How to choose and use a bike mirror

A charging dog, a ball bouncing into the street with a small child in hot pursuit, a driver rounding a corner or pulling out of a driveway or opening a car door without looking—all are good reasons to swerve your bike into the middle of the street to prevent an accident. (You shouldn’t be riding that close to parked cars, but that’s a matter for another day.) They’re also good reasons to have and use a bike mirror instead of relying on even a quick glance over your shoulder, which eats up precious time and takes your eyes off the road in front of you. Even if you ride only on safe, back streets, you can’t always know what’s behind you in case you need to dodge a rampaging tricyclist. Cars appear as if by magic, especially nearly silent hybrid and electric cars, and they’re no softer for being on the quiet streets in your immediate neighborhood.

Bike mirrors come in three main styles:

Helmet mirrors Bendy helmet mirror
Glasses mirrors Glasses mirror
Handlebar mirrors Handlebar mirror
Handlebar mirror

Choosing a bike mirror

In my book, helmet and glasses mirrors have it over handlebar mirrors for several reasons:

  • Handlebar mirrors are too easily knocked off or knocked out of adjustment if you get too close to something.
  • Handlebar mirrors make your bike wider when you need to squeeze through tight places.
  • Handlebar mirrors require that you look further away from the road in front of you than helmet and glasses mirrors do.
  • What you can see behind you with a handlebar mirror depends on which direction your handlebars are pointed. With helmet and glasses mirrors, you can turn your head and look almost anywhere.

I learned one disadvantage of helmet and glasses mirrors from a friend of mine, who has the occasional migraine headache. She made two attempts to use a glasses mirror and gave up because both attempts were soon followed by migraines. Whether this is a universal problem for folks who get migraines I couldn’t say.

I’ve used both helmet and glasses mirrors, and I strongly prefer glasses mirrors:

  • Helmet mirrors are attached with an adhesive that eventually stops adhering.
  • Helmet mirrors that bend (like the one pictured above) crack where the stem bends. The one I had of this style lasted a matter of weeks.
  • On all of the helmet mirrors I’ve used (three at last count), the place where the mirror attaches to the stem is a really tiny ball-and-socket joint that readily breaks. If you don’t break the mirror first, that joint wears out, and the mirror flops around and points wherever gravity and the wind direct it.
  • With a helmet mirror, you can’t just stuff your helmet into a bag with your other bike gear or toss it onto the chair by the back door, or you’ll break the mirror plumb off.
  • A good glasses mirror, made of metal and a bit of glass (see the picture above), attaches and detaches easily, is nearly indestructible, and can be readjusted if you happen to knock it out of whack. Beware of plastic glasses mirrors, which aren’t as durable and have the same type of really tiny joint that dooms helmet mirrors.
  • Using a glasses mirror gives you a good excuse to wear glasses even if you don’t normally. This helps keep dust, bugs, and other schmutz out of your eyes, and, if you wear sunglasses that give you protection from ultraviolet rays, you’ll help prevent UV damage to your eyes.

One caveat: if the arms on your glasses are extra thin, try a glasses mirror before you buy it to ensure that it’ll hold on securely. After happily using the same glasses mirror for many years, I went through a series of helmet mirrors because I got glasses with skimpy arms, and my old mirror wouldn’t work. Recently I went back to glasses with slightly beefier arms, and I’m again using the old glasses mirror.

Using a bike mirror

If you opt for a helmet or glasses mirror over a handlebar mirror, using it will take some practice. You affix the mirror to the left side of your helmet or the left arm of your glasses, and because it’s so close to your face, you can’t effectively view the reflection with both eyes. (The image that your left eye sees is almost directly behind you, while the image that your right eye sees is off to your left somewhere.) You have to learn to focus on what your left eye sees, and ignore what your right eye sees. Wear the mirror around the house until you’ve mastered this trick so you aren’t concentrating on learning to use your mirror when you should be concentrating on traffic and looming curbs. When I first started using a glasses mirror, it took me the better part of a week to grow comfortable with it.

