Tuesdays With Wilcockson: Lesson learned on the open road

The recent car-bike collisions that put both Levi Leipheimer and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Tony Martin in the hospital with broken bones emphasized the dangers every cyclist faces when training alone on the open road. Leipheimer was hit from behind a few kilometers from his team hotel in Spain while riding on the far right of the right shoulder of a busy highway. Martin was only five minutes from his home in Switzerland, riding on a bike path, when he was apparently sideswiped by a motorist.

However much we use the roads, there’s always a new lesson to be learned. I learned a few new ones last week. First off, while driving home last  weekend from a hike with my wife, I stopped at a three-way intersection, entering it at a sharp angle. When I looked left I didn’t see anything on the road, but later realized that the curve of the road had hidden a bike rider from my view. After turning right, I saw the bike in my rear-view mirror, about 100 feet away, approaching me fast on the long downhill. So I immediately gunned the car to keep well clear of the rider, but I still heard a distant voice through the open car window angrily shouting, “Asshole!”

The lessons from that incident was: (a) as a driver, I should have stopped longer at the intersection because of the sharp angle and looked more carefully to the left, and (b) if I’d been on the bike, I should have ridden more defensively and expected that a car entering the road from a tight angle might not be able to see me. That evening I went for a ride up the same canyon. As I was waiting to turn left onto the road, I waited until traffic cleared from the left, and I then waited for a last car from the right to pass by before I headed for the far shoulder. But on seeing me, the driver of that last car stopped for me and waved me across the road. I put up my hand and said, “Thank you.” Nothing better than a courteous car driver!

Happily, I can say that only vary rarely in my many decades of riding a road bike have I felt like cursing at motorists for dangerous behavior … and much of my riding has been in cities such as London and New York. Like Leipheimer, I try to ride as far to the edge of the road as possible and always be aware of the location of any cars around me — whether they’re ahead, behind or to the side.

Knock on wood, I’ve had only two actual collisions with vehicles. The first was in my college days when I was riding my bike from London to join some classmates on a geology field trip to the southwest of England. I was on a major road (remember we ride on the left in the UK), descending a long hill that curved to the right. There was no shoulder, so when a big truck (they’re called lorries in England) came up from behind me, the driver moved out to his right to pass me before cutting back toward the left.

I was wearing a black wool sweater my mum had knitted for me, and as the lorry cut back in too quickly (the driver obviously misjudged my speed), the back edge of his vehicle caught a loop of my sweater and dragged me off the bike and some distance down the road. Somehow, I was not badly hurt, but the front wheel of my bike was pretzeled. The driver stopped to see if I was all right and kindly gave me a lift to the nearest town (it was Paignton in Devonshire). He dropped me off at a bike shop and paid for the repair. I was able to carry on riding to my destination and wasn’t even late for the start of the field trip. A happy ending to what could have been a very nasty accident.

The other incident happened in my hometown a few years later. I was riding one evening to a meeting of my cycling club, heading slightly downhill through a green light. Just as I headed reached the intersection, a car going the other way cut across the street right in front of me. My bike hit the car’s headlight and I flew through the air and landed face first on the hood. The only thing that broke (besides my bike’s front wheel) was a front tooth. So maybe there is a tooth fairy, after all.

The other good part of that story is the traffic light where I crashed was right outside the apartment where a club-mate lived. I rang on his doorbell. He took my bike up to his place and he gave me a ride to our club meeting in his car. Another happy ending.

There are two more lessons to be learned from these incidents. One, motorists tend not to be looking for cyclists when they make turns, and that was probably the reason why that car turned in front of me at the light and why the motorist in Switzerland sideswiped Tony Martin last week — he was knocked unconscious and didn’t remember exactly what happened. Two, motorists almost always underestimate the speed at which we ride our bikes. That was the case with the truck driver in Devon who moved in too soon and dragged me off my bike. As for Levi Leipheimer, the elderly driver that hit him from behind most likely didn’t see a cyclist — although he might also have thought the shoulder was a driving lane.

