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I've just recently picked up biking and will be cycling to work when I start in a few weeks. One thing that's really bothering me on my route is a very steep hill that gets very busy during rush hour. At the bottom there's a traffic light where I have to turn right (I live in the UK, we drive on the left).

I've been doing the route off-peak to practice. Thus far it's been clear behind me each time, so I've just looked back and drifted right to position myself correctly before the right turn. However, if there's traffic behind me, I would not feel safe doing this manoeuvre without hand-signalling to the right.

Is it safe to just brake with my left hand on a steep hill? (I believe that's the rear brake on British bikes.) Can I initially brake with both hands then briefly take my right hand off to signal? I've literally never braked one-handed, so it kind of terrifies me. Sorry if these sound like dumb questions; I just don't want to get injured!

Thanks!

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    recommend a cycling proficiency course if you're genuinely having to ask this question. Drag braking the rear is perfectly normal and isn't going to unbalance the bike. Ideally, scrub off most of your speed, position your bike for the manoeuvre, then lower your arm and continue braking as normal – Lucero79 Jun 10 at 21:50
  • Well it has been literal years since I've been on a bike so cycling proficiency course wouldn't harm for sure. Thanks for the input:) – hellzfc Jun 10 at 22:48
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    Describe the intersection in detail, layout makes a big difference how to handle it. Do the lights have pedestrian phases and is it a T or crossing? Bike control is much more important than indication to other drivers. Your though process has to be 'stay left, slow down, keep left, slow down, remain left, slow down....when safe come off brakes, indicate and move to right (UK opposite to US). Better to come to a stop to the left (where its relatively safe) than blowing the intersection because you failed to brake. – mattnz Jun 10 at 23:51
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    Show us the intersection please - I started using Vale St in Bristol as an example but its probably less busy than yours. A link like goo.gl/maps/YedpadKq8pCVv4dv6 would be a great discussion starter. – Criggie Jun 11 at 0:28
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    Agrred with @Criggie It depends on the junction. Use an analogous one if you are concerned about privacy. – Frank Jun 11 at 18:38

13 Answers 13

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As an confident road rider I'd do two major things.

  1. I'd turn my head, look backward and make eye contact with the driver(s) just behind me to show intention, and maybe signal at this point. Or I might not signal at all. Then
  2. take the lane. You will be moving fast enough to slot-in with the cars because of the downhill. I'd avoid being sidelined on the side of the road. I'd also do this well-before the intersection; hard to say how far but even 50-100 metres out.

If I'm needing to brake hard, I'll use both hands, and leave signalling/indicating out of it completely. You've already shown your intent by taking the lane and moving closer to the center-line.


Since your experience is lesser, feel free to not do any of that. You have to be comfortable with your intent and actions. So instead you could:

  1. Get off and walk this bit. Brake early, loose speed from the downhill, and simply walk across the roads before the intersection.
  2. If permitted, you could ride on the footpath, though the UK doesn't allow this unless it's a specific shared path.
  3. Find another route to work. There's a fair assumption that the best route for a car is also the best route for a bike, when frequently there are alternatives only available to bikes.

Also, if other cyclists traverse this intersection then watch and observe their methods. If it makes sense then emulate them, and if not, then don't.

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    +1, Especially looking for alternates - often the best cycle route, especially for inexperienced riders and roads without cycle lanes, is using quite side roads rather than busy main roads – mattnz Jun 10 at 23:55
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    There is I think also a general thing to take away here: Taking the lane is often a safe/safer thing to do. I find that any time I am travelling at a large fraction of the speed limit I take the lane, even if I have no intention of turning. Drivers are only minimally inconvenienced (I am travelling at a large fraction of the allowed speed after all) and if they do want to overtake, I would rather they not do so into oncoming traffic. Taking the lane largely prevents that. – maxf130 Jun 11 at 8:06
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    @maxf130 yes, but I find it a bit problematic to recommend this to a beginner. Whilst taking the whole lane is definitely warranted before a dangerous turn, and is generally fine if you really do travel at the speed limit anyway, it is obviously just rude if you really are blocking the traffic (to a beginner, 25 km/h might already feel quite fast). – leftaroundabout Jun 11 at 10:35
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    @leftaroundabout quite true. I mention this in the context of descending a steep hill were one has to brake to avoid breaking the speed limit in the first place. Probably the safest thing to do there, even for a beginner, is to descend at or near the speed limit while taking the lane. – maxf130 Jun 11 at 11:40
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    There may be traffic legislations that don't allow cyclists to move to the middle lane when turning left (right-hand side road-use) You may have to stop at the right side of the road, get off the bike and cross the junction on foot. Even if not required I'd do that until I'd gained more handling skills. – Carel Jun 11 at 11:57
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Firstly, congrats on both posting for the first time and for deciding to commute on a bike! Many of us commute on bikes in the UK and everyone started somewhere!

