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I currently have two problems with this:

  • While looking backwards, I do not see where I am going.
  • It is difficult to maintain perfectly the same direction while turning around. Probably both problems can be fixed by training on a safe place, but is this way of looking backwards a recommended and safe technique? Maybe better to avoid this? Or the clue is to learn returning back to the forward view very quickly?

The obvious alternatives are:

  • If only another another bicycle may be approaching from behind, just show the hand signal to understand which side to drive around you.
  • If you make something like a left turn across a car road, stop to look around.
  • Engine noise (and lights in the night) from behind can warn about the approaching car.

There are also other options now like mirrors (I tried some so far without obvious success) good mirrors make sense and Garmin radar (not cheap). Anyway this question asks is it worth learning to look backwards while riding or better to learn avoiding this habit?

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  • 1
    What kind of problem did you have with mirrors? For me, it's by far the best solution, but I have to say that finding a good one is hard. Most do not hold their position well enough, or are too small to be useful. My favourites so far are the ones that go on the end of the handle bar, like Zefal Cyclop or Zefal Dooback II (for both, you can adjust the tightness with a screw — it's a critical spec otherwise, they are likely to be too loose and you'll have to adjust them constantly).
    – Renaud
    Dec 23, 2021 at 11:29
  • 2
    @Renaud I like my mirrors (Zefal Spin on one bike, B&M CycleStar on another) but you still have to look over your shoulder at times, usually as a final check.
    – Chris H
    Dec 23, 2021 at 11:32
  • The view from the mirror depends on the body position, front wheel position, etc. Unlike in a car, it takes seconds to adjust till it shows what is required. All this time I do not see forwards well.
    – nightrider
    Dec 23, 2021 at 13:34
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    @nightrider then your mirror is junk or you're knocking it out of alignment. Sorry, but a decent mirror stays where it's put. Head movement can be used to scan a wrist range of movement, or to account for different riding positions, but isn't needed apart from that
    – Chris H
    Dec 23, 2021 at 14:14
  • I'm not sure what it is about mirrors, but every time I'm about to pass a cyclist with one they do some sudden silly moves. It's almost like they only don't watch them but the mirror actually compels them to do something crazy.
    – ojs
    Dec 23, 2021 at 22:41

8 Answers 8

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Yes - looking behind you (briefly) is a perfectly good way to find out what's there.

The dangers of not-looking-behind are much higher than a brief interruption of looking forward.

You're right that your ears can tell you some things, but not if the vehicle is quiet. I've had a full sized diesel-electric train sneak up to within 20 metres unheard by me. Modern electric cars can be so quiet that only the tyres are making noise, and bicycles are always quiet.

Mirrors can be handy too - I use one on my bents because I cannot look behind from a reclined seating position. I also have a barend mirror on my dropbar road bikes because its convenient when you're used to them. I've never liked temple mirrors or helmet mirrors though.

The Garmin radar is technically brilliant, but it doesn't show everything and you can't trust that the way is clear because the radar says so.


Instead I suggest you consciously follow through some steps.

  1. Start 10~15 seconds before your manoever.

  2. Look forward at what might be an obstacle in the next few seconds. Parked cars, pedestrians, moving vehicles and bikes are worthy of your attention.

  3. Unweight your offside hand (the one nearest the centerline of the road) from the bars and make sure your nearside hand (nearest the footpath) has a good grip.

  4. Then twist your shoulders so that in one movement you can see back over/beside your shoulder. Ideally you want line-of-sight from both eyes directly behind you, to help gauge distance and speed.

  5. Revert to forward facing and either act or slow/stop the bike based on the conditions

  6. Have a second glance just before you begin your manoever (not after beginning) You never know what's changed, or what you might have missed first glance.

Be safe out there. If you're ever feeling unsafe, change things until you are. Even if that means stopping and walking.


Your legal requirements might be different, but for me, the road vehicle "doing a manoever" has to make sure the way is clear. Since a bike is a road vehicle for the purposes of this, a cyclist cannot blithely cross traffic lanes without checking first. Don't be the cause/trigger for an accident.

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    In addition to quiet vehicles, the wind can make a huge difference in preventing you from hearing traffic. When I'm riding into a headwind, I look behind me a lot more frequently than when riding with a tailwind.
    – jimchristie
    Dec 23, 2021 at 13:59
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    Regarding silent vehicles: Cyclists often forget that they can get overtaken by other cyclists or even runners. Always look behind you before signaling and leaving your lane.
    – Michael
    Dec 23, 2021 at 16:03
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    I especially like your last paragraph. Cyclists who blindly cut across traffic are (understandably) a major source of the cultural disdain towards the group in general. Same for many other reckless moves in traffic.
    – MaplePanda
    Dec 23, 2021 at 18:50
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    @Michael overtaken by runners?! OH THE SHAME! You're right though - steep climbs can be run faster than they can be ridden.
    – Criggie
    Dec 23, 2021 at 20:30
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    A really good advice here is to unweight the hand.
    – nightrider
    Dec 24, 2021 at 7:44
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You need to be able to check over your shoulder. It will get easier with practice.

