Cycling Street Smarts, left-hand drive version



If you use your bicycle for transportation, sooner or later you'll find that you have to ride at night or in the rain or cold weather. Though statistical studies show that it is more dangerous to ride under these conditions, they also show that the overall crash rate for cyclists who ride regardless of weather is lower than that for cyclists who ride only on fine days (see Howard Kaplan, "Characteristics of the Regular Adult Bicycle User," U.S. Federal Highway Administration, 1975). Skill and correct equipment make it easy to ride with confidence.


To ride at night, you need lights. Even when streetlights show you the way, you need lights so other people can see you despite the glare of car headlights.

A white headlight identifies the front and a red taillight, the rear of all vehicles. All European countries require both when riding at night. Some countries require them to be permanently installed, to avoid a cyclist's being caught out without a light at dusk. UK law also requires a red rear retroreflector. It may be integral with the taillight. The retroreflector is more visible under some conditions -- particularly if the taillight fails.


A good generator system is bright enough to light your way on dark roads. It's the best choice for long-distance touring, since you may not be able to buy or recharge batteries. Some generator systems have an additional power source that keeps them lighted when you stop. A generator built into the bicycle’s front hub is more reliable and efficient than one that rolls on the tyre.

Battery-powered lights are legal in the U.K. and in many other countries -- though not all. With continuing improvements to light-emitting diodes (LEDs), battery life has become less of a concern. Some battery-powered lighting systems with rechargeable batteries are the brightest available.

Rechargeable batteries cut costs in the long term compared with repeated battery purchases, though lights not designed for rechargeable batteries may not be quite as bright, due to lower voltage. In the U.K.,a flashing taillight is legal. It saves on battery life and makes you more noticeable as a cyclist.

When riding at night, it’s a good idea to carry spare batteries, and spare bulbs for incandescent lights. It’s also a good idea to carry spare lights to get you home in case your main lighting system fails.

Mount a bright headlamp low (3 kB gif)

Mount a headlight that needs to light the road low, so its beam pattern extends longest and reveals surface irregularities.

Mount taillights and small headlights high and aim them level (6 kB gif)

Aim the taillight level. Test aim by rolling the bike toward and away from a wall. The centre of the beam should stay at the same height.


In addition to the red rear-facing retroreflector, some countries additionally require retroreflectors on the pedals, and side-facing retroreflectors. Reflectors mounted in the spokes can loosen them, and so tyres with reflectorised sidewalls are preferable. Reflectorised ankle bands can function as pedal reflectors and also provide reflectivity to the sides. Make sure that your reflectors aren't obscured by baggage or dirt. Rear-facing reflectors work well for drivers approaching from behind you -- even if your taillight fails without your noticing it.

Retroreflectors only look bright for someone close to a light source -- that is, a driver of a vehicle whose headlights are aimed at you. Retroreflectors facing all directions offer reasonable protection when you are stopped and a generator light goes out -- but they are no substitute for a headlight when you are moving. Pedestrians stepping off the pavement in front of you have no headlights and won't see your reflectors. Motorists pulling out of side streets ahead of you also won't see your reflectors, because these cars' headlights throw their beam straight ahead - across the road in front of you.

It's a good idea to use additional reflectors beyond those sold with a new bicycle. Most bicycle shops carry reflective leg bands and vests. Adhesive-backed strips of reflective material are also sold for the bicycle frame and mudguards. Be sure to aim your rear reflector directly back. If it's tilted up or down, it may not work at all.

Test your nighttime equipment: Have someone ride your bike past you at night, and also observe it from a motor vehicle to see how well your lights and reflectors work.


When riding at night, you can't see drivers inside their cars to make eye contact, but you can flash your headlight at them by twitching the handlebars or turning your head with a helmet-mounted light. Flash your headlight when you need to get the attention of a driver pulling out of a side street.

In some countries, the risk of theft and physical attack at night in dark, empty places like parks, pedestrian overpasses and industrial areas is generally greater than the risk of crashes when riding on streets. Choose routes accordingly.

Rural riding at night is demanding of your equipment and technique. Some lights are not bright enough to allow you to ride downhill at full speed on an unlighted road. Stay within the limitations of your lights.

Narrow, shoulderless rural roads with moderate to heavy traffic have a bad record for nighttime bicycle crashes. On the other hand, quiet rural roads can be very pleasant to ride at night. Just be sure that your headlight is powerful enough to show you the way, and your taillight and reflectors are sufficient to alert overtaking motorists.

