How to Conquer Your Cycling Fear: Tips for Beginning Cyclists

We get occasional emails from first-time or beginner cyclists, asking us for advice on conquering their fear of sharing the road. In the past, we’ve doled out bits and pieces of advice on this issue, but have never really consolidated it all into one step-by-step post for those who are just starting out on a bike. Here are my recommendations for how to become confident in sharing the road (just stop before you become one of those reckless bike messengers who are giving us all a bad name!).

First: It’s homework time. If you don’t know the rules of the road, learn them! Learn how to signal a turn. Learn what your rights are in your city: is there a three-foot rule? Are you allowed to take the lane on all roads? Under what circumstances? Check out this hideously ugly but extremely informative site to find out what errors are most likely to lead to a car/bike accident, and do not make them!  If there’s a bike safety class in your area, take it.

Second: Get a helmet. I am not taking sides on the helmet debate here (please, Internet, I mean it), but studies show that if nothing else, they make you feel safer. This is important for beginners. Also, purchase lights, especially if you will be riding after dark. The brighter, the better. Use them.

Dottie’s Nutcase Helmet

Third: Take your bike out! But don’t ride to work yet. Choose a greenway or bike path near your house, or a quiet side street, preferably with a bike lane. Any street with minimal traffic or some sort of separation from cars. If you absolutely do not have bike lanes or greenways or bike paths nearby . . . cry, and then write your city council or Congressperson. Or move. Or, for the less proactive/drastic personalities, just get up early on a weekend morning and ride. Guaranteed traffic-free!

Don’t let the fear-mongering culture fool you—bike paths are a good thing!

Once you have done all these things, and feel completely comfortable puttering around the neighborhood on two wheels, it’s time to try your commute—but not on a workday. Remember those magical weekend mornings when no one is driving? Pick one of them, and head to the office. (Painful, I know, but you don’t have to actually go in!) Google Maps has biking directions for most cities, and while they are not perfect, they’re a good jumping off point if you’re not sure what route to take. See how long the trip takes. Figure out how to deal with any complicated intersections or disappearing bike lanes. Find a place you can lock your bike near your office. If you didn’t feel comfortable on the ride, repeat this step, or alter the route to go around any spots that are keeping you from feeling comfortable. It’s OK to take the long way!

Finally: Bike to work for the first time! Revel in your accomplishment, and enjoy your time in the fresh air. Feel, for once, that you have earned your happy hour beer.

I know most of our readers are well beyond the beginner stage—what tips helped you build your bicycling confidence? Share in the comments.

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26 thoughts on “How to Conquer Your Cycling Fear: Tips for Beginning Cyclists

  1. […] original here: How to Conquer Your Cycling Fear: Tips for … – Let's Go Ride a Bike This entry was posted in Blog Search and tagged bits, build, comments, confidence, happy, helped, […]

  2. cycler says:

    Good advice, I especially think that that “how not to get hit by a car” website is great- I think it should be required reading for every urban cyclist. I think it makes most of the major points without the dogma of some of the LABA classes.

    I am a big believer in bike infrastructure, but the biggest mistake I see newer bikers making is not learning to take the lane when there isn’t any. Admittedly it’s psychologically difficult (and the reason that I think that Vehicular Cycling is not a viable strategy for increasing ridership) to ride out in the middle of the car lane, especially when you feel like every two ton SUV is breathing down your neck. But I think that a lot of common accidents (dooring and right hooks) can be prevented or at least dramatically reduced by selectively taking the lane.
    I think that another big tip is that you don’t have to ride everywhere or in every weather to be a “real” biker. Give yourself permission NOT to ride if you don’t feel like it.

  3. Riding to the office on the weekend is fantastic advice and something I personally did with my husband as my wingman. (And then I did the same for him when he wanted to see if he could ride to his office.)

    Cycler’s advice about not having to ride in every weather is sound as well. I used to feel ~so~ guilty that I wasn’t slogging through wet and muck like the “real” commuters. Be a fair weather rider, be a stoic road warrior; do what makes you happy.

    I recommend a rear view mirror. I feel SO much more confident knowing what’s coming up behind me whether it’s that two ton SUV or another cyclist.

    • LGRAB says:

      Yes, a mirror is great — I keep forgetting to mention that as often as I should!

      And Cycler is totally right about keeping it fun. I don’t bike to work every day myself.

  4. STH says:

    Thanks for this–I thought I was the only one that was fearful of stopping and starting! I’m really struggling with my fear, and it doesn’t help that my partner is a randonneur who thinks nothing of riding 200 or 300 kilometers in a day. He tries, but he just doesn’t understand my fear. I’m a klutz, so I don’t have the physical confidence that seems to come naturally to some people. Plus I have a thing about public humiliation. So I’ll be studying all the resources here and trying to get the courage up to get out there . . . .

    • G.E. says:

      If it helps, you are not alone in feeling klutzy. I routinely trip over air, etc, but I ride pretty much daily. The suggestions offered here are great advice when starting out. My husband, too, was riding ridiculous mileage and I thought, “I can never do that.” It is possible if it’s something you want… and if you want to be the person who rides to the market or across town, that works too. I have fallen off my bike (on busy, busy roads and on lone country roads), and it’s embarrassing, but I recovered. If you take it slowly from the start, I think it’s definitely possible to avoid feeling like you don’t belong. Eventually, you too will find your confidence. Hang in there, and definitely start by taking it easy.