Taking your points in order:

You shouldn't ever need to signal which side to pass you - the passing side is defined in the rules of the road. If you're turning, people may pass on the other side, but then you're signaling the turn, not where to pass.

Relying on stopping in odd places is risky when it's busy - it's a good idea to check behind you before stopping even though anyone behind is responsible for not driving/riding into you. It can also be impractical to then wait for a gap to get going again. Once stopped you may need to dismount, cross as a pedestrian and get going again, in a situation where riding the turn and signaling properly is quite easy.

Hearing cars coming up behind is very useful, but not foolproof. Cars can be surprisingly quier (especially electric ones) and background noise can cover a lot.

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    Hah we make many points the same, simultaneously.
    – Criggie
    Dec 23, 2021 at 11:44
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    @nightrider I've had a car do exactly that after I've been very clearly signaling a left turn for several seconds. Never rely on car drivers to abide by the rules of the road, or to respect your right to be on the road. They won't. Always double check that the way is clear indeed. And that's precisely where the shoulder glance comes in! Dec 23, 2021 at 21:03
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    "Relying on stopping in odd places is risky when it's busy" So true, and quite worth of emphasizing! Moreover, it's plain impossible to merge into flowing traffic when you stop: If you go 25 km/h and the cars do 40 km/h, it's quite easy to get in front of a car safely. But if you need to accelerate from a stop, you'll need to wait for quite a long gap in the stream of cars. Dec 23, 2021 at 21:10
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    Never rely on c̶a̶r̶ ̶d̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶s̶ anyone to abide by the rules of the road.
    – Michael
    Dec 24, 2021 at 7:24
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    @Michael FWIW, I've found that drivers are more likely to obey the rules of the road than cyclists or pedestrians are. Drivers are also a lot more predictable - which IMO is actually more important than obeying the rules. A squirrelly cyclist in a group ride is IMO more dangerous than almost all drivers. Dec 24, 2021 at 12:35
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Looking over your shoulder before manoeuvering was mandatory in the road test for motorbikes and I would guess still is. I always do it whether on bicycle, motorbike or in car and it has saved me more than once. I even do it as a pedestrian :-). It is the only way to be sure.

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    Depending on the vehicle, a mirror can be as good or better. (Not on most bikes but certainly on some.)
    – Willeke
    Dec 28, 2021 at 19:28
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    I probably learned it from motorcycling; now I always do it, whether driving or pushing a supermarket trolley.
    – bertie
    Dec 29, 2021 at 21:40
  • @willeke How can a mirror ever be better than direct vision behind?
    – gschenk
    Jan 5 at 15:26
  • When you are on a bike where it is hard or impossible to look over your shoulders, like laid back recumbents. Or when you have a condition that makes looking over you shoulder very hard, like many elderly.
    – Willeke
    Jan 6 at 20:59
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Whether I was taught this along the line or mimicking someone I saw doing this, my way of looking behind--"checking my 6"--when riding is down and thru my (usually) left arm. It's generally a small, quite natural head movement, especially from the forward positioning and wide handle bar today's mountain bikes often put you in. Also, when in the drops on a road bike--it's a small natural move to quickly scan behind oneself by looking down and thru the gap between your body and arm that remains attached, ultimately, to the control of the bike.

I suppose there'd be those that say, "well, you're still looking down" or "but then your view is upside down." However I've just found it to be the best way to maintain the control of the bike and, therefore my line. I also maintain cadence and power thru the brief head dip. The view it affords--approximately 90° or the rear quadrant of the side you're looking under and the area you'll need clear of over-taking traffic if you want to move over--is the key aspect to check in that direction. I mostly ride riser bars that are 700-780mm wide affording me much viewing room. None of my touch points are broken.

@Criggie 's answer best explores this subject here and in a sentence summarizes what should be the big take away regarding development and use of checking your 6 when bicycling: "The dangers of not-looking-behind are much higher than a brief interruption of looking forward." Find your way.

