Technique – Road positioning

In the traffic? In the gutter? On the pavement? Richard Peace looks at the safest places for cycling.

Road positioning is about staying safe and having time to react

Cyclists are always being told that road positioning is a critical part of both riding safely and signalling their intentions – but are there any hard and fast rules, or does it require some kind of two-wheeled sixth sense that you can only gain from experience? We answer some commonly asked questions on whereabouts in the road you really should be riding. Please note these recommendations apply to Britain where traffic drive and rides on the left.


What are the primary and secondary riding positions and when should they be used?

The primary riding position is in the centre of the lane (the most left-hand lane on multi-lane roads). The secondary riding position is about a metre to the left of moving traffic, but not closer than 0.5 metres to the edge of the road (closer would mean no room for manoeuvre in emergencies and also riding over glass and other kinds of road debris). While the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ aren’t defined precisely in road traffic law or in The Highway Code, they are widely used in all recognised manuals – most notably the book Cyclecraft, endorsed by The Department For Transport and the CTC (Cyclists’Touring Club). The primary position is generally the safest for the cyclist, the secondary being an option available to you that helps traffic behind see ahead and overtake you. But you should only adopt the secondary position if you don’t put your own safety at risk in the process.

The primary position is especially useful to you at junctions, on narrow roads when there isn’t enough room for those behind to overtake (even though they might feel tempted), and in busy, slow-moving traffic. It’s precisely in these circumstances that you need the advantages that the primary position confers – space around you to react, high visibility to other road users and, usually, the smoothest road surface. This position is also known as ‘taking the lane’.

One court case that brought the primary road position into question is that of Daniel Cadden who was found guilty of ‘inconsiderate cycling’ for riding at around 20mph in the primary road position. While police at the scene thought he should have been further over to the left, the judge in the first hearing ruled that he should have crossed several lanes of busy traffic to use a short stretch of cycle lane instead. This judgement was overturned on appeal and Daniel’s primary position in the road was, in effect, vindicated.

For more details of the book Cyclecraft see www., or to order from the publishers, The Stationery Office, call 0870 6005522

Is riding two abreast or in a larger group advisable or even legal?

Riding two abreast is legal. According to The Highway Code, cyclists should “never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file where the road narrows or on the approach to a bend”. The CTC’s advice for group riders is similar but more detailed – to quote from their website: “Group riding pattern is normally in pairs. This is sociable and keeps the group together. Single file is courteous and safer on some roads.”

The Highway Code specifically allows cyclists to ride two abreast. It’s usually the leader’s decision when to move to single file because of traffic or when passing walkers or horses. Most groups have a standard method of moving from double to single file that everyone uses to make the manoeuvre smooth and safe. Ask how it’s done in your group.

Some of the rules in The Highway Code are law. Those who break them are committing criminal offences – the code tells you that such rules must be followed and there’s also an abbreviated reference to the statute creating the offence. While disobeying other rules in the code isn’t an offence, they may still be used as evidence to establish criminal liability of other offences.

Are you ever allowed to ride on the pavement or on footpaths?

Most cyclists will know that cycling on pavements is prohibited and could incur a fine. Footpaths is a term applied not just to most pavements – they are rights of way on foot over any terrain, not just at the side of the road (the 1835 Highway Act prohibits cycling on a footpath and you can be issued with a fixed penalty notice of £30 for this under legislation dating from 1999). Of course, local councils have powers to make pavements into either shared use or segregated cycle lanes and it’s usually obvious where this has happened.

It’s also worth noting the advice at www., which reiterates Home Office advice given out in relation to the 1999 legislation: “The new provisions are not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic, and who show consideration to other road users when doing so. Chief officers recognise that the fixed penalty needs to be used with a considerable degree of discretion and it cannot be issued to anyone under the age of 16.” (Letter to Mr H Peel from John Crozier of the Home Office, 23 February 2004.)

When should you signal and pull over to the centre of the road to make a right turn, and how should you position yourself?

From about 100m (330ft) before the right turn, keep a track of what following vehicles are doing by looking round at regular intervals (a mirror, if you have one, is particularly useful in this situation but shouldn’t be used as a replacement for looking around). You should be looking to move into a suitable gap in the traffic from about 50m (160ft) before the turn. Once you have safely identified a gap and signalled right, you should move smoothly but quickly to a position about 1m (3ft) from the centre line. Keep a close eye on oncoming traffic and be prepared to increase this distance if it comes too close to you.


If you are turning right with other motor traffic, position yourself just to the left of the centre line of the traffic. However, if there is a right turn lane you should ‘take the lane’ (adopt the primary riding position). In very busy traffic, where you have difficulty finding a gap, it is perfectly acceptable – and may well be the safest course of action – to pull into the kerb in order to wait for such a gap. Once you’ve turned right you should also initially ‘take the lane’ to avoid being passed – either on your outside or inside. It’s then a matter of either maintaining the primary road position or adopting the secondary position nearer the kerb; which you should do depending on road conditions.