Urban riding: Dealing with other road users

Previously, we went over how to deal with static road hazards while riding a bicycle in the city. With the population density of Metro Manila, however, you’ll find that more road hazards are dynamic in nature rather than static. Here are a few tips on how to deal with them.

“ASSUME EVERY DRIVER IS BLIND AND STUPID”

The nugget of wisdom above comes from “AngryAsian” James Huang, formerly of BikeRadar and now tech editor of CyclingTips. The foundation of all other techniques here is to always look ahead and be hyper-aware of your surroundings. Fighter pilots have a concept called “situational awareness” where they maintain a good mental picture of everything going on around their immediate vicinity. The same applies to driving a car, and even more so riding a bike in urban conditions.

This photo was taken while riding, just to demonstrate what the point of view of a cyclist is. What should an urban cyclist look out for?

To build this mental picture, stitch it together by periodically looking ahead, looking behind, and checking your sides. The key is to keep refreshing this mental picture. As Huang himself says, “You can’t completely control your surroundings, but you can improve your odds.” Once you get into the mindset that drivers and other road users will not necessarily see you, you will gradually accept the need to make yourself visible to them – and act accordingly.

WATCH OTHER VEHICLES’ FRONT WHEELS

The surest way of knowing what a vehicle’s driver is planning to do is to watch his/her front wheels. It’s much easier to act accordingly when you can see what a driver’s intentions are. This comes in handy in so many situations. When a vehicle is parked on the roadside and is trying to leave its slot, the angle where the front wheels are pointed gives the game away.

For a more drastic, harder-to-read example, look no further than your typical multiple-lane road where vehicles are stopped due to traffic lights. Filipino drivers have the knack of changing lanes at the last minute, or shooting into gaps and empty lanes from a stop. Anticipating these movements is all a matter of looking at the front wheels – where they point, the rest of the vehicle will usually follow.

Increasingly, though, drivers are leaving their cars parked at the side of the road with the front wheels steered away from the curb. Be wary of these. The only time this should be done is if the car is parked on an uphill street, meant as a safeguard against rolling backward into traffic when the parking brake fails or isn’t applied.

WATCH OUT FOR DISTRACTED PEDESTRIANS

One personal pet peeve of mine is how oblivious pedestrians can be when crossing the road. The worst offenders are usually hunched over their cell phones while they walk into the street – many times while they’re not signaled to cross.

These are particularly egregious for cyclists. Because cyclists don’t have the same frontal area a car has, many people don’t – or, rather, can’t – accurately judge how fast cyclists are actually riding, and will tend to step into our path thinking we can slow down for them at the last minute…which of course we can’t, because we have only one front wheel to do our braking with. (More on this below.)

Often, the most you can do is to simply give them lots of room or evade them entirely. Again, anticipation is key. It can feel like you have to do the thinking for these guys, but it’s an unfortunate reality of living in the 21st century.

AVOID TAILGATING

This is the single dumbest thing you can do while driving a car, in my not so humble opinion. Too many drivers oversimplify and overestimate their cars’ capability to shed speed quickly. Driving instruction at a racetrack will teach you that braking is a complex action, taking into account the tires, suspension, and the braking hardware itself – everything has to be given the time and space to do its job.

On a bike? It’s even worse. Beyond the obvious reasons (crashing is much more visceral), you have to do all those complex component braking actions…and apply them to the contact patch of only one front tire. Because of this, the laws of physics simply dictate that, if both are traveling at the same speed, a bicycle will usually take longer to stop than a car.

Counter this disadvantage by allowing at least a bike-length of space away from the vehicle you’re following.

AVOID RIDING ON THE GUTTER

Nervous newbies to urban riding will usually try to ride gutters or as close to the side of the road as possible. This isn’t really a good idea for many reasons – foremost of which is that drivers will take advantage of your smaller footprint and try to squeeze you out of the road.

Cars and other vehicles also naturally clean the road surface of debris by simply driving over it. Guess where all that crap ends up? Yes, in gutters. Riding in them greatly increases your chance of picking up a puncture.

The only times I actually ride gutters are

  1. to filter through when other cars are stopped, and/or
  2. I am making a right turn while the proper traffic lane is blocked by a stopped vehicle.

TAKE THE LANE!

Counter-intuitively, I’ve found the safest position on the road is almost right in the middle of the slow travel lane – at least 1/3 of the lane’s width away from the gutter.