Regardless of what type of mirror you use, unless you’re dodging an obstacle to prevent a crash and you don’t have time, you should still look over your shoulder before you change lanes or change your position in your lane. Drivers don’t know that you have a mirror and know how to use it, and they’ll be startled and irritated that you didn’t look to see whether anyone was behind you. When you turn to look back, however fleetingly, they can assume you’ve seen them.

17 comments to How to choose and use a bike mirror

  • Michael

    I have a plastic blindspot type convex handlebar mirror – it attaches on the handlebar like a bicycle bell rather than the bar end. It has a flexible neck (a bit like your helmet mirror picture) which I can angle so that it sticks out of the way in a J shape, from my arms so I can still see behind me but so it doesn’t stick out beyond the bar ends (a bit like mirrors on a motor scooter).

    I’ve had glass bar end types but they break as soon as your bike accidentally falls on the ground. Because my mirror doesn’t stick out beyond the bar ends, if my kickstand fails and my bicycle accidentally falls over, the mirror doesn’t break.

    • Thanks for the link, Michael, I hadn’t seen the CyFy WristView mirror yet.

      At first blush it seems like it could be useful, but then you start thinking about how much concentration it’d require to position your arm just right to get a good view of the cars behind you. I don’t want to take my eyes off the road for that long, especially not in traffic. For most uses, almost any mirror would be better, even mirrors mounted on handlebars, which I don’t much like, as you know. ;-)

  • Kimarie

    I’m new to biking and this was very good information. Thanks.

    Kimarie

  • Hi, Maybe worth trying and taking into consideration a fourth style of bicycle mirror “Bike-Eye” the frame mounted mirror, now available for cycle stores to order from our US distributor “Quality Bicycle Products”

  • Hi Tony, the Bike-Eye looks good, but it has the same problem as a handlebar mirror–you can only look where the bike is pointing. Glasses and helmet mirrors let you see much more of what’s behind you just by turning your head.

    Scott

  • Michael Hoodes

    Scott, I came across this Kickstarter ultimate solution to a bicycle mirror – http://kck.st/AkUTYB It’s to laugh at. I can never see it as a bicycle mirror solution. Does anyone think it could be useful or confusedly dangerous like I think?

    • tom

      i actually kind of like this, not as a too serious idea but i dont take my cycling seriously, its for fun. i imagine it becomes muscle memory after a few days.

  • Ed

    Thank you for this helpful discussion. I was on the verge of taking your recommendation for a glasses mirror when I read the part about using your left eye to see behind you – oops, my left eye vision is inadequate to the task. Guess I better use a handlebar mirror.

  • Journey

    I have very little peripheral vision on my right side. I have always put mirror on the right side to compensate. Back when I had a mountain bike a bar end mirror was fine, but now I have a cruiser and can’t find a mirror that doesn’t move around.

    I don’t think I could use a helmet mirror because they are out of my field of vision.

    Does anyone have recommendations?

  • Bill B.

    My helmet-mounted mirror has come to be my best safety aid in cycling, on the highway, on city streets, and in a bunch of riders. It is 2″ or 50mm in front of my eye,so the image is big & wide & appears through the outer,upper boundary of my glasses. I aim it so I can see the edge of my ear & shoulder. If I set it too wide or high, it strains the eye movement muscles. I guess it took a few months to be confident to make a Uturn in traffic without turning my head. I feel it should be compulsory to have a mirror on every helmet, where helmets are compulsory. After all, most cyclists risks (cars), come from behind!

  • Jan

    Hi
    I just had a saddle adapptor pin fitted to my Brompton.
    I would like a quick release lever fitted as shown in
    one of your photos but my local bike shop does not have
    one like that and their’s doesn’t fit.
    Pleace could you tell me where you sourced it.
    I am in London UK

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