A Beginner’s Guide to Biking in Portland (or Anywhere)

Our city's cycle culture can be intimidating. Here’s how to stay safe and avoid ticking people off.

By Tuck Woodstock May 5, 2016

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Wear your helmets, folks!

Image: Shutterstock

Thanks to our city’s new, longer summers (thanks, climate change!) and perpetual rush hour, there’s never been a better time to join the city’s legion of cyclists. But while biking can be efficient, eco-friendly, ­and enjoyable, navigating Portland’s busy bikeways and intersections can also be stressful, confusing, and even dangerous.

If you’re a recent cycling convert—or even if you’re not, frankly—reviewing our list of safety and etiquette tips could help prevent a serious accident… or a road rage-fueled tirade.


Find a bike that fits. An improperly fitted bike not only leaves you more prone to injury and crashes, it also makes it way less fun to ride! Make sure you’re comfortable with the gear system as well—unless you've got mad quads, single-speeds won’t get you far in Bridgetown.

Wear a helmet. As someone who has cracked her helmet open on the pavement a time or two, I absolutely cannot emphasize this enough. Worst-case scenario with a helmet: your cool hairstyle gets mussed. Worst-case scenario without a helmet: your cool hairstyle gets mussed as your brains leak onto Broadway.

Wear highly visible clothing. Bright colors and reflective stripes help cars are important even in broad daylight, and especially in low light or rain. That black jacket may be functional-chic, but if there’s even the slightest possibility you’ll be out after dark, throw a bright coat or reflective vest in your bag. (I have a reversible jacket that can be neon blue for biking, or black for looking cool around town.)

Light, light, light. By law, your bike must have lights for limited visibility conditions. Both front and rear lights and reflectors are strongly recommended; clipping additional lights to your helmet, bag, or clothing is even better. Again, this is most important in the dark and rain, but is encouraged even on sunny days—think of them like running lights on a car. 

Get good fenders. Even if you’re a fair-weather cyclist, chances are good that you’ll catch a bit of rain. As a gesture of politeness, make sure your back fender is long enough to avoid spraying other riders in the face.


Pump up your tires. I didn’t pump up my tires or lube my chain the entire time I was in college. Learn from my mistakes. Pump your tires weekly, and lube your chain when it gets noisy. If you can’t handle it or don’t know how, visit one of the city’s 75 bike shops.

Map your route. Portlanders are seriously spoiled when it comes to bike infrastructure. No matter where you’re headed, chances are good that you’ll be able to take clearly marked bike paths and neighborhood greenways most of the way. Pick up a free map or use the bike route overlay on Google Maps.

Put the headphones away. Please, please don’t wear earbuds while cycling. Music drowns out the noises of the road, including approaching cars, pedestrians, dogs, and other cyclists. (We’ll talk about calling your passes in a bit, but all that is for naught if you can’t hear other riders’ warnings.) 


Call your passes. As you’re approaching a cyclist or pedestrian, yell “On your left!” Please be loud enough that others can actually hear you. If you’re too shy (or out of breath) to yell, buy a bell and ring the heck out of it. 

Signal your turns. 99.9 percent of bikes don’t have turn signals, so use hand signals to indicate turns. It’s also useful to use the “stop” signal when breaking unexpectedly—if you’re using both hands to break, simply shout “stopping!”


Yield to pedestrians. It’s polite. And mandatory.

Assume drivers can’t see you. Even if you’re wearing neon colors and flashing lights in broad daylight, accidents can happen. I know folks who've gotten hit by cars because they approached an intersection and assumed the car would stop. Never assume the car will stop.

Don’t run red lights. Please don’t give us all a bad name. Drivers hate cyclists enough already without adding fuel to the fire.

Do you have cycling questions? Did we miss your biggest bicycling pet peeve? Let us know!

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