How to Look Back

05.14.2009 | 10:26 am

I am often asked by people who know less than I, “How can I look back when riding my bike?”

Well, as an extremely fast, fit, and award-winning cyclist, I personally never have any need to look back when riding my bike. Once I have passed something, there is no possibility that it will ever pose a threat again. And frankly, whatever I have passed disappears into a point on the horizon so quickly that there’s really no value in looking back, anyway.

However, I am sympathetic to your plight.

Why You Would Want to Look Behind You

Before explaining how to look behind you, we need to consider why you might want to look behind you. As an average cyclist, there are three excellent reasons:

  1. To see the vehicle that is bearing down on you. Actually, I was only joking. This really isn’t a good reason for looking behind you. If a vehicle is bearing down on you, it will either miss you or it won’t. And it doesn’t help to try to quickly memorize the license plate, either. My experience shows that if the vehicle hits you, you won’t remember the moments before the accident anyway.
  2. To see the vehicle that is honking at you. I’m joking again, of course! If a vehicle is honking at you, that’s because it’s full of teenagers, and they’re playing a hilarious practical joke on you. Ho ho! If you look back, you are validating their wittiness, but not to the full extent they are hoping for. Ideally — for them — you will swerve and fall. Or, if you choose to be non-compiant with their joke, you can instead acknowledge them with a gesture of your choosing (such as a big “thumbs-up” and a smile, as if you were both in a Mentos commercial).
  3. To assess whether another cyclist is catching up to you. This, naturally, is the real reason you might want to look behind you.

The Problems

Sadly, looking behind you is not as simple as craning your neck around and taking a gander (especially if you’re over 40 and you can no longer turn your head more than thirty degrees in either direction).

For one thing, as you have likely noticed, when you twist your body and turn your head to see what’s behind you, you stop being a cyclist…and become a drunken menace to all and sundry, swerving sharply in the direction you are turning your head as if a U-turn is absolutely imperative right this very second.

More importantly, however, is the fact that by turning your body and head to look behind you, you have tipped your hand. You have just alerted the people behind you that you are worried about them catching up. That you even admit the conceivability of the notion of the theoretical possibility that they might catch up.

And in short, you have shown weakness. “I am about to crack,” is the message you have just telegraphed. “Attack now.”

This will not do.

You need to learn to look back correctly. And I am about to tell you how.

The Basics

When you are first learning how to look back, you should stick to the essentials: finding out how close behind you your opponents riding buddies are, without killing all of you by swerving into traffic or a curb. Worry about being stealthy later.

The trick is simple, and so I’m tempted to make it a little more complicated than it actually is, so as to impress you with my knowledge of the arcane. But I won’t. Because I care about you.

[Note: I am generally reluctant to give actual useful advice, but am making an exception here]

As you turn your head and body to look back, also lift your arm so it’s pointing in the direction you want to look, and you won’t swerve.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

However, you may want to jazz it up by making your hand into the pistol shape and doing the “shooting” action with your thumb while winking to the people behind you, as if you were — instead of checking to see if you will be overtaken soon — are giving them a jaunty and perhaps mildly creepy greeting.

Advanced Techniques

Most expert cyclists will not be fooled by this tactic (Chris Horner is a notable exception; he falls for the “point and shoot” gambit every time). To check behind you with more stealth, you need to become with more arcane techniques.

The most effective and desirable way to check to see if anyone is behind you is to check your shadow. Provided the sun is behind you and low in the sky, you can simply look down. Then use this handy guide to tell whether you are about to be overtaken:

  • If you see 1 shadow, of course you will naturally panic, thinking that you are about to be overtaken. Relax! That shadow is yours. You are doing just fine.
  • If you see 2 shadows, then you are in fact about to be overtaken. Stand up and sprint as if your life depended on it.
  • If you see 2 shadows and one of them is 14 feet tall and six feet wide, then you are about to be overtaken by the chupacabra. Stand up and sprint as if your life depended on it. Because it does.

