Top 20 City Cycling Skills

Top 20 City Cycling Skills

A guide to city cycling from members of the CycleChat Cycling community (first published in 2011).

Download the PDF: Top 20 City Cycling Skills

Cycling in town can present its own unique challenges. A little knowledge on how to deal with these can make the difference between a good and a bad ride.  The following “tips” have been collected from the experience of real riders on the CycleChat community and distilled into a “Top 20” of the most valuable issues and advice we feel we can offer.  We hope it helps you to enjoy your ride (or possibly take the plunge and start riding to work) and remember, despite what you hear or read, the massive majority (probably around 99%) of drivers are decent, caring people who want to get to work without any hassle or issues … just like you.

1. Positions – (Primary, Secondary) What do they mean?

You might hear these phrases from other cyclists, but what do they mean? Well, simply put;

SECONDARY position is the place on the road where most riders will comfortably ride, just out past the yellow (or red lines) not in the gutter but not too far out to cause conflict with overtaking vehicles (around the same position as painted cycle lanes). This is your natural position when cruising along an open and un-restricted bit of tarmac.

PRIMARY is a position set further out from the curb and more towards the centre of the lane. Taking primary generally has two objectives: first is to overtake a slower vehicle (but this is generally referred to as overtaking position and is not held for any extended length of time). The second, and more important, is when you adopt this position to “HOLD” back or deliberately cause traffic approaching from behind to move wider of you than they would usually.  “WHY use primary, surely it upsets other road users to hold them up?” … whilst this may be true (and should be accepted and acknowledged with a wave of thanks), holding primary is imperative at times to ensure your own safety.

Try holding primary when:

  • You pass through pinch gates or width restrictors (to stop vehicles accompanying you through a pinch point)
  • A central traffic island causes a severe decrease in the width of the road
  • Passing a line of parked vehicles (to ensure cars only pass you when it is safe, and to avoid entering the “door zone”)
  • Entering or passing an obstruction such as traffic works or contra-flows, where only one vehicle safely can fit (consider yourself THAT vehicle)

2. Traffic Lights – and the A.S.L (or A.Z) How to use these safely

You are a vehicle on the Queen’s highway and as such are expected to abide by the “HIGHWAY CODE”, which states that you must stop at red lights. If you ignore this rule you do so at your own peril and can expect to antagonise other road users. You may also attract the attention of the authorities (who are increasing their prosecution of cyclist who jump red lights).

To help you to stop and wait safely, the department of transport has created a separate area (at the front of the lights on most city junctions) for you and your bike. It is called the ASL (Advance Stop Line) or sometimes the ASZ (for Zone). It is a large green painted box, sometimes bright blue, sometimes red (in certain cities/locations) and is in advance of the standard stop line. It is provided ONLY for cyclists and not for motorised vehicles.

Use this box to position yourself so that all following vehicles can clearly see you and are aware of your intended direction of travel, do not sit on the left hand side of vehicles at the lights, either sit behind them or “filter” up to the ASL and sit in clear view. Do not be intimidated by drivers behind you and feel confident to sit in “primary”, but be prepared to move away smoothly and swiftly to the left hand side (if traffic conditions dictate) when the lights change.

REMEMBER: The ASL is not a target, there is no pressure for you to thread your way up into one just because one exists. If you feel more comfortable to hang back a few cars, then do so.

DON’T JUMP RED LIGHTS. You will put yourself at risk for no reason. It takes so long to negoti-ate a junction that is closed to you that you may as well sit and wait, anyway you may need the rest. There is a school of thought, that suggest those who do jump lights, enrage road users to the extent that it puts other cyclists at risk of revenge (or at least impatience). You will be surprised at the positive reaction you will get if you stop at red lights, this will help you later in your journey as you can be sure to meet the same drivers over and over at each set of lights.

3. Right Turns – How to achieve a safe and efficient right turn

Plan your turn well in advance, do not leave it until the last moment to swerve out into traffic to get to the middle of the road. Ensure you give a clean indication to following drivers that you intend to move out, try turn-ing your head and maintaining eye contact (this is very effective) or if you struggle to look back for extended periods, glance back and provide a very clear hand signal.

