Why do I commute with a bicycle rear-view mirror?
Because it allows me to acquire useful traffic information with a single glance.
Yes, the silhouette isn’t aesthetic, and I certainly prefer the look of a “mirror-less” bike, but the versatility and the advantages that a mirror offers are too strong and too many for me to overlook them.
The Main Advantages of a Rearview Bike Mirror
1. Quick Traffic Info With Minimal Impact on Your Balance
A bicycle mirror greatly increases your awareness of the traffic surrounding you without forcing you to do big movements that can hurt your equilibrium.
Without a mirror, you will have to turn your head and sometimes even your shoulders to analyze the situation behind you.
If you’re experienced, you may mitigate the increased balancing demand, but there’s another downside that cannot be avoided – when you turn, you instantly lose your ability to see the obstacles in front of you.
Of course, your “forward focus” drops when you check the mirror too, but if the equipment is properly adjusted, the motion is significantly quicker because you’ll be using only your eye muscles most of the time.
2. An Opportunity to Strategize
The rear-view mirror is conducive to gathering info at smaller and more frequent intervals.
The continual feedback provides you with a broader and more consistent view of the traffic. As a result, you can plan your riding strategy with higher accuracy than if you were to rely solely on sporadic head turns here and there.
3. Fewer Surprises
One winter I broke my mirror and had to ride without one for a while.
The result? I was surprised by vehicles coming out of nowhere more often than I would’ve liked.
Yes, most of the time, you can sense and hear a vehicle approaching you, but sometimes there’s too much wind and city noise acting as audio camouflage.
Moreover, even if you feel that a vehicle is close to you, you can’t know its size without visual confirmation. You may think that it’s a car even when it’s an ultra-long truck.
A mirror reduces those experiences substantially and is not dependent on steady audio feedback.
Don’t forget that mirrors make for good spy weapons too. You could scrutinize dirvers without them knowing. Believe it or not, this can be useful.
One time when I was riding without a mirror due to technical difficulties I found myself stuck in a position from which I couldn’t see the traffic lights because I’d surpassed them ever so slightly.
My solution was simple. I was going to wait for the cars behind me to start. They were going to be my green light.
I turned around and stared at the car behind me, waiting for it to move.
Do you know what happened? The driver hit the horn and began screaming at me: “Why are you looking at me?”.
While I understand that this is a “custom situation”, a mirror would have allowed me to obtain the same information without intruding into the privacy of this “polite” lady.
5. Mirror = Extra Reflector
A mirror that sticks out reflects the headlights of the cars behind you. This peculiarity adds another layer of visibility.
One night my lights lost their charge a little too quickly. To improve my chances of getting seen, I purposefully grabbed the handlebars with a narrower grip to expose my mirror as much as possible and become more visible to those behind me.
Is this technique recommended? Certainly not as a regular practice, but it’s better than nothing.
6. No Neck Pain
Turning your head all the time to see who’s behind you strains your neck. If you have a short commute this may not be a problem, but if you’re a hardcore commuter relying on their bike all the time, the brisk motions quickly add up and can cause joint pain.
A mirror reduces the need to turn around and allows you to keep your neck in a neutral position most of the time.
7. A Portable Beauty Salon
If you have a bike mirror, you could quickly check how you look after a long ride.
This could be helpful if you’re commuting to a date or a business meeting. I’ve seen female cyclists comb their “helmet hair” and apply lipstick with the help of a bike mirror.
In addition, if you go on a long bike-packing tour, you can use the mirror to shave your beard or even your head.
Another use of a mirror in the wilderness would be to send SOS signals.
8. A Bike with a Mirror = Less Attractive to Thieves
A mirror adds a nerdy nuance to a bike and diminishes its appeal in some cases.
A flashy road or mountain bike designed for racing looks far more attractive than a machine equipped with mirrors and other gadgets.
Nonetheless, that isn’t the case everywhere. In some cities, people steal a lot of commuters too. One example would be the so-called Dutch bikes which represent a great deal of interest for bike robbers.
The Main Disadvantages of a Rearview Mirror
While I think that the advantages of a bike mirror outweigh the disadvantages, it’s still worth mentioning the issues that arise from the implementation of similar equipment.
1. Loss of aesthetic points
I’m yet to see a bike that looks cooler with a mirror. And that comes from a guy who’s been commuting on a bike for years.
A mirror destroys the symmetry of your bike (unless you put two of them) while simultaneously adding a “mundane detail” to the machine.
2. Wider Handlebars
A mirror that attaches to the end of the handlebars could increase their width substantially. This could be problematic if you’re already using wide MTB style bars. Passing between cars in traffic is substantially easier when your bike has a narrow profile.
A while back, I got pinned in a tight corridor between two lanes and hit a vehicle’s mirror with mine.
I nodded at the people in the car and said I’m sorry. And since there was no damage, I assumed that it’s all good. Well, later, the guys in the car caught up with me and insulted me.