[Note: My legal counsel advises that it is also possible that if you see a 14-feet tall, six-feet-wide shadow, it may be a car in the late afternoon. In which case I still advise sprinting as if your life depended on it, because the chupacabra may be inside the car.]

The second-best way to check behind you is to glance as you go around a switchback. This gives you an excellent opportunity to see how far behind you your mortal enemies friends are. I am personally very partial to this technique, and so will only ride — road or mountain — where there are plentiful switchbacks.

Sadly, the switchback technique and the shadow technique are not very effective when used in combination, primarily because switchbacks have the unfortunate effect of reversing your direction every so often. This makes it devilishly difficult to keep the sun at your back.

For this reason, the third technique — the spit-glance – has been developed. To do the spit-glance, turn your head far to the left (or, in Australia, to the right) and spit down. As you do this, wrench your eyeballs as far back as you can, stealing a glance behind you. You have no more than a tenth of a second to take in your rear view before being detected, so don’t dawdle.

As a bonus, if you use this technique often enough, people will become quite wary of riding behind you and will think long and hard before passing (Hi, Dug!).

200905141014.jpgThings to Avoid

Really, I only have one thing to avoid, but the heading “Thing to Avoid” seemed awkward. So: the thing to avoid as you develop your surreptitious looking-back skills is: purchasing a mirror.

Yes, I know. Those mirrors work. They work great in fact. But don’t use them.

“Are you talking about helmet- or handlebar-mounted mirrors?” is the question I expect you are about to ask.

The answer is, “Yes.”

“But why not?” is your question.

“Please refer to the photograph,” is my answer (Hi, Kent!).

[Note: The "Things to Avoid" section (see above) does not apply to recumbent riders. In fact, I believe that recumbents are required by law -- or at least by whatever mad impulse it is that drives a person to recumbents -- to have both a helmet mirror and a handlebar mirror. ]

Yes, the art of looking back on a bicycle is a complex, multifaceted technique, requiring no small amount of determination. Once you have invested the necessary years of practice, however, I guarantee you will always know who is about to pass you.

I wish you luck.


  1. Comment by Frank Fine | 05.14.2009 | 10:50 am

    I have a recumbent and a Handlebar mustache … neither of which have mirrors!

    Then your transmogrification is not yet complete. – FC

  2. Comment by BikeCopVT | 05.14.2009 | 10:53 am

    Just a note, well more of a public service announcement. If you take a hand off the bars to look back, make sure it is your left hand (left hand front brake, right hand rear brake). Emergency braking with only your left hand brings about a thrilling consequence. Then it only matters what’s behind you so you know who will be laughing (or rendering first aid).

    Win Susan!

  3. Comment by Tom | 05.14.2009 | 10:54 am

    Just yesterday I was working on looking back and not swerving as I was trying to cross the 2 lanes of 60+ MPH Cars.

    I will need to try the arm move.

  4. Comment by dug | 05.14.2009 | 10:56 am

    if you’re passing me, you’d better swing mighty wide–i’ve got range.

    You don’t have range, you have multiple mist settings. – FC

  5. Comment by WheelDancer | 05.14.2009 | 11:01 am

    Is it acceptable to have a mirror like Kent’s and call it a bug deflector? Seems like it would be pretty effective for that and the fact that it has a reflective surface on the back side isn’t your fault; that’s just how they come.

  6. Comment by Rantwick | 05.14.2009 | 11:02 am

    Hey, that arm thing just might work! I used to have a mirror, but I put it on my wife’s bike and was too lazy to replace mine. Plus, I’m way, way cooler without it. I do miss it a little in some traffic situations, though…

  7. Comment by rich | 05.14.2009 | 11:04 am

    looking back has never really been an issue for me as all of my riding buddies are usually ahead of me….

  8. Comment by Poe | 05.14.2009 | 11:06 am

    The mirror isn’t Kent’s problem. Kent would be having issues even if he didn’t have the mirror. Mirrors are our friends.