Anyway, whether you’re riding or driving on the open road, take extra care today—and every day.


Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: Photoreporter Sirotti



  1. Mike

    Heh, I happened to get left hooked on Sunday while riding to work. For a split second I looked over my shoulder at a bus making an overtaking move in the other lane and when I looked forwards the car infront was making a left turn across my path. Only a few cuts and bruises, thankfully.

    What really irritated me was the driver’s reaction that she saw me and I was “miles away”. Seems a lot of people really do misjudge the speed of both bicycles and motorcycles.

    Bad news for Tony and Levi, I wish them speedy recoveries.

  2. sam findley

    The common thread that John points out here between Leipheimer and Martin’s accidents: both were where cars don’t drive, and drivers don’t look.

    Visibility trumps all, in terms of safety. Is my commuter’s mix of reflective tape, blinkies, and steady state lights stylish? No. But cars give me more room (I suspect they think I’m insane).

  3. scaredskinnydog

    It was probably the sweater that saved you from serious harm. Mom’s homemade sweaters are magical. I hope you still have it! Cheers and Happy Trails.

  4. Tom

    I usually give the truck drivers a wave after they’ve passed me so they know they can come back in.

    Had a friend get hit on a quick little downhill intersection. Fortunately, it only cost him a little skin and a new front wheel that was paid for by the driver’s insurance.

    I had a kid pull out in front of me back in my college days. I was flying down a moderate hill with the sun at my back and he burned rubber backing out of the driveway. That’s what let me know he was coming. (This was in a quiet subdivision type area.) I loaded up both brakes and left a good skid mark. When the bike got to his car, I jumped. I cleared the car and landed on the other side of the car. My bike had it’s wheelbase shortened by about 8-10 inches. I had bruised knuckles because, when I jumped, my brain was still trying to stop the bike. It was in my pre-helmet days and I walked away with just a small bump on the head – ahhh.. that explains everythign!

  5. Wsquared

    After 50 years of riding both bikes & motorcycles as an adult, I have developed a few simple rules that have kept me alive.

    1. Always practice what fighter pilots call “situational awareness.” That means” keeping your head on a swivel,” constantly identifying and tracking all potentenial threats.

    2. Assume that motorists don’t even see you and don’t know you are there, no matter how obvious your presence should be. I have lost count of how many times a motorist coming off a stop sign on a side street appeared to look right at me, and then pulled out right in front of me anyway. In some of those cases, if I hadn’t assumed they were going to do it and been prepared, there would have been a collision.

    3. God gave you a healthy pair of lungs for more than riding a bike and calling idiot drivers “assholes!” If I think a driver is about to pull out of a side street in front of me, drift into my lane, or make a right turn & cut me off, I preemptively shout at the top of my lungs, projecting my voice, “Hey you!!” Drivers might not like that, but they usually hear me and act accordingly. I bang on the side of a car drifting into me if I have time. I don’t know if anybody has thought of it, but a mini air horn driven by a co2 cartridge would come in handy too.

    4. Some riders look cool riding around Boulder in a retro cycling cap & no helmet, but they are also idiots. About 20 years ago, I hit a deep, hidden frost heave at the bottom of a hill while sitting upright and was catapulted over the handle bars like a missile. I landed head first on the pavement, destroying my Giro helmet, but only sustaining a mild concussion, road rash & a broken collar bone. The ER doctor who examined me and saw what was left of my helmet said that it was a certainty that if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet I would have either sustained permanent brain damage, or more likely, been killed. He should know, he had treated several cyclist who died of head injuries. You may think that because you are a really talented, experienced rider, you control your own destiny. That’s a dangerous illusion.

  6. Jesus from Cancun

    I have ridden my bike on the road since 1978, and I have been extremely lucky. I haven’t been hit by a vehicle even once.

