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Man riding his bicycle through a busy New York intersection

Bike Shorts: How to Navigate Your Bike Through an Intersection

If you’ve ridden a bicycle on the road even once, you know how nerve-wracking a trip through a busy intersection can be. The sudden fear of traffic from every direction — all of which is much bigger than you on your two wheels — is overwhelming.

Yet there is a way to filter the onslaught of potential dangers so that you can navigate while biking through the intersection undeterred and unscathed. Even many experienced cyclists aren’t aware of this, but it all comes down to where you focus.

“In an intersection, there are different dangers to look for in different parts of the intersection,” says decades-long cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie. “If you’re looking for all traffic at all times it’s going to be a little more confusing.”

Essentially, you need to break the intersection into three different zones to direct your attention to the right place at the right time. To understand how this works, take a trip through an intersection with us in your mind.

Approaching the Intersection on Your Bike

Imagine you’re riding north on your bike. Up ahead you see an intersection with an east-west cross-street. As you approach the intersection, you enter the first danger zone.

At this point, your primary concern when navigating your bike through the intersection is coming from behind. To safely scan the area, you need a rearview mirror. With one of these handy tools attached to your glasses, you can look behind you without taking your eyes off the road for more than a second or so. Watch for two things from cars behind you to your left:

  • The driver who wants to cut behind you and swerve around to turn right. As long as there is enough room on your right, this isn’t usually a problem. But if the lane is tight, then you want to avoid this. Hold your line and don’t give the driver room to swing around behind.
  • The other — less common but more dangerous — scenario is the driver who wants to speed in front of you from the left to cut in front and turn right, giving you little time to react. You never know when someone who pulls in front is going to do this, so your job is to be ready to react quickly.

Biking Through the Intersection

Now that you’ve passed safely through the first part of the intersection, it’s time to turn your attention toward the second danger zone. As you pass through the cross-street, there are again two situations to watch out for:

  • The first is the driver heading south (the opposite direction you’re going) who wants to turn left in front of you. Although this driver will usually realize you have the right of way, it’s still critical to pay close attention here because they may not see you. If that car turns too soon, you’re facing the possibility of a very serious crash.
  • The next danger is the driver coming from the east (your right) who wants to turn right into your northbound lane. Many drivers don’t do a full stop before turning right or they simply don’t notice you on your bike. Here again, being prepared to react quickly is essential.

Exiting the Intersection

Now you’re just past the intersection, continuing straight. Surely you’re in the clear now, right? Not quite.

Here again, you have to be vigilant to watch for drivers coming from the east (now behind you to your right). At this point, the danger is that this driver won’t see you and will speed up as he turns right behind you, surging right into your bike.

In this final danger zone, your mirror and your ears are your best safety tools. Look (with your mirror, not turning your head) and listen behind you to make sure you notice an unsuspecting driver — and be prepared to react.

The Reaction Is Key

In all but the very first of these five situations, you’ll notice that Coach Darryl’s focus is on readiness. You can’t control what the cars on the road do (except by holding your line in the first scenario), but you can be alert and vigilant. If you’re watching the right place at the right time — and you’re ready to swerve or brake quickly — you’ll avoid many serious accidents on your bike and have the confidence to navigate your bike through intersections.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Photo by Liza Rusalskaya on Unsplash