Mirrors are essential for drivers, why aren’t they for cyclists?| Rob Ainsley

Rob Ainsley just tried using a handlebar mirror. He wasn’t impressed by what he saw...

Illustration of cyclist on bike with mirrors

Mirror, mirror, on the bike, what’s the road behind me like? I’ve just been cycling for the first time with one on my handlebar. I didn’t like it. And no, it wasn’t just reflecting my face.

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It took a while for road vehicles to take them up. Dorothy Levitt’s 1906 English motoring manual for women, The Woman And The Car, pioneeringly advises using your make-up mirror to check behind. (She also recommends taking a revolver and chocolate; not a gal to argue with.) Early US rear-view mirrors were marketed as ‘cop-spotters’, suggesting they were tools for knowing when not to drive safely, a bit like speed-gun detectors.

Only in the 1920s did mirrors become standard on cars. Though some drivers still haven’t quite got the hang of dealing with what’s in front of them the right way round, never mind what’s behind them laterally inverted.

But there’s a tempting argument. Mirrors are essential for drivers. Why not for cyclists?

Because of false logic. Things that work for a mobile capsule hotel, i.e. a car, don’t automatically work for a bike. Indicators, for example, despite a succession of naive inventors on Dragon’s Den. Airbags (yes even that’s been tried on bikes). Cruise control. Assisted parking. Aircon. Licences. Tubeless tyres. Okay, maybe they can work.

Generally, you can confound any ‘cars-do-therefore-bikes-should’ bore by asking them why they advocate helmets for cyclists but not motorists, and why sound systems are fine in cars but cyclists shouldn’t use earphones.

The only proof of any theory is out in the field. I’ve just cycled the Polish end to end, which did involve cycling across several fields. Knowing there’d be many busy narrow roads, I fitted a bike mirror, on (a) my gravel bike and (b) a whim. I just thought I’d try it.

Imagine: you’re on a busy main road, safely in the shoulder. Just ahead it disappears. But your mirror tells you a lorry’s barrelling up. Rather than get squeezed, better to lurch into the verge and stop. After all, what’s the point of a gravel bike if you don’t do gravel?

So, the mirror’s a life saver, then?

Cycling for me is a simple eye-to-eye human activity, and I prefer to keep it that way

Hmm. Not for me. First, to be small and light enough not to tip the bike over, the mirror must be convex, like a comedy fairground one. Perspective and distance go haywire: juggernauts look tiny; spacious-looking passes prove horribly close. Polish drivers are very law-abiding. They respect no-overtaking lines, even when there’s no oncoming traffic, even if it means passing cyclists within a centimetre.

Second, given my varifocal specs with their elusive sweet-spots, no combination of angles or distances could perform the trick of merging both eyes. I was seeing double. Feeling optically drunk despite being sober is not pleasant with an HGV up your backside.

Third, a mirror takes up valuable handlebar real estate that’s required for GPS, lights, bell, PlayStation etc.

Fourth, it got bashed whenever I leant the bike on something. If you break a mirror made of metal not glass, is that still bad luck?

I ended up trusting my usual 360-degree senses: the regular glance back and the listening radar. These actually felt better for predicting pass trajectories than a drunken, double-fish-eye-lens view.

I’m convinced making eye contact is actually vital: that unspoken safety-contract between passer and passee. Once I’ve established that fleeting relationship with a glance, it seems the motorist is less likely to kill me.

Uncomfortable research this year from Australia suggests that up to half of motorists see cyclists as ‘less than human’. Surely, it’s harder to do that when you’ve looked someone in the eye.

Right now, more inventors are no doubt working on rear-view video cameras for bikes, or drones, or whatever. But I’m wary: things can become expected, enforced; further ways to victim-blame. Cycling for me is a simple eye-to-eye human activity, and I prefer to keep it that way.

I have friends who swear by mirrors, mounted on bars or helmets or even glasses. If it works for you, great. For some, without owl-neck flexibility, or on recumbents, it’s essential.

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But for now, mine’s coming off. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, don’t need you on the bike at all.