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How to handle cyclists, and other useful info

5 August, 2009 (11:50) | hitch | By: hitch

Something that’s been poking the back of my brain for some time now (ow, quit it!) is the topic of how cyclists and motorists should deal with each other on the roads.
There are two major topics that I feel need to be highlighted again and again:
the first is cyclists on a trail at a stop sign
the second is when motorists follow cyclists on the roads

Diving right in:
When I’m on the trail riding my typical morning commute I pass about half a dozen different stop signs, and I probably don’t stop at as many of them as I should (all of them. I should stop at all of them), but I do stop at any sign where I don’t have full visibility of the road on either side of me, or at any stop sign where the road is known to be busy. Or – and this is important, too – any stop sign that I have never been through before and therefore don’t know whether the road is busy or not. This last one doesn’t come up much, but on some of my more recent rides it’s been important.

The first thing that needs to be said to motorists is this:
The reason cyclists hate to stop at stop signs is directly related to how hard it is to get started again. Especially if they have to go up a little hill on the other side – which we usually do. It’s not impossible, but it can be a significant challenge. If we can maintain even a little bit of momentum, it is so much easier to even slow down than to stop. Stopping involves (For most) unclipping from your pedals (or you’ll fall over), downshifting (or you could jam your gears when you start, possibly falling over), making sure you’ve downshifted into the *correct* gear (or you’ll grind your gears when you start – or, worse, have serious difficulty starting and fall over again), and then getting your cleats back into your pedals, starting up, getting up to speed, shifting up again, etc. (If you’re really unlucky, you’ll miss getting your cleats in on the first go-round and fall over)

I don’t care how bad you are at driving a manual transmission, “falling over” is not one of the dangers of getting started. Now, that’s not to say that cyclists are prone to inner ear problems and fall over at the least provocation – it’s just that any given time, these are about a 1-2% chance. Increase the number of times you have to stop and start and you run those from possible up to probable pretty darn fast.

Does that justify us not stopping? No. Definitely not. (but perhaps you can understand the reluctance)

And I’ll get to why in a moment – Yes, cyclists, I’m lecturing you at the end. So stick around.
I told you that story to tell you this one:
It’s hard to stop and get going again – so please pay attention because some people just aren’t going to stop, and when they do stop, please be patient. The patience is really the key.

When I’m stopped at a stop sign – and I do more than not, really – one of two situations will occur.

The first: I sit and sit and sit and wait for traffic to reach a point where I can go through safely (I don’t actually mind this)

The second: I’m there for all of 2 seconds, I’ve just gotten both my feet out of the pedals so that I can grab some water before I keep going, and someone stops to let me cross. On one side. But no one stops on the other side. And then people behind the first guy get mad, I’m trying to frantically get back on my bike, because in a moment the other side will stop, and when it does I’d better be going again because the horns will start up if I don’t, and traffic is now backed up to such a degree that it will be ages before I can cross again without someone stopping for me, and I generally at this point do miss my pedals and look like an idiot and lumber (at best) across the road, all the while looking nothing like the graceful blur of wind and speed that I felt like in the minutes preceding and following this crossing.

Yeah, it kinda sucks.

So if you do see a cyclist at a crossing, please make sure it looks like he really wants to cross right now before you slow down. Or just don’t. The signs are there to alert you to the few idiots that may not stop – you’re not required to let us across. It’ll be okay. Traffic will let up, I promise.

Now – on to passing. Simple rule:

If the road is wide enough to safely do so: Pass me.

No, really. PASS. ME. Do not ride my tail, it will not make me go faster, I am going as fast as my legs can go at the maximum gear ratios I can pull on whatever incline I am on. Cars make me nervous – I am on a bike that weighs less than I do (MUCH LESS) and you are in a multi-ton death machine. If you ride my tail the best case outcome is that I pay attention to you, and I slow down because I can’t pay enough attention to the road, and you slow down too. The worst case outcome is that I will be paying too much attention to you and not enough attention to the road and I will hit something, fall, and you will run me over. I really hope that that is not your intention.

That’s pretty much all there is to this one.

If the road is too narrow to pass me, I’m sorry – In most areas of the country it’s illegal for me to ride on sidewalks, and I’m not going to dodge in and out of parked cars just to give you room (since I don’t fancy the idea of being stuck in between them, possibly running into the back of one – possibly even being injured when someone opens their door unexpectedly). So just try to stay back pretty far, and then pass as soon as you can do so safely.

Now. Cyclists. Your turn. Be courteous, stay out of the way, don’t be jerks – both on and off the bike, and know and obey the bike laws in your area. That means stop signs, that means that if you’re not allowed to ride on the sidwalk, don’t (you can in Loudoun County, VA, which is weird, but just about everywhere else you can’t). Ride with traffic, not against it. Honestly, pretend you’re a “motor vehicle”, because legally you are. And you won’t get the respect of other people on the road if you don’t respect the rules of the road. If you want people to take you seriously as a user of the road, you need to take seriously the road and everyone else on it.

A few months back there was an article about police ticketing cyclists as they blew through stop signs without stopping during a local charity ride. Some of the people in the local bike shop were up in arms about it – but not because the stop was during a charity ride (which I agree is pretty cheap – there were many ways that could’ve been better handled). They were just irritated that they were ticketing at all. Know what? You ride through a stop sign without stopping, you can get ticketed. It’s the chance you take when you break the rules.


Comment from Anya
Time 8/7/2009 at 10:24 am

Tank you, for posting this. My mom and I have been arguing about the stopping issue for years, and I understand her position a little better now (previously, all she could tell me was, it breaks your momentum). But my pet peeve is not stop SIGNS (because, lets face it, cars run them too–Slow To Observe Policemen, anyone?), but stop LIGHTS. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly run over a cyclist who ran a stop light–there is a particularly dangerous one outside my office parking garage that happens to lie along many bike messenger routes. So I maintain that stop LIGHTS should NEVER be run (by cars or bikes), because I really really don’t want to accidentally kill someone.

However, I do always pass as quickly as possible, follow at a safe distance when I can’t and try to stay aware of bikes when turning and such. And I wish more drivers did!

Comment from hitch
Time 8/7/2009 at 11:37 am

Agreed – stop LIGHTS are scary things to run on a bike. it’s not fun to stop at them, but they’re way more important than stop signs.

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