When you hear cyclists talking about their line they’re often talking about cornering. The line they’re talking about is the best path to ride when going through the corner at speed. While this is a good skill to practice and learn, there are many other situations where paying attention to your line is important. This is especially true for cyclists who are not experienced racers, who may not have given much thought to their line, or who may not be aware of how keeping your eye on the line can make some dangerous situations much safer.
First of all, what are we talking about when we say “eyeing the line’? Your line is simply the path you intend your bike to follow on the road ahead. Eyeing the line means keeping your eyes on this path.
Wait . . what? This is a post telling riders to look where they’re going? Duh! I know it sounds obvious but, if you’re like me, you’re going to be surprised how often you don’t really do it very well once you start paying attention to it.
If you’re eyeing your line the right way, how far ahead of your bike should you be looking? That’s going to depend on how fast you’re going. You should be eyeing your line far enough ahead that you see and have ample time to react to any obstacles that might lie in the road. Usually somewhere between 2 to 5 bike lengths ahead is about right. If you find yourself surprised by road debris that you come upon too fast or you hit potholes that you see too late to avoid, you’ve been staring at a point on the road that is too close to the front of your bike.
So far, all of this is pretty straightforward and is mostly a matter of common sense. Eyeing the line can really make a big difference, however, when you have to negotiate obstacles in your path. This is where keeping your eye on the line can make your ride much safer.
Road debris like sticks, stones, gravel, and glass and road conditions like potholes, narrow or absent shoulders, drop offs at the edge of the road, and narrow lanes between vehicles or between vehicles and the curb are all potentially dangerous obstacles on a ride. Eyeing the line is the most effective technique cyclists have for getting past these obstacles safely.
The technique is simple enough. See the problem, plan your line past the problem, and keep your eye on the line ahead as you ride past the problem.
Sounds simple but to carry it you have to overcome a natural tendency that can get you into trouble. When approaching an obstacle, people tend to either keep their eyes fixed on the obstacle or keep alternating between looking at their path and looking at the obstacle. You see a pothole and you keep looking at the pothole until you’ve gone past it successfully. You have to ride a narrow lane between vehicles or between vehicles and the curb (see the picture below), one of the vehicles is a van or truck with a rear-view mirror that’s at the same height as your head or shoulder, and you keep looking at the mirror until you get past it.
This is a problem because people normally move in the direction their eyes are looking. When you are on the bike, you will naturally steer in the direction you are looking. This is the reason why many riders tend to drift to the left or right when they look over their left or right shoulder to see what’s behind them.
When you’re on the bike and you approach an obstacle and keep looking at it, you have a tendency to steer your bike right at the obstacle rather than around it. If you look back and forth between your line and the obstacle, you tend to waver back and forth on your bike between riding your line and riding at the obstacle. Sometimes you steer toward the obstacle when you look at it and then overcompensate by turning too far in the opposite direction when you realize you’re heading right at the obstacle.
When any of these problems occur you may also have a tendency to slow down. Now you can find yourself in a situation where you’re veering toward the obstacle, veering away from it, your line is lost, and you’re riding so slowly it’s hard keep the bike balanced. Your bike wavers, the obstacle looms, your heart rate goes up, and you either wobble around the obstacle or have to set your foot on the ground and push past the problem. No fun.
Fortunately, it’s easy to solve this problem. You have a lifetime of experience moving through the world around you and this experience has made you an expert at seeing the line that will enable you to safely negotiate obstacles in your path. If you are eyeing the line at the right distance in front of your bike, you will automatically pick out a line that allows you to ride around an obstacle in your path. Trust yourself. See the line, evaluate it, trust in your ability to see a good line, and ride toward the obstacle with your eyes on the line ahead. Give a quick flick of your eyes to the obstacle as you are about to draw even with it to make sure it’s where you think it is and then snap your eyes back to your line ahead. Don’t let your eyes stray back to the obstacle for any length of time.
The first couple of times you do this you’re likely to have an overwhelming desire to look at the obstacle as you approach it in order to make sure you’re not going to hit it. However, after doing it successfully a few times you will develop trust in yourself to ride past obstacles while eyeing the line and not the obstacle. It’s fairly easy to do, it doesn’t take long to master, and it is a very useful skill to pick up. Once this approach to obstacles has become a habit, you can begin to work on the more difficult skill of looking at something without steering toward it.
Here’s another situation where the same problem occurs. Think about the difficulty new drivers have trying to keep the car moving in a smooth, straight line down the road. They tend to veer back and forth threatening to crash into whatever happens to be on either side of the road.
Eye-tracking studies with new drivers show a fairly consistent pattern. Naïve drivers tend to focus their eyes at a point on the road that is too close to the front of the car and when they notice an obstacle like a vehicle parked on the side of the road, they spend too long looking at it. The result is that they don’t see obstacles until they are close to them, they steer toward the obstacle, overcompensate when turning back toward the center of the road, see the other side of the road as a new obstacle, steer toward it, and weave back and forth down the street. The movement pattern is very similar for cyclists who are not eyeing the line.
Finally, another situation where failing to eye the line can have a large impact on cyclists. Eye tracking studies using high-fidelity driving simulators have also been done with experienced drivers talking on cell phones. In almost every case the drivers reported that their driving performance had not been negatively affected while they were talking on the phone. The eye-tracking data said otherwise. When experienced drivers talk on cell phones they revert to driving like naïve drivers. They tend to focus their eyes too close to the front of the car and tend to spend too long looking at obstacles when they see them. In other words, they stop eyeing the line properly. They also take longer to notice obstacles, are slower to react to them, and are more likely to hit them.
Be aware when you’re on the bike. If you see some clown talking on a cell phone while driving, be hyper-aware. They’re a lot less competent and a lot more dangerous than they think they are and you’re the obstacle.