    Many close encounters, a couple minor scratches from cars that passed me too close but not enough to get me clipped, and two different deaths of guys who got hit from the group I was riding with.

    I am not sure why I was so lucky and the rest of my friends and mates weren’t. Maybe I had a better guardian angel.
    Or it maybe had to do with the reason some of my friends called me Grandpa.

    Ever since I started riding on the road when I was 12, I have always assumed that every car is a weapon that could kill me if I get on its way.

    It sounds paranoid, but it only means that I was alwas aware of cars; I was always keeping an eye behind, riding as close to the shoulder as I could, I looked ahead to incoming cars in a line and was always ready in case someone decided to overtake in front of me, etc.
    At intersections, if I couldn’t see if someone was coming across, I assumed someone was and slowed down.
    When riding rolling hills I always made hand signals for the cars coming from behind: safe to pass, or hold on, hold on. I even got a few “thank you”s for that.
    If I was training in a group, I was always the guy on the right side. Or the left, if we were in one of those countries where people drive the wrong way.

    Basically, I can say that when I was out to train, priority #1 was to avoid getting hit by a car or annoying drivers, priority #2 was following the training program.

    This said, I don’t mix well with many training groups and I used to do a lot of training alone. But I rode in many hostile roads around places like Mexico City, Havana, Quito, Milan, Rome, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Tijuana, Cancun (Hint: Cancun is an amazing place to come on vacation. But don’t bring your bike unless you are the kind of person who wrestles crocodiles and drinks poison just for fun). I have always been extra careful and aware of traffic around me, even traffic that I couldn’t see yet.

    I know I have been extremely lucky. But when I see the way many others ride, especially the two guys I have seen killed by cars, I think that sometimes you make your own luck.

    Just be careful out there, everybody.

  7. Eric

    I’ve accidentally pulled out in front of cars, motorcycles and bikes before. Likely we all have even if you didn’t know it. Every time, my stomach has clenched and I’ve been thankful they were watching and saw me even though I didn’t see them. I’ve vowed to be more careful and I think I am. Not sure how it happens. It’s not often but even once is scary.

    I’m not a young gun anymore, so in particular, when I’m on my bike or motorcycle, I’m really careful. Maybe I’m a little slower in certain situations because I’m being cautious, but I still have fun riding.

    There’s a difference between between an act that someone does in a car that is accidental vs. on purpose. I’ve never understood why the accidental act called for cyclist to go off with the name calling and finger flipping.

  8. Big Mikey

    Good thoughts, Padraig. I’m struck sometimes when I’m in my car, and I don’t see the cyclist, even though (as a cyclist) I’m generally looking for them. Throw in a cell phone, satellite radio and GPS, and the distracted driver is even more dangerous.

    I’m actually elss worried about the aggressive motorist, than the one who’s not paying attention. The old man driving on the shoulder, the young girl texting, or the soccer mom late to pick up the kids.

  9. supermank17

    As Big Mikey says, it’s really the inattentive ones that are dangerous; the aggressive ones may frighten you, or even force you off the road, but rarely will they actually collide with you.
    I’ve had a few near misses from cars, and all of them have been caused by the driver either not seeing me or thinking he had more time than he did. In one case, I was on a bike path approaching an intersection (with a “walk” light showing), and a high school kid tried to make a rapid left-turn through the intersection to beat an oncoming car. Fortunately, we both saw the other at the same time, and we screeched to a halt inches from each other. The kid and I were both pretty shaken, and we sat in the parking lot and talked about the close shave – and now, whenever I’m approaching an intersection on a bike path, I always slow and look carefully regardless of rightaway.
    Of course, all that said, the only actual injury I’ve had from a motorist did come from an aggressive driver: a redneck coming towards me on a country road thought it would be amusing to throw a beer bottle in front of me as we passed each other. Fortunately, I escaped with only some shrapnel wounds to my legs.

