I’m back to highway riding again after getting my bike back. As I was commuting the other day, I had to remember all the highway skills I’d picked up over the years. With the news from other states talking about legalizing lane sharing I thought I’d hit the highway riding and lane sharing subject again.
One small clarification before I start – When I’m talking about ‘highway’ I mean the ‘superslab.’ That is, three or four lanes each direction of relatively straight concrete. As usual, these aren’t the only tips, the top tips, or the best tips for highway riding. I don’t claim to be an expert in anything. These are my tips to you or someone you know who might benefit from them. Let me know what you think in the comments.
For Highway Noobs
It’s OK to be a noob; we were all noobs at some point. Highway riding is different than street riding. People warned me about it and made it seem scary, but for me it was actually easier because there was no cross traffic (which is where most collisions happen). What was really different was the wind blast. If you’re riding a standard or another bike with no fairing, the wind blast at 60-75 or higher can feel very strange. Some helmets will feel like they’re lifting when the wind blast hits them just right. Another strange feeling.
What I did back in the day – I’d go out early Saturday or Sunday before all the riff raff hit the highway. Like 7am. I’d pull on the highway at one exit, get up as fast as I could before the next exit. Pull off, turn around, go back the other direction 2 exits down. Repeat riding back and forth, extending the distance each leg, until the sensation of highway speed and the wind blast felt less unsettling. It’s nothing like highway riding with traffic around you, but eliminating a new stimulus makes paying attention to traffic easier.
Lane position is as important on the highway as it is on surface streets (that’s what we call them in California, anyone else?). Position yourself to be seen, and to see, so you’re constantly shifting back and forth. Don’t camp behind a tractor-trailer or a box truck. You can’t see shit around those, and they can’t see you. I try to put myself in a position where a car would be, if I’m behind or near someone. Stay out of blind spots and don’t count on someone seeing you just because you’re right next to their window.
As of today, lane sharing is only legal in the US in California, but after AB51 passed last year more states are considering allowing it. Now, lane sharing isn’t fool proof. You definitely have to be smart and cautious while doing it. I’d been doing it for years and I had to reset my brain a little when I started highway riding again:
- Get used to how close I was to cars again
- Get used to how wide my bike was
- Relearn how traffic moves
- and most important – how people move through traffic
Lane sharing works great when done smartly. For me, lane sharing means my afternoon commute is 40 minutes instead of over 60. I mean, I suppose it works great when not done smartly but whether we like it or not we’re all ambassadors to our culture whenever we ride. How many times has some car driver lamented to you about ‘some a-hole on a crotch rocket’ who wheelied or lane shared too fast or whatever? Remember that feeling and how you wouldn’t want someone else trying to explain your actions.
People do dumb stuff in stopped traffic, so please please give yourself time to see them, and give them time to see you. At least around here, if people see you, they’re generally ambivalent. If you surprise them, that’s when they do dumb shit.
Highway riding has a whole different feel, even though I thought it was easier with traffic all going in one direction. Although we’re all hauling ass, the speed differential is actually less. Cars are going at 75 let’s say, you’re doing 85 (or maybe higher) and you’re really only going 10 mph faster. Hardly noticeable.
The real difference is when things go shitty – you have a lot of speed and energy to scrub off. Either your brakes and tires do that, or your riding gear does it. Use speed where it makes sense but don’t be an idiot. Speed and agility of a bike can get you out of some bad situations, but it can also get you into some sketchy moments. Be smart – the only checkered flag that matters is the one hanging in your garage.
Hey guess what, it’s dark at night. What’s challenging for me at night is figuring out which headlights are where. With so many cars now with too-effing bright HID headlamps it’s just one big ball of glare behind me. Our mirrors don’t provide good visibility anyway making it even more challenging. So be smart with your lane choice and position inside your lane: Own the lane. Two far to one edge or the other and people won’t recognize you’re a bike and try to squeeze by you. Always shocking when you’re not expecting it.
Wear a hi-viz vest and something with lots of reflective surface to give you more shape to the rear, like a jacket with reflective piping down the sleeves, and something up on your helmet. If you’re on a highway without a divider, remember that oncoming headlights can blind you, so use the fog line and don’t stare at oncoming cars. I like to close one eye when the oncoming glare is really bad, and reopen once they pass.
Be prepared for early sunset or late sunrise when the seasons are changing. Carry a spare visor if you run a tinted one. I got stuck late at work once, with a dark smoke shield, and had to ride home in the dark with the visor up because I couldn’t see anything. Look into a photochromatic shield, a helmet with an internal shield, or clear visor-sunglasses combo if you can’t predict day-to-day what time you’ll be on the road.
Debris on the highway can ruin your life. I once almost hit a four post bed. I had a friend who dodged a frigging canoe. Another buddy who rode over a garage door, and just hung on for dear life like a scene from Torque. Debris happens, here are some things to keep in mind:
Debris tends to collect to the edges of the roadway – the fast lane and the slow lane. If there’s a k-rail it’ll pile up on that as it gets knocked around by cars. Highway patrol will usually drag shit to the shoulder (slow lane). Smaller crap (nails, nuts and bolts, gravel) will tend to collect in the middle of lanes where the car tires don’t ‘clean’ and around the lane lines.
Especially keep this debris location in mind at night. You won’t see it as quickly, might not be able to determine what it is until you’re on top of it, and may not have space to avoid it if it’s big (like that bed I almost hit). If you’re in the fast lane chances are you’re going to encounter debris.
Don’t try to be a hero and clear debris yourself. Call it in and let the highway patrol handle it. It might seem like you can run across four lanes and pull that tarp to the shoulder, but every year I read about someone trying to cross the highway for one reason or another and getting killed for their trouble. Those four lanes are much wider than you think, and that oncoming traffic will get to you much faster than you will gauge.
Yeah, it happens. All the time. Some set of people are a-holes. Some of those a-holes drive cars on the highway. People will block you. They’ll cut you off. Throw shit at you (I’ve had lit cigarettes, cans of soda thrown at me). Give you the finger. Honk. Tell you to fuck yourself. Whatever. Keep riding and get where you need to be. If they’re aggressive, get the hell out of there. Engaging someone in a road rage incident is like taking a spoon to a gun fight. I don’t want to read about you in the news over something silly. Let it go, and get home.
Look, we all want to grow old and live long lives. Highway riding isn’t for everyone, and no one is saying you have to do it. Some people will tell you you need a liter bike just to keep up. That’s bullshit. I know a girl who takes a Vespa on the highway (granted, that Vespa does 70). Unless you live in a rural area, realistically 90% of your highway riding speed will be at or near the speed limit. How big a bike do you need to lane share at 30 or 40? How big a bike do you need to go 70 or 80? Small bikes can do fine on the highway but you need a different approach than someone who can tap the throttle and pass semis in a heartbeat. Be smart. Get home.