Rider Perspectives: Safety on the Road

The following comes from the June newsletter. The views expressed are those of riders and do not represent those of Cycle Oregon. What do you think? Feel free to post your comments here.

When passing, safety should always be your primary concern

This month our esteemed panel of Dave Zollner and Oscar Lucas, (“front of the pack”) and Dean Rodgers and Andrea Carlson (“back of the pack”) take on the broad topic of safety on the road, with specific focus on three P’s: passing, pacelines and iPods (hey, close enough…).

What are your thoughts on passing riders – and being passed: techniques, timing, considerations, pet peeves?

Dean: As a rider who is passed frequently – particularly on long climbs – I have a lot of thoughts about the passing style of others. While there are lots of times where calling out “On your left!” makes a lot of sense and is the correct and safe thing to do, there are other times where it’s completely unnecessary and even a little obnoxious.

It’s an important thing to do in high-traffic areas, or if the person you are overtaking is wobbly or obviously not paying attention. It’s also necessary if you’re at the head of a large paceline. It’s an absolute necessity if you’re overtaking someone on a fast downhill – particularly if the person you’re about to pass is in a position where they might decide to overtake the person in front of them and may not remember to check their six. In those instances, YELL it out and make sure they can hear you (and, if you’re being passed on a downhill, it’s a good idea to let the person passing know you’ve heard them).

But if you’re in a low-traffic area and have plenty of passing room – and if the person you’re overtaking is holding their line – then just pass. It’s in these areas where it seems like people who shout “On your left!” are more concerned with letting you know they can pass you than anything else. People with bells – and particularly bored stokers on tandems with bells – are even worse in these instances. One ding at the appropriate time is acceptable. Four is not.

Then there are the long climbs. Slow climbers know they’re going to be passed over and over and over again. We expect it. At slow speeds, it’s easy to hear someone approaching from behind. There’s no such thing as a stealthy climber. Hearing “On your left” consistently on a 3- to 4-hour epic climb gets really old really quickly, and eventually becomes a little demoralizing. If you want to let someone know you’re there, sometimes a simple “hello” is a whole lot nicer.

Also, resist the urge to tell people you don’t know who are OBVIOUSLY struggling on these long climbs that they’re doing great. Really skinny and fit riders probably can’t fully relate to the monumental struggle a large, slow rider might be going through on nine miles of 5% to 10% hell. Getting to the top is sometimes more of a test of will than anything else, and getting there is NOT always half the fun. Even if you’re well-meaning and genuinely impressed by their effort, telling someone who is having a hard time what a swell job they’re doing might not be taken as a compliment. That’s because they know if they really were doing great, they would be keeping up with everyone else and fellow riders wouldn’t feel compelled to comment.

Dave: Passing other riders is pretty basic – get around other riders without freaking them out or causing a crash or near-crash. Alert the rider(s) you’re overtaking with plenty of advance notice with “on your left” or a bell ring. Look back to be sure there aren’t others passing you. Pass with plenty of space between you and the other rider. The faster you’re passing, the further back you alert when overtaking. If you don’t do these basics you’re cruising for a big crash… it’s just a matter of time. Caution: Riders tend to remember your jersey color and get a bit testy when you cause a near-crash or freak them out by sneaking up on them at 40 mph. Oscar: Good points. I think it can safely be said that I seldom sneak up on anyone at 40 mph. One additional comment and a pet peeve of mine: Be sure to leave room when you pull back in after passing another rider. No one enjoys having to brake in order to avoid hitting the rear tire of a passing rider. On a similar note, once you pass, don’t drop your pace so the rider passed is forced to come off their pace.

Andrea: Before I decide to pass someone, I check to see that the lane is clear – that no cars or bikes are coming up beside me. I won’t pass anyone unless I can sustain my pace for awhile and I am fast enough to overtake them quickly. Playing leapfrog, which happens when someone passes you and then slows down, is no fun. Silent, swift riders who pass me are one of my pet peeves. If you don’t know someone is coming up beside you, just a small swerve to the left could cause a huge crash.

We’ve touched on pacelines a bit in previous issues, but what are your thoughts on safety in a paceline – what to look out for, good habits to have, tips for those who want to join one, more pet peeves?

Pacelines are a lot of fun, but require extra attention. There are times on Cycle Oregon where they make sense, and others where they don't.

Dean: Participating in a paceline is one of the greatest joys of cycling. If I find one going a speed I think I can maintain, I’ll latch on whenever I can. And if I do latch on, the first order of business is to let the rest of the group know I’m there (and to ask if they’re cool with it). Part of participating in a paceline is taking a turn at the front. If you can’t chip in, you shouldn’t drop in. This holds true for a big paceline or a small one. I’m 6’6,” and in windy areas my backside is highly prized “view real estate.” I don’t mind people tucking in for a rest as long as they let me know they’re there and as long as they’re willing to drag me along for a bit as well.

