How to Look Behind You on a Bicycle

Oh how I wish you never had to look behind you. It would be nice to enjoy just looking forward and forgetting about what’s behind you, but as in life and transportation, you have to look back sometimes to safely go forward.

Riding a bicycle across a reservoir in Napa and looking behind me to check my surroundings.
Here is a very slight look back, where I barely turn my head at all. This may be all it takes if you want to look out for something next to you. Picture from a Napa bike ride.

When I’m riding a bicycle in an urban environment with lots of potential conflict, I’m looking behind me all the time. Although simple, it’s easy to make small mistakes. Most people don’t realize looking back doesn’t have to be as disruptive as they think.

When to Look Back?

  1. Before I switch lanes or move over to avoid some kind of obstacle
  2. Checking for other bicycles that may overtake me
  3. Checking for The Right Hook: Sometimes when I reach an intersection where I think a car may want to turn right soon and I’m in between, I’ll look to see how close they are and if they see me
  4. Similar as above, If I’m about to pass a driveway and cars are nearby, I look back to make sure no one is about to turn
  5. If I’m on a street without a bike lane, I like to see what traffic is like behind me so I can decide whether I want to take the lane or move over and let the drivers pass me
  6. To smile for a picture!
Riding on a walking and bicycling trail through the forest on Vancouver Island
This look back is more for the picture than checking surroundings, but is demonstrative of what you’ll want for a more detailed look. Usually you can turn your head less. Notice how her hips are moving to the left to stay balanced.

First of all, you can always buy a bicycle mirror to affix to your handlebars or helmet, but even then you may still have to check for blind spots. Mirrors are most useful if you plan to ride more on busy streets with cars where you want more awareness of your surroundings. When I was growing up, I had a mirror on my handlebars, but I’ve found it unnecessary now that I’ve mastered the Look Back Technique.

Look Back Technique

Riding a google bike in mountain view in heels while looking behind her on a bicycle.
The perfect look back technique taking advantage of peripheral vision in an urban environment.

A good look back technique requires you to do a few things simultaneously:

  1. Turn your head in the direction you want to look
  2. Move your eyes as far as you can to the direction you want to look
  3. Make sure you continue riding straight by dropping the opposite side of your body (elbow, shoulder, hip, really anything) and/or pushing your handlebars to the opposite side. This makes sure your center of gravity remains unchanged and you continue in the same straight line you were riding in before.

Depending on how much information you’re trying to gather, you can turn your head just a little or you can look completely over your shoulder. The ideal look back has me turning my head the minimal amount. If you’re on a bike with a more aggressive forward leaning position, you can tuck your chin towards your collarbone to get a good look and turn your head even less.

Remember that however far you look back, you only want to look back for a split second before turning your attention forward again. If you need to look back longer, just look back more times instead so you still know what’s in front of you! Sometimes when I’m changing multiple lanes at once (say turning left like a car when I’ve been riding in a rightmost bicycle lane), I turn my head many times throughout my maneuver to keep checking that the coast is clear.

Use Your Peripheral Vision

When I move my eyes all the way to the edge of my vision and turn my head a bit less than 90 degrees, I can see fully behind me in my peripheral vision. My peripheral vision gives me enough data to tell me if something is there or not, and sometimes warrants a second more detailed look.

Try it now. See how far you need to turn your head to see what’s behind you. If you wear glasses with a heavy prescription, you may have to turn your head farther, or maybe it’s not that large of a head turn after all. Hopefully this gives you the tips to keep your look back short so you can keep track of things in front of you as well.

This tip about peripheral vision also can be applied when driving a car and checking your blind spots. You don’t want to turn your head completely behind you or you may miss things happening right in front of you!

Practice Makes Perfect

You can practice the look back technique just sitting in a chair, but the real practice is to do it on a bicycle and see how straight you can keep your line of travel. Don’t worry if you’re moving over at first when you look back. With a bit of awareness you’ll get better every time.

Sometimes it’s easier to take your hand off your handlebars in the direction you’re looking. This allows you to more easily move your body to the opposite side and stay centered, as well as allowing you to use that hand to signal if you’re about to switch lanes. I take my hand off the handlebar almost every time unless I’m doing just a quick check.

bike riding and waving in the Loire Valley, France
The Look Back Technique is great for pictures and waving.

Another way to practice staying in a straight line is to lean your body to the left or right while pushing your bike to the opposite side. You should be able to lean the bike so that it’s no longer perpendicular to the ground, but your body weight perfectly counteracts the weight of the bicycle leaning over and you continue to ride straight. This same technique can be used as you look behind you.

Practice with a friend so you have someone to look at behind you and someone to tell you if you’re riding straight or not! Once you’ve mastered this, check out how to avoid obstacles on a bike or the three ways to turn left.

Stay safe and happy biking!

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