Can you avoid it? If there is an alternative route, I take it. Less traffic, less rubbish, and usually better scenery. An extra fifteen or twenty extra kilometres in the day is worth the better ride.
This is my highway strategy.
Friday afternoons and nights, and Sunday afternoons and nights are best avoided if possible. Everyone's going home for the weekend, or coming back to work.
Local knowledge is helpful. Something like the Newall Highway between Gilgandra and Coonabarabran is terrible on a semi day, but locals will tell you that some days are much quieter. We can also work out when the footy crowd will be arriving between Melbourne and Adelaide… allow an hour per hundred km after 4pm, for example.
As a car driver it always seem harder to see detail at dusk. I stay off busier roads at dusk— make it tea time. Dawn does not seem so bad for visiblity.
No music. Main highway riding is a matter of concentration. Keep the music for the back roads, and make sure you use headphones that will let traffic noise in.
Wear high vis gear; this is not a time to be pretty. Bright yellow or orange, screaming pink if you can stand it.
Get a mirror— and a large one— it's not about being café-cyclist cool. Not having a good rear view mirror when touring is just stupid. Keep it clean. Dark cars on dark gravel disappear in a dirty mirror. Try not to have too long a stalk on the mirror, because the vibration on rougher bitumen really makes them hard to see with.
Ride with cleats, or at least toe clips. If you get sent off into the gravel, not losing your footing on the pedals is a big part of surviving upright. (If you get run off, don't try and pull back on— that will almost certainly bring you down. Keep the front wheel straight, brake gently at the back, aim at areas clear of gravel and sand.)
Use a bright taillight and a flicker headlight. Every rider notices how overtaking cars pass out wider in the city if you have a tail light on. While I don't notice this on country roads, every little bit of visibility helps. That headlight focuses the oncoming traffic's attention on us as well as the vehicle behind us. Noticeable amounts of oncoming traffic will move onto the right shoulder (from our perspective) if we are being overtaken. Country drivers tell me a flicker light can be seen for kilometres.
The Key Concept
Use the truck rut. The "truck rut" is the area of bitumen where the semi's run their offside tyres. You can see the two ruts quite clearly in this photo. The truck rut is the ideal place to ride. Counter-intuitively, it is also the safest place to ride.
Firstly, it is usually way smoother than the shoulder, and could be worth 10 or 15km in a day in terms of energy and tiredness— you just go faster for less effort. The road shoulders are usually rougher; they have gravel and glass all over them; and they are that much closer to the edge where the deep gravel can bring you down. They wear out your backside and your tyres.
Secondly, the truck rut makes you visible. If you are on the shoulder or the verge, you invite the driver not to see you! Scientific studies (eg; here) show we "make up" lots of what we see on the periphery of our vision. Riding on the shoulder really invites SMIDSY. (The article also makes sense of why you should not ride "in the gutter" in urban areas.)
The other thing is that being out on the road seems to bring out the best in drivers. On the shoulder they just whiz past for much of the time. If you are on the road they will cross over the centre lane 90 percent of the time, even going right across to the other lane. (Of course, if there is oncoming traffic, that changes.)
I ride the rut and watch the vehicle coming up behind as soon as I hear it. I check the mirror frequently anyway, but always if there is oncoming traffic, as it can mask the noise of traffic from behind. The behaviour of overtaking traffic also changes if there is traffic oncoming. It will want to stay closer to you, especially the small city cars.
When the traffic behind is about 200-300 meters back, drift towards the shoulder… if there is one. The following driver still tends to move out to the centre of the road, so there is a much larger gap. Don't move to the shoulder too soon, or the cars won't pull out. Wait until you see them move, or hear the thump of the reflectors or rumble line on their tyres.
Watch for the reflectors on some roads; they can unseat you! If there is a left side rumble strip, cross it quickly or you lose buckets of speed and are unstable as the vehicle passes you.
If there is no shoulder, hold your line. Don't go to the edge. It invites the following vehicle to pass too close, which may send you off and bring you down in the gravel. Semi drivers mostly know (and care) they beat you up with their wake. Car drivers often have no idea how close they are passing, or how dangerous it is.
When there is oncoming traffic while you are being overtaken, things change a bit. You need to use the shoulder to be safe for all concerned… but don't move out too early as many overtaking drivers will interpret this as your invitation for them to squeeze through the gap.
If there is no shoulder, sit out proud so they obviously can't fit through. You can always exit sharp left if need be, but mostly they slow down and wait until it is clear to overtake. But if you don't get out there, people try to squeeze through. (This is legal. They are not supposed to pass unless it is safe to do so. We are allowed 1.4 metres, and if that's not practical due to safety concerns, we can take more of the road.)
I find that I need at least two feet to my left to feel comfortable in big semi wash, and prefer three, so if there is a only three foot shoulder (typical Sturt Highway) it is really important to hold the truck rut long enough to get people to move out to the centre. The northern Calder Highway and the Duke's Highway have very wide shoulders and I move to the centre of them as a matter of course, but only after the overtaking vehicle has seen me and begun to move. Make them see you.
I know this sounds dangerous and counter intuitive— I hope my daughter is not reading this— but my long experience is that it's a lot better than a rogue B-Double driver passing 12 inches away at 105kmh. They don't want to hit you, so if you sit out proud from the edge of the carriage way they will move out round you.
