The Scariest Things Cyclists Fear, And How to Overcome Them

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

There have been times in my life when I’ve envied athletes and coaches in stick-and-ball sports like baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Even combat sports like boxing and mixed martial arts. There are risks involved in all of them, but they’re also safely ensconced in stadiums, arenas, and gyms. Medical facilities and personnel are on-site, shelter is just steps away, and the field, rink, court, or ring is always the same size and shape. Coaching cyclists isn’t just about physiology, nutrition, and psychology; we also have to teach cyclists to deal with the risks of training and competing ‘in the wild’. Here are the top fears I hear from cyclists working with CTS Coaches, and how you can overcome them.

Top Fear: Cars

Might as well start with the biggest fear of all, getting hit by a car. While many devoted cyclists are incorporating gravel bikes into their arsenals to spend less time on pavement, there’s also been a resurgence of urban and suburban cycling as a consequence of the COVID19 pandemic. As I’ve written about before, it’s going to be a long time before autonomous vehicles provide cyclists with substantial protection. In the meantime, here’s a condensed version of my advice for staying safe in traffic:

  • Follow traffic laws: When drivers and riders both act predictably, it avoids the confusion that often results in collisions.
  • Ride popular routes: Cars are used to seeing bikes on those roads, and there’s a reason the cycling community has gravitated toward those routes.
  • Make eye contact: To increase your chances of predicting what a car will do, look at the driver. Are they looking your way or to the opposite side? Are the visibly irritated or impatient? Are they texting?
  • Watch the wheels: Noticing movement from a sidestreet or driveway sooner gives you precious seconds to evaluate whether the car is going to go or stay put.
  • Use your voice: You don’t have a horn, but sharp, guttural “HEY!” can be enough to get a driver to look for the source of the noise, which is you. Don’t yell to be aggressive or abusive; the goal is to be noticed.
  • Maximize visibility: Bright colors, reflective material, and lights may not offer the level of protection we’d hope for, but they don’t hurt and they’re a good start.

Cyclist Fear: Steep Downhills

I love going downhill. It’s free speed and a reward for doing the work to get to the top of the hill. But steep and/or twisty downhills are intimidating for many riders, and the anxiety leads them to ride the brakes all the way down and an unpleasant experience. There’s no reason to be a daredevil descender, but learning to go downhill more confidently makes rides more fun–and safer. You can read this in-depth tutorial on descending, and remember three key points:

  • Look far ahead: You’ll ride a straighter, more stable line and notice obstacles and reasons to brake or adjust your line with enough time to take action safely.
  • Brake hard in a straight line: Make the biggest adjustment to your speed in a straight line before entering a turn. You can make minor braking adjustments during the turn, but generally you want to be lightening up and then releasing the brakes as you go through a corner.
  • Focus pressure on your outside leg and inside hand when taking sharp corners. This increases traction and lets you lean the bike into the turn more than your body.

Cyclist Fear: Corners/Turns

There’s a long list of handling skills that help cyclists feel confident and comfortable on the road, including drafting, riding in a group, rotating in a pace line, and bumping shoulders with a rider next to you. Whether you’re riding solo, with one or two people, or in a pack (when we get back to that…), you have to be able to ride through corners safely. Read this for a tutorial on cornering with confidence and speed. In addition to guidance mentioned above for downhills, which also works on flat turns, some specific tips that relieve lots of cornering anxiety include:

  • In wet conditions or on unstable surfaces (sand on the road, gravel turn), keep the bike more upright and look to extend the arc of the turn so you’re changing direction over a greater distance. Basically, you’re trying to avoid sudden movements like dramatic steering or diving into the apex.
  • Corner in the drops or at least lower your shoulders. You want your weight distributed between the wheels, and if you’re riding more upright there’s more weight on the rear wheel, which increases the chances of losing traction on the front wheel. Lowering your shoulders also puts a nice bend in your elbows, which allows you to absorb bumps and adjust your pressure on the bars or position over the bike.
  • Back off the wheel in front of you. To minimize the risk of needing to brake sharply in a corner, slightly back off the wheel in front of you before a corner. With practice, you’ll learn to brake less, maintain your momentum and close that distance before exiting the turn.

