The Beginning Cyclist’s Guide to the Rules of the Road (and All Those Funny Hand Signals)

If you’ve started cycling to become a stronger runner, you’ve probably discovered the rules of the road are often confusing, misunderstood, and, sadly, ignored.

It isn’t out of spite — it’s usually just lack of knowledge. However, when cyclists don’t follow the laws, they don’t just put themselves at risk, they give a bad name to other cyclists.

You know how people are always bitchin’ about how cyclists think they own the road? This is what I’m talking about.

But most cyclists aren’t reckless asshats — and yet that stereotype about cyclists is prevalent in almost every community.

To help clear the air, I’ve invited Laura, badass triathlete from one of my favorite sites, Frayed Laces, to help me put together a primer on what you should know before you hit the road, whether on your own or in a group.

5 guidelines for safe cycling

Before you head out for your first ride, it’s important that you know some of the rules of the road. These rules aren’t here to limit you; they’re here to keep you safe.  Yes, cycling on the road can be risky, but the majority of accidents happen from unsafe riding. Follow these five guidelines to keep yourself as safe as possible:

1. If you’re riding on the road, behave like a car.

Perhaps the main reason why there is so much animosity between drivers and cyclists is that many cyclists take liberties with their bicycle, ignoring traffic lights and switching between the road and crosswalks.  This is dangerous and stupid.

Yes, cyclists have a right to the road, but most laws state that cyclists must follow all the rules that apply to cars. This means riding with the direction of traffic, stopping at all stop signs and lights, and yielding to pedestrians.

2. Know how to properly pass and be passed.

If you’re riding on a popular bike route, always stay as far to the right as safely possible. That way, faster cyclists have room to pass you. If you need to pass someone, pull up behind them and loudly state “on your left.” Wait for the cyclist to pull to the right to allow you to pass by them. And always, always, respond with a “thank you.” Despite what you may hear, most cyclists are nice people and appreciate a thanks.

3. Know how to ride when there’s no bike lane.

When first starting out, most cyclists prefer the safety of routes with a bike lane. But as you get more experienced, venture out onto the roadways and don’t be afraid to explore the beauty around you! Most states have laws that require motorists to give at least 3 feet width when passing. While on the road, maintain as straight a line as possible and avoid swerving around objects. Be predictable so cars know what to expect, and stay as far to the right as safely possible. If there’s a lot of debris or holes near the shoulder, don’t be afraid to ride inside the road, but again, just maintain a straight line.

Know your rights as a cyclist. You are entitled to claim an entire lane of traffic if necessary, and in some cases, it’s recommended.  If you’re riding across a bridge, through a tunnel, or along a narrow road, claim the entire lane. It’s much safer for cars to wait behind you then to try to unsafely pass by you when there’s not enough width to the road. Accept the fact that you will get honked at several times on each ride. Resist the urge to return the favor with a one-finger salute.

4. Be visible.

Despite what you hear, cyclists do not wear loudly colored Spandex to make a fashion statement. We wear it because people notice it. When people (motorists) notice it, they notice us. Being more visible is the single most important thing all cyclists can do.

So rock those brightly colored jerseys with pride! If you’re riding any time close to sunrise or sunset, light your bike up like a Christmas tree. Not sure if you have enough lights on your bike? Add more. Once the neighbors complain, you know you have enough.

5. Always, always, perform safety checks on your bike.

Before every ride, perform a standard 2-minute safety check: check your quick releases (the skewers that hold your tires in place), your brakes, and your headset. Gently drop your bike vertically and listen for any loose parts. If you aren’t sure what to listen for, ask your local bike shop to show you. One safety check is all that separates a good ride from a ride ending with facial reconstructive surgery.

4 keys for riding with a group

A lot of new riders are intimidated by the thought of riding with a group. Don’t be! Yes, there are a few things you need to know before you jump into the peloton, but riding with a group is a great way to improve your knowledge, strength, endurance, and cycling skills.

Though riding in a group can increase visibility (and therefore safety), if a rider doesn’t know the group etiquette, it can yield disastrous results for everyone involved! Here are some tips to help you jump into your first group ride safely (and without making a fool of yourself).

1. Let the group know you’re a beginner.

If you admit you’re a newbie, the group will appreciate your honesty and instruct you on group rules. Listen to the experienced cyclists and take note of what they do in a ride. Don’t be intimidated: remember everyone was a beginner once!