Where's the danger?
It's not the first vehicle that's the problem, but the ones following. Frequently I notice that the first vehicle pulls out x metres, but the following ones pass closer and closer to me. I think it's because their main concern is about overtaking the one in front. They don't see us.
This particularly applies to cars following semi's. They sit up close enough to be a suppository, and are hanging out to the right to overtake, so we are invisible.
The second danger is us panicking. Never pull back on to the carriageway after vehicles pass until you check the mirror after the vehicle passes you— we can also fail to see following vehicles because they get blocked out by the first vehicle.
Don't seek to correct when you get blown about; it's too easy to over correct. Keep the front wheel straight. Let the bike keep you on line.
Trucks and Semi's
I reckon that semi's are, on the whole, better behaved than cars, especially small cars. Small cars seem to think they can squeeze through anywhere without slowing down.
The effect of a semi depends on the wind direction and the truck shape. Cross winds on my last outing on the Sturt Highway meant almost every semi I met coming towards me would buffet me about with a 10 – 15 km loss of speed. It was a hell of a day. On the Dukes, the week before, with a tail wind, passing semi's in either direction had little or no effect on me.
With cross and head winds, overtaking semi's are like a great shove up the backside for a few seconds, and can sometimes have a bow wave that pushes you out in the direction of "11 o'clock" and then sucks you back in midway down the semi, and then pushes you back out at the end… all in the space of two seconds. Three or four of these daisy-chained together are hard work.
The noise can't hurt you unless you panic.
My strategy is to keep rolling. I consistently find I am much more stable when rolling that if I am standing on the road edge. I hold the truck rut as long as I can. I keep holding a straight line once I am on the shoulder. Keep the front wheel straight. I resist any temptation to swerve back to the carriageway, because of what might be following.
If I have to go bush, I brake hard on the shoulder and then turn off sharpish if the gravel will allow it. If I can't get off safely, and it's just going to be a close pass, I don't slow down. Faster is more stable and safer.
Obviously the key issue here is lighting.
Nights for night
My front lights give me about 120 meters visibility before they bother the oncoming drivers too much. You need to have enough battery to get you through the time— seems obvious, doesn't it. Always carry a spare headlight.
On the rear I aim for at least two flashing lights at all times— preferably pannier and helmet. (Be aware that if you have a helmet light and drop bars, the helmet light can disappear from view if you are head down and riding hard.) You need to have enough battery to get you through the time— seems obvious, doesn't it. I carry four tail lights; sometimes they don't charge fully. The charging cable can loosen with age and not give a full night's charge.
When touring I also carry a high capacity battery pack, in case I can't find a powered site. I can recharge two tail lights and my phone and GPS with ease. Night touring for more than a night or two, more or less commits us to hiring a room or a powered tent site; these are not the things you can leave in a park laundry for an hour and expect a full charge. (They also get nicked.) For caravan parks you need a short extension cable. I have the plug end so I can plug my headlight charger into the back of it, and have a four port USB charger and cables for all the rest.
We are not talking "your father's tail lights" here. Don't use twenty dollar Woolworths shit. Expect to spend a minimum $50 and maybe nearer to a hundred dollars a time. If it doesn't hurt to look at closer than 30 meters at night, it's not bright enough for highway touring. Consider Moon or NiteFlux. There are others, of course.
These lights are to attract attention from many hundreds of metres away, well outside headlight range. I can see mine for two hundred metres reflected in the strips on road posts, and further on highway signs. They should provide discordant flashing in the middle of any other lights.
I have hi-vis strips on the panniers, and try to wear reflective gear at night, as well.
The heavier the traffic, the more likely it is that your lower tail lights will be blocked from view by other cars. Wear high vis material up high on the body, plus a bright helmet light. I often observe almost invisible cyclists on darkened semi-urban roads if I am following other vehicles. With out the "top down" of street lights we are invisible without light reflective clothing once low tail lights are obscured.
I deal with traffic using the truck rut method above. The key issue at night is not being seen, as such. Once you are in the headlights, especially of a semi, everything is as clear as day. I think the issue is getting lost in the lights. The heavier the traffic, especially if there is any tendency to daisy-chaining, the more likely our lights are to be lost among the others.
I deal with this by:
• Is this the beginning or end of a weekend? If so, stay off the road at night.
• Local knowledge: Is this a semi night? Ask the service stations. Certain nights of the week will be very quiet or very busy on interstate highways. Find out. Stay off the road on the busy nights.
• Stopping asap if you get dazzled. Running off the bitumen blind is not going to end happily.
• Having a contingency. Are you able to camp if it turns out the traffic is too heavy, or if the shoulders disappear, or if the road has a nasty character?
• Adequate warm clothing. A cold cyclist can't concentrate and is a risk to themselves and others.
(I'm serious about road character. The Duke's Highway, partly because of the extensive safety restrictions, is a courteous road. Newall Highway coming up to Coonabarabran from Gilgandra is appalling. It's the main Melbourne – Brisbane trucking route and they treat it like their private highway. Barrier Highway through Cobar is so polite truckies will pull over and offer you a lift. if you happen to be taking a break.)