Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Critical Mass of Three

Co-mechanic George has been riding my morning commute with me on days we both work. That's been weird enough, maneuvering two people through traffic when I have spent so many years riding solo. George is a grownup, fully capable of looking out for himself, but he doesn't have my decades of traffic interaction and inch by inch familiarity with my inbound route.

When coaching a student rider in traffic, you can't always provide timely instructions. A situation can burst into existence, demanding reflex reaction. In that case the lead rider should just do what needs to be done and break it down later in the classroom session.

Every rider needs to remember that his or her personal condition guides many choices whether you are conscious of it or not. General principles may apply, but personal execution depends on strength and temperament. But incompatible traffic styles are incompatible traffic styles. If you find that you can't adapt to a rider you are with, you need to open up the formation so that each of your styles will work separately.

George and I have been doing fine. He's a little less aggressive than I am, but we make it through the tight spots anyway. He's getting more assertive.

This morning we were joined by a third rider, Jim, who will be riding around Lake Winnipesaukee with George on Sunday. I had suggested they ride together at least once before they get themselves stuck on the other side of the lake and discover they can't function as a strong unit in the inescapable tight sections of the route.

Jim rides a lighter, tighter bike than George and I use for the commute. He was also unencumbered by things like lunch and clothing, because he was not riding as a commuter. We had to pay attention to keep our group together on the open road.

For my short stretch of traffic, the last two or three miles in town, I tend to push my anaerobic threshold when I'm herding vehicles in the narrow roads and streets. That's my style. I'm uncomfortable doing it another way. The psychology of my particular population of drivers seems to respond to a high energy level better than a low one. I get shoved aside if I slow down too much. And there's nowhere to be shoved. If I really don't feel up to cracking the whip on them, I make sure I'm somewhere else entirely, on a roundabout route of quieter roads or on the separate path. The most fun part of that path happens to bypass the most hectic section of busy road. It has other disadvantages, so I usually opt to herd the big beasts instead of surrendering the road to them more or less permanently. I'm not ready to give up yet.

Because George does not maintain my pace in traffic, I put him out front so I could cover the lane from the back of the line. Jim rode close on George's wheel. Three riders made a more substantial plug in the lane than a single rider does. We had no choice but to ride as a unit. We aren't blocking traffic. We are traffic.

The vehicular powers that be cooperated by putting a couple of construction zones in our path. Those slowed the cars so that we could easily maintain a place in line. George was even tempted to slide by on the right until I said, "Just be careful in the death hole, George." He rejoined us as we ambled along at the speed of the impeded autos. When the flow accelerated, we accelerated safely and smoothly with it.

Some riders routinely pass right or left to flow through slower vehicular traffic. I don't remember exactly when I stopped doing it, or at least doing it so much. It stopped seeming like a good idea. If I do want to move faster than the larger vehicles, I don't do it as fast as I can possibly go. I don't find it worth the risk. Your results may vary.

Working with occasionally high traffic volumes in narrow New England roads I can't take the lane as a blanket policy. Nor can I give way as a blanket policy. On my familiar routes I know exactly where I need to prevent anyone passing me and where I can scrape a few of them off with a quick fade to the right. The drivers seem to appreciate the rationality and fairness. Give them a chance to go away before they're completely steamed and most of them will take it rather than waste time hassling you. Sit on their face just because you can and you will get bitten in the ass. Hug the gutter all the time and you will get fed a storm drain. So you have to observe and assess the situation all the time.

Sight reading an unfamiliar route you can still learn to spot useful features and traffic patterns similar to what you find on your familiar routes. The game changes as the road changes. Narrow road strategies don't work on wider roads and vice versa. Other riders change it, too. There isn't necessarily safety in numbers unless you ride in the center of a large enough group to absorb a vehicular impact before it reaches you. Short of that you have to be agile and adaptable.


Steve A said...

Good word picture...

"If you find that you can't adapt to a rider you are with, you need to open up the formation so that each of your styles will work separately."

VERY true!

Yokota Fritz said...

Yep indeed.

But then learning group riding is practicing with the group, so you learn each other's rhythms and styles.