I learnt one of my best cycling lessons from a year 5 student at small public school on the fringes of Adelaide. It was 2002 and I had traveled to South Australia and take part in a Cycle Ed instructor’s course being conducted by Bicycle SA.

The Cycle Ed program was designed to provide year 4 and 5 students with essential cycling and road safety skills. I was fortunate to arrive a few days before undertaking my course and was allowed to attend several sessions as an observer.

The first class I visited had already received three classroom and three playground sessions and it was now time to put what they had learnt into action on the road.  But before venturing out, their Cycle Ed instructor reviewed a few of the skills they had been  taught over the previous weeks. “Okay”, he said writing a gigantic “S” on the blackboard, “Who can tell me what this stands for?” A classroom full of eager arms went straight up. “Scanning” the first child chosen replied correctly.

However the next question threw me. “So”, the instructor asked, “what’s scanning?” While I was pondering the question, the instructor was trying to choose from another batch of madly waving arms. A girl toward the back of the room was selected, and without hesitation replied “Scanning is looking and thinking.” Bingo!

Scanning is looking and thinking. It’s so easy, a year 5 kid can do it. But if that’s all there is to it, why do we need to practice?

Well, firstly scanning is a fundamental skill that just might save you or your riding companions some serious grief. Secondly, we need to train ourselves to look and think about specific things.You could, for example, cycle along thinking about the next wheelset you plan on buying while admirig the sunrise, but that’s not going to help you at the next roundabout.

So let’s break this definition of scanning into its components. Looking, well that’s obvious isn’t it?  But when you are riding your bike, consider where you look and what you look for.

As a cyclist, you need to be looking ahead, well ahead. You need to be looking in front of your front wheel; in front the car in front of you; in front of the rider in front of you; in front of the car in front of the rider in front of you. It may sound basic, but so many cyclists get drawn into looking at their own front wheel, only to be surprised by changes that occur beyond it.

Let’s look at a bit of basic physics and the equation of Speed = Distance / Time. At 36 kph you’re covering 10m every second. Or in other words, if you are looking 10m up you are going to be where you were looking in one second. If it takes you a second to realise there is danger in front of you, then remind yourself of which lever is the back brake and which is the front, and finally grab a fist full, then you are in trouble. But if we go back to our equation and add a little distance, and by that I mean look further up the road, what have we gained? Time! And if things in front of you go awry, then I for one would gladly take any extra time on offer. In many ways this is similar to the old adage of riding to the conditions. The more variables you perceive, the more time you may want to provide yourself with to react.

But this example is a little too simple because the environment you were looking at a second ago has changed. In fact it is constantly changing. Sometimes noticeably, sometime not. And that is why we have to think. In 20m of riding (that’s 2 seconds at 36 kph), its easy to encounter pedestrians, cars, traffic signals, dogs, kids, other cyclists and possibly a whole lot more. With all that sensory information we have to decide what is a potential danger to us and what is not. We have to learn where to focus our attention and what we can simply scan over.

How many of us have heard a motorist or pedestrian say “Sorry, I didn’t see you”. Sadly, they probably didn’t. Why? Well my theory is most road users subconsciously look for cars, and cyclists just don’t register. So what should they (and us) be looking for? Fundamentally, we need to look for movement. Movement means change, and we need to be constantly monitoring and assessing changes that will affect the next few seconds of our ride.

Now the last thing I want to do is have you fearing everything on the road that moves. But scanning is an important skill that will increases your reaction time. Practice it until it becomes second nature and it will make you a safer and more relaxed cyclist.

Scanning Tips.
Ride with your head up. Sounds basic but it’s so important.
Scan down the road and look for movement.
When riding in a group, look beyond the rider in front of you, not at their back wheel (there is that head up thing again).
Creating time. This allows you more evasive options than simply breaking.
Eye contact is an important part of scanning. Look drivers in the eye ensure they have seen you.
Parked cars can become moving cars so scan for car clues. Exhaust fumes mean the engine’s running. People inside mean doors may open.
Scan with your ears. The sound of an engine you can tell if a vehicle is accelerating or slowing, if the driver is aggressive or being patient.