Some people hate pacelines and think they have no place on a ride like Cycle Oregon. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel this way because they’ve seen WAY too many examples of pacelines exhibiting rude and dangerous behavior. Perhaps the biggest insult is that some of the worst offenders are groups of riders who are OBVIOUSLY experienced enough to know better. Passing too close, refusing to break up and merge with the rest of the riders in high-traffic areas and other antics simply should not have to be tolerated.

Dave: Pacelines are fun but inherently riskier riding. The amount of time to react to something happening in front of you is significantly reduced since you’re cruising along at higher than your average speed and a few inches off your paceline partner’s rear tire. To reduce some of the potential risks, a good team member in a paceline will warn you with voice and hand signs of any possible road junk, potholes, tree branches, bodies from other pacelines, etc. This is more than a courtesy, because any quick move to slow, stop or swerve can result in a major “yard sale.” It’s a common courtesy to ask to join a paceline, and if you join you are expected to do your rotation in pulling – taking the lead. If you can’t keep up, signal that you are moving out of the line and let them run. For me, there is a contradiction in wanting to be a part of a safe paceline and not having significant experience in riding with the others on the paceline. My pet peeve is pacelines that pass too closely at a fast speed. Give me some space!  Oscar: Pacelines can be a very efficient means of covering the miles. Riding with a well coordinated/communicative group can be almost like a dance, with riders rotating smoothly in and out of the lead and keeping everyone aware of the environment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to mess up the dance. If you’re not experienced in riding pacelines, I suggest starting small (two or three riders), and not at the end of a long day when we all get dull-witted.

Andrea: Because of the high speeds and the close tolerances in pacelines, a small mistake can lead to a disaster. Everyone in the line has to pay strict, constant attention. I want to be able to trust that everyone in the line will ride a steady pace, watch the wheel in front of them, not make sudden movements, and signal obstacles, turns and stops. I am very reluctant to join a random paceline that just happens to pass by. Can I trust them? Can they trust me? Is going a little bit faster worth the risk of a possible train wreck?

Both my best and worst paceline experiences happened during the CO ride across the state in 2002. A group of us were trying to decide whether or not to attempt the 110-mile optional route from John Day to Mitchell. The strongest one in our group graciously offered to pull three of us for the first 40 miles. We cruised along the gradual downhill to lunch at the John Day Fossil Beds. By conserving our energy that way, we all were able to complete the long climb into Mitchell. A few days later, we were riding on a narrow, busy road on the way to Coburg. An acquaintance joined our paceline but rode erratically and sometimes rode two abreast. With the heavy traffic and narrow shoulder, this was extremely nerve-wracking for us. He didn’t heed our requests to stay single-file. Not wanting to jeopardize the safety of not only our group but the people around us, we eventually asked him not to ride with us.

The increasingly hot topic of music on the road: Do you ever listen to anything while riding? (Meaning, using headphones – and that includes all types of riding, from indoor training to solo rides to small groups…) Why or why not? When? Is your perspective different for a large ride versus training?

Dean: Most of the time, I do without it. It’s nice to hear the sounds of nature and great to chat with other riders. However, I’m a big fan of using music on long climbs. It helps pass the time, it can provide extra motivation, and it drowns out the continuous chorus of “On your left.” Oakley makes great glasses that incorporate headphones and an MP3 player into the setup. It allows you to keep the earbuds outside your ears so you can still hear what’s going on. Riding with speakers on your bike is a safer choice, but then you run the risk of interfering with the enjoyment of your fellow riders, who might not agree with your musical tastes.

Dave: I listen to the sunrise, the wind, cows, birds, horses, friends talking. (Oscar: Dave, or should I say “Moonbeam,” you’re starting to sound like an old hippie.) To each his/her own, but I didn’t go all the way to the boonies of Oregon to listen to Lady Gaga on my iPod. However, I do listen to news at the gym when I train in the winter, which is basically a distraction from the boredom. I have some of my best times riding on CO in the morning with someone a half-mile ahead or behind me and hearing nothing but the wind (if I lubed my chain the night before). Just like distractions when driving, cell phones, ear buds, texting, etc. are taking away from the experience and are potentially distracting to the point of being risky. Let’s be real: How many times have we all had a near-crash just trying to dig out a cell phone while riding? Come on… really! I say let the sucker ring and call back at the next Blue Room.  Oscar: I recall back in the late ‘80s seeing a guy with a rather large “blaster” mounted to the rear rack on his bike. At least cars could hear him coming, even if he couldn’t hear traffic. Seriously, I have not tried earbuds or other devices to be in a position of offering an opinion on how distracting they may or may not be.

