Our eyes are magnificent contraptions. They take in enormous amounts of information that our minds can process in fractions of a second (faster with experience, slower when distracted).
At the center of our gaze, the image is clear and sharp (think: HD). As an object moves farther into our peripheral vision, it becomes less and less distinct (think: very low-def). That is not to say that there is a gradual decline in visibility; it is not a gradation from perfect clarity to blindness. Rather, it is the difference between “in focus” and “out of focus,” like the lens of a camera.
Though shapes become blurry, the eyes/brain can detect motion, speed, and relative location equally across the full 180° range of vision. That means that if an object is approaching from the side – whether it’s a dog, a car, a ball, or whatever – even if you can’t tell exactly what it is, you’ll not only be able to see it, but you’ll be able to see about how fast it’s moving!
What to Look for in Traffic
I can’t tell you how many times someone has said, “Hey, I drove past you while you were riding. Didn’t you see me?”
My answer is almost always, “No.”
It is far more important to see the direction and relative speed of a vehicle than who is at the wheel. It isn’t necessary to peer through a reflective windshield and focus attention on a driver. I rarely look inside of passing cars – doing so usually means I’m not looking at the pothole I’m about to run into.
On group rides, I take a few more mental notes about traffic:
- relative size/shape of vehicle: car, truck, 18-wheeler
- general color of vehicle: blue, white, light, dark
- number of vehicles: one, two, or more than two (no need to count three or more)
This is only for communicating with the group. As in: “Two, passing!” or “Change lanes after the blue truck!” or “Car back – coming up fast!”
Additional information is superfluous, even distracting. Utilizing peripheral vision, virtually all of this can be gleaned from a glance.
Don’t Use Your Head
Use your eyes! Pivot those little balls in their sockets – they’re round for a reason!
All too often, I see an inexperienced or uncoordinated rider turning his head all the way around to look back. Invariably, the bike swerves as he attempts to see clearly everything behind him. In order to focus the center of his vision toward the rear (to “see in HD”, so to speak), he must turn his head more than ~80º left or right (the normal maximum range of motion). This translates through his neck to his shoulders, twisting his upper-body and pulling his bike askew.
This is likely because the general assumption is that objects to the rear need to be clear and distinct.
They do not.
Believe it or not, if you turn your head and eyes as far left or right as they will go without twisting your shoulders/back, your peripheral vision will extend to 180º behind you. Thus, you can actually cover 360º (it just won’t all be “in focus”).
Turning fully around makes sense for Ride Leaders who need specifics like: Who is off the back? How many riders are behind? (or even) Is that our SAG vehicle or just a car riding uncomfortably close to the group? But not everyone needs these details.
Everyone should be aware of a “gap”, a “car back”, or whatever – whether through glances or communication from those toward the back. In fact, those in the rear should look behind them frequently and those in the middle should only glance behind occasionally. Only a few – like those on the back and the Ride Leaders – need the specifics (and even then – not all the time).
How the Pros Do It
Take a look at these two pictures of Lance Armstrong*. First is “The Look”, an infamous moment from the 2001 Tour de France. Here, Lance is attempting to determine specifics like: Who is on my wheel? Who is on Jan’s wheel? Are they cracking, or are they marking me?
The second is from the 2009 TdF. Note that even though they are all watching the guy behind them - Andy Schleck – not one rider has turned his head more than 80°. They are all using a combination of peripheral vision and eye pivoting to see that the young man in white is accelerating.
It takes practice to glance back without swerving. Generally, the causes are locked-elbows or failure to redistribute weight on the handlebars. In the TdF pictures above, note Armstrong’s elbows in both pictures. Notice that, as he looks over his left shoulder, his right elbow is bent significantly more than his other. In the second image, Contador’s elbows aren’t as different. This is due to the fact that he is not turning his head nearly as much.
If you’re not steady when looking back – whether from inexperience or you’re just plain “rusty” – work it into your normal routine on solo rides. Example: on a road with a wide shoulder, line up on the white line and glance back every 30-45 seconds (not more – could make you dizzy). When you refocus to the front, your tires should still be on that white line. Practice until it is.
Note: swerving may also be caused, or made worse, by poor bike-fit. Make sure you have a proper bike-fit!
At no point should a rider’s focus become fixed on any one thing.
Whether mesmerized by a spinning cog or working so hard your head drops and all you see are the lines on the road, staring at a point just ahead of your front wheel will inevitably lead to injury (if not for you, then the hapless, trusting soul who’s drafting you).
Believe it or not, conversations can be held without eye contact, without looking at the other person repeatedly. If you’re riding next to someone and having a nice chat about… whatever… for the sake of everyone else, please maintain the pace, don’t open gaps, and hold your line.
Shifty Eyed Cyclists
When on a bicycle, focus should be forward and constantly changing.
I generally scan the road from about 10 meters to about 100 meters ahead, back and forth, a little left and a little right, assessing potential hazards in advance. Dogs usually chase from the sides, and vehicles can pull out in front of the peloton from intersecting roads or driveways. My peripheral vision warns me of approaching objects from off-center, and because I’m always scanning, I’m quick to see what’s going on around me/us, so I can avoid surprises.