Practice looking back over your shoulder until you can do this for a prolonged period without wobbling.

Once there is a large enough gap, move out and take the centre ready to turn.

As a golden rule, it is never too early to get out into the middle in anticipation of a right turn, don’t be afraid to move out early and ride the centre of the road until you are ready to turn.

4. Left Turns – How to Stay Alive at junctions and in moving traffic

Basic left turns seem straight forward, just slow and turn. But consider other vehicles that want to also turn left. Shocking statistics confirm a large amount of accidents are caused at left turns, so beware.

Large H.G.V’s, coaches, busses (especially bendy ones) and trucks will all tend to cut the corner when turning, so be aware of their needs and fall behind them if necessary.

At a stationary junction NEVER, NEVER, NEVER move up the left hand side of a stationary HGV or large vehicle (even if it is not indicating). If it moves away and cuts the corner, you will be in huge danger … sadly, many deaths and injuries occur each year because of this.

An experienced and skilled cyclist will never put themselves in this position, if you spot an inexperienced cyclist acting this way, tell them!

In moving traffic, when filtering up the left hand side (if you choose to), be constantly aware of left turning vehicles or gaps that indicate a vehicle crossing the flow of traffic from the right (into your path).

5. Roundabouts – How best to “control” a busy roundabout

Busy roundabouts can seem daunting and some riders resort to jumping off their bikes and utilising the public foot way to cross them.

In fact, roundabouts are one of the simpler traffic control systems to negotiate as all traffic obeys one simple rule “always give way to vehicles from the right”.

The skill is to ensure that your position and attitude communicate to other road users that you are a VEHICLE and they should give way to you too.


To do so, take a strong position (Primary) in the middle of your lane (to ensure you are not under/overtaken and lost in the line of sight, see illustration above).

Assume this strong position early on to ensure you are not pushed out of place and hold the position as you approach the mouth of the roundabout, signal clearly and ensure you make eye contact with vehicles approaching the mouth of the roundabout (where most accidents occur) whilst keeping an eye over your shoulder to control traffic behind you. As you approach your exit, change your signal to the appropriate arm and move across to exit.

Maintain the centre of your lane throughout and do not hug the kerb of the roundabout.

Remember, roundabouts are designed to allow the continued movement of traffic, so expect vehicles to approach the entrance of a roundabout with the assumption of retaining movement, you must make yourself visible and prominent to let them know you are there and to stop them encroaching into your space.

6. The hidden perils of the Cycle Lane

Why it is sometimes best to use your own judgement on road position (rather than that of the D.O.T).

Cycle lanes are designed to try and provide a safer, confined area for cyclists to ride. Unfortunately, most UK cities were not planned or developed to allow for the increase in popularity of cycling and as such cycle lanes need to squeeze into an already congested road plan and work around some ancient geographic features.

What all this means is that CYCLE LANES ARE FAR FROM PERFECT. Be aware of this and don’t rely on them to do your job for you. Always read the road ahead, particularly at junctions where cycle lanes will entice you up the left hand side of stationary or moving vehicles (that may turn left across your path). It is advised to ignore cycle lanes at junctions and negotiate a path around the “offside” or right hand side of vehicles to reach the ASL (see Traffic Lights & Junctions above) or to move across the junction.

Often cyclists are criticised for coming out of cycle lanes at junctions (whether in moving or stationary traffic) as this makes them appear to “dart all over the place”. Ignore this criticism, it is levelled by those who do not understand the perils of cycle lanes and junctions. Either hang back behind vehicles at junctions or go around their right hand side, never sit on their left.

Cycle lanes are also often very slim and are sometimes a token gesture, indicating a cycle area. Unfortunately, uneducated road users assume they are a restriction that you are supposed to ride within. This can cause them to overtake close to the edge of the cycle lane, on the assumption that they are correct in doing so. If you ride in a cycle lane, ride to the outside edge (towards the middle of the road lane), this will allow you escape space to move into if overtaken to closely.