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It's essential to master the last-second "lifesaver" visual check over your shoulder before turning across traffic (that includes a check for "undertaking" cyclists) - mirrors have blind spots and should only be trusted for getting a general idea of what's behind you (I like the "Bike Eye" frame mounted mirrors for this). If you have a problem with steering a straight line while looking back, try letting go of the handlebar on the side you're turning toward (you can combine this with a hand signal as you're letting go anyway) - it will reduce the tendency to veer sideways (although swerving a little in the direction you intend to turn can be helpful getting the attention of other road users behind you - obviously don't do this if they're close). On a bike with a low handlebar it can be easier to look below your arm rather than over it.

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  • Another point is to start that "last look" before you commit to the change-in-direction. If you've got into the way of a car before looking, its too late.
    – Criggie
    Dec 28, 2021 at 19:37
  • How is that "another point"? I wrote "before turning".
    – bertie
    Dec 29, 2021 at 21:31
  • yes, I'm highlighting "before". I've found myself starting a turn/lane-change and taking the last-look at the same instant, and that can go badly if something unexpected happens. We're in agreement.
    – Criggie
    Dec 29, 2021 at 23:02
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A few points not yet covered:

  • Mirrors can have blind spots

    Just like a car's mirrors, any mirror you use on a bicycle can have blind spots. You'll have to turn your head to check those.

  • Mirrors can fall off/fail/break

    What are you going to do if you're 30 miles/50 km from home in the middle of traffic and your mirror falls off? It can happen. You have a spare tube or two for flats, maybe even a patch kit. And some tools to perform basic repairs if needed. Mirrors are not immune to problems, and if being in the middle of traffic without a mirror makes you uncomfortable or worse it'd be a lot better if you're prepared to handle such a situation if it does happen.

Mirrors certainly help some cyclists, but it really helps if you can also be safe without them. It might be troubling, mentally fatiguing, or even downright harrowing or scary to you to ride without a mirror in traffic, but it's a useful skill that will improve your safety - with and without mirrors.

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    Even a decent mirror can be knocked when parked, than you don''t realise until you're halfway down the road. I certainly miss my mirrors when I take the MTB on the road, but that's because I like the baseline awareness of what's coming up, and for timing gaps to pull out, not so much for actually looking before making a turn
    – Chris H
    Dec 28, 2021 at 10:57
  • It is not hard to carry a spare mirror to mount on your glasses. But having two mirrors on my recombent bike I never needed them.
    – Willeke
    Jan 6 at 21:03
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Mirrors can be used to address this problem.

My past experience with mirrors was not among the best. The first mirror I tried long time ago was mounted on a long rod, sensitive to vibration to degree it only worked on a perfect tarmac. Even there, it's viewing angle did not make it actually usable. Finally, most of the rear view was obscured by myself.

As the community still recommended the mirrors positively, I tried again now and this time it was a success. The mirror I tested this morning has some curvature providing much wider view than a flat mirror would, and it is attached to the end of the handlebar, far enough to provide the clear view of the road behind and not just my hand instead. I needed to punch a hole at the end of the handlebar to install it, but looks that it is worthwhile.

I am also training to turn around for backward viewing. It works already at slow speeds.

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  • Mirrors only mitigate the problem. Many traffic codes mandate looking behind over one's shoulder before turning. What is more a mirror provides only limited vision and greatly reduced situational awareness.
    – gschenk
    Jan 5 at 15:25
  • Still most of the motorbikes here do have mirrors, so probably use them for something. On a bicycle is still unusual but maybe without a good reason.
    – nightrider
    Jan 5 at 16:02
  • While motorbikes and cars have mirrors, drivers still need to look over their shoulder before turning. In many jurisdictions it is mandatory, in others recommended. Mirrors are useful but not sufficient on their own.
    – gschenk
    Jan 5 at 17:30
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    Cars have much to obscure the view, in any direction. On a bike you have much less that is in the way. In my velomobile mirrors I can see the whole street behind me, looking over my shoulder I can see only a small part, mostly to the side rather than behind.
    – Willeke
    Jan 6 at 21:08
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    @gschenk Mirrors on their own are not sufficient, but I wouldn't say that they decrease situational awareness. If used correctly, it's rather the opposite: in traffic they allow to quickly assess how a situation evolves and choose the right moment to do something. In country side, once you take the habit of looking at them on a regular basis (probably every 10-15 sec for me), you are rarely surprised when traffic is coming from behind. Using them only when performing a manœuvre is on the other hand a bad practice.
    – Renaud
    Jan 6 at 21:15
1

I commute through busy streets and never used mirrors, but two things to practice when you're alone on the road.

  1. Remembering to get a reading of the road ahead and any dangers it may pose before turning your head. It'll be tempting to just look back whenever you want.

  2. Make sure you can keep your handlebars straight. This took some practice and almost got hit on the highway because I veered over when looking back. I'd pick the outer line of the road and look back to see how much you veer. It takes some practice.

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