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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

That thing called “beausage.”

In case it isn’t immediately obvious, this funny looking word is a portmanteau of the two words “beauty” and “usage.”

Rivendell Bicycle Works founder Grant Petersen is credited with coining the above term.

Photo credit: WUWF.org (WUWF 88.3)/Grant Petersen

Among cyclists, Petersen can be quite the polarizing figure. In an age of carbon fiber frames, ever more technical cycling clothing, aggressive racing mentality, and clipless pedals, he advocates lugged steel frames, street clothes, a laid-back attitude, and sneakers pushing down on platform pedals. To some, he is nothing more than a cantankerous retro-grouch. To others, he is a traditionalist god…and frankly, I’ve been burned in the past by people who worship his example at all costs and will shove it down your throat at every possibility, which is why I don’t particularly have a good initial association with the Grant Petersen name. But I digress.

Some of his philosophy is gaining traction though, mainly due to sheer practicality winning out over misplaced trendiness. Professional road cyclists are now seeing the merits of wider tires; where once rock-hard 20 mm tires would have been desirable, is now the domain of much plusher, lower-pressure 25 mm rubber. More and more people are seeing that road cycling (a) need not involve racing all the time and (b) need not involve a proper road made of concrete or asphalt, either.

For me though, “beausage” is his biggest contribution.

The painted-on Shimano 105 logo on Hyro’s control levers has faded away after having my hands hold them for many hours of riding.

Just a few of many paint chips that pepper Bino’s frame, exposing the aluminum underneath.

Take a look at your bike. Is it all shiny and looking like brand new? Or has it seen its share of battle scars? If it is brand new, will you regret the day when it picks up its first scratches from either a crash, careless handling, or simply falling over at a bad time and place?

As interpreted by others, the whole mindset of “beausage” is that things gain beauty when they are used, and used regularly. Whatever the object in question is, you are putting it through its paces and extracting maximum value out of it. Put another way, it is a manifestation that it is you who owns the object in question – it does not own you.

I saw the opposing mindset all the time in my younger days in car clubs. So many members with either cosmetic or functional modifications on their rides, yet they are nothing more than garage queens, never used the way they are intended to be. They look nice and clean, and they are fodder for conversation, but that’s it. This worship of material things is blatantly obvious in this particular circle; very few car club members in the Philippines in my experience can actually drive their cars well on a racetrack. Their cars might as well own them.

This object-worshiping culture has started to permeate cycling as well. Everyone wants a spotless bike with no scratches or imperfections, otherwise it’s nothing more than damaged goods. Sometimes it makes one wonder if it’s a bicycle one really wants, or a display piece to hang on a wall.

My Shimano 105 FC-5750 crank was bought second-hand to begin with. Since its installation, it’s picked up deep gouges from outside chain drop and a very shiny divot from rubbing on my heels.

It’s a little pathetic. It’s a bike, for crying out loud. Riding it will entail crashing and cosmetic damage of some sort, at some point. If you are so worried about scratching up your equipment, then I think you might want to reconsider your choice of sport – perhaps because you are not riding as hard as you could, or should, be.

Patches of shiny metal on a black crank arm polished by shoe rub. Deep gouges from outside chain drop. Discolored paint on the frame. Scratches on the fork, pedals, and control levers. These might seem unsightly to you, but they are proof of the bicycle’s story.

Colombian climber Nairo Quintana’s Canyon Ultimate CF SLX, from the 2014 pro road cycling race season. Photo courtesy road.cc.

Closer inspection reveals a scratched-up drive-side seat stay, among other dings and cosmetic damage. Photo courtesy road.cc.

More battle scars around the rear dropouts. Photo courtesy road.cc.

Indeed, professional cycling team Movistar-Canyon is known for selling off its actual race bikes at the end of each season. Not replicas: actual race bikes ridden by Alex Dowsett or Nairo Quintana. Judging by the large amount of money each bike fetches for sale, it’s clear that people are interested in the stories that these bikes have – much like how old cars wearing a layer of patina fetch fantastic prices from American car collectors and auction houses.