Why is this the safest position? You’re effectively making the design of the road work for you instead of against you, greatly increasing your visibility to other road users. A bicycle is a vehicle, the same way a car or motorcycle are. If you can ride your bike and keep pace with traffic, you ARE traffic and you belong on the road.

In many urban situations, “keeping pace with traffic” isn’t as hard as it sounds. Around many areas in Metro Manila, highways aside, the average speed for car trips doesn’t break 20 km/h most of the time. If you can sustain this riding speed, you’re fit enough to ride along with vehicular traffic.

GOING SLOWER? LET OTHERS PASS

On the other hand, if you sense that vehicles moving at a faster pace than you can sustain, it is now time to be considerate, move over to the right, and let them pass.

Signal a lane change to the right with your hand, then as you complete the lane change, check over your shoulder and wave to vehicles behind you to overtake. I like to do an “ushering” motion, waving from back to front, inviting cars and trucks to pass on my left. This is courteous, and actually pretty effective; many drivers seem to appreciate the gesture. Make sure you leave yourself enough room.

See? It’s a lot like driving a car in a considerate manner: Left for overtaking, right for slower traffic. Which brings me to…

IN GENERAL – RIDE YOUR BIKE THE SAME WAY YOU WOULD DRIVE A CAR

Riders of The Manila Coffee Cycling Club stopped at Kamagong St.-Chino Roces Avenue intersection, waiting for a green light.

This means stopping when the traffic light turns red, and crossing or turning only when the traffic light turns green. This means slowing down, stopping, and looking both ways before crossing or turning at an intersection. This means a ban on riding against the flow of traffic, such as the wrong way along one-way streets. This means relinquishing the left lane for faster vehicles, and yielding to pedestrians and other traffic at an intersection. In other words, it means being a responsible road user.

So you ask, “Why the hell am I on a bike if I’m going to ride it the same way as I would a car?” Apart from giving other people a good image on behalf of other bike commuters, and keeping in proper flow with other vehicular traffic, the answer is in the next principle.

ANTICIPATE 10-15 SECONDS AHEAD, AND BE PREDICTABLE

All the lines and lane markings on the streets are painted there because they’re an effort to tame the beast that is vehicular traffic and make it predictable and easier to manage. Simply following and making use of this existing framework already goes a long way into making you predictable to other road users.

Conversely, you as a bike commuter should get into the habit of looking around and behind, reading other road users’ actions and predicting how they could possibly behave in the next moments. Remember situational awareness? It’s a very important concept in operating any sort of vehicle. A good prediction margin is anywhere from ten to fifteen seconds, maintaining enough space from vehicles in front for braking or obstacle avoidance.

BE CONFIDENT AND CONSIDERATE

This feeds into making use of signals. Any time you have to change lanes, evade obstacles, make a turn, or come slowing down to a stop, signal your intentions as early as possible – even if there’s no one behind you. Whenever it is safe to do so, signal!

Signals are most effective in informing road users from behind if you do them early and confidently. Outstretch your arm when you signal and point to the direction you are going, either left or right. When slowing down or anticipating a stop, lower your arm around 45 degrees to the side and perform a pushing motion towards the rear.

All of this signaling requires, of course, that you are able to control your bicycle with only one hand on the handlebars. Practice this before setting off on a bike commute.

In the absence of brake lights and turn signal lights, confidently done hand signals may feel like inadequate substitutes, but they go a surprisingly long way toward saving your skin on a bike commute, in my experience. Many drivers quietly appreciate the effort a bike commuter puts into early signaling because it decreases their mental workload and guesswork, reducing nasty surprises.

USE YOUR BELL OR RAISE YOUR VOICE WHEN NECESSARY

If you are in a situation where you are compromised because a car driver did not see you, don’t hesitate to use your bell or raise your voice. Riding in busy districts, I find my bell a little inadequate – a yell of “Bike on your left!” or “Bike on your right!” is more effective. This serves two things: it calls attention, and it gives the driver an idea of where you are in relation to his/her vehicle. I find the bell more effective in quieter areas with a lower density of vehicles, where it’s primarily jaywalking pedestrians you have to worry about.

