Riding a bike without the use of your hands is often considered to be one of the most basic ‘trick riding’ stunts that riders can pull.
Children start doing it as early as possible (much to the horror or pride of their parents), and many adult cyclists do it as well, either to free up their hands to use for other things (such as managing a phone or earbuds) or simply to show off their sense of balance.
Bikes are also well balanced enough that it’s an easy enough trick to pull while still feeling as though you’re doing something a little ‘dangerous’.
Although it may be fun (or just easier) to ride without holding on to the handlebars, in most places in the United States, it’s now illegal to do so, which can result in cyclists getting ticketed/fined or a warning, depending on the mood of the traffic cop and if there is a history of the issue.
Why is something that seems so easy and harmless to do considered illegal and in which states can riding a bike without hands get you busted?
Why is Riding Without Hands a Problem?
Although being able to ride your bike without having your hands on the handlebars is considered an easy ‘trick’, it’s also one that can be quite dangerous to do.
Riding a bike while holding on to the handlebars is important because it gives you more control over what the bike is doing, particularly when you are applying the brakes. It also gives you some more stability when making turns or just to help your balance.
Although the rest of your body and the bike itself does a lot of the work in keeping you balanced, having your hands on the handlebars helps. It’s also easier to react to a sudden need to turn as you won’t have to throw yourself into it since you’re already in a good position.
Now, obviously there will be times where you must be able to remove one hand and that’s when you are signaling the intent to turn or stop. (We have an article here that covers riding your bike in traffic)
For this reason, laws that prohibit the riding of bikes without hands are careful to specify that you must keep at least one hand on the handlebars at all times, not both hands. This allows you to do your signals without getting into trouble while still riding with a bit more control.
Riding without hands on the handlebars is also often tied up with riding while carrying something which is also dangerous. You should always make sure that your belongings are secured to the bike in another way (think Paniers) or that you are wearing something like a backpack or messenger bag.
Carrying things in your hands while riding can throw off your balance and make it harder to react to sudden situations like cars, pedestrians, animals, debris and other cyclists.
Remember that your brakes are almost always part of your handlebars and if your hands are far away from them, it can cost you a precious second or two to get back to the brakes and in those seconds, anything can happen.
That being said, many people still swear by the skill to ride without hands, even if they know they shouldn’t do it on the roads. During long races for example, being able to manipulate things other than your bike (such as your rain gear or a protein bar) is important since you don’t want to stop your race and lose time.
For people who don’t race, it’s still considered a good skill to have as it develops the core and increases confidence. However, even diehards caution that you shouldn’t do this while riding in traffic and that you have 100% confidence riding without hands before riding around anyone else.
Bike races aside (they tend to get ‘overlooked’ by police anyway since they have their own rules and they are done in such a way that vehicular traffic is a non-issue), riding without hands on the handlebars is really only safe to do when you are riding in your own street with no one else around, particularly no other traffic.
Certainly, traffic police will look at it that way. Furthermore, the bike itself has to be ready to be ridden without hands-if the fork is not tight enough, for example, it’s much harder to ride without hands on the handlebars and can be more dangerous. It’s also more commonly seen with things like mountain bikes rather than road bikes.
Finally, it’s dangerous to do it when it’s particularly windy, especially on light bikes, as it’s easy to get blown around!
In short, most state laws prohibit riding a bike without at least one hand on the handlebars at all times and unless you’re signaling intent to turn or stop, both hands better be on those bars!
Is It Illegal Everywhere to Ride Without Hands?
As a good rule of thumb, it’s best to assume that you could get busted for riding without using your hands if you are caught, particularly if you’re riding on the road with other traffic, on an interstate, or on a sidewalk with pedestrians. There are a couple of exceptions:
- In Alaska, if you are riding on a road that has been closed to traffic, you can ride your bike without having your hands on the handlebars. You can also ride a unicycle and tie your bike to a moving vehicle and ride while being towed too. A closed road is basically a stunt rider’s dream!
- If you’re riding on your property, you are on private property, and you can ride however you like. This is why it’s recommended that you practice your no-hand riding on your own property where it’s quieter, softer (grass!), and no one can cite you for it.
- If you’re riding on specific bike paths without any traffic, it’s unlikely that anyone will cite you for riding without hands on the handlebars. However, this may be subject to the whims of any traffic control officers
- While racing and marathoning, the rules of the race may supersede the rules of the road, but you better check with organizers first.
Overall, however, it’s best to ride with at least one hand on the handlebars at all times as that is found in almost all the laws across the United States, it’s generally safer, and it allows you to react better to sudden changes.
Trick riding and ‘no hands ma!’ may be fun, but when riding with other people, it tends to be illegal. Better to err on the side of safety and keep a hand on the handlebars while out with other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians and save the tricks for home.