  9. Comment by Jim | 05.14.2009 | 11:09 am

    The only reason people use mirrors is because cycling jerseys have no chest pockets for pocket protectors.

    The only reason recumbent riders use two mirrors is because there’s no place on the front of a jersey for a slide rule either. Plus extra mirrors have 100% more GLAVIN!

  10. Comment by Rob D. | 05.14.2009 | 11:14 am

    I can’t turn my head without swerving into stationary objects so a mirror is the single greatest cycling purchase I’ve ever made. My girlfriend calls it my dork monocle which makes it slightly less cool.

  11. Comment by MikeonhisBike | 05.14.2009 | 11:17 am

    I’m thinking looking back is so 2008! It’s out of style now so I just don’t do it. Sometimes I wish it would come back in style though.

  12. Comment by FatMass | 05.14.2009 | 11:23 am

    I’ve ridden with the Chupacabra and he’s surprisingly nice. Rides all carbon and I often draft off him. He’s a good pull if you can stand the smell.

  13. Comment by bikemike | 05.14.2009 | 11:27 am

    once again i couldn’t find the can of recumbent worms i had on the pantry shelf because you have opened them and let them all out…you will now face the wrath of said worms.

    i think i remember dug saying he could spit out his front door and hit the street…

  14. Comment by El Animal | 05.14.2009 | 11:36 am

    A non related comment, Did you see that Jill is doing the kokopelli trail and the white rim in one ride? check her spot site

    Yep, I’ve been checking it several times per day. Looks like she’s finished the Kokopelli section and has moved on to the White Rim. Very cool. – FC

  15. Comment by jeff | 05.14.2009 | 11:43 am

    When descending on switchbacks I like to steal a quick peek to see if I can hog more of the lane. If not wearing a mirror makes me look cooler, I need all the help I can get.

  16. Comment by VA Biker | 05.14.2009 | 11:51 am

    Eh, I’m dork and nerd for riding my bike for transportation and recreation as it is. I wear semi-garish clothing that no “normal” person past about 1991 would wear. To incrementally increase the dork and nerd factor relative to the mainstream public by .1% percent by using an eyeglasses mirror is well worth it. Interestingly though, amongst the misshapen (dysfunctional?) hierarchal structure of cycling, that math doesn’t carry through well, and the increase is about 90%. Not sure what the cycling benchmark for comparison here is, but it’s all pretty funny.

    On the serious side, I can confidently say the use of a mirror has saved my life more than once… Be safe out there.

  17. Comment by Mike | 05.14.2009 | 11:55 am

    Hey Fatty (and anyone else who cares), I could use some bike-related advice. When you get a second, would you swing by my blog?


  18. Comment by Flyin' Ute | 05.14.2009 | 12:06 pm

    I just imagine them breathing down my neck the whole time….which they usually are….and ride my guts out, but when I have to look….I’ve got the same playbook.

  19. Comment by Di | 05.14.2009 | 12:17 pm

    “…gesture of your choosing (such as a big “thumbs-up” and a smile, as if you were both in a Mentos commercial).”

    Perhaps I should practice this particular gesture when driving in Detroit. :-\

  20. Comment by MattC | 05.14.2009 | 12:32 pm

    Fatty…another classic post! I’ve been LMAO while TRYING to eat lucnh…how on earth do you THINK of all this? (I’ve yet to be overtaken by the Chupacabra…but now you’ve got me worried!)

    On a serious note, I use little mirrors that mount into the ends of the drops (where that little plug goes)…to see them, do a search for “Italian ROAD BIKE MIRROR” on ebay in the cycling section…(nly one guys sell them)…started out with only the left one as thats for traffic…but have since put one on the right also as I do lots of group rides/paceline…and it’s nice to see the right side sometimes too. These are very stealthy/sleek looking and are bar-taped right in place. No vibration, no wind resistance…all you have to do is glance down at your hands. In fact, I’ve become so dependent on them that when I ride the Mt bike, I frequently find myself peeking down for the rear-view. LOVE THEM!! (also…if you buy more than one, he only charges 1$ for each additional shipping…so if you can get multiple people wanting them you can order a bunch….thats what we did).

