It was only after we’d done about 20 kilometres together that I noticed my new cycling partner had a rear-view mirror on his bicycle.
It was neatly tucked away on the inside bottom end of his racing bike’s “drop” handlebars – an oval-shaped mirror with a noticeable “fish-eye” curvature.
Mirrors aren’t standard equipment for cyclists, but occasionally you meet a mirror enthusiast, such as my friend.
Look down and back: a mirror on drop handlebars. I found my arm obstructed the mirror if it was mounted on the outside of the bars.
I’ve never seen the need. I’m comfortable with looking over my shoulder while riding – it’s a learnt skill, or perhaps a re-learnt skill for the born-again cyclist.
And you don’t even need to look directly behind you – it’s amazing the information that a sideways movement of the head can glean, thanks to peripheral vision. I usually wear contact lenses and rimless sunglasses – great for all-round observation.
It also helps that a bicycle affords 360-degree views for a rider – unlike in a motorised vehicle, you have no headrests, roof supports, tiny rear window, kids fighting on the back seat, etc, to occlude your sight.
And lastly, a cyclist’s ears are a valuable addition. I’m not one of the (by my observation) very small percentage of riders who uses earphones while cycling. Motor vehicles are noisy – usually, you can hear them coming.
Still, I thought I'd give it a go - so I’ve been trying out two versions of cycling mirrors on my two bikes.
Lying on the table, it closely resembled the mirror-on-a-stick my dentist uses when she’s fossicking around in the back of my cake hole. Attached, it reminded of Inspector Gadget. We’re talking deep nerd here.
Nevertheless, I was excited. This would surely be the same as having “eyes in the back of your head”. But after a fair bit of use, I still wasn’t having too much joy with it.
Firstly, glancing up and to the right to see the mirror never felt natural to me, and I felt my eyes always took a few moments to adjust back to looking at the road ahead.
I found this more awkward while riding my touring bike, when my posture was a bit more vertical. The mirror was easier to use when I was in a more “head-down” position on my racing bike.
I also found the mirror created a bit of a blind spot to the right, just about where cars lurk in side streets, or enter roundabouts. And lastly, having a unicorn prong sticking out of your stack hat makes lugging it around even more tiresome.
I know some riders who swear by their helmet mirrors. Perhaps they take more getting used to – but after a number of rides, I hadn’t got the faith.
A range of mirrors were available, but I chose the one used by my friend. It’s a compact, highly adaptable item that straps close to the handlebars, so there are no problems with amplified vibrations along a mounting arm.
I first tried it on my touring bike, which has a flat bar with bar-ends – I attached the mirror near the top of the latter, slightly sacrificing a hand-position option.
Glancing down at the mirror proved easy, and the greatest advantage was in seeing cars some distance away on straight, empty roads – long before I would hear them coming. It as good for supplementing my vision - but I never trusted the limited arc of the mirror more than I valued a glance across my shoulder.
Fitting the mirror to racing bars was more tricky. I opted for the mounting used by my friend, but found I had to look down almost vertically to eye the mirror – unlike the flat-bar tourer, where the higher positioning of the mirror made it easier to use.
At one stage, when riding in the narrow breakdown lane of a long, straight road, I became slightly unnerved by the sight of a constant stream of cars approaching me from behind at speed. Road awareness is great, but I felt there was little chance of dodging a vehicle if, for some reason, it diverted towards me.
Mirrors and motorists
“Mirrors on bicycles should be compulsory” is a sentiment I regularly see in online comments.
I tend to take it as shorthand for “I drive a car and I want all cyclists to get out of my way” – after all, it’s seldom a view expressed by regular bike riders.
The frustration often seems to exist when a motorists thinks they haven’t been noticed – that the cyclist is blithely blocking the road, rather than choosing not to ride in the door zone of death or risk being pushed into the gutter by a car squeezing past.
A mirror could easily make this misunderstanding worse. I often find a glance over my shoulder and a nod of recognition can calm an impatient driver – but if they don’t realise you are eyeing them via a tiny mirror, they could become even more frustrated.
Ultimately, safe overtaking is the responsibility of the vehicle doing the overtaking. Meanwhile, safe, predictable riding is the cyclist’s best line of defence. If you feel a mirror can help you with that, go for it, especially if you aren't comfortable with taking backwards glances.
I’ll probably keep the mirror on my touring bike handlebar for now – especially during my upcoming trip to Europe, where I’ll have to adjust to riding on the wrong side of the road.
But I’ll still keep looking over my shoulder – and hoping that people are looking out for me, too.
Do you use a mirror when cycling? Have you ever tried one?
To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.