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There's one long road that I bike on that has a decent bike lane, but the speed limit for cars is 50 mph. Needless to say, they drive 60+. Often I find myself being shaken or rattled by the turbulent wake of a car that has just sped by. This is not severe enough for me to lose balance, but I always fear that I might. These fears are amplified when there is a gutter by the edge of the road, because if I waver, the wheel might slip in and throw me off balance.

Now I realize that there is nothing I can do to change physics - fast cars are going to cause this effect. But mentally or physically, as a biker, how can I deal with this? Is this just a matter of confidence in biking on such roads or do you brace yourself for it if you sense a car coming up behind you?

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P.S. Please fix tags as necessary, I don't know what's best. –  user1714 Jul 15 '11 at 6:07
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If you had a picture of the road (e.g. from Google Streetview) that might be useful. Or can you describe the road in detail - width of the bike lane, number and width of the other lanes. –  Tom77 Jul 15 '11 at 10:24
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Its like shell shock, eventually you get use to it. Find a different route, sounds dangerous to me. –  Moab Jul 15 '11 at 14:20
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Picture of the road?, I want video of them riding by the gutter area! –  Moab Jul 15 '11 at 18:33
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Actually meant a video of you and the car meeting at that point, trying to be humorous. Find a new route before you die. –  Moab Jul 16 '11 at 21:33
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8 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Is this the right road to use?

First off, you might consider avoiding this road, or at least certain parts of it. Are there areas with more traffic? Narrower lanes? See if there's a way around those sections.

Visibility

If you haven't already, you could also work on making yourself and your bike more visible to drivers. Consider wearing a safety vest. More information on visibility in these questions: Is fluorescent clothing effective? and How can I make my bike (and myself) visible at night?. (Much of the advice in the second question also applies during the day.)

Anticipating the cars before they pass

Being able to anticipate when a car will be passing would help. Are you using a mirror? If you know when a car is getting close, it's sometimes possible to time passing a grate or other obstacle so that you won't be passed by a car at the same time. And knowing when the car will pass will also help you compensate for the car's wake.

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no, I don't use a mirror. This is just one section of the road (1-2 miles) that's problematic, the rest is ok. The bigger worry is because there's a canyon on either side of the road... but you might be right that I could avoid this road. 2 miles extra might not seem so bad in comparison to all the mental worries and potential hospital bills... –  user1714 Jul 16 '11 at 15:15
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It sounds like an unpleasant road to ride on, I'm sure you would use a different route if one was available.

If you can feel the slipstream, to the extent that it moves your bike around, things are passing to close. Paradoxically you may find that by riding further from the curb, passing vehicles will leave you more room.

People tend to leave as much room between themselves and you as you give yourself between you and the curb. More importantly if you ride hard against the curb, you are out of the area that drivers are paying attentions to, you become part of the background, invisible, cars will pass without having to move over, the car behind them wont see you, or notice the car in front move to pass you and so on.

All this may sound odd, its fairly mainstream Vehiclular Cycling, . If you are in the UK there's an excellent book Cyclecraft

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While I agree with this advice in general, I'm not so sure I'd hug the outside edge of a bike lane against 60mph+ traffic. Staying farther from the curb works when you're in a lane, because it encourages drivers to simply go a lane over rather than overtaking in the lane. You don't get the benefit of this effect when you're in a separate bike lane. –  Stephen Touset Jul 15 '11 at 15:11
    
Working from first principles, if the cycle lane is so narrow, that the OP is having this problem, one should ignore the cycle lane and ride in the main lane in a position that does not invite motor vehicles to pass to close. It takes a lot of bottle, and no, I don't always do it. –  Andy Morris Feb 3 '12 at 13:50
    
I consider myself pretty desensitized to car traffic, but even I wouldn't try to take the lane on a road with traffic going 60+ mph. –  Stephen Touset Feb 3 '12 at 14:26
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Get a rearview mirror if you don't have one already. This will allow you to anticipate better, and with some practice you can learn to compensate for the wake by slightly leaning away from the car just as the car passes you.