7. The art of traffic negotiation

How to communicate and interact with other road users to make your journey safer.

Negotiation, is communication. Make eye contact with drivers of motorised vehicles to show your intent and allow them time to react, provide clear signals. Once complete, thank the driver with a wave of communication and continue.

If you need to slow down to check a junction or suspicious gap in traffic, communicate this to the following road users with an exaggerated look or tilt of the head, they should react positively and give you time to ensure your path is clear.

Remember, you are not asking for permission to undertake a manoeuvre, you are communicating your intent and as such need to do so clearly and assertively.

Negotiation requires you to integrate with other road users (rather than to separate yourself from them) and as such requires confidence and a contentment to mix it up with other drivers.

8. Filtering (threading, weaving or Traffic Jamming)

Can I do this? … how … when

Threading, weaving, filtering through stationary traffic are all allowed on a bicycle, but should be undertaken with MAXIMUM awareness and care.

9. Attitude

The different approaches and attitudes required to ride in the city.

A confident and commanding attitude is helpful when cycling in the city, however over confidence can cause issues and aggressiveness can lead to confrontation.

Always apply the mental rule that you have as much right to occupy the road as any other vehicle … and so do they!

Try to be courteous and make a point of showing gratitude for any courtesy shown to you.

However, at times, you must make yourself seen and must take a commanding position in the road to remain safe, do so for the least amount of time possible and thank other road users for their patience (even if none was shown!) as this will discharge any potential aggression from others.

From a psychological perspective, it often helps to remember that we are all people, (whether we ride, walk, drive, sail, fly) and as such we can all make mistakes and react poorly when challenged about them. Try to keep an even head and not “get into it” with other road users, once the issue has passed, they will rarely care much about continuing an argument … let it slide if you can.

10 Accidents (or collisions)

How best to protect yourself physically during (and legally after) a collision.

You will hopefully never need to use this section, but in case you are interested, or conducting some research, here are a few suggestions.

In the event of a collision:

  • Try and protect your “core body” (where all your major organs live) and your head. If you have time roll yourself into a ball as much as possible, bringing up your knees (to protect your abdomen and chest) and elbows (to protect your head and face).
  • If you fall in the wet, and are not in any immediate danger of colliding with any other objects, then let yourself slide and don’t try to stop the momentum (by grabbing or trying to stand as you slide).
  • Once settled, do not try to immediately stand up (your instinct will be to do so and try to carry on, as pride and our survival instinct cuts in) try to stay still and clam whilst you asses if any injury has occurred. Only get up if it is dangerous to stay put.
  • Don’t worry about your bike … it’s replaceable.
  • If injured, get help. Don’t try to sort everything out yourself. Bystanders are generally very helpful in the event of a collision.
  • If you are conscious and able, then collect witness details.
  • Don’t get into a row with those involved in the collision, this will achieve NOTHING.
  • Don’t settle with the other party at the scene as this will compromise any proceeding compensation or legal claim for costs.
  • Take NOTHING they say for granted, in front of a crowd and without the time to talk to friends and partners, people will make all sorts of kind offers that they will later retract (you will want to believe that they are different, but it is best to assume they are not)

After a collision:

  • Get to hospital to have your injuries assessed and RECORDED.
  • Take photographs of all injuries (especially a few days later as the bruises etc are starting to develop)
  • Take your bike (unless it has been collected as evidence by the police) to a bike shop and have ALL damage assessed and proceed to repair. Even slight impacts can seriously damage the integrity of your bike’s frame and major components … trust me you don’t want your bars, or frame snapping whilst you ride.
  • Process a legal/Insurance claim.
  • Keep receipts for all costs incurred (travel to work, medical etc).
  • Take it easy and get better, prepare yourself for a long legal debate and settlement of costs.

Insurance and legal advice:

Many companies specialise in cycle related insurance and legal support.

In addition, membership of some cycle organisations entitles you to both.

Organisations such as:

Cycling UK (formerly CTC)

British Cycling

11. Rain

Specific tips for riding in the wet.