Cyclist Fear: Getting stuck far from home

I have found that the inability to do even basic mechanical work on a bike keeps a remarkable number of people from venturing out on longer loops or on solo rides. You don’t have to be an expert mechanic, but there are few things you should know how to do:

  • Fix a flat tire: Remember to carry a tube (even if you’re riding tubeless tires), tire levers, and an inflation device. While CO2 cartridges are light and convenient, a pump can be used multiple times.
  • Repair a chain: Breaking a chain is rare, and thankfully easy to fix. Carry a multitool with a chain breaker on it so you can remove the damaged link, as well as a “Powerlink” you can use to rejoin the ends quickly and without tools.
  • Adjust derailleurs: At the very least, learn the basics of how cable-actuated derailleurs work, or how to adjust an electronic system. You don’t need perfect shifting to get home, but you should know enough to keep you from standing on the side of the road.

In addition to carrying the right tools and learning some basic mechanical skills, it’s a good idea to carry a phone and some cash (can be used to boot a tire if necessary, too), and to let someone know where you’re planning on going and roughly when to expect you back (or at what point people should start worrying…).

Cyclist Fear: Bad Weather

Training ‘in the wild’ means there’s no cozy clubhouse nearby if it starts to rain/hail/snow, the wind picks up, or lightning starts crashing. The first step to getting comfortable with riding in bad weather is to make sure you’re carrying the gear for it. There are a lot of clothing options for various types of weather; when in doubt, a rain jacket can serve multiple roles and keep you dry, help you conserve body heat, and protect from wind. When you get caught in bad weather, some things to remember include:

  • When cycling on wet roads, stopping distance increases (even with disc brakes, just not as much), traction decreases; and wet road paint, wet steel (rails, grates, manhole covers), and wet leaves are the slipperiest things in the known world.
  • Maintaining body temperature is key. When determining whether to stop or continue, consider whether you can ride out of the bad weather reasonably quickly, and whether the exertion of continuing will do more to keep you warm than staying where you are.
  • Bicycle tires won’t protect you from lightning. The energy output is just too high and tires are too small. Read this in-depth article with practical tips for cycling in a lightning storm.

Cyclist Fear: Animal Attacks

Getting chased by a dog is the most common problem cyclists encounter with animals, but certainly not the only one. A quick poll of what animals CTS Coaches have encountered (not necessarily been attacked by) on rides included moose, mountain lion, black bear(s), elk, deer, geese, rattlesnakes, and even big horn sheep. It is important to maintain perspective. Animal attacks are very rare and most animals want nothing to do with you if they have the opportunity to avoid you. All the same, it’s good to know the basics of what to do when you encounter animals. A few years ago I wrote an in-depth Endurance Athlete Guide to Wildlife Encounters, and a few brief highlights include:

  • Avoid getting between (or anywhere near) any baby animal and an adult (especially but not limited to its mother).
  • Mountain lions: make yourself big and loud, back away slowly, don’t run. Fight back if attacked.
  • Black bears: make yourself big and loud, stand your ground. Carry bear spray if in area with high risk of encounter. Fight back if attacked, try to hit face and snout.
  • Moose/Elk/Deer: Give them a wide berth. If they approach aggressively, get behind cover if possible. If attacked, curl up in a ball and protect head/neck. They’re not predators, so they’re likely to stop once you’re no longer deemed a threat.

Preparation and practice are the greatest tools athlete have for overcoming fears about skills, encounters, and weather. And thankfully, it’s really rare that you’ll have a flat tire on a steep descent in a thunderstorm, with a bear.


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Comments 39

  1. This may sound silly, but based on a few FB posts I’ve seen, I am now also afraid of squirrels while riding. Why? Because I’ve seen what has happened to riders when a squirrel decided to dart across their path and get caught in the spokes of a front wheel. Instant end over the handlebars, face plant style, trip to the hospital, and of course major damage to the bike. Watch out for those critters!