I have cycled around new zealand where all you get is highways. Log and sheep trucks are an absolute horror when they pass at speed on narrow sections. I even got sucked onto the road a few times in the wake of a truck. After I got a rearview mirror I was able to time leaning away from the truck at the moment the wake washed over me so I could prevent that.

Apart from that, having the rearview mirror meant I was more relaxed on my bike because I could see without looking over my shoulder if the truck driver had noticed me and was staying off of the shoulder. (which sometimes was not the case, but that is a different story).

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+1 for a mirror. I suggest a mirror that clips onto cycling glasses and NOT one that fits onto bar-ends. I once threw a bar-end mirror into the trash after it clipped a shrub and yanked me to the sidewalk in a painful way. –  user313 Jul 15 '11 at 15:44
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+1, mirror suggestion, awesome. +1 for the shrub yank story, awesome also. –  Moab Jul 15 '11 at 18:31
    
thank you for your answer. I'm thinking of getting a mirror to go along with it. –  user1714 Jul 16 '11 at 15:22
    
@wdypdx22 ouch. haven't had a bar-end mirror do that to me, but i can relate when i try to take a curve too quick and there's a d**n tree in the way of my handlebars X | –  Nate Koppenhaver Aug 5 '11 at 19:47
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You mention that you do actually have a cycle lane, it is just that the cars have that wake affect rather than sheer-abject-terror effect.

I would suggest that you tell yourself that:

  • The drivers in those vehicles are professional drivers or very experienced and know how to drive better than those mums on the school run that have screaming kids, are half asleep and are trying to text-and-drive. This may not be the case, but you can imagine it to be.
  • The wake effect is not slowing you down, in fact it is helping you with your forward motion. Therefore, instead of it being terrifying, it is merely something you need to get more of. When that big truck goes by you want to get nearer to it rather than further away to get maximum benefit. Again, this is just what you can tell yourself.
  • Relax your upper body. Keep your thumbs on the top of the bars (if you have straight handlebars). This will keep you better prepared for when you hit something on the road, e.g. a discarded bit of truck tyre that you did not quite see. Stay seated and pedal with your legs (rather than your arms - you know what I mean).
  • Don't wear a helmet. The anecdotal study of a few years ago showed that cyclists with helmets get given less room. Besides, helmets are only tested at 0 mph falling off a bike onto a fluffy pillow, with a 60 m.p.h. car RTA they have no effect at all, except maybe to strangle.
  • If the cycle-lane slopes off to the side then you don't want to slip off that in the wet and tumble into the main highway. That would be jolly unpleasant for the motorists.
  • Wear the internationally recognised hi-viz cycling clothing of shame. I know it would be so much nicer to wear jeans and a black T-shirt but the hi-viz clothing to the E.U. standards really does the job. Well, according to 3M and statistics.
  • Whatever you do, don't get that rear mirror. Instead get a pair of Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, which had been specially designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. At the first hint of trouble they turn totally black and thus prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you.
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From a purely physical standpoint, the only way you will lose balance or fall from the situation described, is by overreacting to the car passing, and causing the fall yourself.

If there are large trucks at high speeds, there is a very small possibility that you could be in just the wrong place, and the small movement of the front wheel caused by the truck's turbulence could push you into a crack, or something and cause a fall. However, in 20 years of riding, I've never even heard of that happening to anyone.

In some ways, yes, this is a matter of you being confident in your skill on the bike. That confidence comes with time, and I think that as you continue to ride, and continue to feel the effect of the car's wake, and continue to remain upright and in control, you will gain that confidence.

The only thing I see as dangerous to you in this situation is your fear. If you allow that (reasonable) fear to case you to overreact, flinch, wince, or what have you, then you could lose control of the bike and crash.

If you feel that you are afraid of this situation to that level, then consider picking a more relaxing route to ride.

It will be more comfortable, less dangerous because you will be less afraid, and you will simply enjoy riding more.

Please don't take offense that I am discussing these fears openly. It is not intended to be in any way. Everyone has them, and the best way to deal with them is to get them in the open where you can think through them rationally. Mostly, this lessens the power of fear.

As Neil said, anticipation of the movements of cars and other objects around you is your best defense against both excessive turbulence, and the possibility of overreacting to it.