Riding in the wet is not just about visibility, grip and brakes. Often, people do very strange things when confronted with a little rain and you will need to be aware that pedestrians may jump off the kerb, out of cars or simply dart across the road, just to avoid getting a little wet. People in vehicles seem to have less patience in the rain and are less likely to be courteous or helpful.

Keep your eyes open in the wet and be extra alert!

Firstly, you become a lot more invisible in the wet (rain droplets on mirrors and fogged up rear windows help to hide us very well) so always switch on your lights in the rain, even if it is a shower and is in broad daylight. Never take your lights off of the bike even in the summer for this reason, always be prepared for the rain. Besides you may be delayed and have to travel in the dark.

Also take time to ensure other road users have seen you (at junctions and intersections) by confirming eye contact.

When riding in the rain, avoid taking bends at speed or acute angles, take your time to work your way around the bend in a more upright position (position yourself well in the road before a bend to allow this).

Spilt fuel (diesel/petrol) can sometimes show up in the wet (bonus!) and look a little like a greasy rainbow on the tarmac. If you can see it then avoid it. If not, then be aware that spilt fuel floats on the wet surface of the road and makes life even more slippery … and is often invisible to you.

Drain covers and painted lines become very slippery in the wet (especially the slightly raised painted lines that are formed of a semi-plastic paint) avoid braking or taking bends when riding on any of these surfaces, if the back wheel slips out you can do little to stop it.

If riding in icy conditions, then assume the whole road is one big Drain cover, painted in raised paint with a good helping of diesel and grease.

Brakes take longer to work in the wet as the brake block’s have to clear the rim of water and gunk before doing their job. If you don’t learn how your brakes react in the wet, then you risk pulling too hard and locking up your rims when the brake blocks finally find purchase. Try to keep your braking even (front and back) and avoid sudden “yanks” of the brakes.

Importantly try to allow more time and distance to avoid over-braking, don’t put yourself in a position where you will need to react in an emergency.

And remember … “there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing” … so carry something waterproof during the winter months!

12. Kit

Some basic suggestions for useful (or essential) city cycle kit.

Here are a few essential contents that you may wish to consider carrying when riding in a city.

  • Water
  • Puncture repair kit, (unless you ride with solid tyres)
  • Spare inner tube, (unless you ride with solid tyres)
  • Small pliers/multi tool essential for getting glass/nails out of tyres (unless you ride with solid tyres)
  • Mobile phone
  • Spare batteries (for your lights … even in the summer)
  • Oyster card or travel permit (just in case)
  • Pump
  • Latex gloves or hand cleaner

13. Distance

How far is a long ride and how long should I allow?

Those considering commuting by bike often want to know if the distance they plan to travel is usual and how long it will take. It all seems a little daunting at first especially as some people’s experience of cycling could a weekend ride with friends or family, or popping to the shops etc.

So let’s try to put your mind at rest.

Firstly, people commute many varied distances, the longest commutes from riders on this forum seem to be in the region of 20-25 miles and the shortest is around mile or so. Many people commute EVERY SINGLE DAY and others restrict the ride to one, two or maybe three days a week.

There are no rules to how far or how often you want to ride but if you want a guide, you are most probably going to cycle at something between 12 and 15 miles an hour (as you begin to get used to the ride) and should allow extra time for traffic (lights and congestion) and prevailing winds (which can have a dramatic effect on your speed and energy!). At this speed a 20 mile ride should take around 90 minutes and a 5 mile ride should take around 20 minutes to half an hour.

If your commute is a longer distance, then consider splitting the ride with off days or purchasing a folding bike that can be taken on the train for part of the journey (perhaps the return trip).

So, give it a go, you will be surprised at how far you can ride in a city, most are pretty flat and congested, this will often make you the fastest vehicle on the road…by a long way!

If you want to plot a ride, calculate the time & distance or check to see how hilly your route will be, check out and click on the “course creator button”, you will find a helpful “elevation” button on the right hand pane to illustrate your “highs and lows”.

14. Confrontation

How best to avoid confrontation and enjoy your ride.