  10. Matthew Zullo

    Last year I was riding very early in the morning on a country road. Way off in the distance I saw a flashing red/white light. As I got closer I realized it was a fellow cyclist with a small flashing light on the back of his saddle. Since that time, I have ridden with a similar flashing light. From a distance I could not see the cyclist but I clearly saw the flashing light. Thinking of getting one for the front of the bike. I know it isn’t considered “cool” by my cycling friends but getting hit from behind really sucks.

  11. PeterLeach

    Like others who have already commented, I feel that inattentive drivers are more of a threat that aggressive ones.
    As a cyclist, I’ve had two minor ‘contacts’ with cars, smidsy drivers both times. Too quick to be scared either time. Not so with aggressive drivers – no contact, but plenty of scary moments.
    As a driver, I’ve been guilty of a lack of attention, fortunately without causing any contact.
    @Eric: “I’ve never understood why the accidental act called for cyclist to go off with the name calling and finger flipping” – really strikes a chord with me. I resolve to try to accept the accidental acts, and hope that other cyclists offer me the same acceptance.

  12. Ron Cook

    I’ve had my share of close calls over the years including getting tagged by a pickups mirror on a country road at 7am, no oncoming traffic and nothing else that would have made him not see me. Luckily I didn’t go down and unfortunately the driver never even so much reacted. Just kept going.

    But a couple weeks ago I watched my friend almost get killed. Thank god I said almost. He was fine, actially didn’t really know what happened but it freaked me out and brought up a whole new variable in the car vs bike situation. In this case I believe it was a driver who lacked a basic knowledge of the rules of the road and what bicycle hand signals mean. Let me explain.

    There’s a popular route in our area that requires a cyclist to ride a half mile stretch on a busy 2 lane road with no shoulder. It’s always a crapshoot and can be a nerve racking experience. There was just the 2 of us riding together that day and when we turned right onto the busy road there was no traffic that was visible on the road coming from behind. About half way to the next road where we turn left I looked back and saw that there was now several cars coming up behind us, including a truck, so I told my friend to high tail it to the road so we could beat the traffic.

    I was behind my friend and I kept checking back and realized we were not going to beat the traffic to our left turn. There was still plenty of time to take the lane and signal our turn so that’s what I chose to do. I sat up and signaled a left turn while taking the lane for a full 10 seconds. Every couple seconds I checked back to see if they saw me and were slowing down. With each check I could see they were slowing and the last time I looked they were pretty much up on us but staying behind us and driving at our speed.

    At this point I put my left hand back on the bars so I could make the left turn and my friend started to make the turn in front of me. Just as he started to turn his front wheel I heard the engine of the car behind me rev and when I turned my head he was moving over to pass us. I immediately resorted to the aforementioned name calling, mostly just to save a life. The driver, and everyone else behind him, was going slow enough that he just stopped and we made our turn and we all continued on our way.

    After I calmed down and informed my friend that he had almost just been killed I started processing what happened. The one thing that struck me (mentally, not physically) was the drivers face. I stared right at his face while i was yelling and he was stunned. Not a word came out of his mouth. This wasn’t a belligerent driver pissed off at cyclists. The more I’ve thought about it the more I’m coming to the conclusion that this driver didn’t know what we meant by signaling a left turn. The fact that none of the other cars honked or expressed displeasure at us cyclists also supports my feelings. My best guess is the driver was an unlicensed driver who wasn’t familiar with the rules of the road. Again you never can assume what the driver is going to do.

