Route notes - Level Crossings
Watch out for railway level crossings! On some of them, the rails cross the road at an oblique angle making it very possible that narrow tyres can get stuck in the rails, throwing the cyclist off. Ones to particularly watch out for are the one at Garve heading out west on the A835 which is signed that cyclists MUST dismount and walk across, and the one at Balnacra on the A890 between Achnasheen and Loch Carron which is not signed but has been known to catch unwary cyclists. There are more on the east coast which may present a similar hazard.
Cycling on Highland Roads – Single Track Roads and Passing Places
Most of the more minor Highland roads are narrow single track with regular passing places, although many of the existing NC500 route have over the last 30 years, been straightened and upgraded to single carriageway – Garve to Achnasheen and north of Ullapool are good examples of this. However, there are still long sections of single track which the NC500 follows, and if you take some of the interesting detours around the route, you will be cycling on single track!
There are a few points to note which may not be obvious to cyclists and drivers unused to these roads. It requires a bit of forward thinking and judgment of speed and distance to use the passing places efficiently and to allow vehicles to pass safely. As a cyclist, I know that having to keep stopping and put a foot down only to get going a second or two later can be frustrating and breaks the flow of the ride, so here are a few tips to consider:
- Most single track is wide enough for a bike and car to pass in safety as long as there are no potholes and both cyclist and driver slow down and take care.
- Look ahead for oncoming vehicles (and listen for those approaching from behind) and take note of suitably placed passing places - most are marked with diamond-shaped signs so you can see them from a distance.
- Make a judgment as to who will get to the passing place first – you or the car.
- The convention is that the first one to get there gives way and waits on their side of the road, either in or opposite the passing place, for the other to pass. Don’t go into a passing place on the opposite (right hand) side of the road as this only confuses the issue – stick to your own side and wait for the other vehicle to pass. As long as I signal my intentions clearly and in good time, there are 2 situations where I don’t stick to this convention:
- o On a steep, narrow ascent, eg the Bealach na Ba to Applecross, where I am working hard and taking up more of the very narrow road. There are some passing place on the right hand side that I use to get off the main part of the road so that I can cycle on very slowly and be more in control of my own destiny! The cars can get past me quicker meaning I am less likely to have to stop and put a foot down - getting going again is hard work!
- o If a large vehicle, such as a lorry or big campervan, needs to pass and the nearest passing place is on the right hand side. In this situation, it is safer to let the vehicle take the straightest line rather than making it weave on and out of the passing place.But please do signal to let drivers know what you are doing and it probably isn’t the best option if another vehicle is coming towards you!
For vehicles approaching from behind:
- If a vehicle has stopped for me at a more distant passing place, I usually put on a spurt of speed so they don’t have to wait for what probably seems like ages to them – they usually appreciate it with a wave and smile!
- Give a polite wave, or nod of the head if both hands are needed on the bars, to acknowledge the other driver. If a motorist has been particularly considerate, and they usually are, I always try to give a big smile and a cheery “Thank you!”, even if working hard up a long hill!
- Listen and look out for vehicles behind you.
- Look for and use the next suitable passing place, usually one on the left hand side.
- Watch out for any following vehicles – I have been caught out a number of times concentrating on demonstrating my slow cycling abilities, only to think the coast is clear and start to pull back onto the road …. that’s when I see the following cars that I am just about to pull in front of – gets the heart going a tiny bit faster!!
- Top tips
* Don’t wear ear-buds to listen to music – you will definitely need to use all your senses!
* Keep a more frequent look over your shoulder when battling into a head wind as the sound of the wind in your ears can mask the sound of a vehicle approaching from behind,
* …and if you can confidently do a track stand, all the better!
Occasionally, you meet a driver who either doesn’t understand the conventions of using passing places or doesn’t consider that cyclists have the right to use the road and thinks a cyclist only needs 18” of tarmac. You can end up being forced off the road or having a bumper 6” off your back wheel – neither is safe. Usually you can pass safely as long as the driver acknowledges your presence by slowing down, though those on loaded tourers may need more room. On narrow single track, where you consider that there is not space for a car and the bike to pass safely, consider the following advice:
- Try not to let motorised vehicles bully you out of the way – adopt what in Bikeability terms (for those of a certain age, that’s Cycling Proficiency!) we call the ‘primary position’ towards the centre of the road, rather than taking false refuge in the ‘secondary position’ closer to the left hand side. The former says to the driver “This is my road – and I need all of it to keep me safe!” The latter may be interpreted as an invitation for the driver to squeeze past.
- Hopefully the driver will understand this message, slow down and perhaps put a wheel on the verge to give you more space to pass.
For cyclists riding in a group:
- In the unlikely event that the motorist don’t understand this message, be ready to move over swiftly to the left and hop off the bike if necessary. Don’t end up playing chicken with each other in the middle of the road – it’s not worth the potential for a road rage incident, not to mention that the cyclist will always come off worst should the driver not actually stop!
- As on any road, keep the size of the group manageable – split into a number of smaller groups if necessary. On single track, 3 or 4 should be the maximum – any more will not fit into a passing place!
- The leading cyclist should make the decision about which passing place to use, then all in the group should do as he/she does. Hand signals can help communicate to each other and to vehicles. Try not to end up all doing different things – it can get very confusing for the passing drivers as well as the group members!
- The rear cyclist can listen and look out behind and shout “Car behind!” to the rest of the group, but especially to the leader who can then take appropriate action.
- When riding two abreast, be aware that the Highway Code says no more than “Do not ride more than two abreast.” and “Ride in single file on narrow or busy roads.” How you interpret this is up to you but be aware that some motorists are not aware of this part of the Highway Code and may give you some personal ‘advice’ about riding two abreast!
Finally, this makes interesting reading and dispels a few myths that drivers, and cyclists, may have about cyclists and cycling!