Simply put, how to stay alive and thrive on any road
By Mon Garcia | Lead photo from Pixabay
I should start with a disclaimer. I’ve been riding my bike on the streets for more than half my life (okay, three-fourths) and only became more conscious about traffic rules in the past decade. The advice given here is from experience and, while not necessarily all by-the-book legal, is what I’ve found necessary to survive the streets where I ride most in Makati, Pasay, and Alabang.
You see, it’s inevitable. If you cycle through public roads—and even through private, village roads—the sheer amount of vehicles in the metro means you will have to navigate through heavy traffic. Gone are the days of riding on C5 to get from my home the South to my school in Katipunan when it felt relatively safe riding on much less congested roads.
These days, with more cyclists (and motorcycles and scooters) on the road, it’s a different jungle out there. You gotta learn how to weave. I’ve been lucky that my last accident on the bike that involved other vehicles was squishing my finger against the passenger handles of a jeep that suddenly stopped in front of me over 10 years ago. But to the knowledgeable and prepared, there’s no such thing as luck.
Be ready for anything. Let’s start with the most important aspect of riding in traffic, and the one you most have control of: you, the rider, and how you are riding. Riding in traffic can mean a lot of stops and starts so always maintain access to your brakes. Don’t ride on the tops. Keep on the hoods or better yet, down on the drops with one or two fingers on the levers. This is what I forgot to do when I had that accident over a decade ago. I’ve been more vigilant since.
On a related note, make sure the angle of your brake levers makes it comfortable to hold on to them while on the hoods while still making braking available in the drops. A good bike fitter should ensure that you can do this.
Your performance on the bike, especially during high-stress circumstances like weaving through traffic, benefits tremendously from a good fit. Especially one that looks at details like brake/shifter angles in relation to your reach and your posture. It will help you keep your hands near the brakes at all times. True traffic weavers are one with their machine, comfortable in every position.
Another way to be ready is to unclip one shoe from one pedal, if you think that traffic is that bad that you may need to stop and put a foot down. I usually do this with my right foot and, for a country that drives on the right side like we do, this is safer as it means you lean to the right. Leaning to left may put you in the way of oncoming traffic from the opposite lane or into the overtaking/counterflow path of a vehicle behind you.
Be aware, and not just of what’s immediately around you. Usually developed with experience and time, the key is to notice all the small things that will help you be a step ahead of what other vehicles and pedestrians may do. This includes looking at traffic lights (the one immediately in front of you as well as the the one for the cross-lane), potential drop points for public and private vehicles, and adventurous pedestrians trying to cross at the wrong time.
If you’ve seen the movie Premium Rush, the scenes where the main character predicts different scenarios and paths is not at all dissimilar to what I’m trying to describe. It takes a big amount of being present and knowing how others behave. Being a traffic weaver takes concentration, awareness, and the ability to project scenarios.
I always say that cycling is one of the most dangerous sports and requires you to be physically and mentally prepared before you go out. This is because, unlike other sports, we are exposed to weather, road conditions, and most importantly, the presence of other motorists and pedestrians on the very same areas where we usually ride. Your awareness needs to be more than that of someone driving a motor vehicle because when things don’t work out, a cyclist and his bicycle are lighter than most and will usually take more damage than others.
Also, we need to develop a different kind of awareness from automobile drivers as we have access to the spaces between bigger vehicles. These are the same spaces we share with motorcycles and scooters, who I consider to be the biggest hazard to cyclists (aside from themselves). Keep an eye out for where they are always as they like to throw their weight around and fight you for the very same tiny piece of real estate on the road. Everybody is just trying to get safely to their destination, I always say. Sometimes riding around them, I really don’t know. In any case, be aware of their position and potential moves the most. They are generally faster, a whole lot heavier, and can fit into the same tight spaces you ride in.
Pick your spot and be predictable. “In heavy, slow-moving traffic, it’s often safer to ride in the middle of a traffic lane so that everyone can see you and cars won’t try to squeeze around you.” I got that from an article called Riding Your Bike in Traffic on REI.com. “… heavy, slow-moving traffic…” sounds like pretty much everywhere and all the time I’m riding out in the metro. Unfortunately, riding in the middle doesn’t stop cars or other motorists squeezing you out. I admit it’s not proper practice, but most of the time I find myself riding on the left half of the lane. This allows me a quick exit route (although right into the path of the opposing lane) for vehicles that come from behind or beside me. I’m more comfortable riding into the opposing lane, where I can see what’s coming, rather than trust the unpredictable behavior of other motorists behind me. Unfortunately, this is what seems to work here.
Riding in the middle or towards the left side of the lane also means you are away from the gutter, which you can accidentally ride into, get sideswiped into, or provide a nice route into a door opening for a person disembarking from a vehicle. Avoid staying near the gutter at all costs. Nothing good can come of it. Even Lance Armstrong didn’t have a good experience riding too close to the right side of the road in the 2003 Tour de France. He caught his handlebars on a spectator’s bag and crashed, taking Iban Mayo down with him.
Riding in your lane, try to keep in a straight line, and avoid swerving. Only weave when traffic is slow or stopped. This restraint is what makes the true traffic weavers great survivors. Keeping yourself visible and predictable are key in helping other motorists respond to your presence on the road.
Learn when to use your advantages. True traffic weavers understand their strengths and know when to use them. The two primary strengths of a bicycle as a vehicle in traffic are that: 1) they can get into narrow spaces and weave between cars; and 2) if the rider is fit (and willing) they are fasting at accelerating from a full stop than most other vehicles on the road. Learning when to accelerate, when to squeeze, and when to weave is a skill that will help you survive the traffic jungle.
Your ability to weave means you will likely catch up to other vehicles when they have to stop at lights. Use this time to catch up, but be careful of motorcycles and scooters doing the same. Accelerate when the stoplight turns green, but only to give yourself breathing room and a good position in a lane. Don’t try to weave when everybody is going fast. Restraint is the key. You’re not trying to race them, you’re trying to get to your destination safely.
Finally, be courteous and appreciative when motorists give you right of way. A friendly wave will do. You (and maybe they) will be surprised at the response.
See you out on the corsa!