  21. Comment by Clydesteve | 05.14.2009 | 12:43 pm

    Hey, I passed a guy who looked EXACTLY like Kent’s older grayer cousin Monday evening.

    And, it must of bugged him, because I talked to friend who is a cop last night. That same evening he pulled over a guy meeting his description (Kent’s cousins’, not the cops’) five miles down the road from where I passed him.

    Kent’s cousin was so ticked that I passed him that he blew through a major highway intersection without the required bicycle almost do a track stand pause.

  22. Comment by graisseux | 05.14.2009 | 1:25 pm

    So, if I look to the left I should point with my right hand to balance things out, correct? Got it.

  23. Comment by Charisa | 05.14.2009 | 2:32 pm

    Maybe pointing with both hands while looking over shoulders will help me better?! Helmet mirrors look oh so dorky!

  24. Comment by rokrider | 05.14.2009 | 2:58 pm

    My solution to this problem was to mount a helmet cam facing backward and connect it to a 36” LCD monitor mounted to my handlebar. I now can see everything behind me perfectly clear without having to turn my head at all. Although, with the battery pack, it does add about 42 pounds to the weight of the bike. And it does have a tendency to block my view of what’s in front of me. Not to mention the decrease in aerodynamics. Hummm… maybe I should rethink this.

  25. Comment by H.D. Thoreau | 05.14.2009 | 3:07 pm

    Dead or not, I always say, “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way”. Word.

  26. Comment by Lance Fan | 05.14.2009 | 3:37 pm

    True story:

    Two years ago I rode in RAGBRAI and was passed by Lance Armstrong. No surprise there. But for some reason he turned to look at me, for several seconds. I’d like to convince you that that he was admiring my riding style, but we all know better. I didn’t take it to be that intimidating “The Look” that he gave to Jan Ullrich because…well, because I’m no threat to him.

    What impressed me about Armstrong’s ability was not his speed but that he was able to ride about 75 – 100 feet while looking back and, straight as an arrow, he didn’t waver even an inch from side to side.

  27. Comment by Jorge | 05.14.2009 | 4:05 pm

    “”If you see 2 shadows and one of them is 14 feet tall and six feet wide, then you are about to be overtaken by the chupacabra.”"

    Thanks, prior to reading this I had never shot tea out of my nose.

  28. Comment by DarbE | 05.14.2009 | 4:47 pm

    There is an exception to your “looking back reveals weakness” part of the rule, and that is the “challenge” look back. It is the look Lance Armstrong gave to Jan Ullrich when he stared him down. If you can master the look of “I’m sizing you up because I’m about to attack hard and tear away from you” then you can reasonably make an obvious look back, but it’s one of those make-sure-your-not-writing-checks-that-your-body-can’t-cash moments.

    Thanks for the blog, I love to read it.
    –a fellow Northern Utah County cyclist

  29. Comment by Joe P | 05.14.2009 | 4:48 pm

    You should not look back while Kent churns along relentlessly and effortlessly behind you. He WILL catch you. He will pass you on his fixed gear while munching Payday bars. But remember, Kent is not a nutritional role model, so be careful if you follow his ways.

    On the other hand, sometimes Payday bars work.

  30. Comment by Miles Archer | 05.14.2009 | 5:13 pm

    You didn’t answer the question that I have – Is it better to look over your shoulder or under your arm?

  31. Comment by Kala | 05.14.2009 | 6:36 pm

    Great, sound advice. :)

  32. Comment by bubbaseadog | 05.14.2009 | 7:09 pm

    the only time to look back is to see a pretty girl. by then shes alongside and then past and then gone. so dont look back look ahead ….win susan

  33. Comment by Kent Peterson | 05.14.2009 | 8:47 pm

    The mirror comes in handy in case any incredibly fit alaskan females (hi Jill) are gaining ground at an alarming rate. Not that I mind being passed (it happens a lot). I just don’t want her to hear me cussing on the climb.