      • STH says:

        Thanks, G.E., for your support. I’m going to keep trying; I do want to do this, especially since many types of exercise I used to do aren’t possible any more because of my back problems. So I’m hanging in there. And I should mention that I have had encouraging comments from some of my neighbors (e.g., “I wish I’d never stopped riding bikes! Good for you!”) so I shouldn’t assume everybody out there is laughing at klutzy me. :)

        • G.E. says:

          Glad to know that you’re continuing on… and, I promise, really people don’t laugh when you fall. I would say most often I’ve had some super concerned people who actually stopped to try to help. It’s been awhile since I’ve fallen, but I recall that everyone around was incredibly cordial and offered assistance. Keep the company of positive reinforcement and you’ll find your way. :O)

  5. Shawn says:

    I just started riding my bike to work in August – after many, MANY months of contemplation. It was admittedly scary at first, but like anything else, the first time is the scariest. You can only stand on the edge of that pool for so long before you have to jump. The more you ride, the more comfortable you become, with the ride, and your bike. Hopefully drivers are starting to become familiar with me as well, since we are technically doing the same commute each day. One piece of advice I have is to really listen to the traffic around you. I’ve noticed the hybrid cars are very quiet so you have to really listen for them (as well as looking of course). I’m thankful for the electric cars, but they can sneak up on you.

  6. steve_a_dfw says:

    You might want to mention the City of Milwaukee, whose site has the signaling graphic in today’s post. It is at http://city.milwaukee.gov/SafeBiking3729.htm and the site has good advice for inexperienced cyclists as well. Actually better than the Austin site.

    • steve_a_dfw says:

      Of course, three feet – as the Milwaukee site advises, will NOT keep you from getting doored! Five feet is more realistic unless you are going real slow past those parked cars.

    • LGRAB says:

      I will have to check that site out. I found the image through Google image search and it was linked to a different site.

  7. phenager says:

    It was most helpful to me to realize *I* was the one who had to be comfortable, not the people giving me advice. I walk my bike up the last hill to my house, because I can’t feel comfortable as a “vehicle” in that busy, no bike-lane intersection. I turn pedestrian at several of our city’s round-abouts, because it doesn’t feel safe otherwise. And then I ride.

    Your dry-run to work on Saturday a.m. advice is something I have done and it’s good advice.

  8. Kagi says:

    Things got a lot better for me when I realized I could communicate with other drivers out there. Make eye contact. Smile. Nod. Treat others, driving cars or not, as fellow human beings just trying to get home. It’s much less scary that way.

  9. […] cyclists need to do our part to avoid collisions; make that all three sides, as I concur. How to conquer your fears as a beginning cyclist. Boston Daily asks why so many cyclists are dying on the streets, suggesting […]

  10. Liz Almond says:

    Find someone to ride with for the first few trips! In the UK you can get free/subsidised bike proficiency training through Bikeability; having a more experienced cyclist ride with me on my planned commute really helped me learn how to navigate tricky intersections and understand things like the door zone and why I might need to take the lane.

    The other thing I’d suggest is practice on your local bike path or in the park – practice riding forward in a straight line, looking behind you, signalling and starting and stopping without wobbling. The more you do it, the easier it gets!

  11. Stephen Hodges says:

    I was quite anxious when I started bicycle commuting, and I was always on the alert for hostility. After a while, I figured out a good route, learned to ride safely among cars ( it can be done), and tried to adopt a Zen attitude. So far, so good. My fears evaporated, and my skills increased, and now it’s pretty much second nature.

    And I always wear my helmet…:)

  12. Robert Rowe says:

    Can I add “Take a friend along” as another tip?
    My partner, who’s still getting more comfortable loves riding late, late, late at night (like after midnight, but before 2am). There’s ZERO traffic, and we’re already super lit-up, so she’s much more confident, then.

  13. “Don’t let the fear-mongering culture fool you—bike paths are a good thing!”

    Fear-mongering is what created bike paths. And according to people who have studied them, they are not a good thing. See the following site:

    http://ianbrettcooper.blogspot.com/2012/08/bicycle-infrastructure-studies.html

  14. Aubrey says:

    I love this! After meeting Trisha and coincidentally talking about how I am thinking of getting a bike, I think this was exactly what I needed to read. :)

    • LGRAB says:

      Yay! I hope that you have a good experience if you go to Halcyon today. Just updated our “Other blogs” page to add everyone from last night. :)

      • Aubrey says:

        Just an update, I ended up getting a Trek hybrid at MOAB in Franklin. Love it! Still gaining my confidence before hitting the road, but it’s a big step forward.

  15. Lizzy Ungerman says:

    This is actually super helpful to me. I had never learned how to ride a bike until now (still getting used to it) and so naturally I know nothing about the rules of the road while on a bike or how to be street smart. Thanks for posting this!

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