Looking back — and trying not to swerve

We were on the way back from our club ride this morning (just two of us were in the B group today) when talk turned to the difficulty of checking over your shoulder for traffic.

The discussion was prompted by what I consider the toughest left turn on all of our routes. Traveling northbound on a busy two-lane road, the bike lane runs out. Now, we have to ride the right edge of the road, and hope there’s enough room for cars to get by us. Several blocks before we would hit a stoplight, we make a left turn into a nice subdivision that lets us avoid the busy intersection. It’s this left turn that can be a problem, because the cars are passing us as a steady rate.

We got to the turn. I was still at the right edge of the road. Oncoming traffic was heavy. My riding companion, Bob, was behind me. He called out, “OK!” I glanced over my shoulder and saw that he had already taken the lane. I moved into it, and got as close to the center line as possible as cars zoomed by, now on my right. When a small gap opened in the oncoming traffic, we could make our turns.

Safely in the residential subdivision, we rode slowly. Bob said, “I always have a problem looking back. Your bike goes the direction you look, and I don’t want to swerve into traffic — not on that road.”

We compared notes on how we look back. He’s comfortable with lowering his head and peering back past his left shoulder. I like to do it in two moves — I’ll look left about halfway, then forward again, then complete the look over my shoulder. I find it’s easier for me to get a glimpse of what’s behind if I do it that way.

The key is to avoid swerving the bike. Last year, when I took the Road I biking class, we spent some time practicing that very move (“scanning,” they called it). If you do it often enough, you can keep from pulling your bike left. But we get lazy from time to time, and fall back into bad habits.

We went through a high school parking lot, and approached a busy four-lane east-west road. Normally, the club riders will form a “bus,” riding two-by-two in the right lane, three to four deep. By taking up the same amount of space as a car (or bus), we force motorists to use the left lane to go around us. They’re also less inclined to shout at you when you’re in a big group. But with just two, Bob suggested we ride the sidewalk. That was fine with me. I’ve done that here before, too.

We had gone perhaps a half mile, and another major intersection was coming up. I was about to ask Bob if he wanted to stay on the sidewalk after the intersection, or ride in the road again. I looked over my shoulder, and saw that he was too far back to hear me. Sure enough, my bike swerved — right off the sidewalk and into the narrow strip of grass between it and the road. To my surprise, the grass didn’t cause the bike to tip over. I kept it going straight for a short way, then eased it right to climb back on the sidewalk.

The tire hit the edge of the walk, which protruded about an inch above the grass. It got caught on the edge — and now I went down.

I haven’t fallen from my bike on the sidewalk since I was in grade school, and the lower grades at that. All I could think of was, “Oh no! Not in these shorts!” I was wearing my expensive Sugoi shorts, which I’ve had for only a few months.

No tear in the shorts. Not even any road rash. Bike was okay, too. But it’s obvious to me that on my short rides this coming week, I’ll be practicing my scanning, keeping my bike straight, and I’ll be doing it on something wider than a sidewalk.


  1. says

    If you put a hand on your hip and sit up before you look, you will drastically reduce the amount of swerve; i.e. looking over your left shoulder, left hand on hip. I think the trick is that it keeps you from leaning as much.

    Oh yeah — sorry about the sidewalk fall!

    • says

      I used to do a variation of that — I’d drop my left hand, and move it back a bit. Had the same effect as your tip. But that’s also an example of falling back into a bad habit. I just don’t remember to do that automatically.

  2. trainingfromabarkalounger says

    Noob – All manuals say take the hand off the bar on the side you’re looking over. Steer with the opposite hand. You are right, it is behavior that is perfected by doing it often. Just remember to practice it often during rides, even when you don’t need to. The consequences of not mastering the technique are quite dangerous, especially in group rides.

  3. tracywilkins says

    It does take some practice to look back without swerving, but I’ve found that a high percentage of the time my little helmet mounted mirror gives me enough of a view that I don’t have to look back very often at all. I know mirrors aren’t for everyone, and that some options are better than others, but it works for me.

    I still look back when I need to cross a lane of traffic, or am not sure where another cyclist might be, but I’ve found that the mirror gives me a very wide range of view with only a slight turn or tilt of the head.

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