Thursday, March 18, 2010

A polite question

I'm serious about the polite part...  I don't want to invite another round of invective between casual cyclists/commuters and road/race cyclists.  I think it's safe to say we've heard all the anecdotes, slurs and insults by now from both sides.

But here's the question:

On the bike trail, I often am passed by a faster cyclist -- typically on a road bike and often in racing gear.  In something like 80 percent of these instances, the passing cyclist says nothing and makes no noise to warn me of his impending pass.  Sometimes I get a little hint of chain noise as a warning, but often the passing bike is remarkably quiet and my first indication of the passing cyclist is his appearance on my left.

Of these silent passes, a good many feature the faster cyclist moving all the way into the left lane, leaving me plenty of room and inflicting no harm other than the sometimes unsettling surprise of another ride appearing out of nowhere -- it's not always obvious that enough room was granted until the incident is over.

You're safe here, faster cyclist... tell me what you're thinking when you pass and I'll listen respectfully.

At other times, however, the passing cyclist shares the narrow bike lane I'm in and passes me with less than a foot between us.  This, I say with no pride, enrages me and often triggers loud and ungentlemanly remarks on my part. As you might guess, this process does little to improve my day or theirs.

OK, the question is getting closer, I promise.

It's starting to dawn on me that this happens too often to be explained by the convenient suggestion that all who are guilty of silent passing are sociopaths.  Fully half of those who earn my rebuke react to it with genuine-looking shock and dismay.  I suspect they go home to happy, balanced families and productive, charitable lives and later write in their blogs about the psychotic commuter they encountered who seems to suffer from Tourette's Syndrome.

So...  why not issue some kind of warning to the cyclist you're about to pass? 

The question isn't rhetorical.  I ask it fully ready to learn that there may be decent reasons why what strikes me as basic courtesy is in fact an unreasonable request.  Perhaps these racing cyclists pass so many slow ones that announcing "on your left" each time is too much to ask?  Or their confidence in their skills allows them to know that the margin I find distressingly close is, in fact, ample?  Or perhaps they used to ring a bell or say something but have learned that iPod earbuds are so common as to make this an archaic practice?

I'm not trying to answer the question...  I'm just offering some of the guesses that have occurred to me.

I'm genuinely interested in any thoughts road cyclists (or those who love them) have on this matter. I promise to vigilantly guard against insults or abuse from either side.  You're safe here, faster cyclist... tell me what you're thinking when you pass and I'll listen respectfully.

In the meantime, I'm going to continue my practice of heaping gratitude on those cyclists who do warn of their presence.  And, I'm going to work harder at suffering the other ones silently.  Or, if not silently, as least a little less profanely.


  1. Well, the cyclists who pass you should give you a shout out. That's common courtesy. But by your description of them, including their reaction, I would guess they are used to riding in groups where cyclists ride quite close to each other. Still they should have sense enough to realize you're a commuter and they should give you a warning as they approach.

  2. DWB, you're precisely the cyclist I was hoping would weigh in on this... I trust your viewpoint.

  3. Funny post : )

    Well, even though I am obviously not a road cyclist, I have a theory about the silent pass. Often when I pass pedestrians, I find that ringing a bell or shouting/saying "on your left" has the opposite effect of the effect I was hoping for - in other words, instead of being mindful that I will be passing them on the left, the pedestrian will become frightened/panicked and actually move directly into my path. Other cyclists report this experience as well, and in fact there was a lively discussion about it on the dfwptp blog - though I cannot find the entry. So it's possible that the fast road cyclist is using the "pedestrian confusion" logic to reason that warning you will only result in you panicking and ending up in his path.

  4. Interesting thought, Velouria. It fits with my theory that the phenomenon is too common for it to have no room for good intentions.

    Does the same thing happen in Austria? My cycling in Europe was minimal. We were on dedicated trails on each occasion, but I can't recall passing or being passed.