Ever get cut off—hard—by someone who doesn’t even know you’re there? That’s almost a daily occurrence for cyclists, especially in cities.
Drivers overtake us and then turn right across our path; drivers in oncoming traffic misjudge our speed and turn left right in front of us. And when passing, they sometimes do so close enough that we feel a phantom swipe from a sideview mirror.
If you’ve ever noticed us trying to make eye contact with you, especially at intersections, we’re not challenging you to a duel; eye contact is just the most effective way to register that you actually see us.
If an irate cyclist suddenly raps on your car window, or pulls alongside you at a stoplight and starts yelling at you, it’s probably not just because he’s feeling surly that day. In the majority of instances where a cyclist confronts a driver, it’s because something the driver did threatened the rider’s safety.
A simple “sorry” can go a long way; everyone makes mistakes. But if you find yourself in this situation with any regularity, that’s a warning—you’re not seeing cyclists.
Ever drive on a freeway full of 18-wheelers? They’re behind you, they’re passing you, and they’re changing lanes and taking up a LOT of space—right next to you, at 65mph. You probably get a little sweaty and keep both hands on the wheel, right?
That’s how we feel riding alongside cars. You’re cocooned in 3,000 pounds or more of steel, with reinforced roll cages, crumple zones, airbags, and seatbelts. We’re riding a 20-pound machine in the open air, wearing little more than spandex and some EPS foam on our heads. If we make contact, we risk life-changing injuries or death. You risk, well, mostly the insurance deductible. In any physical interaction, we’ll lose.
When you see a cyclist roll through a stop sign or, worse, a red light against cross-traffic, you’re probably thinking, “Those damn cyclists never obey the rules.”
But the vast majority of us do, and there’s data to back it up. A 2015 survey of 18,000 people by a researcher at the University of Colorado found that while cyclists do break traffic laws, they do it at the same low rate as drivers (roughly 8 percent). In one crucial measure of law-breaking (running a red light), data from a 2013 Portland State study suggests that 90 percent of cyclists stop.
Here’s one even cops don’t always get right: The statutes on riding on public streets state that cyclists should ride as far to the right as is practicable. That means we’re allowed to take more of the lane to avoid dangerous road conditions like broken glass or potholes, which sometimes force us farther out in the traffic lane than we’d normally be.
You might not notice these hazards if they’re not directly in your lane, and it might seem like cyclists are riding into your path for no reason. To avoid getting surprised on popular riding routes, make it a habit to scan the whole road for conditions that might be hazardous, even if they’re not directly in your path.
Yes, cities go to great lengths to put in off-street bike paths, and then we ride on the street anyway. To understand why, try this experiment: Drive to work tomorrow making only left turns. See how long it takes. See how screwed up your route is. See if you can even get there. Now, add this element: On-street or off, bike lanes sometimes appear or vanish with little reason or warning, stranding cyclists in general traffic lanes. So why do we ride on the roads? Same reason you do: They take us where we want to go.
It’s a lot more social. Riding can be a solitary pursuit, but for many of us, the social element is as important as the physical. Riding side by side makes it easier to have a conversation and simply share one another’s company, for the same reason people sit side by side at a table instead of front to back.
Eighteen states explicitly allow two-abreast riding in any circumstance (yes, even when impeding traffic) and another 21 allow it as long as riders aren’t impeding traffic. Only three states—Montana, Nebraska and Alaska—expressly forbid it. Furthermore, even where specific legal language prevents cyclists from riding two abreast, those laws only relate to the actual traffic lane. If both riders are to the right of the white fog line, we can legally ride two abreast, period.
Still, most of us try to be conscientious and common-sense about it; we don’t ride two abreast in heavy traffic, and even in light traffic we’ll often try to “single up” to let drivers pass. If we don’t do it right away, yeah, maybe we’re a little too caught up in our conversation. Please have a little patience; we’re not perfect either.
Don’t, unless absolutely necessary.
Car horns are really loud, and might startle us enough to cause us to swerve and crash. Simply wait and pass safely when the opportunity presents itself. Or if you must honk, do it from a reasonable distance.
If you frequent a popular or scenic road, you’ve wondered why skinny, spandex-clad riders are constantly out clogging up traffic. We’re not trying to get in your way; we just love to ride our bikes. (Try our 21-day Ride Streak Challenge if you’re feeling extra affectionate)
The road that we’re on probably goes somewhere special, either physically or mentally, and even if we don’t look it, we’re probably enjoying the hell out of it. This sport is our passion; it’s what we live for on the weekend, what we talk about with friends, and what we build a significant part of our lives around. Just give us a little space and respect, and we’ll all be fine.
It’s easy for us to reduce entire groups of people—drivers, cyclists, etc.—to a monolithic “other.” But none of us can be so neatly categorized.
So next time you feel impatient or annoyed with a cyclist, remember we’re fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. We’re your co-workers, your neighbors. We see you at the place we volunteer, or at church, or the grocery store. We’re part of your community. We’re you.