense (?) only for developed country cyclists. For latin-american, where I come from, it is THE MAIN concern, everyday. Bike insurance is a real thing in Brazil. And there are many routes avoided because of robbery. Of course, if we start discussing car vs. cyclist safety, we will always get to the conclusion that cycling is a life-threatening sport, we always hope for the best and trust God. Nothing else can be done. And we do it only because we are (crazy) in love with it. Sad, but true.

  19. I’ve been riding on the road for 35 years and have had one really bad accident but someone was with me and I was in town. I hate to think what would have resulted if I had been alone in a remote place. In this case it was a dog that caused the accident and I simply didn’t see the dog and I had no time to react. Other people I’ve know have stopped riding because of the dangers and desires of their family. I ride both with groups and solo, but when I ride solo I always stay close to home on very well know routes and sometimes will repeat that route in the opposite direction. I refuse to ride in the dark. I use Road ID and their e-crumb App.This is a great article and issue to discuss and I look forward to reading the comments of others.

  20. Another excellent bit of advice. I ride alone 99% of the time (yeah, I’m not all that social) and have experienced only once, in Phoenix the chill of having a rice rocket pull up next to me at a stoplight, music pounding, and the passenger side occupant observing that “…a bike like that must cost a lot of money…” but that was the extent of it. Wildlife and crashes are the greater fear. Living now in the mountains north of Montreal, my rides take me on far more secluded routes than those I used to ride in North Phoenix. I use the Garmin “Livetrack” feature so my wife knows where I’m at when she’s home and otherwise will text a friend to let him now when I head out and when I get back. While inattentive drivers are always a concern, the idea of day slipping into night while I lie broken in a deep ditch on some secondary road is the darkest fear…

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