Monday, June 30, 2014

Analysis of a right hook

Approaching my turn off of Route 16 on my way home one evening last week, a small silver sedan came up gradually on my left. I was pushing along at somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 miles per hour with a bit of help from the airflow of passing vehicles. The silver car drifted up beside me. As it pulled forward a bit more I saw the right turn signal. Sure enough, it got just past me and yanked into the turn onto Elm Street.

Because I was turning at Elm Street I simply turned in tight formation with them. I gave a laconic middle finger just because I was sure they had no idea things would work out so well, but I didn't thrust it up and out and wave it around. It was more of a grumble than a shout. Sometimes people I know do stupid things, and I don't always recognize them in their cars, so I didn't want to go full napalm on whoever this idiot was.

Thinking about it further, I wondered if it might have been a fellow cyclist I know, who knew that I was going to turn there and realized it was really the safest place to pass me for the next quarter mile. Truly, it was. After the turn, Elm Street makes a series of blind bends, so a truly judicious motorist would have to stay back for quite a while. The vast majority of drivers are not so patient.

Even if it wasn't a fellow cyclist making a calculated move, because there was no contact and no disruption to the traffic flow in any way it really was a perfect pass. If I had been proceeding straight in Route 16 I would have had to make a quick yank to the left to evade the corner of the turning car, but I wasn't, so I didn't. No harm, no foul is an overused expression, but it applies here. It reminded me of a basic principle of criterium riding: keep your skin thick and keep it on you. Don't be overly sensitive to the encroachments of others. Learn to require only a small comfort zone. Defend your zone, of course, but don't be a weenie.

Racing experience shaped my approach to commuting by bike. Riding knuckle to knuckle with aggressive young men who all think they're better riders, you develop a certain level of comfort in close quarters and somewhat quicker precise reactions than riders who have not put themselves under the pressure of riding in a competitive group. I did not race long or well, but I trained and raced enough to refine my normal irritability into a more coherent force.

As a young territorial male I had a quick middle finger for any motorist I felt was impinging on my space. It had more to do with principle than a sense of actual danger. I, personally, was indestructible, of course. If I remembered that traffic riding is a criterium I cared less when motor vehicles passed tightly. As long as they pass without contact, we're both fine.

If I sense that a motorist is passing tightly to make some kind of statement it pisses me off, but what can I do? I can control the lane to prevent a pass, but only if I get out there ahead of it. I have had motorists squeeze me because I was closing the lane to them. On the troublesome parts of my normal commuting route, drivers give me as as much -- or more -- room when I ride the white line as when I control the lane. The ones who are going to pass no matter what will drive oncoming traffic into the ditch and blame me anyway if I'm so far out in the lane that they "have to" play chicken with the other motorists to pass me without delay.

I ran the experiment for several seasons. I got right out there and took the lane where it was not technically safe to allow motorists to hammer through. Before and after the experimental period I have ridden to the far right in that section. Traffic has flowed better with me farther right, and the mood of motorists has been considerably better.

Farther in on the route I still take the lane on a straight section with a curb and storm drains to the right. When the traffic is heavy it inhibits pushy passing. When it's light the pushy passers have room to get by even when I'm out in the lane away from the storm drains. I defend my zone where I have to and cede the lane where I can.

Not everyone can ride this way. Older riders, particularly those who have taken up the bicycle late in life, lack the fitness base and saddle time to have the kind of automatic reflexes a rider gains from decades of experience. Even if an older rider was a strong athlete in another sport, such as running, the act of riding demands more than just strength. I know a guy who was on the US cross-country ski team in the 1980s and who is still a formidable competitor in age-group cross-country ski racing, who just can't get used to the traffic going by him when he goes out on a road ride. He built up an errand bike to ride on service calls around town for his business, so maybe he's developing more of a tolerance, but it's coming slowly compared to his extremely high fitness level overall.

Riders who do not have a lifelong fitness base face even more intimidation. Where developing culture and infrastructure support it, cyclists can take a lane or find a path with more social support for their developing interest and ability. Such amenities don't exist here where roads are shaped by equally unforgiving geology and economy. When I get angry at drivers it's more in the persona of one of these more timid riders than on my own behalf. I'm slowing down as I age, so I wonder when I might be driven off, but I also see that many people never start riding because they've already imagined how bad it must be. And I can't say it would improve things to throw a bunch of these wobblers out there in the meat grinder, forcing drivers to accommodate them without offering anything in return. More people could ride bikes than do, but someone is always going to have to drive. The system needs to work for everyone.


Steve A said...

Hmm, most right hooks I experience are from motorists who make a full lane change and then turn right from the left lane because I was going much faster than they imagined. Mostly, I'm in danger of falling over with laughter. As you know, I do fall over easily!

cafiend said...

The fact that we're going faster than they imagine causes the problem whether there are two lanes or one. They get far enough past us to forget us, which basically happens instantaneously.

Be careful out there! Know your tolerance for mirth!