  2. Great tips/reminders. I took a motorcycle class many years ago and many of the tips were transferable to cycling (and skiing!). Look where you want to go (saved me in a couple of tight turns), brake before the turn and accelerate into the turn, take the turn outside to inside, watch the tires on a car at an intersection (don’t rely on them using their turn signal). And, yes. A mirror is such a huge help. Personally, I like the ones that clip on your glasses – I find the handlebars ones too shaky on a rough road…but whatever works for you.

  3. To add to the comment about staying as far right as you can, as a 30 year bike commuter I permanently went away from road bike tires less than 28mm in width. This allows me to roll over just about anything I might find on the edge of the road with out flatting or getting tossed sideways. I now ride a cross bike with 32mm slicks as my road ride and can even dive onto gravel shoulders at speed if need be!

  4. I have been cycling for 30 years and raced for 12 years.
    It was disappointing to not see you recommend a rear view mirror. Far to many cyclist in their vanity would not be seen with a mirror clipped to their helmet. They prefer to play “Russian Roulette” with the next person coming up on them texting, eating, talking on the phone or simply not paying attention. Ask them if they would drive a car without a rear view mirror. Same difference. The rear view mirror has kept me from being a statistic.

  5. I ride gravel and tarmac often on the same ride. A mirror for sure on my drops. Barely visible except to me and helps my 360 awareness. Visible jersey and socks, like a blaze green, etc.

    Rear lights – if you can see the rider before the blinking light the light is not bright enough. I see far too many anemic lights that are giving a false sense of security to the rider. I can see my partner’s light at least a half mile away. Front light good as well.

    I find that most drivers respect my attempts to be visible. They might be distracted but they don’t want to hit anyone either. Make them see you far enough ahead and they will pay attention at least until they get past you.

  6. Great article Chris, and some good comments. I wouldn’t hold my breath for autonomous cars being much safer, (even as bad as many drivers have become). Tesla has had a string of collisions with emerg vehicles, and other start ups have had their issues. Of course the technology is improving rapidly, but until, (& hopefully not ever), we put millimeter, high frequency, body-penetrating antennas every block, the tech has a ways to go. I just got a Cateye 450 lumen w a strobe feature, and it works pretty well, but of course, it’s not a panacea. All the other factors, which are constantly changing, add up to a calculated risk on the road.

  7. If you are a skier, the best technique I have encountered for downhill descents is angle your “outside” knee into the top tube while weighting the outside toe, just as you would when turning a ski. It’s as if the pedals are your skis. You can do this even on street corners, which whip you around a corner very quickly. Regarding the comment about not staring at an object while descending, and to continue the skiing analogy, look at the spaces between the trees, not the trees. (When there’e no more space, time to stop.”) BTW, I have an eight inch scar on my right cheek, the remains of an imprint from a car door. I pick my routes- and times of day-very carefully now.

  8. Cars were making more nervous recently as I was having close calls. Cars passing from behind when there is oncoming traffic. Trying to squeeze by, or cars in general that just don’t pull over. I had to remember my old technique. Wear a mirror so you know who is coming. Then get out there three feet to hold your lane. When you see a car starting to pass they have to go out further to get around you. At the last moment I move back to the right to open the gap even more.

    1. After 30 years and many friends hit by cars, I am amazed at the number of riders that ride very close to the white line, and are passed with very little space between them and the oncoming car when they have 4 feet of bike lane to their right that they could be using. I use the Garmin Varia for alerts, a small mirror to watch the approaching car, and I stay as far from the white line as possible when a car is coming up behind me.

  9. Dogs are usually confused if you stop the chase by actually stopping. There is that one time you may encounter the one who will not back off, I have found that pepper spray works very well in those encounters. Even if the dog does not get hit by the actual spray they can smell it and get confused. Remember if you do stop remain behind your bike using it as a shield if need be. I have used the pepper spray several times and it does work, one you do not hurt the dog if actual spray hits dog they just stop in their tracks, two they seem to remember that the chase is not as fun the next time you ride by. A key point if using this technique is to follow the precautions usually found printed on the pepper spray can.