If you're not 100% confident with ANY part of your journey, you should just stop, walk the challenging bit, and then get on your bike again to continue. There is absolutely no shame in doing that, and you don't want to mess around with heavy traffic unless you're both confident (in your abilities as a cyclist) and experienced. As already mentioned, you might want to consider some sort of cycling course, there are plenty available, a lot for free, all over the UK. Maybe you have some friends who are more experienced riders to go out with and practise / enjoy your ride as well.

Realistically, when you turn, you should take up the whole lane that you're on and then manoeuvre safely using both hands. So you should signal, as early as you want, in an obvious way to indicate your intention, once you KNOW that the car behind you KNOWS what you are doing that's when then you manoeuvre.

In the same way that you should not be signalling whilst turning, you should signal before a turn, take your space and then turn. Cornering/braking one handed in 100% not recommended for inexperienced riders. It will only cause more damage than good, usually to the rider.

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    Thanks for your response! A cycling proficiency course probably wouldn't go amiss for me :-) I have been getting off and pushing several times, particularly at roundabouts. I think as people start going back to work and there's more bikers on the road during commuting hours I'll be able to watch what others do and hopefully pick up some good practise! – hellzfc Jun 10 at 22:47
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    That's a good idea actually, see if you can get to some awkward junctions early and just relax there and wait for other cyclists to see how they do it. Mind you, won't stop you from being intimidated when you try yourself. Maybe start a petition for better cycle paths???? haha – abdnChap Jun 10 at 23:02
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I've literally never braked one handed so it kind of terrifies me.

It is terrific for a reason and you have to practice somewhere safe.

If you hold the front set with only one hand and do brake, your body momentum will try to turn the front wheel. If you don't counter this movement, you'll fall or get where you don't intend to.

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    Good that you spell this out explicitly – though it's probably clear to most here, including the OP. I personally find single-handed braking pretty difficult. (Despite being comfortable with technical MTB riding that most cyclists would probably never attempt; but I really need both hands on the bars for steep descends.) – leftaroundabout Jun 11 at 13:00
  • It depends. If you have brake handles (or additional brake handles) near the center, it is easier and requires much less back muscles. – fraxinus Jun 11 at 13:13
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    One handed riding and braking with the rear brake only is relatively safe and easy since you can’t produce a lot of stopping power. One handed front braking to the point where the rear wheel leaves the ground takes serious core strength and practice. – Michael Jun 11 at 15:02
  • To state the obvious: ^^ this is what can happen. A steep downhill will make it even worse, and heavy traffic will make it much, MUCH worse. If you're not comfortable, listen to your instincts and walk the bike. – Z4-tier Jun 13 at 15:39
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As a cyclist in the UK your use of the bicycle on the road is governed by the Highway Code. You are not required to use hand signals, because it is acknowledged both hands are required for operating the bike safely.

In the event you cannot use hand signals, make other road users aware of your intention through eye contact, body position on the bike, road positioning and so on.

As other answers have said, if the better option is to dismount then do that.

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Do a 2 stage turn manoeuvre.

or

I do this often when traffic is too important.

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    Good video links - these are also termed "hook turns", which is nothing to do with "being left/right hooked" – Criggie Jun 12 at 13:50
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    I was about to make a sketch and write a lengthy explanation. This is the best solution and should be upvoted more. It elegantly solves the "need to brake with one hand" problem on the side. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jun 12 at 15:16
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    Every urban cyclist needs to know how to do this anywhere they feel uneasy about turning from the inside (even if that is allowed). @Criggie thanks for sharing that name, now I don't have to describe this move using hand waving and yelling. – Z4-tier Jun 14 at 17:39
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  1. There is no shame to stop and walk the difficult/dangerous bit. Actually, it is stupid not doing so and risking too much when one is not confident.
  2. With expirience goes confidence. Now you need to stop and walk the crossection everytime. In a month you will stop only because really heavy trafic, then because of slippery road, later you will do the turn without any struggle...
  3. Visibility is cyclist's first safeguard. Use headlights and taillights. You can get yourself lights with turn signals which works like on a motorbike. You can have them mounted on the frame, seatpost, backpack, helmet...
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  • 1 and 2 are good points, but putting turn signals on the bike is not going to help OP's confidence. Drivers may or may not act as you expect when the indicator is activated. – Criggie Jun 12 at 3:21
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Never ever risk your stability and complete control of your bike in going downhill, much less take one hand off the handlebar even for a second when you may need to brake strongly on a steep slope. It's a recipe for disaster even for highly experienced bikers. You can't beat physics, this is all about vehicle dynamics and you want to stay safe.