RIDE YOUR BIKE AS STRAIGHT AND AS WOBBLE-FREE AS POSSIBLE

For predictability’s sake, I recommend riding at a fast enough speed that wobbling becomes impossible. This isn’t even that high – around 10 km/h is enough, equivalent to an easy spin on the cranks. Now that your legs are moving straight up and down, instead of splayed to the side while bent, you stand a better chance of keeping your bike running straight and wobble-free. Remember that the faster a bike is ridden, the more upright it wants to stay. Riding your bike straight and wobble-free exudes confidence in what you are doing, and in turn, instills confidence in other road users that they can trust you.

AVOID FILTERING THROUGH AND IN BETWEEN LANES AND CARS, UNLESS…

This is a pet peeve of car drivers, and as a driver myself I know exactly why. When driving a car or riding a bike on the road, the safest position to be is the center of the lane behind another vehicle – with enough of a gap for braking. Conversely, the most dangerous position is immediately beside another vehicle. Surrounded by a metal and glass cage, car drivers simply don’t enjoy great visibility on their sides of their vehicles – especially on the farther right side, where the dreaded “right hook” collision can happen. This is why filtering through and in between cars in motion is normally not a wise idea.

Along Roxas Boulevard: stopped, within the traffic lane, not filtering.

The best time to make use of a bicycle’s narrow dimensions to weave through and in between lanes and cars is while they are stopped, are stopping, or queued up. You are effectively limiting the number of things that can go wrong by waiting for cars to stop before making your move. In this situation, all you will have to worry about are car doors opening, which can still hurt on impact, so care should still be taken.

The moment you see cars begin to move off while you are “caught” filtering in between them, you should pull into a lane behind a car, stay in the middle, and keep pace with the car in front. Don’t forget to signal your lane change. This is the safer way of navigating through start-stop traffic. See below for a good example from a London cyclist.

Parts-bin hack: DIY magnetic phone mount for indoor training

Delve deep enough into a hobby and you get to a point where you have all sorts of bits and bobs lying around. Cycling is one such hobby. If this blog’s history is any indication, I’ve gone through a lot of parts and devices which are now junk. With some ingenuity though, junk can become ripe for the picking for a second chance at life.

One of my first front lights is Cat Eye’s Nano Shot. At this point, the battery barely holds a charge, and the 206 lumen light output is pretty pathetic, long since outdone by its Volt 800 and Volt 1200 brothers. All three of these front lights, however, mount with the very same FlexTight mount you leave on your bike’s handlebars.

As I don’t really need a front light when training at home…today I take advantage of Cat Eye’s front light mount system to fashion myself a phone mount. This is useful for sessions on RGT Cycling, where the phone app controls the training experience and serves as a hub for connecting your sensors, power meter, and smart trainer. I can also use it to control the Wahoo KICKR SNAP’s resistance settings and ERG mode power when following along on one of CTXC’s various indoor cycling workout videos, which have lots of intervals.

Quite a bit of this “hack” was already done long ago, when I installed the Redshift Sports ShockStop suspension stem and its optional utility mount. I used that extra portion of “handlebar” to wrap Cat Eye’s FlexTight front light mount shoe around. You don’t really need the utility mount, but it centers things really nicely.

Cat Eye’s FlexTight front light mount shoe. Smaller lights have a single rail that slide into the central channel, like a flash on a camera. Larger lights swallow this shoe from the outside in.

This will serve as the foundation of the phone mount.

The Nano Shot front light then needs its mounting rail taken off. A single bolt holds it to the light’s underside, secured with a bolt turned by a teeny tiny 1.5 mm hex key. Note that this single central mounting rail design is also used by some other Cat Eye front lights, such as the Volt 800.

With the mounting rail free, the next component comes into the picture. This is a magnetic cellphone mount meant for use on cars, which I had a spare of.

This particular unit is a ball-jointed affair. The black face houses four or five rare earth magnets, which I already know work pretty well in holding on to a medium-sized smartphone. The other end is meant to stick to your car’s dashboard or some other sufficiently flat surface with supplied 3M VHB adhesive tape.

To mount your phone onto this, the box contains a flat metal sticker for the magnet to pull on. Stick that onto your phone’s back side. There are larger sizes of these metal stickers if you want more leeway in adjusting how your phone sits on the magnet.

In my car, I have a version of this mount which has a rubber clip to hook onto A/C vents. The vent clip tends to let go before the magnets do, in my experience. This is strong.
That ball joint is pretty tight and sturdy. I’d bet the adhesive gives out before the ball joint goes loose.