  10. Another suggestion in case caught a long way from home and the bike cannot be repaired is to carry cleat covers with you – it makes the walking a bit easier and preserves the cleats for another day.

    1. My cleats don’t contact the ground because they are recessed in the design of the shoe. I also have a pair of Arch cleat shoes where cleats are well protected?

  11. I’ve done long distance, endurance cycling on gravel for years. One thing I’ve learned is the importance of being mentally vigilant and aware of your surroundings and condition at all times. The longer the ride or fatigue, the easier to not pay attention. Thinking and awareness take energy and when I’m fatigued, I have to intentionally focus more to pay attention. I learned this the hard way one time when I was at 50 miles into a 250 mile ride. I crashed when I jerked my water bottle out. I had not considered the extra weight on the bike which threw my balance off.

  12. You did not mention frame wobbling at +45 mph on steep downhills. Happened with both older steel frame Pinarella, and S-Works carbon frame. Disconcerting frame shaking at high speeds has me using brakes on downhill, totally sucks.
    What is remedy?

    1. As a road bike rider for at least 55 of my 62 years I am amazed by the lack of acceptance by recreational road bikers to using a mirror. I find riding with a mirror to be a significant safety enhancement. I strongly prefer the mirror that attaches on the glasses, positioned to allow the cyclist to keep the head up, eyes down the road. Many of us wouldn’t ride on the roads without it.

      1. I’ve never begrudged another cyclist for accessorizing in whatever they want, after all, it’s not my ride! But there is a better way than a mirror: the Garmin Varia radar system. It will tell me from 150 yard behind me, if a car is coming, how many and how fast. Much better than a tiny mirror letting me know when it’s too late.

        1. I use both. The Varia doesn’t tell you if the car is giving you space or going to hit you. I use the Varia for the alert, and then watch the car coming in my mirror to make sure I’m safe.

    2. My suggestion would be to clamp the top tube between your legs and ease off the intensity to which you are holding the handlebars. That usually stops the bike from resonating but does not fix the problem that causes it in the first place (bike geometry, bike fit/weight distribution, tires and inflation can all contribute to the problem real issue).

    3. I’ve had the same “shakey” problem, and it is scary.
      I have a 12-14 year old Trek 2.3 aluminum that often had a bad case of the wobbles on fast descents. When I got the bike those many years ago, I put a set of kysrium wheels on it. I am a big guy – 6’5″, 260lbs and the bike is a 64cm. My mechanic went through it with a fine tooth comb over and over (tuning wheels, etc) and couldn’t isolate the problem so I just lived with it – knee on top tube, etc. Finally bought a new carbon Trek and no problems. Kept the old Trek as a back-up and leave at my remote office in the mtns for afternoon rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But changed wheels to a cheaper set when I split one of the old Kysriums. Voila no more wobbles on a fast BRP descent.

      Moral of the story – test a different set of wheels to see if it helps. Nothing much scarier than a jumping bike headed downhill fast with an 1/8 of a ton guy hanging on for dear life.

  13. Eye contact works with overtaking drivers too. Be aware that a vehicle is approaching (Varia radar, rearview camera, the humble mirror, or even your sensitive hearing). When the vehicle is close enough for the driver to see your face, but still far enough back to slow or change lanes, turn and look them in the eye. It seems to trigger a more considerate behavior when they know that you know that they know you’re there. More space when passing, willingness to wait for a safe place to pass. Sometimes even a friendly wave.

    1. I ALWAYS wave (arm high moving side to side and smiling) to get a driver’s attention even if they appear to be looking right at you. So many time you will see a look of recognition as if they didn’t see you at all until you start waving. I generally do it when someone is making a left into me or pulling out of a side street or driveway into my lane.

      1. The rear facing radar, a rear view mirror, making eye contact and/or hand signaling. I find that most drivers, at least initially, respond to hand signals (waving by, slow down, stopping, and turns).

        Interaction makes you human.

      2. Cat-ears.com. Fuzzy thing attach to helmet chin strap in front of ears remarkably reduces wind noise even with hearing aids!

  14. Thanks for pinning this article Chris and bringing up these issues!

    This “Top Fear: Cars” is certainly understandable in this car-centric society! But it doesn’t have to be!!!