  13. Hammerhed

    I hate to admit this, but riding on the road has begun to terrify me. Recently I was nearly robbed, and I had to hurt (badly) the kid who was trying to crash me; a friend was very badly injured when, while he was riding to work one early morning, a truck’s trailer swiped him off the bike, and the driver motored away; and not long ago, while I was trying to beat the traffic, I ran a yellow-ish light and hit a car who had jumped a light. Though we were both wrong, I was clearly at fault, but the driver panicked an sped off, leaving my lying in the middle of the road. Crazily, about five minutes later the driver must have had an attack of conscience and he came back, apologizing profusely. I took full responsibility, and he went on his way. He was so relieved that he said nothing about the giant scratch in the side of his new MB…yikes! It seems that there’s always something though, and often I’m at fault.

  14. halcyonCorsair

    – “Like Leipheimer, I try to ride as far to the edge of the road as possible”

    On normal stretches of road this is fine, however I strongly disagree with this any time the road narrows or becomes congested. Riding at the edge of the road I have been ‘winged’ several times by drivers trying to squeeze past when there wasn’t room. I now advocate taking up more room in an attempt to make drivers think twice.

  15. Jody

    I would ride with Hammerhead anytime. I like when people take responsibility for their actions. Way to be a standup guy.

  16. gmknobl

    I find defensive riding is best. And sometimes the best defense is a good offense. To this end, if I’m coming to an intersection where vehicles can turn right and cut me off, I “take the road” by moving into the center of the lane whether there’s a bike lane or not. This really irritates some drivers so I do my best to keep my speed up. Still, a driver cursing me is better than an injured self.

    I find that the “take the lane” philosophy isn’t easy to understand at first, particularly with those who are not used to riding or tend to follow the letter of the law without thinking of safety first. It has to be learned often through dangerous precedent. My own experiences have led me to believe that bike lanes, while appearing to be a good thing, actually do as much harm as good if not more harm. Drivers often expect us to stay in a lane and some yahoos take it upon themselves to put us back there. Furthermore, if you’re in that lane people will routinely drive next to you then either crowd you out by moving to the right or make a right turn. There’s one area at the local campus where the bike lane has obstructions such as sewer drains. If a biker stays there, the biker takes a risk. But people still don’t expect them to move out of the lane in those places or don’t allow them to. Whereas, if a biker stayed in the driving lane, he may slow some people down but no one will pass them because of the oncoming traffic in the other lane. There’s also a couple of popular right turns adjacent to this bike lane. No one, and I mean no one, checks to their right before making the right turn. Bikers in the bike lane who aren’t expecting a car to suddenly cut them off have and will continue to get hit here. The second of the right turn offs is particularly nasty as it is immediately after a downhill. Bikers are often moving faster than cars here. If the biker was in the main traffic lane the biker would be far less likely to be t-boned because drivers would see them in their rear view mirror. Side view mirrors and head checks aren’t used very often at all.

    I find the most common three mistakes drivers make with respect to bikers are:
    1) not seeing us – we’re much smaller and we don’t stay where the closest thing to our size, pedestrians, stay.
    2) our speed – bikes can move as fast, and in some circumstances faster than cars. Drivers, especially those who don’t ride, don’t expect nor understand this.
    3) we can’t change speed as fast. We can’t speed up and, more importantly, we can’t slow down nearly as fast as a car. Many a times has a yahoo decided I wasn’t going fast enough for him on my way to work. I’m going 21 in a 25 and that dodo has to pass me. Invariably, said dodo comes to a stop sign and comes to a complete halt less than 10 feet in front of me. Normally, I’d have 15 more feet to come to a halt but not now. I have to slam on my breaks and swerve, sometimes jumping an ill-advised “traffic calming” curb to keep from flattening myself into his rear window. And let me tell you, even at 12 mph, that hurts.

