How to keep cycling through the darker months
How to keep cycling through the darker months
See and be seen
This is the mantra of the National Standard in cycle training, which the government defines as: "The skills and understanding needed to cycle safely and responsibly, and to enable others to cycle." This is important all year round, of course, but especially so when daylight hours are limited.
Some people might think this means you should adorn yourself head to toe in hi-viz and really bright lights. You might feel you are safer dressed like this, and that's fine if you do; however, remember that this doesn't necessarily mean you will be more visible, or that you can see hazards yourself.
On the other hand, research does suggest that retroreflective accessories designed to make you more conspicuous in the dark - especially ankle straps that move when you pedal - are probably worth the investment. You can also buy items such as reflective gloves, which may allow your hand signals to be more visible too - remember to keep your palm flat and extend your arm all the way out from the shoulder to make your signalling intentions as clear as possible. But keep your brakes covered if you don't think it's safe enough to take a hand off the handlebar.
When you're approaching side turnings and other junctions, you may still be in a driver's blind spot or they may just not see you for other reasons. Also, if your lights are too bright they may not only be illegal but they could make an oncoming driver even less likely to be able to see you. Our guide will show you which ones are effective and legal (which could be a factor if you ever need to make a claim against anyone).
The most important thing as the days grow shorter is to adjust the way you cycle to take into account the fact that some drivers may not have as clear a view of the other traffic as they should: early and late evening sun can cause dazzle, there's fog and mist to contend with and some motorists may not wait long enough to clear windscreens of condensation or ice before setting off.
Of course, these conditions can also make cycling a bit more challenging so allow a bit longer to prepare for your journey by making sure you have enough layers with you, always take lights and carry a spare set for the changing conditions. Be prepared to find another option if the weather turns really bad - for example, when it's very windy cycling is certainly an exhilarating experience, especially when it's behind you, but watch out for falling trees and branches and gusts of wind that can blow you off course.
By the way, cycling in frosty or icy conditions, especially on road, should be only undertaken with extreme caution and if there is no alternative.
You might need to ride even further out from the kerb than usual to be extra-sure drivers have seen you, especially when they are trying to emerge from a junction or enter a roundabout and where the road narrows or when going round a bend. Even giving a driver a few extra seconds to spot you and for you to make eye contact with them might help. If you are not certain they have seen you, don't be afraid to slow down or even stop on the roadway until you are. The same applies for passengers or drivers who might open their car doors without looking out for cyclists (not all drivers or their passengers are familiar with the Dutch Reach): so make sure you leave at least a car door's width as you pass them.
Riding further out will also mean you are more likely to avoid drain covers and road markings, which will both be extra-slippery in the damp, and helps avoid fallen leaves and other road debris such as conkers or chestnuts - which are another potential hazard - and the inevitable potholes winter brings. Keep a close eye on the traffic all around you but especially behind before making any manoeuvre - that way you will know how much space you can safely take up and also alert drivers to your presence.
A small minority of road users may not appreciate a cyclist 'taking the lane' but the fact is that you are really assisting motorists by helping them to see and be seen by you, as well as encouraging them to give you more room. So don't be put off!
Check out our excellent road safety videos for more tips and advice on road positioning but there's no substitute for proper training with a qualified National Standard instructor.
Distracted road users
The added distractions of events such as Halloween, Diwali, Bonfire Night, and Christmas also mean you should be keeping an even keener eye out. It's not just the eye-catching decorations alongside the carriageway that can take motorists' eyes off the road, but their thoughts might be elsewhere and not on looking out for vulnerable road users. There could also be more of our van-driving delivery drivers around than usual. Some unscrupulous delivery companies have unrealistic targets, which means their drivers may not always keep to a safe speed limit.
Watch out for others
Of course, there's also pedestrians, horse riders and animals to contend with. In the same way that motorists should always look out for more vulnerable road users, cyclists should also watch out for people walking: they may not always be easy to spot in the dark and can sometimes fail to see or hear you either, especially if wearing headphones or talking on their mobiles. Learn to ride according to the time of day and the likely behaviour of other road users, for example around schools at drop-off and pick-up time or on busy shopping streets.
Hibernating animals or those preparing for winter may be even more active and unpredictable than usual. Watch out for those kamikaze squirrels that are wont to dash out under your wheels in search of a tasty titbit! Remember that you're crossing their territory rather than the other way round...
A good rider will be continuously risk assessing the road or trail and other conditions and adjust their riding accordingly. Be a proactive cyclist, rather than just 'hoping for the best' - interaction rather than reaction will serve you well.
Cover your brakes
Adjust your speed to take into account the extra stopping distances both you and drivers will need too. Slamming on your brakes is never a good idea as this can cause you to skid or worse, but it's even more essential when the road or trail surface could be slippery. Take corners slowly and practise controlled braking so you know you can stop safely when you need to. This means keeping your brakes covered by putting your fingers over the levers at all times then squeezing both of them together quite gently and moving your weight more upright to keep the back wheel on the ground should you need to stop.
If your route involves busy main roads, or other demanding features such as big roundabouts, consider adjusting it to avoid them. Use our Journey Planner or other apps such as Komoot to find an alternative. Good night riding lights and a gravel or hybrid bike can open up other quieter options such as canal towpaths and bridleways - but remember not to dazzle other users where possible!
Just pedal on
But if the thought of all these potential hazards has just cemented your resolve to put the bike away for the winter and take out the turbo trainer instead, please don't be deterred from 'real' cycling! Cycling is still a statistically safe activity The many benefits to both your mental and physical health far outweigh any potential risks. The views are just as stunning, with colourful scenery and open vistas, plus the fresh air, smells and sounds of your surroundings, whether in a rural or urban setting, will invigorate you like no other activity can and bring a glow to your cheeks.
It's a little known fact that cycling also makes you warm! So wear light layers but be prepared to discard them if needs be.
So, as long as you keep your bike carefully maintained - our superb video guides will show you how - use the appropriate clothing and equipment for the conditions, and bear in mind the tips above, you should be able to keep riding right through autumn and winter to the start of British Summertime next March.
Our many groups and clubs throughout the UK do so so why not find your nearest one for further motivation to keep pedalling on, whatever the weather?