Thursday, August 14, 2008

Quick! Send for a Border Collie!

One small, determined, skillful animal controls and directs a herd of larger beasts. The border collie sets another example traffic cyclists can use.

Yesterday on a narrow country road with a fairly low traffic volume, two or three vehicles were coming up behind me as two or three vehicles approached from the opposite direction. I could tell by the way the oncoming motorists were maneuvering that the ones behind me were slowing down because no one knew exactly what to do. Large, confused beasts would all end up clustered in the same piece of road with me unless I took control of the situation.

Ever notice how that almost always happens? Left to sort things out for themselves, motorists approaching a cyclist from opposite directions always synchronize their speed so that all road users pass at the same time, uncomfortably squeezed. It's not malicious. The motorists generally want to slow down to make things safer. They just don't realize that both sets of drivers unconsciously match approach speeds because they're afraid that everyone will converge, which they inevitably do.

When traffic volume permits it, herd the beasts. Yesterday I swung into the traffic lane as soon as I saw how things were shaping up. This blocked the drivers behind me, forcing them to slow down sufficiently to let the oncoming motorists come through. The instant the oncoming motorists had cleared, I snapped back to the right to release the overtaking set.

No one honked. No one yelled. No one stomped the gas pedal and made a big fuss about resuming their speed. They all got it. I thought so they didn't have to.

On high-volume streets a bicyclist can't herd this way. A very fit rider can do some directing, but the metaphor shifts to running with the bulls or charging down white water when the motor vehicles are close together and numerous, but not yet numerous enough to get seriously in each other's way. Just keep the border collie in mind in case you can use the technique.


vcspinner said...

You can use similar methods in all kinds of situations. Even without oncoming traffic, in a narrow outside lane, you want to be passed safely. RVs and trucks sometime don't know where their right-hand mirrors are, for instance.

In gaps between clumps of traffic, I'll ride the center of the lane or the right tire track. Only when traffic approaching from the rear begins to swing to the left a bit do I fade to the right. Result - comfortable passing margin.

cafiend said...

Right on, vc! Gatekeeping and lane covering form the foundation of herding techniques. They are also widely applicable as you describe. I've said for years that you don't make yourself safe by mousing along the edge of the gutter begging for mercy.

Serge said...

Citizen Rider - excellent post! I love this part: "They all got it. I thought so they didn't have to." That's consistent with my experience. I think few cyclists recognize how much motorists are confused (sometimes manifested as anger) about what to do when they encounter a cyclist on the road, and look to the cyclist for direction. I find that looking and thinking ahead, and being assertive, defuses potentially troublesome situations.

Effective use of a rearview mirror really helps in applying the methods described by vcspinner. Since we're often significantly slower than other traffic, maintaining rearward situational awareness helps immensely in being able to predict the traffic situation in the near future, and to think and plan ahead accordingly.

The technique of riding in the center of the lane as the "primary riding position" is described by John Franklin in his book, Cyclecraft. Not only does this allow you to herd other traffic more effectively, but it makes you more likely to be noticed and respected (as long as you move aside into the "secondary riding position" when necessary, and it's safe and reasonable to do so), and gives you a better vantage from which to notice and avoid hazards in front of you.

cafiend said...

When I referred to swinging into the lane, it stemmed from my preferred riding position, about a quarter to a third of the way into the lane. From that position I'm far enough aside not to elicit too many assaults from incorrigible A-holes, but with enough buffer to have fade room to the right as well as an option on the left. The swing was more a military maneuver than an impromptu swerve. The decisive release move to the right further demonstrated the temporary and reasoned nature of my incursion into the lane.

At age 52 I can't put out the wattage day after day like I used to. Taking center lane position at some of the speeds I now find comfortable seems a bit too dog in the manger, to cop another canine analogy.

If you keep fading to the right and coming back to the left to maintain a semblance of lane-center position, your course will end up undulating right to left, left to right in a pattern hard to distinguish from a wave form based on resting at the right end of the cycle versus the left.