Andrea: I never listen to my iPod while riding, primarily for safety reasons. I want to be able to hear if someone shouts a warning or says “On your left.” I want to stay alert and focused. Distractions like cell phones and iPods can take my attention off the road at critical moments – a pothole, a crack in the road, or the approach of an oncoming vehicle. Why take the risk?

Any other safety-related topics that you have encountered or feel strongly about?

Andrea: A rearview mirror is just as important to me as my helmet or bike shoes. If for some reason I forget to wear the mirror, I immediately notice it’s not there and turn around to get it. Because some people don’t say “On your left” and some cars are very quiet, I rely on my mirror, not just my ears, to know what’s behind or beside me. The mirror lets me see the receding road without breaking my cycling rhythm. Turning my head around to look takes more time, can throw me off balance, and can’t be done as often as a quick glance at the mirror.

And a few random/combined thoughts from Dave and Oscar:

  • When you stop in the path of riders, signal that you’re slowing, and get off the pavement quickly. This is especially important if you’re riding as a group.
  • If you’re passing on a high-speed descent, give others a wide berth with vocal alerts early, often and loudly.
  • Stop at stop signs. Two thousand riders blowing through stop signs frustrates a lot of drivers.
  • Riding two abreast is nice when there’s no competition from traffic and/or other riders. It’s irritating to see three to six riders taking up the lane.
  • Once you pass someone, signal and move back to the right.
  • One word of warning: Some riders when passing will call out “Five on your left” or however many riders are in their group. While I much prefer this to no warning, if you’re getting ready to jump on the back of their paceline, turn and take a good look before pulling in.  Pacelines have a habit of growing and shrinking on a regular basis, and what may have been a five-rider group may now be six or seven riders. Of course, one of the reasons I keep coming back to Cycle Oregon is that the grade of riders is generally a notch or two above your typical charity ride.  Few people sign up for a week of riding who aren’t serious about the sport.

And a reminder that the Cycle Oregon “Rules of the Road” are available in handy video format now – take a few minutes to enjoy this visual representation of our safety rules.

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  1. Daniel R Fritz says:

    Dean writes, “While there are lots of times where calling out ‘On your left!’ makes a lot of sense and is the correct and safe thing to do, there are other times where it’s completely unnecessary and even a little obnoxious.”
    I’m frankly surprised that Cycle Oregon would print that misguided statement in its newsletter, thus implicitly sanctioning it.
    It is a cycling safety convention to say “on your left” when passing. Sorry if it makes someone feel bad, but I am not going to assume that because a rider appears to be holding his or her line, he or she will continue to do so when I go by.
    It’s for your safety and mine that I let you know I am about to pass on your left. If you don’t know I’m there, you might reach down for your water bottle, scratch your ear, or who knows what else, that might cause you to swerve to the left, and you need to know I am there. It is simple safety, and consistency is key. I don’t say it to mean “move over” or “jeez, you’re slow.” I say it calmly, at a volume that is appropriate to the conditions, and usually follow up with a friendly “Hi” or “How ya doin” or something like that as I go by.
    I get passed plenty, and I understand the appropriateness of people telling me they are there. I always appreciate the notice. It never bothers me, nor should it. I understand that people are saying “on your left” as a way of letting me know they are there for their safety and mine, and it never bothers me.
    All experienced cyclists understand that either a ringing bike bell or a simple “on your left” is the right signal for a passing cyclist to give. It is what cyclists are supposed to do.
    Particularly in a ride with this many riders, often traversing roads with little or no shoulder, where a car can appear abruptly at any time, and where the riders don’t all know one another and one another” riding styles, it is especially important that the organizers promote a consistent method of communication for riders to use when passing. No exceptions. Consistency promotes safety.

    As to the notion that people who offer encouragement in the form of “nice job” or “you’re doing great” are somehow acting inappropriately, well, that’s just plain silly. I guess I’d have to say that resenting words of encouragement offered by your fellow riders is a bit weird. They are trying to be nice…Geez…

  2. Your friendly CO newsletter writer here…
    First of all, let’s try to keep in the positive spirit of communication that a Cycle Oregon blog should embrace. The reason we posted this topic on the blog was because we suspected it would engender some discussion, but let’s play nice with the differences of opinion. OK, OK, OK?
    First thing: I think it’s pretty clear that the Rider Perspectives items are just that – perspectives from riders. Not official sanctioned Cycle Oregon edicts. While of course we wouldn’t print something patently dangerous, we’ve heard quite a bit from different riders on this topic, and thought it would be interesting to ask our panel about it. Their opinions are thought-provoking, and that’s why we started the Rider Perspectives series.
    I can certainly see both Dean’s and Daniel’s points here. Consistency and a safety-first approach are important when you have a wide range of rider speeds and skills. But I can also picture situations where Dean’s point is well-taken. When you have 2,000 riders slogging up a five-mile climb on a quiet back road, everyone’s pretty aware that there’s plenty of passing going by, in the form of panting riders passing gasping riders. I don’t think it’s necessary to monotonously repeat “On your left” each time. Of course, that’s just one more opinion in the mix.
    As far as offering encouragement, here’s a thought. If you were struggling to go 14 mph into a headwind on a straightaway, 65 miles into your day, and a paceline of semi-pros went zipping by you at 20 and the last one turned and said, “Hey, you’re doing great,” would that make you feel good? Or do you feel the need to compliment riders who pass you? While the intentions of a compliment may be positive, there can be at least a whiff of condescension in the air from the recipient’s point of view. I get that.