If you lose stability and drop to the ground or even just go swerving uncontrolledly downhill with heavy traffic behind you, that's the closest you can avoidably get to "this is it" in an up-to-there normal everyday traffic situation. Cars and heavy vehicles can't beat physics either - braking is much less effective downhill. Better not count on a vehicle behind you being able to conduct serious braking at all.

So your first priority is to keep your ability to go straight and follow the road (or to get off the road in a controlled and timely way if that's preferable), along with your ability to completely control your speed and not find yourself off the exact place and trajectory on the road where you wanted to go in the first place.

If that means you can't signal at any given moment, because that means taking one hand off your bike, then you can't signal at that moment. When that's not an option, so is getting into that situation where you have to fill too many requirements simultaneously.

Fully taking the lane is a good idea where it helps, in a way where cars behind you can easily control their own driving (no imposing surprises on anyone), if it makes truly impossible for cars behind you to do things that can turn out risky for yourself, such as overtaking narrowly.

That's not being rude when it's what it takes to stay safe for all parties involved. And you have the same right to be there as every other road user (provided you are keeping to the regulations). If it is rude in a given situation, then there's something different wrong already. By doing it properly, you are not just protecting yourself, you are also protecting the respective driver from prosecution in an accident that could arise.

If a particular place or situation is such that you're out of these options when you go there, you probably don't want to be riding in that place or situation. Protect yourself and use whatever other option is available. You want to feel fully confident with what you're doing and with all involved persons' complete control of the situation.

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  • Concur - I'd be taking the lane the whole way down the hill, and only moving out of the way if it were safe, for me. – Criggie Jun 12 at 3:34
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Might I also add that for me (15 years plus commuting), I find that travelling on a bicycle in traffic at rush hour is very different to travelling on an empty road, largely because very often the traffic (cars) are not moving.

If this is a busy route, you may well find that you are going to be negotiating your way through a queue of stationary traffic as opposed to flowing cars, and this is a slightly different thing to deal with. Finding your way through traffic is also a learning curve, but it may be that you will be going a lot slower than on an empty road.


As an addendum, braking with one hand on the bars will never be fully safe - you just need to be careful with what is around you.

I have been cycling a similar route for approx. 8 years, without major incident (thankfully). However, the closest I have come to serious injury in this time was when indicating into the outer lane on a flat road with minimal traffic. The car in front of me in the outer lane, with no traffic for a couple of hundred metres decided to brake suddenly to avoid a plastic bag, just as I had put my hand out to signal. It was only luck that stopped me from going straight into their rear windscreen.

My takeaway from this was that I was too close to that car when trying to manoeuvre. I think we're all still learning at some level!

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    Excellent point there - slow-moving cars rarely if ever anticipate or check for a cyclist passing them on the inside (ie up the left in the UK) – Criggie Jun 11 at 23:51
  • Very good point there, yes. Actually come to think of it, I don't know what the regulations are like in the UK about this kind of thing but maybe a good idea would be a damn bright, blinking LED. – Frank Jun 12 at 8:19
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Your main question is this:

Is it safe to just brake with my left hand on a steep hill?

It depends on the conditions. If you have an icy, or slushy, downhill, then you should probably avoid using the front brake at all and make sure you have a long deceleration using back brake primarily.

If it's normal conditions and you need to brake, your front brake does most of the work. Use the front brake to decelerate well in advance, and then if you need to resist acceleration just use the back brake.

Your peripheral context though is how to manage that particular junction. My advice is to be in the middle of the lane well in advance with traffic behind you, knowing that they can't assume you want to turn left. Be a bit assertive and because it's a commute, the majority of drivers will get to know you over time.

Main thing, though, just don't worry too much and go for it. Keep reading, asking other bikers, etc. Pretty quick you'll be dancing through things like you've been doing it all your life. There's first times for everything.

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I think the most important thing is that you don’t do anything unexpected. Suddenly cutting across a lane because you are too scared to look behind and indicate is unexpected and you are rightfully concerned about doing that.

If you have to slow down before you feel confident to look behind you and signal with your hand, do so very gradually. No sudden, unexpected braking maneuvers. This is also true if you want to stop at the side of the road in order to walk across the intersection.

Once you’ve slowed down enough it shouldn’t be too hard to stay at that speed (or further decelerate) with your rear brake only. It should then be possible to look behind you and indicate.