2. If you’re not confident in your bike handling skills, stick to the back of the group.

Typically groups structure themselves according to skill and ability level, with the more advanced riders in the front. If you’re unsure of where you fall, start off at the back.

3. Draft as close as you’re comfortable.

In group rides, drafting, or tucking behind a rider to reduce air resistance, is common. Cyclists will ride close together and take turns “pulling,” or leading the pack, while the rest of the group drafts closely off each other’s wheels. Get only as close as you’re comfortable with: there is no pressure or expectation to get close to someone else’s wheel.

4. Know what to do when it’s time to pull.

In group rides, a paceline forms, where each cyclist will “pull” for a certain amount of time at the front of the pack, veer to the side and let the rest of the group go past, then rejoin the back of the pack (envision reverse leap-frogging). When it’s your turn to pull, resist the urge to surge. Keep the cadence and effort relatively the same so the group maintains the same speed. Stay at the front as long or as little as you’d like, then rejoin the group at the rear.

The most important rule of group riding: Communicate!

When in a group, it’s important to communicate as much as possible. Safety is always the first priority! The most important thing to communicate is road hazards such as obstacles, cars, road debris, etc. Most cyclists use a range of hand signals to communicate during group rides.

Below, Susan demonstrates the most common hand signals used in group rides. If you see a rider in front of you use one of these signals, copy him or her so the message is relayed down the line and all members of the group are aware.

Turn Left: The rider points left. (Always look behind you before turning left, especially if you are merging into traffic before turning!)

Turn Right: The rider points right. (Again, do a quick check behind you to make sure no one is on your wheel.)

Get on My Wheel: If the rider wants you to draft, he or she will pat her butt to indicate which side you should draft.

Road Hazard: If there is an obstacle you should avoid, like a pothole or a rock, the rider will point down on the side the hazard is located.

Loose Gravel: If a rider points his open hand, palm down, and shakes it, that means you are about to ride through loose gravel. Proceed carefully.

Move Over: Though cyclists are told to ride with traffic, runners are safest when they run against traffic if they must run on the road. If you encounter a runner, gesture to your fellow riders to move over so they can avoid colliding with the runner.

Hazard Above: If low-hanging tree branches are ahead, the rider will point to the sky to indicate you need to move or duck.

Railroad Tracks, Speed Bumps: For hazards that run the length of the road, like railroad tracks or speed bumps, the rider will point a finger downward and sweep his arm back and forth across the butt.

Stop: When the pack needs to slow down in anticipation of a stop, place your hand, palm turned out, on the small of your back.


About the Author: Laura, known to many as “Frayed Laces,” is a HURT 100 finisher, Ironman World Championship Qualifier, and all-around BAMF. She recently won the top female cyclist award at the Hawaii State 40K Time Trial. Follow her on Twitter for humor and insights on training, racing, and the occasional beer or two.



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  1. I wish more people would understand guideline #1; behave like a car. It makes everything else so much more simple to understand.

    I’ve heard many times from friends/family that they don’t know what the rules of the road are for bicycles. I tell them it’s really not complicated; “they’re the same as for cars”.

    #1 is also the rule that most cyclists (in my experience) completely disregard. It is dangerous and stupid. Those who disregard it get what they deserve.

  2. what a helpful post!! i finally understand the hand signals!! haha thanks for sharing!

  3. Is there a hand sign for grabbing an icy cold can of beer ?? Just kidding ! Nice job FL !

  4. Very helpful ladies, thanks! I wish this was out when I was a newbie rider. Your advice to let others know you’re new and stick to the back while you learn is very good. The most important thing I had to learn in a paceline was matching the rider in front of me’s speed and cadence and feathering in my brakes only when absolutely needed — any jolts are going to yo-yo the whole group so it is all about small adjustments.
    Also common vocal signals:
    “Car Back” – if you are at or near the back it is good to announce a car coming up on your six to the other riders in front of you so they know and can ride closer to the side
    “Car Left” “Car Right” or “Clear” – Announced at Intersections
    “Stopping” or “Slowing” – in addition to the hand signal
    “Dog!” – self explanatory and usually with a point
    I also like to give a friendly “nice pull, thanks” to a rider dropping back at the end of their effort.
    It can be quite intimidating to join your first ride but very very well worth it – the camaraderie and assistance to be a better rider are without compare.
    Thanks again for this very helpful list!

  5. This is a very timely post as I’ve just gotten a bike for the first time since I was a child and I’m terrified of riding on the road. Thanks for the tips!