    Some governmental, motorists, bicycle safety advocates, and fellow cyclists have told us for decades that cycling in traffic is DANGEROUS and that bicycles belong on the far right of the roadway, bikeway, or sidewalk. This is a myth and false belief started in the 1960s (at least in California). Actually, the first traffic laws created in the U.S. (by William Phelps Eno) in the early 1900s were for the many roadway users of the time — bicycles, horse-drawn vehicles, and streetcars – not motor vehicles, as they became widely used later. Things were good!

    The above myth and false belief are NOT supported by state traffic laws and bicycle safety studies! Linked is a recent study on bicycle safety by Metroplan Orlando’s new bikeway study (in 3 parts):

    https://cyclingsavvy.org/2020/07/bike-lane-sidewalk-roadway-safety/

    Study after study shows us motor vehicle vs. bicycle collisions are very rare! Do they happen, yes, but is life in general totally risk free? Are there strategies we can use to reduce or eliminate potential conflicts or collisions with all other roadway users? Yes!

    Study after study have shown the four main motorist-caused crash types for bicyclists going with the flow were: overtaking motorist, drive-out, right hook, and left cross. Dooring by parked cars is a hazardous problem too. By putting ourselves in a defensible, relevant (visible), safe, legal, and predictable position in traffic, we CAN reduce or eliminate those conflicts or collisions by helping motorists and others make good decisions!

    Using the “effective” portion of a traffic lane (controlling a lane) by default will make a cyclist more relevant and visible to motorists, create better sight lines for cyclists and motorists to one another, and give more reaction time and space to avoid conflicts before they become collisions! You can also use the strategy of “releasing” traffic behind you – especially when legally required – in an effort to be cooperative and respectful.

    Are these strategies safe, legal, and cooperative?! They certainly are! I challenge everyone to try them out, once you’ve learned some more about this. For more information on the above, including wonderful online and in-person courses, go to https://cyclingsavvy.org.

    By using the above strategies, cycling can be safe, legal, and FUN without fear!

    Take care everyone,

    CS
    Retired Bike Cop
    CA POST Bike Patrol Instructor
    Bicycle Safety Advocate & Educator
    E-Bike Presenter & Instructor
    Former longtime CTS athlete

  15. One last thing about going fast, particularly downhill, do not target fix. That is do not stare at something you do not want to hit because the longer you fixate on the object, rock, tree or pole, the more likely you are to hit. Your brain is like radar and it will make you go where you are looking.

    1. Yeah, it took me a while to learn to look at the path I want to take AROUND the object, rather than at the object I want to avoid, but it’s vital to be able to do so.

    2. One thing I’ve learned over many years of cycling, when in a group, let others descend 1st. They can act as crash test dummies. If alone, NEVER descend any road at speed without having 1st slowly climbed up that road noting any irregularities/faults in road surface, debris, sand, obstructions, etc. along the the declension line you intend to take.

  16. “When drivers and riders both act predictably, it avoids the confusion that often results in collisions.”

    good idea, but how does it help, even if MOST car drivers so so it only takes 1 out of 100 NOT doing so,(e.g blowing through a stop sign or red light) that may seriously injure or kill you

    1. I was hit when a gal rolled through a stop sign. She said she didn’t see me. The second time I was hit I was in a left turn lane and the driver sideswiped me. The police did not get my statement, just hers. :-(. I did call his sargent to make a report. I guess twice in 30 years of cycling isn’t too bad.

  17. Chris,

    Those have all been my exact fears, which is why I love doing camps as my most favorite riding, with all of the support!

    I do have a new one… I almost got blown over by high winds a couple of times on Mt Evans earlier this week. The park was closed, so luckily there was no car traffic and I could use the whole road, but I was solo and it was the closest I came to turning around before finishing a goal in a while!

    Dave

  18. Other scary things: where the road transitions from the main road into a hard shoulder, if there is a hard shoulder, as the edges are usually crumbling and cratered: cars on one side, going off into a ditch on the other. Don’t forget about drainage grates!

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