Custom bike maker The Vanilla Workshop, based in Portland, Oregon, apparently even offers a US$10 “first scratch” upgrade for its Speedvagen brand. It seems outrageous to avail of this on a very expensive custom bicycle, but it’s there. I’ll let them do the talking on this one:

Screenshot taken from The Vanilla Workshop/Speedvagen website, March 14, 2017.

As long as the bike is properly maintained and mechanically sound, all of this beausage, taken collectively, should be a badge of honor made on behalf of your kind of riding. You ride hard and put on the miles, having adapted the capacity to suffer and persevere. It is also a honor bestowed on behalf of the instrument you do it all on: the bike that can take it all on the chin…and ask for more the next day.

Scratches all over Bino’s fork blades shown under the harsh light of a flash bulb. It’s a losing battle keeping scratches off a folding bike that sees lots of use.

The next time you scratch up your immaculate new bike, make a huge smile. You are now officially relieved of the pressure of keeping up the appearance of a brand new bike. You are now officially free to do whatever type of riding you want, no longer shackled by the expectation of keeping your bike pristine. You are now ready to trust your machine and go on all sorts of adventures. (And you also save US$10 compared to having Speedvagen do it for you.)

May your bikes have as many scratches and rub marks as you have riding stories to tell. Now ride your damn bike.

Dealing with static road hazards

Contrary to initial belief, a slick bicycle tire will handle most of the things you encounter while riding on the road – whether it is wet or dry. There are a few static hazards, however, that you will need to account for when riding in an urban environment, as they all have the potential to unsettle you from steady forward progress.

Even with slick tires, wet roads by themselves are generally not a problem on a bike.


“Road furniture” consists of the many standard features of a modern road, such as manhole covers, painted markings, humps, speed bumps, and drain grates. In case of road works, this can also include safety cones.

A steel grate covering a drain located in the middle of a driveway.

The safest way of navigating drain grates and tram or train rails is to cross them with your front tire as perpendicular as possible. This avoids the chance of your wheels literally falling into them, especially if you run narrow rubber such as a 20 mm tire, as it can be impossible to get out once in. Running a wider tire helps here, such as a 25 mm or 28 mm slick.

Painted markings and manhole covers, on the other hand, are dangerously slippery when wet, and so are best avoided. In the Philippine context, for some strange reason, the public works utilities love using large steel plates to cover up sections of broken road (I’d argue they barely qualify as “road furniture”). Once these get wet, these act as patches of virtual black ice.

Sometimes you just can’t ride around these things, so the best thing to do is just hit them as straight as possible, and pass over them without braking or turning.


Meanwhile, I use “road acne” to refer to decidedly non-standard road features, such as ruts, debris, cracks, fallen leaves, loose dust, gravel, and potholes. Of these, potholes and debris are the nastiest; you want to either ride around them, or bunny-hop over them if you got the skills.

Even with slick tires, you can usually ride through patches of dust or gravel, as long as you keep upright and avoid braking and leaning – a straight-line approach is best.

If the dust and gravel are in the middle of a turn, you can maintain tire grip by slowing down and keeping upright as you approach it. This minimizes the lean-in angle of the bike as it negotiates the turn, keeping the weight of the bike as vertical as possible through the tires’ contact patches.

You tend to risk tire slippage if you lean too hard on loose-surface corners while riding on a slick tire, since the tire’s tread shoulders don’t get enough purchase or resistance against the riding surface.

Longitudinal or lengthwise cracks along the road can be deep enough to act as long narrow ruts. Dealing with them is the same as negotiating train tracks or drain grates: Approach them with your front tire as perpendicular as possible.

They look innocent, but fallen leaves are surprisingly dangerous

Fallen leaves may be a surprise as they are innocuous enough in the dry. Most leaves contain a waxy coating that plants need to help retain the moisture they already have, and repel excess water from outside. What this means for us cyclists is that on damp and wet streets, riding on fallen leaves is particularly dangerous – they are easily as slick as anything made of wet metal. As with manhole covers and steel plates, if they can’t be avoided, ride straight through them without braking or sudden handlebar movement.