3. Extra weight
A mirror doesn’t weigh more than 200 grams, but the extra weight may seem like a ton to a mind obsessed with building the lightest possible bicycle.
I ‘m not bothered by similar issues because my commuter is already pretty heavy (14-15kg/30.8-33lbs).
If the mirror catches a bright light from somewhere, it can cause dazzling and dim your vision.
For example, one time a massive truck was riding behind me and had the strongest lights that I’ve ever seen. The brightness of the reflection was so strong that I had to change the mirror position to reduce the effect.
Mirrors can cause over-dependence and fear to ride without one.
After cycling with a mirror for a long time, you feel “naked” when you ride without it. Nonetheless, readapting to a “mirror-less” style wouldn’t take long.
Bike mirror critics say that mirrors could steer your concentration away from the road ahead of you. I would agree.
I’ve caught myself over-analyzing the traffic behind me to the point of neglecting the scenery in front of me. This is a bad habit and should not be encouraged.
Technical Problems Associated with Bike Mirrors
Cheap mirrors with weak and poorly made attachment systems tend to rattle a lot. My first bike mirror was only a few dollars and had all of those problems.
The image was fine, but the mirror was frequently getting out of position and needed constant adjustments costing me pressure effort and concentration.
At one point, I took it off because it felt safer to cycle without it than to reposition it with one arm all the time.
2. Insufficient and inaccurate view
Some mirrors are too small, made out of poor materials, and shaped in an odd way skewing the image.
Hence why I prefer large mirrors over the small “less obtrusive ones”. A big mirror gives you better and more accurate feedback. The downside is that it makes your bike appear funkier.
3. Conflicts with other handlebar accessories
A bike mirror reduces your handlebar real estate and can make the installation of some accessories more difficult.
For example, during the winter, I commute with bike pogies as I find them significantly more effective than gloves. However, the pair that I bought wasn’t designed to accommodate a mirror sticking out of the handlebars, and I had to cut the left pogie and slid the mirror through it.
Another “clash” could happen if you’re running old-school MTB bar ends. In that case, you will have to either let go of the bar ends or switch to a mirror that attaches to the handlebars in a different way.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s better? A handlebar mirror or a helmet one?
I prefer handlebar mirrors for the following reasons:
Better view. Handlebar mirrors could be far larger than those connecting to the helmet. The extra space gives you a wider image.
Easier maintenance. A quality mirror is based on the “install&forget” principle whereas the helmet ones require you to baby your helmet (you can’t mindlessly throw your helmet in a backpack after locking your bike).
Smaller chance of getting a headache. Some people experience a headache from helmet mirrors. It doesn’t happen to everybody, but the chances of facing the same issue with handlebar mirrors are exponentially smaller.
Better looks. I prefer the appearance of a handlebar mirror. The helmet ones look as dorky as it gets.
What bike mirror do you recommend?
I’ve been using Zefal’s Dooback II for a couple of years and find it sufficient for my needs. The attachment mechanism is really strong, the view angle is very wide and the mirror can be adjusted to many positions.
One of the features that I like is that you can fold it when passing through narrow spaces, transporting, or storing your bike.
Even though the materials and the quality of the mirror are very good, I managed to break it when my bike fell on one side with great force (I’d failed to secure the bike properly).
One of the attachment pieces split in two, but I managed to put it back together with glue, a bolt, and a zip tie. I’ve been using that mirror to this day.
Should I have a mirror on both sides or is one enough?
An extra mirror on the non-traffic side could be helpful, but in most cases, one dedicated to the traffic behind you is sufficient. Nonetheless, you could try riding with two mirrors if you want.
Why aren’t bike mirrors more popular? I seldom see people riding with one.
Most people aren’t serious bike commuters. They ride their bikes only when the weather is perfect and for short distances. To similar individuals, the bike is nothing but a cheap tool; they don’t see a need to invest money in it.
In addition, many hardcore bicycle warriors avoid mirrors simply because they don’t like the look and maintain an elitist mindset. They’d rather spend their money on luxurious water bottle cages made of carbon fiber than add a rack or a mirror to their bikes.
Nevertheless, bike mirrors are not that rare, at least here. I sometimes see people with one on both sides.
Will a bike mirror add too much drag?
Technically, a mirror sticking out of your handlebars is not aerodynamic, but the extra drag is too small for me to care.
If you’re so concerned with optimal aerodynamics, you could consider adding one of those racing mirrors designed specifically for drop bars. They don’t add any drag to the bike.
In general, however, this question is an indication of overthinking.
Bike mirrors are not fashionable, but they offer functions that I value greatly. I don’t plan to remove my bike mirror any time soon.
The only way to know if a bicycle mirror works for you is to experiment. Put on one for a few weeks and see if you like it or not.
Don’t buy the super cheap ones, though. They will annoy you very quickly.