To help you to avoid confrontation, try to remember that we are all human and are all capable of making daft mistakes (see “attitude” above).

If confronted, try to remain calm but assertive. If you are confronted because you made a mistake, accept the error and offer a wave of sorry or even thanks.

If you need to take primary and in doing so, hold up the traffic behind you (as you will often need to do) offer a wave of thanks or consider pulling over occasionally if the hold up is going to be a long one (such as climbing a congested hill or cycling down a long, narrow road with no overtaking room).

Showing other road users that you know what you are doing and you appreciate the impact it has on them, will help to diffuse potential animosity towards you.

If you are confronted in an overly aggressive way, seek witnesses / support, record registration plates and drop in to your local police station to report it … or get a camera.

Try your best not to initiate a confrontation by calling out insults or threats to other road users, despite the temptation.

15. Which type of bike for the city

There are a few variations of bike that are well suited to city riding, some offer good visibility, some more speed, some are conditioned to the tough environment and poor road surfaces of a city.

Your choice depends upon your ride and your expectations, but you don’t need to spend a fortune, many riders travel long distances each week on very old (unsuitable) bicycles … remember, it’s the engine that matters … oh, that’s you by the way!

To help though, here are some thoughts from @Andyfromotley over at CycleChat:

City Cycling - Road Bike A “racer” as most of us used to call them when we were kids. If you are of a certain vintage then you will find things have changed … A LOT! They are as light as a feather and very quick. But by far the biggest change is that there are no more levers to change gear any more, they are incorporated into the brake levers and it was an invention bordering on genius! Dropped handle bars, thin wheels and tyres, anywhere between 10 and 27 gears. These are light fast, used for commuting where your journey is by road (or very good quality cycle or tow path). Used for keeping fit, club and sportive (long timed rides). Not great for hooking up child seats trailers etc. If it was a car it would be a Ferrari.

City Cycling - Hybrid Bike Pretty much designed to be fast commuters. They have ‘flat’ handlebars, (more comfortable / better view), good brakes and bits that commuters need such as screws for mudguards and panniers etc. Use on road and good quality cycle paths. Not ideal for the ‘sportier’ side of cycling. If it was a car it would be a Golf GTI.

City Cycling - Touring BikeA sort of relaxed road bike that will do everything that the bikes above will and a whole lot more, if a tad slower. Comes with holes and screws for lots of panniers and racks in case you fancy going to Bolivia. A comfortable ride. If it was a car it would be a Volvo Estate.

City Cycling - Mountain Bike Heavier and sturdier than the bikes listed above. They have different gearing too, which means it’s much easier to get up hills on them but not quite so easy to tear along on the flat. Not my area of expertise but they generally fall into three categories: Rigid (no suspension), Front-sus (suspension only on the front forks) and Full-sus (suspension on the front forks and rear frame).

City Cycling - Folding BikeThese have come a long way over recent years and can now be as fast and easy to ride as “full” bikes. Many have specific gearing that is worth considering before you purchase and they all fold up in slightly different ways. They are especially useful if you need to make part of your journey by train or bus; just fold up the bike, hop on, and unfold at the station or terminus and continue your commute to work or homebound journey.

City Cycling - Electric BikeElectric assist bikes are heavier and work in many different ways but, all provide the function of an electric motor to assist with your riding. Some supply electric power as you pedal (to add extra speed) some supply a power at the flick of a switch. All tend to have a limited maximum range which will be affected by the amount of hills and stops / starts that your journey entails.

Check the range and charge time of your electric assist bike before considering a purchase. As a golden rule you should select a bike with a range that is one and a half times the distance of your ride (to take into account hills etc.) and never assume the maximum quoted range is a standard. Also check you have access to a power source at work, otherwise you will be pedalling a heavy bike all the way home.

In general terms, the lighter the bike the swifter the travel, but some people successfully (and happily) commute on big heavy full suspension bikes.

