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An introduction to the “primary” and “secondary” riding positions and "dynamic road positioning"

Updated: May 29, 2023

Here is a quick Q & A on the topic of road positioning when cycling – a subject matter that all cyclists riding on the road (and indeed motorists) should be familiar with.

Let’s get into it:

Travel Like You Know Them. Road positioning when cycling. The primary position.
Department for Transport's "Travel Like You Know Them" campaign (image by: Department for Transport, 2022)

Q: I’ve heard about the “primary” and “secondary” riding positions before. How would you define these?

A: Great question! "Primary position" can be described as cycling in the "middle of the traffic flow" for the direction in which you are travelling. Riders can adopt the primary position when it is not appropriate for road users behind to overtake. The “middle of the traffic flow” definition, though somewhat long-winded, is more suitable than the commonly used “middle of the lane” definition, which is not appropriate for roads that become narrower due to parked cars: In these situations, the “middle of the lane” position would put riders in (or too near to) the position that cars are parked!

For the "secondary position", I would define it as a position that is left of the primary position that enables road users behind to overtake and not normally closer than an arm’s length from the edge of the road.

To help you understand the primary position visually, it will typically be in the same position as where a driver’s car badge or numberplate will be positioned in the traffic flow. The secondary position tends to be more dynamic and is to the left of the primary position but never in the gutter. The exact position for the secondary riding position will be dependent on the width of the road, size of vehicles around you, and the speed that you are cycling.

Road positioning when cycling. The primary position.
The primary riding position... Demonstrated in Lego!
Road position when cycling on the road. Primary position.
2 primary positions in a single lane. Choose the suitable primary position for the direction in which you are turning
Road position when cycling. The secondary riding position.
A secondary riding position - a "sharing" position that allows road users behind to overtake

Q: Okay, great. So I understand that I should ride in a secondary riding position when it is okay for other road users to overtake me. When should I cycle in the primary position?

A: You should aim to ride in a primary position at most junctions and when it is not appropriate for road users behind to overtake. This will be a lot of the time when riding in built up, urban environments! Examples of where the primary position is usually appropriate are:

  • When riding down stretches of road where there is insufficient space for road users to overtake – such as when riding down narrow urban roads where there are parked cars, or when riding through “pinch points” / “road narrowings” caused by traffic islands. When considering whether or not to move out, riders should consider the latest Highway Code guidance on minimum passing distances for drivers overtaking cyclists: These currently stand at a minimum of 1.5m when overtaking on roads with speed limits up to 30mph, and more space when overtaking at higher speeds.

  • When there is oncoming traffic that leads there to be insufficient space for road users behind to overtake.

  • When riding around corners or brows of hills where it would be unsafe for road users behind to overtake.

  • When riding past side roads or turning left into them: This is to ensure that you are not overtaken at junctions (which is in breach of Rule 167 in the Highway Code).

  • When turning left or right from side roads or going straight ahead at crossroads. You will have noticed that most experienced cyclists actually turn right from side roads from a right-hand position in the lane when a primary position is almost always more appropriate. The idea of the primary position here is to ensure you pass through the junction on your own rather than alongside other road users. For more information, see Rule 73 of the Highway Code.

  • When turning right into side roads where you want to make it clear to road users behind that there is insufficient space to undertake you on your left. Note here that a more dynamic position is often needed (see below).

  • When negotiating roundabouts: It is normally essential to adopt the primary position due to risk of road users behind overtaking and turning across you at exits.

  • When riding through multi-lane junctions.

  • When you are riding at the same speed as other road users.

  • When riding in bus lanes when there would be insufficient space for buses to safely overtake.

  • When stopping in ASLs / “cycle boxes” at traffic-lit junctions, or when queuing up behind traffic at junctions.

Road position when cycling. The primary position.
Consider moving out into the primary position before road narrowings to prevent hazardous overtaking

Q: Okay, thanks! Are there any situations where we might need to be flexible with our road position?