Practice one handed braking maneuvers with each hand. There are lots of situations where you suddenly have to brake one handed for example while indicating or while drinking from your bottle. Be aware that braking with the rear brake only produces less stopping power than both brakes together or the front brake only, especially if the road is wet or surface is bad (manhole covers, painted lines, zebra crossings, pebbles etc.). But you can try that on a quiet road or grass. Braking to the point where the rear wheel locks up is quite controllable and safe, unless you do it in a turn.

If you find it very hard to ride straight with one hand only it could be that your handle bars are too low down or too far forward (or counter intuitively your seat could be too far forward which makes it harder to let go of the bar).

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Skimming across previous answers, I don't see any reference to how your brake cables are orientated. i.e. does your left hand activate the rear brake and your right hand active the front or vice versa?

As an Aussie and sympathetic 'keeping on the left' cycle user I'm cognisant of your problem as described.

Just like driving on the left or driving on the right is another old convention issue; you may not be aware that bicycles brakes can be set up either left-rear/right-front vs. left-front/right-rear. It can honestly boil downto what you've grown up with or adjusted to personally; but depending on your dominant hand; most braking modulation and precision is performed by actuating the front brake.

It's a little longer in its wording but I can recommend an article by the original great internet bicycle sage Sheldon Brown here: Braking and Turning Your Bicycle, which better fleshes the issues with understanding braking; and how you may better improve your technique.

best of luck.

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As Philip says, there are indicators available for bikes; a rear-view mirror wouldn't go amiss either. However, I don't have either on my race bike.

In the situation you describe I would indicate really early, then put the hand back on (depending on how steep/fast), while setting up for the corner, scrubbing my speed nice and early, then another quick solid signal and turn. The earlier you set up the easier it is to time your turn with any potential gap in oncoming traffic; you may even need to speed up again. Once you've slowed down, the force in you're arms will drop enough to safely take a hand off. It is sketchy, signalling while braking and looking out for traffic. Doesn't leave much room for looking out for potholes etc. If you're using just the front brake you risk the front wheel washing out, or going OTB from a pothole, or if you're just on the rear brake, you lack stopping power and could slide out (esp if wet!). Hence, brake early as poss, open up a gap between you and the car in front so you've got room to manoeuvre. If you're having to stay on the brakes because there's a car in front, you should have slowed enough to brake one-handed. Keep the hand signal clear and quick, it should obvious to any driver behind what you're about to do anyway.

What this issue emphasises is that cyclists can't always signal what they're doing safely, so give them space.

Practise braking while standing up out of the saddle, alternating between front and rear brake, shifting weight back and forth. Get familiar with the sensation of the forces and how they affect the traction of the bike.

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  1. Get an electronic turning signal indicator and use that to signal.

  2. Claim the center of the auto lane so that even inattentive drivers should be aware of your presence.

  3. Eye contact with the driver behind you, in your mirror perhaps, sounds like a good idea if possible; in any case have an escape plan in mind if the following vehicle fails to keep distance when you slow to turn.

  4. Braking and/or turning one-handed, at speed, coming off the bottom of a hill, in traffic, sounds very dangerous.

  5. If you are not confident about doing this safely, choose another route, maybe three left turns to make one right turn. (You said you drive on the left in your country.)

Please be careful:

Seth Vidal, a well-known member of Durham's (North Carolina US) cycling community, and the creator of the yum software update tool for RedHat/Fedora linux systems, was, I believe, biking home from work when a hit-and-run driver killed him at age 37.

http://ghostbikes.org/durham/seth-vidal

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yum_(software)

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  • Electronic indicators are vanishingly rare on a bike and most drivers will have never seen one. They may not even be legal depending on location. Who knows what a driver's reaction might be if only given a few seconds. The rest of your points are excellent. – Criggie Jun 14 at 21:05
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    @Criggie: 1. Turn indicators are never a guarantee that drivers will respond appropriately. They are a way to indicate your intention without taking your hards off the steering control. – Philip Jun 16 at 5:40
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    @Criggie: 2. Are you saying that drivers understand a blinking light on one side of a vehicle is a turn signal, only if they have seen them on that exact kind of vehicle before? – Philip Jun 16 at 5:45
  • Drivers may not comprehend in the short time available, what the intent is. Also there's no legal requirement for vehicles to give way to other vehicles coming in from the kerb. Its too chancy to assume every driver will know what you want with the blinker, and react in the expected way. I personally remember the first time I saw one of those super-fancy animated indicators, and it was sufficient distraction to almost cause an accident. So in that respect, different can be a bad thing with unexpected reactions. I'd take the lane relatively early, or there's no shame in walking it. – Criggie Jun 16 at 7:31

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