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I have had large buses and trucks shake my bike enough to alter my course by a few inches -- enough to make you hit debris you were trying to avoid, etc, and enough to be a hazard if you're within a few inches of a curb, gutter, or rumble strip. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 15 '11 at 11:07
    
Which is what I said in the 2nd paragraph. But the OP is describing the average car passing by. Would you have posted that in response to anyone else with the same answer? –  zenbike Jul 15 '11 at 11:17
    
Actually, I rarely pay attention to who posted what. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 15 '11 at 12:28
    
Then did you read the post? Because you responded with a correction that I had already included in my answer. –  zenbike Jul 15 '11 at 13:12
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Can't we all just get along? Life is too short. –  Moab Jul 15 '11 at 18:36
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Sadly, cycling at speeds that much slower than traffic has some serious tradeoffs.

For maximum visibility, you need to ride on the road itself - inside the right lane marker as drivers really don't pay attention to things not on the road. I don't know if it would be safer to take the lane the majority of 50 mph roads in the us - but you might experiment with where you place your bike in relation to the other vehicles.

Ignoring the rude drivers that buzz you even when they see you - you'll want to be very, very bright and visible. I'm talking a two foot tall slow moving vehicle orange reflective triangle visible.

The tradeoff comes since you rightly want to be as far outside the path of a car as possible - but you can't ride so close to the edge of the pavement that you are startled into the ditch. Do know that the further off the road you are - the less likely the average driver will a) notice you and b) slow down.

I would try riding closer to the edge of the road and see how you feel. Also, experiment with anything that makes your hearing better.

As silly as it seems, a "rear view hearer" is much more effective than a rear view mirror for being aware of vehicles approaching from behind.

Modifying your helmet to ensure a clear path for noise behind you. Temporarily adding a small plastic half-cone just in front of your ear that would reduce airflow over your ear and/or direct more noise from behind might be just the thing to give you that extra warning to prepare for an upcoming vehicle.

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A couple of more suggestions:

  1. If you haven't done so recently, get your bike tuned up. Wheels that are just a little wonky, shifters that don't respond reliably, even a handlebar or seat that's slightly askew -- all can "upset your game" and put you more on edge to begin with.
  2. Drop down a gear and pick up your cadence. At a higher cadence you tend to wobble less, and psychologically you're less likely to be spooked by the whoosh of a vehicle, since the rhythm sort of carries you through.
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This should be an edit of your previous answer instead of a new post. –  Marve Jul 15 '11 at 16:54
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Yeah, a rear view mirror helps.

I frequently cycle on the shoulder of a highway with a 65mph speed limit (which is to say that many are doing 75). The shoulder is fairly wide, but unfortunately broken up enough that only the 3-4 feet nearest the roadway are usable in many areas.

I feel reasonably safe -- only an occasional truck, or (for some reason worse) a large bus will "suck" the bike to any significant degree (and having a helmet mirror helps enormously with anticipating this).

But, unfortunately, it's just not enjoyable (and not only because it's a slight uphill grade for 6 of the 10 miles). You have to be constantly on your guard, and noise wears you down, if nothing else. It's worth it to take a different route if you have the time and endurance.

Here's the road I'm talking about: http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ll=44.028857,-92.615981&spn=0.099232,0.21492&z=12&layer=c&cbll=44.028857,-92.615981&panoid=gJHcf2Pvuqp8B7fjnwIBzA&cbp=12,103.38,,0,0

(The shoulder at that randomly-picked point is in a bit better condition than average, and it doesn't show any traffic, which suggests the shots were taken about 5AM on a Sunday morning. "Normal" traffic is a vehicle every 10 seconds most of the day, and virtually bumper to bumper at rush hour.)

EDIT:

A couple of more suggestions:

  1. If you haven't done so recently, get your bike tuned up. Wheels that are just a little wonky, shifters that don't respond reliably, even a handlebar or seat that's slightly askew -- all can "upset your game" and put you more on edge to begin with.
  2. Drop down a gear and pick up your cadence. At a higher cadence you tend to wobble less, and psychologically you're less likely to be spooked by the whoosh of a vehicle, since the rhythm sort of carries you through.
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