  34. Comment by Born 4Lycra | 05.14.2009 | 9:06 pm

    Um does the arm work with spit-glance? Down here in OZ where the command to the right is quite correct I can see my arm being soaking wet half way through the ride. Only half way through because their won’t be anyone else behind me to check out by then.

  35. Comment by Shan | 05.14.2009 | 9:10 pm

    hmph. not very funny.

  36. Comment by Favus | 05.14.2009 | 10:16 pm

    I have to laugh. Worried about a damn helmet mirror making you look dorky? Crap, every time you squeeze into your spandex “kit,” 9 out of 10 people have already classified you as a total dweeb. If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about a li’l ole helmet mirror.

  37. Comment by GenghisKhan | 05.14.2009 | 10:50 pm

    @Favus–worry my friend, worry! ;o)

  38. Comment by Scrawny Kayaker | 05.15.2009 | 12:15 am

    Mirrors work? If only!

    Being old and out of shape, I hoped a helmet mirror would help me scope out the overtaking cars to catch a motor pace opportunity about to occur along the very-slightly-downhill-speed-limit-30 part of my commute. Other than forcing my daughter to go boating with me, a decent motor-pace in the morning is about the only thing that makes my life worth living, so I was willing (see “old” above) to accept the dork demotion.

    I chose a slightly less putrid-looking item than the one pictured. (I also have a cooler and vastly brighter light duct-taped to my helmet, so there!) After the annoying finicky adjustment of the ball joint, I found the plastic arm vibrated so much I couldn’t see cr*p while actually riding. Attaching a strip of closed-cell foam with contact cement damped it somewhat, but the view still doesn’t provide much tactical advantage.

    Further evidence: dorks with mirrors and reflective vests still whine when you pass them without signaling.

  39. Comment by Tim D | 05.15.2009 | 1:38 am

    On an entirely unrelated note, will I see any other FC jerseys on the Struggle on Sunday? I will be on a purple Ribble, so say hello if you see me.


  40. Comment by fatty fan | 05.15.2009 | 2:53 am

    @Favus – are you the chupacabra that fatty is referring to?

  41. Comment by Mike Roadie | 05.15.2009 | 5:07 am

    No mirrors, no camelbaks, no looking back. Period!


  42. Comment by Bryan Burns | 05.15.2009 | 5:10 am

    I use the super advanced double take. With one quick glance, I use my extremely powerful peripheral vision. Then, armed with the advanced insight gained by knowing what is in my immediate vicinity, I make the super risky full look back. Not to be performed the first time at home on busy roads.

  43. Comment by Roadent | 05.15.2009 | 5:26 am

    Is there a one-to-one correlation between helmet mirrors and facial hair?

  44. Comment by mike reynolds | 05.15.2009 | 8:01 am

    as david lloyd said…. “Never Look back”

  45. Comment by JT | 05.15.2009 | 9:52 am

    I wonder if Shan (“hmph. not very funny.”) is like that in real life:


    Friend of Shan: Here, I bought you a shirt for your birthday!

    Shan: Hmph. Not what I wanted.


    Shan’s Mom: Try this cake I just made. It’s a new recipe!

    Shan: Hmph. Not very delicious.


    (Different) Friend of Shan: Wow, look at that sunset!

    Shan: Hmph. Not very colorful.

  46. Comment by Amy | 05.15.2009 | 1:57 pm

    Yep Kent is a dweeb – but a few years ago he did a 400k ride on a $20.00 bike – Hey that guy just passed your $4k Colnago on $20.00 worth of @##$ with a basket on the front.

  47. Comment by ken | 05.16.2009 | 4:00 am

    Thanks for this. I tried this today and it really works.

  48. Comment by ejb | 05.18.2009 | 8:48 pm

    Helmet and handlebar mirrors are _so_ passe, the really cool(??) recumbent riders are rocking….

    sunglasses mirrors!!


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