    A helmet has saved my life. It had nothing to do with a car. It was my own stupidity. I used to take my bike with me to work and ride at lunch time. Sadly, I no longer have that option. But when I did, I rode like a scalded cat out a bike path that had a few major bumps on it which I would usually jump. Being new to quick reassembly of a bike and not used to the whole routine, I would occasionally start off without my front tire clamped down. Every time but this last one I would immediately stop and flip the lever up at tension. This time I forgot. When I came to a curb next to a sudden uphill on the bike trail I did my obligatory bunny hop and out popped my front wheel. I don’t remember this. I was going about 12 but accelerating to quickly go up the short but steep uphill. When my fork hit the ground without my wheel I catapulted off my bike and landed on my face. I remember some blackness and several bumps, like when someone drops a video camera hard on the ground. I must have lain there five or ten minutes. When I came around I didn’t feel pain but I knew something was wrong. I wandered half-dazed until some ladies out for a lunchtime walk found me sitting on a curb. I had just come back from one of their houses trying to get someone’s attention with the doorbell but no one was home. Long story short, I was taken to the hospital, stitched up with my girlfriend by my side, was awoken every two hours by her that night for fear I would have swelling of the brain, took the next week off and my face looked like an oddly shaped eggplant for the next month. The whole time I felt like an absolute idiot.

    If I had not worn a helmet, the emts and doctors told me, I’d have been dead. My helmet was work correctly, extending out in front of me and visible to me. So many people have it sitting on top of their heads but completely out of their vision. That way they have no protection from a front on collision. If you wear it so you can see the front of it (and can hit it with your hand before you touch your nose) you’re much safer. People used to kid me about how I looked with this cheap light colored helmet on.

    So, the lesson is drive defensively. Block people from passing you near a stop and take the center of your lane. Ignore bike lanes near intersections and right turns for the same reason and to keep from getting clipped when a driver wants to turn right. Slow down as soon as any driver passes you when near an intersection in anticipation they might become a dodo, put on their brakes and have fun with the laws of physics. Be safe by checking all your equipment before you ride. Do it routinely and you’ll find something that needs to be corrected. Don’t just hop on the bike and go. Lastly, WEAR A HELMET, even if it makes you look like a giant mushroom. Jokes about your looks are preferable to death.

  17. Nathan

    Lots of great discussion here. I’m going to add that I have a very unpopular accessory on my road bike – a mirror mounted off to the side. I won’t ride without it. There was the one gentlemen a few stories up writing about getting winged by a truck mirror. I see those trucks coming and I can see how they are reacting as the approach me – where they are on the road. I can spot trouble and act accordingly. Honestly, I even assess what type of vehicle (trucks are bad, old trucks are worse) and can predict which ones are the jerks.

    I would encourage anyone who rides on the road to consider using a mirror of some sort.

  18. MCH

    In regards to riding defensively, on downhills I always prefer to have cars in front of me rather than behind me. Most of us have experienced the motorists who sit on our wheels no matter how quickly we decend. Then, at the worst possible time they try to pass putting us and other in danger. It’s times like these when I believe it’s best to put away the ego, pull over to the side and wave the motorist by. Even stopping and getting off the road is better than a trip to the hospital. A wave and a smile rather than the finger (no matter how much your blood is boiling) will go a long way as well.

    Many will say that we shouldn’t have to do this. We pay our taxes, we have equal right to the road, we’re going the speed limit (or more likely over it), bla, bla, bla. Personaly, I prefer the pragmatic assessment: if there’s contact, the cyclist goes to the hospital or the morgue; the motorist goes to the body shop. In my mind, not a good trade.

  19. Jamie Smith

    One key phrase in regards to Levi’s story, John, is this: busy highway.
    I know a lot of Roadies who give absolutely no thought to the volume of traffic or the temperament of the road. Some roads are just un-rideable due to the speed, width, and purpose of the roadway. Roads have personalities, and some are just plain hostile.

    Sure, Levi was trying to ride back to his hotel which will obviously be in a high traffic area. It’s the bane of pro cycling (and commuting): you ride where you happen to be.
    But, whenever possible, a rider should recognize hostile roads and avoid them.

    I have a friend who will ride on ANY road at ANY time. I would ask him to mention me in his will, but he rides a 58cm, and I’m a 55cm.

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