Cycling on Shared Paths

Be it canals, old railway lines or shared pavements, previous decades of cycling investment in this country have often seen people on bikes lumped in with people on foot.

Sometimes this makes sense where there’s truly no other option, other times it can be a cop-out from backward councils unwilling to just give cycling its own space. What’s always true, however, is that the usability and enjoyment of these routes can improve massively if the people on them just follow a few simple tips.

Be nice, say hi!

If you’ve been cycling a while, these are all hopefully quite obvious, but to someone who’s new it can be daunting and frustrating. And since almost all the cycle routes listed on Peaks & Puddles feature at least some cycling on shared space, it feels like a moral obligation just to put in writing somewhere the way it “should” be done.

Things you need

  • A bell or a friendly voice
    What even is a bicycle without a bell? Costing just a few quid, if not included with your new bike for free, the ting-ting is a universal signal for “‘scuse me, can I pass?” or just “bike approaching”. What it doesn’t mean is: “get out of my way!” You don’t have to have one, of course, perhaps you enjoy a friendly hello or “excuse me” instead. Some people like to shout “passing on the left/right” which can be useful when the path is wide enough to just go for it. The one which always feels a bit blunt is a monotone “BIKE!”, but then when five tings on the bell and an “excuse me” haven’t worked to get someone’s attention, it’s desperate measures.
  • Patience
    Accept it, unless you’re on a deserted trail at sunrise, you’re likely not going to travel as fast as you can on the roads. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing; for one you’ll only ever have to deal with people, dogs and horses instead of thundering HGVs. Once you learn to just shrug off the frustration caused by other humankind meandering innocently into your path and enjoy the extra minutes on the bike, it all feels like a good trade-off. Taking five minutes longer to get somewhere can be five times more enjoyable.
  • Good stopping skills
    No matter how well you master your speed, a bell or the ability to accurately predict exactly what that dog ahead is about to do, shared paths can be really unpredictable places. If in doubt, do always assume that that person will suddenly veer into your path, or that dog will decide your front wheel looks like a toy, or that horse will be spooked. Keep your hands close to your brakes. If you use any kind of clip-in pedals, perhaps leave your resting foot unclipped, or be ready to unclip in a split second. And of course, slow down.

How to pass other users

  1. Slow down
    When you see people ahead and before you’re even ready to pass, slow right down. On busy paths, stay slow all the time.
  2. Alert and/or ask to pass
    Ring your bell or alert those ahead from a good distance, not just so that they actually have time to calmly let you through, but so you’ve chance to try again if they don’t hear you. Whatever you do, don’t go right up behind people and surprise them, unless they’re really having trouble hearing you. Even if you think there’s plenty of space to pass, it’s always a good idea to ring a bell anyway, just so people know you’re there.
  3. Pass slowly, say thank you
    Even when you’re granted space to pass, don’t go thundering through. Scoot past gently, with one foot ready to stop if it’s really narrow, and of course exchange a smile and a “cheers!” or other northern thank you of choice and feel a little happiness inside that everything is briefly cool in the world.
Switching to the narrower path to allow a horse rider to pass undisturbed.
Switching to the narrower path to allow a horse rider to pass undisturbed.

How to pass horses

Equestrians require similar but slightly different consideration when passing. Seeing a horse plodding gently along one side of a trail, it can be tempting to just plough through alongside, but these are large and potentially dangerous animals if spooked.

If approaching head on, there’s space to pass and the rider looks comfortable, slow right down to an absolute crawl to pass. If there’s not space, just stop and let the rider pass — hopefully you’ll exchange a smile as reward.

Approaching from behind is the really important aspect: again slow right down of course, and alert in good time, but there’s some evidence that with horses it’s better to use your voice than a bell to shout a friendly “hello” or “can I pass?” as the horse will hear better where you’re coming from and be less likely to be surprised.

Everyone can play their part

When it comes to “sharing with care” it’s not just cyclists who need to mind their manners, even if they’re the ones most likely to be called out. Sometimes no amount of following the tips above can help if other path users don’t use a little common sense and courtesy, too.

  • Keep dogs under control or on a lead
    Some dogs have been trained with incredible recall action, others a death wish. Since most shared cycle routes are fairly narrow linear paths, there’s likely to be little physical exercise benefit to letting them roam in front of an approaching cyclist’s front wheel, so if in doubt just keep the lead on — for the sake of the precious animal.
  • If there’s space, keep left
    On shared trails which are at least a couple of metres wide, it can make sense just to keep to one side if you’d rather not be bothered by every passing cyclist. It’s remarkable the ability of some groups to fill all of the available space and then look surprised when someone approaches on a bike, so share with care and leave space for others.
  • Turn noise cancelling off
    Yes, those AirPods are great when you’re trying to block out the neighbours, but on a shared path they’ll completely block the sound of anyone wishing to pass by, not to mention nature and the sound of the outside world. So unless you have eyes in the back of your head (there’s an idea for you, Apple), keep one ear open at all times.
  • Remember, everyone is just trying to get somewhere
    It can be easy to get frustrated at bike bells ringing to squeeze past every few minutes, but — provided they’re friendly about it — these are just people trying to enjoy the outdoors and get somewhere, too. Perhaps visiting family, getting shopping or the same workout as a gym, just without car. Cyclists are often only using these paths because they’re given absolutely no suitable alternative, however much they plead. If you feel a path is too narrow or busy, it’s the council and those holding the government purse strings you need to complain to, to get dedicated space for cycling. That is, unless the cyclist passing hasn’t followed any of the awesome tips above, in which case they’re just a bastard — and feel free to tell them so.