  6. A good article for new cyclists starting out. I’d like to take issue with one of your key ideas at the beginning, however:

    “Yes, cycling on the road can be risky, but the majority of accidents happen from unsafe riding.”

    I don’t think this is a true statement. To blame the majority of accidents on the cyclist is really bending over to the automobile centric mindset that has skewed our public infrastructure’s development. If you start your discussion with this mindset, I think people really get the wrong idea about the true dangers that exist while mixing with cars. (Hint, it’s the 2000 lb moving metal death box that is the most dangerous).

    I’d also like to point out it’s best to always signal with the hand that is between you and traffic… so most of the time turning right is actually signalled with your left hand. Much easier for cars to see, and other riders can see it just as easily as the right hand.

    • Erik,

      I agree completely.

      Sometimes accidents with cars happen because they are “accidents” not because either party is at fault or one is driving/riding more unsafely than another.

      Take for instance this interview on Laura’s site of a rider who was hit by a car. The rider was riding safely and the driver of the car had a “whoops” moment- a true accident.

      Note- there were many possible factors in the “accident” and in a true sign of what can emerge, both the cyclist and driver have maintained positive contact. They reunited this year on the 2 year anniversary of the accident for heartfelt chat and the initial woman on the scene has become a dear friend of the cyclist.

      • Clarification to the “possible factors”- many of them relate to the placement of the sun and trees which impeded the driver’s view.

        I share so other readers understand that the cyclist was not at fault and it was just a moment in time that neither rider nor driver would have predicted nor asked for.

  7. I’ve always seen the right-turn signal as extending your left arm with elbow bent at 90 degrees. This keeps your signal arm on the same side as passing traffic, and if you need to brake suddenly you won’t flip over your handlebars.

    Here’s an etiquette issue I came across on my last ride: Is it OK to pass a funeral procession? One car seemed not to think so, and purposely rode in the shoulder to prevent me from passing.

  8. These aren’t really rules of the road per se, but two things I’m occasionally surprised that people don’t do:
    – wear a helmet (really, no matter what speed you’re going, please wear a helmet!!)
    – bring id with you, including medical insurance card – I learned that the hard way when I was once knocked off the bike in traffic and got a minor concussion – I had to be taken to the hospital via ambulance and that helped once I got to the ER

  9. It’s been awhile since I’ve road with a group but as a triathlete that has aerobars, I understood most road cyclists don’t want anyone in the group to use the aerobars – it’s too easy to wobble and impact the people around.
    Great article – Thanks!

  10. My boyfriend is into cycling and I am a runner. He ALWAYS hears my complaints about cyclists that do not follow the rules of the road. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost been run over in a crosswalk by a biker making a super speedy turn despite there being a stoplight. Also, cyclists, please please please when on a trail that has a designated bike path AND run/walk bath DO NOT BIKE IN THE WALK/RUN PATH! I’ve had bikers refuse to get out of my way and give me the evil eye when I refuse to get out of the running path and out of their way.

  11. So I am pretty much an avid cyclist. I avoid local bike club rides lately because of the pack mentality. Please if new to biking follow the rules of the road and obey traffic, be courteous, otherwise use cyclist get a really bad name like in our community.

    Right arm straight out because I think people/motors know which what you are “pointing” or indicating you are going. Either left arm bent or right arm out straight for a right turn is fine…JUST SIGNAL.

    Lastly on my soap box….please use “on your left” and loud enough that someone can hear you. Lately it seems that no cyclist say’s “on your left” here in FL. I am slow! I am sure you will pass me. Just let me know!

    Sorry if I sounded preachy!

  12. This was a very helpful article. I am just getting into road cycling, and I appreciated these tips immensely!

  13. Dolores Geisler says:

    I have a question I hope you can answer. Our community, Diablo, California, is having a lot of trouble with cyclists riding more than two abreast on our private roads and sometimes in packs of 200 to bicycle up Mount Diablo. Our streets are private and very narrow which makes it difficult for cars to share the street with these large packs. Since the cyclists come through early in the morning, the noise they make is also objectionable. Isn’t it against the law for more than two bicyclists to ride abreast on most public roads? I can’t find anything on the internet.

  14. Ron Vaughan says:

    Was taught right turn sign was raised left forearm at 90 degree angle. This us as much to inform other riders as to inform drivers. Drivers may not see your right side signs. They should be able to your left side signs.


  1. […] are some forms of etiquette that you will have to adhere to when you’re cycling on the road. First of all, be sure not to […]

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