Today’s guest post was written by Charlie Otto, co-founder and former owner of Grand Teton Brewing in Wilson, Wyoming, and Victor, Idaho, long time cycling advocate, who began bicycle touring in 1979.
I find it interesting that most cars come standard with three rearview mirrors, but bicycles are sold without any! Perhaps the thought is since bicycles have lots of forward gears but no reverse gears, why would you need rear view mirrors since you can’t back up?
But seriously, cycle mirrors not only let you see what the cars behind you are doing—if used correctly, they can also enable you to influence how the traffic will pass you.
I have traveled with cyclists not using mirrors, and their strategy seems dependent mostly on their ears telling them when cars, trucks, or buses are coming from behind. When they hear approaching traffic, they get over to the edge of the travel lane as far as possible to give as much passing room as they can … then they pray that the vehicle passes safely. What else can you do?
I prefer to see what’s coming from behind and position myself on the road to influence the situation for the best outcome for both bicycle and car. I’m not a jerk about this, but rather use subtle placement technique and body language to achieve my goals.
My first goal is to check the speed of passing traffic and get them to slow down. I constantly monitor traffic via the mirror, checking traffic coming up behind me. When a viewable vehicle is still some distance back, I position myself about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way over into the traffic lane. Approaching drivers see me “in the middle of the road” and they typically slow down a bit. I can usually hear the change in sound of their engine, confirming that I have influenced their speed.
My second goal is to get them to give me some extra room as they pass. Here if I were to use the “get over to the edge as far as possible” approach, the driver would see that they have “lots of room,” and would keep barreling down on me. I would prefer to have them think they don’t have lots of room. So, with the use of my rearview mirror, I move over to the right just a bit to let the driver know I’m aware of their presence; I don’t move all the way over just yet, however. I am still maybe a foot or two from the edge of the road. In order to have them pass me responsibly, I want the driver to have some “skin in this game.”
I want to give the driver, for just a few seconds, two choices: In order to pass me they will either 1) have to run me over or 2) stick their neck out by putting their car out into the oncoming lane. Faced with these two choices, most drivers wake up a bit and start paying more attention to the situation I have put them in, and hopefully prepare themselves to make a clean pass out and around.
My third goal is to have the driver actually make that clean pass. Remember at this point I am still not all the way over to the far right, not completely trusting that the driver has expert driving skills, and/or a complete understanding of all the spatial relationships involved in pulling this pass off safely.
As I can see in my mirror, when the driver goes to make the pass I finally move all the way over to the edge of the road to give him an extra foot or so of space. The driver wasn’t expecting to get this, and it gives both of us an extra margin of safety and comfort. Another clean pass…and smiles all around.
Of course, a mirror can also inform you when a pass isn’t going so well, including when you might actually need to bail off the road. On a recent bike tour in New Zealand, milk trucks barreled down on me periodicaly, easily viewable in my mirror; often my best choice was to just gracefully slide off the road altogether and let them pass without challenging the situation. After all, it’s all about cycling tomorrow and the day after that, too.
My wife and I have developed the habit of calling out “red car back,” as some red car drivers seem to drive faster then drivers of other color cars, and often pass a bit closer, too. Of course, we call “truck back” and “bus back,” too, because they need more time to pass and take up more room in the lane.
In heavier city traffic this speed checking technique becomes a lot harder or impossible since cars are coming one right after another. But with a mirror, at least you can look back once in a while and see if cars are giving you enough room in your lane, or if you need to bail.
Of course, mirrors have other uses, such as telling you when it’s safe to use the full road for cornering, and for keeping track of what your drafting partners behind you are doing. I also find my mirror pretty handy for shaving my face at the more remote campsites!
Our Two Favorite Mirrors:
Editor’s Note: Here is the editor’s own “Take a Look” as affixed in fetching sea green foam duct tape (not included). Looks like time for a new coat of duct tape…