At night, there are generally fewer drivers on the roads; but of these drivers, a much larger percentage are drink drivers. A useful trick on an unlighted road is to look at your shadow as a car approaches from behind. If the shadow moves to the left, the car is passing to your right.


Riding in wet weather can be miserable, but if you equip yourself well, you can stay comfortable.

Many cyclists carry no wet-weather gear, and they get soaked. Some cyclists try to use rain gear borrowed from the coat rack at home. Long raincoats and ponchos tangle with the spokes or frame. A hood is dangerous, because it can block your view when you turn your head. Rubberised rain suits get as wet inside as out, because they don't let perspiration evaporate.

A cyclist's rain cape is a fine solution, along with mudguards on your bike. The rain cape is like a poncho but tailored to fit you in your riding position on the bicycle. It's small and light to carry, and relatively inexpensive. It has loops at the front, which you can hook over your thumbs or over brake levers, extending forward like a little tent. A waist strap holds down the back of the cape. The cape should be bright yellow, to make you more visible to drivers.

The rain cape allows ventilation underneath, and so it's the best solution on a warm, rainy day. But with the rain cape, you need a pair of full-length mudguards on your bicycle. They keep dirty water and mud from flying up from the wheels. A mudflap on the front mudguard and toe clip covers, will keep your feet dry, and a helmet cover will keep your head dry.

Sandals are now made for clip-in pedals. In a warm rain, you can wear the sandals without socks, and then put on the socks when you arrive at your destination.

High-tech rain suits of Gore-Tex or other materials that "breathe" can also do the job, especially when equipped with air holes to allow for cooling. Many have reflective stripes to enhance your visibility. You still should use mudguards to keep road dirt off you and your bicycle.

Sandals are now made for clip-in pedals. In a warm rain, you can wear the sandals without socks, and then put on the socks when you arrive at your destination.

Your riding technique needs some modification in wet weather. Rim brakes work very poorly if the bicycle has steel rims - stopping distances may be increased by 10 times. With aluminium rims, the braking is better, but still not as good as when they are dry. It helps to wipe the rims dry by applying the brakes in advance, well before you need to stop. Disk or drum brakes work better in the wet. If you must ride much in the rain, ask about your options at a bike shop.

In the rain, pay special attention to metal surfaces such as manhole covers or steel-grid bridge decks, painted traffic markings, wet leaves and oil slicks. They're all especially slippery. Avoid riding through puddles if you can't see the bottom - a puddle can hide a pothole.

In a warm rain, you can wear rubber sandals without socks. You can put your socks on when you reach your destination. There are now even special sandals for clip-in pedals. You might even wear a swimsuit, and pack your normal clothing in a plastic bag to change into when you arrive.

When you get home, it's a good idea to relubricate your bicycle's chain to help prevent rust.


Cold weather has its advantages. Falling snow does not get you wet like rain. The exercise of cycling keeps you warm, but on the other hand, you can work hard without getting sweaty. Dress in layers so you can adjust your clothing as you warm up. The only real problem is snow and ice. On the other hand, if a stretch of road is unrideable, you can carry your bicycle, and you never have to shovel it out of a parking space!. In case you need to ride on icy roads or paths, there are now studded tyres for bicycles.

When temperatures are below freezing, your hands and feet are the hardest parts to keep comfortable. Dress like a cross-country skier, in layers so you can adjust your clothing as you warm up with exercise. Two pairs of wool socks, and shoe covers, work for your feet, and you may also wear hiking boots. Get the warmest mittens you can find, with a windproof outer layer and thick insulation.


Riding at night is reasonably safe if you equip yourself correctly. You must use at least a headlight and large, bright rear reflector. A taillight and additional reflectors can make you more visible, and are required by law in some places. Brightly coloured clothing can also help, as can reflective strips on your baggage, clothing, or helmet. Reflective patches on the backs of your gloves allow you to make a flashing turn signal by rotating a wrist.

If you are properly equipped, riding at night is not much different from riding in daylight hours, though some situations are better avoided because of increased risk of physical attack or of a crash.

To ride comfortably in wet weather, you need to equip your bicycle with mudguards, and carry rain clothing. Also be aware of the reduced traction and poorer brake performance in wet weather. Dress in layers in cold weather, and pay extra attention to the road surface. Equip yourself, use reasonable caution and don't let the weather keep you off your bike.