Best to just give it a go and see how you get on then make your choice of a replacement bike once your palate has refined a little and you know what you want / need, who knows you may want to end up on one of those recumbent types …

16. Pavements

In the UK you are not permitted to ride on pavements, unless you are a small child (or wish to ride like one). However many cycle paths are cleverly disguised as pavements. If you are not sure check the local website for cycle ways or look at the pavement in question and try to find a small circular blue sign with a illustration of a person and a cycle, or a small lamppost mounted blue arrow.

If all else fails, and you are already on the pavement (tut tut for not checking) then observe the pedestrian crossing’s, if the little “green man” light has an accompanying green bike, then its a “toucan” crossing and most probably a cycleway (lucky you).

17. Speed

There are no legally quoted speed limits to cycling, so in effect you can ride as fast as you want. Be mindful that, in slower moving traffic, high speed cycling will put you in road positions that other road users may not anticipate, this can often surprise them as you pop up in their field of view. Although this is not your fault (it is the other road user for displaying a lack of observation) you can mitigate this risk by anticipating your position and ensuring you place yourself in plain sight of others … weaving through traffic at high speed is not an altogether smart idea.

18. The correct attire

There are masses of pages of debate on what should or should not be worn when cycling in a city. The bottom line … wear what you feel comfortable and safe in; anything else is speculation and subjective.

19. Filming your ride – why, how, what

Data protection laws do not currently seem to restrict the use of head cams for filming rides (although the law on this point is foggy to say the least). Many riders record journeys for posterity. Others prefer to post videos of poor driving on websites such as YouTube to help educate drivers and riders alike. Some simply wish to retain a record of the trip as something of a “black box” that will record data that the rider is unable to collect (number plates, company livery etc) when pre-occupied with riding a bike in the city. This leaves the rider free to take evasive action in the event of an altercation without being concerned about recording details. Head cams can arguably reduce the potential for confrontation as other people are aware that they are being filmed.

If you choose to film your ride there are many threads relating to the selection of cameras designed for the job, ranging in price from anywhere between £40- £400 and sometimes upwards of thousands of pounds.

Note: It has recently been noted that YouTube will remove video footage if a member of the public feels it breaches their privacy (or indeed whenever they see fit). It is becoming more common for those “outed” on YouTube as over aggressive or poor drivers, to successfully have this footage removed simply by sending an email complaint to YouTube.

20. Cycle to work scheme (free MONEY!!!)

To promote healthier journeys to work and to reduce environmental pollution, the 1999 Finance Act introduced an annual tax exemption, which allows employers to loan cycles and safety equipment to employees as a tax-free benefit.

To help employees take advantage of this tax-free benefit, an employer can simply buy a cycle and cyclists’ safety equipment and loan it to an employee for qualifying journeys to work. As a business expense, the cost of providing this equipment is reduced by claiming the VAT incurred under the normal rules, and by making use of any capital allowances available. This arrangement means that the employee’s normal salary arrangements are not affected and is sometimes referred to as a ‘salary plus’ arrangement. It may be, however, that the employer wants to recover the cost of providing the cycle and safety equipment loaned to the employee. Usually this would be done through a salary sacrifice arrangement.

So how does it work?

First your company enters into a cycle to work scheme with central government and is given a cycle to work code. The company selects a bike shop (or selection of) to allow staff to visit and gain written quotes for bikes and safety equipment.

The written quote is sent off to your employer who pays the full cost of the bike and is given a voucher for you to collect the bike.

Your company is then able to deduct the tax on the value of the bike and “rent” the remaining amount to you in the form of a regular salary sacrifice (ie at source of salary).

You agree to keep the bike until the end of the rental period (usually 12 months) and beyond that, you agree to whatever terms your company set up regards retaining the bike (final purchase amount, strong hand-shake, quick kiss and a cuddle … whatever).

The amount you pay in rentals equates to a massive reduction in cost for the bike (as the government pick up the tax bill, plus you pay no interest (unless your company charges you some, which may occur if they need to finance the cost of the bikes) or tax on the money taken at source from your salary (it is taken at gross not net).

Officially the bike is not yours until the end of the rental period.

A detailed link explaining the process is provided here:

For more commuting advice, please check out the CycleChat Commuting forum.