Take the mounting rail from the Nano Shot and stick it onto the adhesive tape on the magnetic cellphone mount.

You can then slide this entire thing into the front light mount shoe on the bike. Adjust the angle of the magnetic mounting face as needed, then just lay the phone onto it.

So how well does it work? Pretty darn great! I was concerned about the mounting rail sticking to just one-third of the 3M VHB adhesive patch, which may not provide sufficient purchase, but the whole arrangement holds fast quite nicely. The ball joint is quite a bit more mobile than I thought, easily moving along with the smartphone as you alter its position or peck at the screen, but still holds its position solidly once you go hands-free.

The magnetic retention makes for convenient attachment and reattachment, but it’s also the reason why I can’t recommend this for outdoor use. Unlike a dedicated mount like the Quad Lock ecosystem, which has mechanical attachment to the phone, I don’t quite trust this to hold together under the vibrations from Metro Manila’s crappy road surfaces. The phone starts to jiggle on the magnet when cranking out a 700W sprint or three, and I’m not really a fan of riding outdoors with your phone on your handlebars, either. For indoor training and virtual cycling though, this is a nifty hack.

Overhauling cup-and-cone hubs

Many people these days prefer their hubs (and therefore, wheels) to roll on sealed cartridge bearings. You know these by their ring-like form factor, which is actually a pair of rings that act as races for the ball bearings that they keep captive. In cartridge bearing hubs, the hub shell is effectively just an anchor for them to stay in place, and has no real mechanical role other than to resist the tension of the spokes threaded through its flanges.

The other major design of hubs makes use of angular contact bearings. These are also called “loose bearing” or cup-and-cone bearing hubs. While these are easily pooh-poohed as the poor man’s option, the majority of Shimano’s hubs, and a fair number of Campagnolo’s hubs, still use the cup-and-cone design – even at the higher product tiers.

As the name suggests, these hubs use ball bearings that are kept captive by a bearing cup on the hub, as well as a special nut called a cone, which is threaded along the hub’s axle. The cups and cones act as the bearing races, and can then be used to set the preload on the bearings. As per Shimano, the angular contact design braces the ball bearings better under cornering loads compared to the radial contact of cartridge bearings.

Today I attempt to overhaul the cup-and-cone hubs on Hyro’s stock Giant S-X2 wheelset. We will need the following tools:

  • Brake rotor removal tools: T25 Torx key, Hollowtech II bottom bracket wrench, or cassette lockring tool – select appropriately
  • Chain whip and cassette lockring tool for the rear hub
  • Cone wrench(es) – get the one sized for your hub
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Grease
  • Degreaser
  • Rags or paper towels
  • New ball bearings: 3/16-inch for the front hub, 1/4-inch for the rear hub
Removing the brake rotor with a T25 Torx key.

We start off by removing the QR skewer and brake rotor. On a rear hub, we also remove the cassette. These parts will just get in the way of accessing the bearings. Given that the procedure also involves a fair bit of dirt and grease, this isn’t the stuff you want to find smeared on your brake rotors anyway.

Next, we remove the rubber dust seals on the axle. This is one of the few times a flat-tip screwdriver becomes handy.

Non-drive side of the rear hub with the brake rotor removed. The notched nut is the lock nut, and the rubber dust seal goes around it.

Removing the dust seals should reveal the ends of the axle, which contains the lock nut and cone. These are jammed against each other to lock in the bearing preload adjustment. You will need a suitably sized cone wrench (a 14 mm unit for my hubs) and an adjustable wrench to break them loose.

The thin yellow wrench is a Pedro’s 14 mm cone wrench, which holds the cone nut in place while the adjustable wrench breaks it free from the lock nut.
(L-R) Washer, lock nut, cone nut. The washer goes in between lock nut and cone nut.

With the lock nut loosened, undo the lock nut, any spacers, and the cone nut. Take them off the axle, taking note of the order they came out, and you should be able to remove the axle entirely from the hub. Do so carefully, as removing the axle introduces the chance of the ball bearings falling out in an uncontrolled manner.

The axle coming out of the hub. Note the gray plastic dust shield covering the ball bearings; on this hub, that is a pressed-in piece that can be carefully pried off for easier access.
Axle removed from the rear hub. On this unit, one of the cones is fixed to one end.