    1. Dean Rodgers says:

      I don’t think there will ever be complete agreement on the passing issue. My main point is that, on some of these roads, there is more than enough room for one rider to overtake another in silence — and that’s OK.

      As Jim points out, the purpose of this series is to provide multiple perspectives from the different types of riders on C.O. I know for a fact that there are PLENTY of other slower riders who prefer to remain anonymous during epic struggles. Again the reason is simple — people who are doing great blend in with the crowd. When you are sucking wind and someone tells you how great you are doing, they are also indicating how obvious it is that you are sucking wind.

      Yes the people offering words are *trying* to be nice, and that’s a beautiful thing. But my guess is those same people (the nice ones) would actually appreciate the is perspective the more than anyone.

      While I’ve never been offended by the encouragement of a stranger (or taken it as condescension), I’ve never been encouraged by it either. I HAVE on the other hand correctly identified smugness from riders, who, pass with enough room to drive a truck between us, who still call out “on your left” as if each rider they tick by is somehow a sign of their cycling prowess.

  3. daniel fritz says:

    When you represent the notion that calling out “on your left” when passing can be “completely unnecessary and even a little bit obnoxious” as the view of a member of the “esteemed panel”, send it out to all the registered riders under the Cycle Oregon banner, and lend further support to it in your role as the CO newsletter writer, sanction by the organization is implicit, and it’s more than “just one more opinion in the mix”, disclaimers to the contrary notwithstanding.
    On an important topic like safety, the organization should express a consistent and responsible view, rather than lending credibility to a view which is out of step with conventional safety procedures in a cycling event.

    The mere fact that people generally are aware that “there’s plenty of passing going on” doesn’t have anything to do with a particular person passing another particular person. I am generally aware on every hill I climb that there will be lots of passing going on…usually, in fact, it will generally involve lots of people passing me…The fact that I am generally aware that this may happen does absolutely nothing to warn me that a particular person may pass me at a particular time. I want people to tell me that they are passing. I wear a mirror, and most of the time I see them coming, and maybe sometimes their “on your left” is not necessary…nonetheless, I appreciate it every time I hear it, and I don’t like it when a person passing me fails to say it.

    This is not, by the way, “just one more opinion in the mix.” Saying “on your left” or using a bell to alert other cyclists that you are passing is a fundamental and universal recommendation of bicycle safety advocacy organizations, law enforcement, and bicycle event organizers. I’ve never heard any such organization opine that, “gee, if there’s lots of passing going on and everyone knows it, it’s ok not to warn individuals that you are about to pass them…” Certainly every individual is entitled to his or her opinion on this score, in much the same way that every individual is entitled to believe that smoking is not bad for you, or that bicyclists and motorcyclists don’t need to wear helmets or should be free to wear ipods while riding in an organized event. . However, an organization such as Cycle Oregon should not implicitly or explicitly sanction such views.

    Simple point, not negative, but safety is perhaps the most important issue for Cycle Oregon.

    And since you asked (probably rhetorically), if the person in the back of your imaginary paceline said, “Hey, you’re doing great”, if it was offered in a friendly and encouraging way, yes, it would make me feel good…I certainly wouldn’t assume that there was even a “whiff of condescension” implied or intended…I would assume that the person meant what he or she said, and was offering encouragement in the positive spirit of communication that a fellow Cycle Oregon rider should embrace.

    (Frankly, if I was making 14 miles an hour into a headwind and a paceline passed me at 20, I would hop on the back of the paceline, rather than worrying about whether the guy was dissing me…if I can make 14 into a headwind by myself, I can easily suck the wheel of a paceline going 20, but that’s another topic.) :>)

  4. I completely agree with the article, I also feel that many times calling out is unnecessary. If I have room to swing wide, the rider being passed is holding a line, I usually will not call out, or maybe just say good morning as I pass. It’s a judgement call for me, and I’m an experienced rider. It does irritate me when I pass without calling then the rider being passed will call out “on your left” as criticism. Most of the time I see these guys looking in their mirror before I pass, so they are well aware of me anyway. If you are one of these guys, save your breath for that next hill that will eat your lunch.