How to Avoid Obstacles on a Bicycle

Ever had a car blocking the bike lane? Ever had to pass a slower bicyclist in front of you? What do you do when this happens?

Switching lanes and avoiding obstacles on a bicycle are important skills to master for smooth and safe riding. Whether you’re on a bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, e-scooter, or any other 2-wheeled vehicle, you always need to know how to look behind you and move side to side within traffic. I call this the Obstacle Avoidance Dance.

Going around a car turning right on a bicycle.
The Obstacle Avoidance Dance. You may not want to do it, but it’s a vital bike skill to know and practice. The car in this picture is turning right in a mixing zone and is legally allowed to be there. You have to go around!

The Obstacle Avoidance Dance is very simple once you learn it, but it can take some practice to become comfortable at it.

In What Situations Do You Need this Obstacle Avoidance Maneuver?

  • When cars are turning right in front of you
  • When you’re on a multi-use path and you have to safely go around some pedestrians
  • When you go around a car blocking the bike lane
  • Whenever there’s anything in your way, which happens way too much with bike lanes

This back and forth jog is a vital bike commuting skill. Infrastructure improvements like protected bike lanes can and should decrease the amount of times you need to do it, but in the real world, if you’re sharing the road with cars, this is going to happen at some point. Even in bike friendly havens like The Netherlands with amazing infrastructure, I still had to go around double-parked cars on my bicycle.

Here I am going around a car on San Francisco’s Valencia Street, notorious for cars blocking the bike lane. It sucks, but I don’t let it get to me.

You may have learned this skill on your own just riding a bike, but if you haven’t mastered it yet, I’ll share my technique to help you get there a bit faster. Doing it safely and properly involves lots of moving body parts and awareness.

How to Look Behind You

The first step of the Obstacle Avoidance Dance is to look behind you. If you need a quick refresher, check out my How to Look Behind You on a Bicycle post.

On a bicycle, you don’t have a rear view mirror that makes it easy. However, you have much more visibility than a car ever could. With a slight turn of my head, I can see everything to one side and directly behind me, with no big pieces of metal blocking my view.

When you’re merging through multiple lanes of traffic, you’ll have to turn your head back and forth to continuously make sure there are still no obstacles in front of you and that the next lane over is clear. This is something you may want to do if you’re turning left like a car.

4 Steps of the Obstacle Avoidance Dance

There are a lot of steps here, but of course I made up an acronym to remember the important concepts. NOMoRe: Notice, Observe, Move, and Return.

  1. Notice the obstacle EARLY! This is one of the most important points. The earlier you begin to check your surroundings, the more time you’ll have to merge into traffic and preserve your momentum. Look ahead, and if you see an obstruction in the bike lane, start checking your surroundings and get in the next lane before it’s too late to merge over easily.
  2. Observe & gather information.
    • Observe what’s close to you in your desired path and practice gathering information from your peripheral vision. Your peripheral isn’t good at noticing details, but it’s very good at picking up movement and light from farther away that can deem a closer look.
    • Turn your head and signal. As part of observing, I turn my head slightly and signal at the same time. If I’m planning to go left around an obstacle, I put my left hand out as I look over my shoulder. However, I’m only putting my hand as far out as I can see, I’m not putting my arm all the way out before I’m sure nothing is there. For more details on the body movements of looking back, check out How to Look Behind You on a Bicycle.
  3. Make the move. Maybe you’re going to the leftmost part of your lane, maybe you’re merging into the lane over. If you’re on a street where the cars aren’t moving too fast (hopefully that’s true), then it shouldn’t be unreasonable for you to merge in between cars as you ride. Be assertive and take the lane if the road is too narrow. You’ll only be there for a few moments anyway.
  4. Return back into your original line after the obstacle. If you move back to your original position immediately after the obstacle, you don’t have to worry much about anything on that side. However, if you delay, you have to do the entire process again going back to your line.

There may be many steps here, but you can do all of these in quick succession, sometimes in just a few seconds. I turn my head, signal, observe, and then maybe move slightly over as one movement flow. Make your own judgements depending on what you’re comfortable with.

Soon you’ll be blocked by obstacles in the bike lane NOMoRe! Just Notice, Observe, Move, and Return.

You need to do this obstacle avoidance dance for even the smallest of movements. You never know when another bicyclist is passing you without an “on your left” or “coming up” call, so practice this skill until you’re comfortable with it.

As I said before, the trick to making this work the smoothest is to merge early when you still have speed and momentum. If I see multiple cars blocking the bike lane relatively close to each other, I’ll merge into the lane and just stay there until I get around all the obstacles. It’s much safer than going in and out of the blocked bike lane.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you ride your bike a lot, you may already know this skill and go around things all the time, but you may not realize that you slowly move over when you turn your head, or you may not keep track of where the closest vehicle is behind you. These are good things to think about every time you switch lanes and avoid obstacles, so you’ll get better and better as the Obstacle Avoidance Dance on your bicycle becomes more second nature.

If you get good at this, you can safely cross three lanes of car traffic and make a left turn like a car, and you’ll be a little less pissed off when ride-hail cars block the bike lane. And that’s really what half the fun is all about, having a nice bike ride and not letting things in your way bring you down.

Happy Biking!

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