Once the axle is successfully removed, use a magnet-tipped screwdriver to pick the ball bearings out of the hub.

Rear hub bearings still covered by the gray plastic dust shield.
The drive-side end of the rear hub contains the freehub. Here, the ball bearings have already fallen out of the cup. There is another, slightly narrower plastic dust shield here.
All eighteen of the old 1/4″ ball bearings in the rear hub.

Your hub is now disassembled and ready for cleaning. For front hubs, you can spray degreaser pretty liberally into the hub shell to clean out the old, dirty grease. More care is needed with rear hubs, however, as going crazy with the degreaser may result in drying out the oil in your freehub, so it’s better to spray degreaser into a rag or paper towel and use that to clean out the old grease.

A cleaned-out freehub bearing cup, rid of its dirty grease.

With the hub dismantled, this is the perfect opportunity to inspect the bearing cups and cones. The point of overhauling your hubs every so often is to ensure that their bearing races remain smooth and free of pitting. Over time, water and dirt may make their way into the bearings, push out the grease, and start corrosion, which will wear the bearing races…and end your hub’s useful life.

Fixed cone on the axle after cleaning. Still pretty shiny, with no pitting.

On my rear hub, there is a small spot of pitting on the cone, but my front hub is in much worse shape. Practically half the cone’s circumference has pitting. This wheelset has lived a pretty hard life, so at this point I should start considering replacing these hubs in the next few months.

Rear hub cone nut. Mostly smooth, but it’s got a tiny spot of rough pitting.
Front hub cone nut. Pretty dire. Half the cone is pitted.

For now, I will be replacing the bearings and reassembling the hub, as due to the ongoing pandemic, most of my riding is done indoors.

Why replace the bearings? Unlike with the bearing races, it’s almost impossible to check individual ball bearings for wear, so the prudent practice is to replace them with each overhaul.

Wheels Manufacturing sells these “bottles o’ bearings.”

Once the hub shells are clean, repack the bearing cups with fresh grease. This will act as protective lubrication and help keep the ball bearings in place while reassembling the hub.

Repacking the cups with fresh grease.

Place new ball bearings into the bearing cups, making sure that they form an uninterrupted circle around the cup. Start with the drive side first. The size and number of ball bearings will differ between front and rear hubs. On the front hub, you typically use ten 3/16-inch bearings per cup, for a total of twenty accounting for both sides. On the rear hub, meanwhile, there are nine 1/4-inch bearings per cup, making a total of eighteen.

The useful thing about grease is it helps keep ball bearings in place.

Once the bearings have been installed in their grease bath, smear the axle with a coat of grease and reinsert it into the hub from the drive side. The fixed cone on the axle will help retain the bearings you just put in and prevent them from falling over. Turn the wheel over and repeat placing the ball bearings into the other cup.

Inserting the axle fills in the gap and helps keep the greased bearings from falling in.

When all the bearings are installed on both sides of the hub, screw the cone nut onto the axle from the non-drive side. Follow this up with any spacers, then the lock nut. Thread them on just enough so that the cone contacts the ball bearings, then have the lock nut follow closely.

Threading the cone nut onto the axle. Ideally this should be on the other, non-drive side, as it can be harder to set bearing preload with the freehub in the way of your cone wrench.

The final step in cup-and-cone hub reassembly is setting the bearing preload. This process is done by feel. You want the cone nut screwed in snugly enough so that there is almost no up-and-down play in the axle, but you also want it loose enough to turn freely. If the axle binds and resists spinning, loosen the cone a bit. If there is too much play in the axle, tighten the cone a bit. Eventually you will get to a happy medium.

(For hollow-axle quick-release hubs like this, leaving a millimeter or two of play in the axle is fine, as the clamping action of the closed quick-release skewer will take up the final bit of slack once the wheel is mounted into the dropouts. Thanks for the reminder, Matt!)

At this point, you take your cone wrench and hold the cone nut in place. With your other hand, take the adjustable wrench and tighten the lock nut against the cone nut to lock in the bearing preload. Recheck after tightening to see if the axle still spins freely without play.

Reusing this picture because this is the final step. After dialing in your bearing preload, tighten the lock nut against the cone.

Once done, reinstall the brake rotor, cassette, and QR skewers. You’re done! This procedure is best done at least once a year, or more frequently if you ride often in wet conditions.