A: Yes, there are! We need to continuously consider our riding position when cycling in traffic, alternating between the primary and secondary positions when appropriate, and sometimes choosing a riding position that is slightly different from a "classic" primary or secondary position. I'd recommend you embrace the concept of "dynamic road positioning" when cycling in traffic. Essentially, this is an approach to cycling on the road where you, as a cyclist, are flexible and adaptive in your road position to ensure you can create, what the National Standard for Cycle Training describes as a, “safe riding space” around you. This means taking up the necessary space on the road when you need to, but also providing room for other road users to pass you when this is appropriate. The approach requires you to continually observe what is around you and review and adjust your road position whenever necessary. The concept of dynamic road position does away with the idea that there are “set-in-stone” riding positions that work for all riding situations: There are not lines in the road that cyclists should always follow; riding position needs to be more dynamic than that!

Q: Okay, can you give me some specific examples?

A: Sure… Take the conventional riding position when turning right from a main road into a side road: Most experienced cyclists will adopt a position at or near to the middle of the road before turning right (as is recommended in Rule 74 of the Highway Code). However, this position is not appropriate on many roads: Moving to the far right-hand-side of the lane on narrower roads can lead drivers behind to undertake when there is insufficient space to do so. Instead, a more dynamic road position would see you position yourself in or closer to the “primary” riding position, which makes it clearer to road users behind that there is insufficient space to undertake.

Another example is where it might be difficult to move out into primary position prior to riding past a side road due to road users behind overtaking at high speeds. In such cases where there is a high speed differential between you and road users behind, it may not always be possible to move out into primary; it may be better to remain in a secondary position but to clearly communicate with road users behind through eye contact or through moving slightly to the right if this is possible. Such a dynamic riding strategy is more likely to be needed for riders who cycle at a lower speeds which leads there to be a greater speed differential with other road users.

Another important scenario where it is often preferrable to move away from a conventional primary position is when waiting behind larger vehicles and those with blind spots in queuing traffic: Here you can choose to position yourself to the right of primary position in order to better observe what is in front and to enable eye contact with drivers in front through their wing mirrors.

Finally, sometimes you may choose to adopt a riding position that is someway between the primary and secondary riding positions. Such a position, which is slightly to the left of the middle of the moving traffic flow but still sufficiently far out, can sometimes have the same affect as a "classic" primary position; it can prevent drivers from squeezing past whilst being a slightly easier position to reach than a conventional primary position. Does that all make sense?

Road position when cycling. The primary riding position. Cycle lanes..
Turning left from a primary position. Note the extremely poor quality cycle lane, which if used can encourage road users to overtake cyclists at the junction.

Q: Yes, that's great, thanks! But what about drivers getting annoyed at me for holding them up? Are there not potential behavioural and risk considerations to consider?

A: Yes, there may be, but you’ll find that most road users in the UK are respectful towards cyclists and will understand why you are riding assertively when you choose to do so. However, there will be occasional situations where you may wish to adjust your road position due to unpredictable or inappropriate behaviour by other road users. An example could be the benefit of pulling in to let a driver behind past who is tailgating. There will, however, also be situations like this where it is actually preferrable to continue to ride assertively: moving to the side could lead disrespectful drivers to squeeze past when there is insufficient space to do so.

Q: So you’re suggesting that we normally cycle assertively when necessary but are also sometimes flexible with our riding position when needed?

A: Yes, absolutely! We need to constantly review our riding position. And we need to also remember that the primary position is likely to frequently change in accordance to where the traffic flow is positioned on the road. Furthermore, the secondary position – in terms of its distance from the edge of the road – will, as stated above, also need to change relative to the width of the road and the speed that you are cycling. Those who cycle more slowly will normally need to be more dynamic in their road position than faster riders, alternating between the secondary and primary riding positions more frequently.

Q: What about other cyclists not riding in the primary position when they should… Doesn’t this give a mixed message to drivers?

A: Yes, it does: The majority of cyclists – even experienced riders – tend to ride in the secondary position far too often, and nervous cyclists are often seen riding in the “gutter”. We need all cyclists to feel empowered to cycle more assertively when they need to. This is, after all, what the Government’s National Standard for Cycle Training advises us all to do! It will make cycling far safer for all of us through reducing incidents at junctions, preventing riders from getting “doored”, and reducing close passes. It will also prevent confusion among motorists, who frequently require further education regarding the rules of the road – a topic that I’ve discussed in my last blog post.

Q: Can I get practical help to put this all into practice?

A: Yes: Remember you can always book a cycle coaching session with a qualified cycling instructor / coach who can support you to build strategies for riding more assertively when you need to.

Yours, The Eager Cycle Coach

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