Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Don't confuse your shark

 A rider in traffic can use motor vehicles the way the pilot fish uses a shark. We can hover near the larger beast and let it make holes for us that we would have trouble making for ourselves. It's a way to improve our flow through the system, which helps everyone, whether they realize it or not.

Most of the time, the motorized shark doesn't notice the pedaled escort fish. It's vital to remember this. The big vehicle helps you the most when it maneuvers without worrying about you. As long as you remember this, the technique is as safe as any traffic riding, and actually safer than squeezing along in the door zone out of the way of the motorists.

In faster traffic, in high density and moderately high speed flow, pilot fish technique is no longer reliable. One recently reported accident involved a cyclist maintaining traffic speed in the lane who was right-hooked catastrophically by a vehicle that passed anyway. You must use your judgement at all times. I almost had a bad encounter this summer when I was rolling in on Center Street at traffic speed, and laid into the corner onto Lehner Street just as a local tourist trolley decided to push out into the lane from the gas station on the corner to force an entry into a line of stopped traffic at the stop sign on Lehner to enter Center Street. I had the right of way, and momentum, but the driver still yelled that I was a "fuckin' idiot," because I was on a bike and should have been able to stop in an instant to let his barge pull out and cut me off. We are the lowest on the traffic totem pole.

Downtown Wolfeboro in the summer is mostly perfect for pilot fish technique. But sometimes the sharks are too aware. Last week, for example, I was coming down into the area near the train station building that marks the start of the Bridge-Falls Path/Cotton Valley Trail, as a huge, shiny, black Suburban came around the end of the block from Railroad Avenue to loop around and head out the short but grandly named Central Avenue past the Post Office to Main Street. Whenever a motor vehicle comes through there as I am coming down to make my left, I maintain speed, but swing right to get them to complete their turn, so I can then loop back to the left to settle in behind them. Whether I wait behind them or filter through to get onto Main Street ahead of them depends on how choked up the intersection is at Main Street.

The driver of the SUV did not look over at me as she came around and into Central Avenue. But I had a front blinky light still operating from the trip down Center Street. Also, as I assessed the clot at the intersection ahead, I slid up on the right before drifting back to let her take the lead onto Main Street. Main Street was backed up, and drivers there were not consistent about letting side traffic join them.

Once on Main Street, we accelerated nicely to a quick but accessible pace. We slowed at the crosswalks, but did not have to stop. Approaching Mill Street, the shark put on its right turn signal. No problem, I was turning right, too. But the confused shark, aware of my presence but oblivious to my hand signal for the right turn, stopped short and offered me the Death Hole on the right. All she had to do was drive up to the corner and turn it, and whether I was going straight or right it was up to me to keep myself out from under her wheels. But she might have thought that I had been trying to get past her, rather than scavenge a bit of draft. With the best of intentions, she was trying to avoid hooking me. I stopped short in a track stand until she made the turn and I could follow her. She went on down Mill Street while I kept swinging right to enter the parking lot behind the shop.

Sometimes a shark will be vindictive, brake checking or making other moves to kill the pilot fish in its buffer zone. You have to learn to read the body language of the vehicle. For most drivers, the vehicle is an extension of their body and personal space. This ability is what allows us safely to pilot our large machines, but it also extends the area of sensitivity for operators who are protective of their personal bubble. Remember that the vast majority of drivers don't want to hurt you, even though absolutely none of them would be sorry to see cyclists banished completely from the public roads. This doesn't protect you from the careless or distracted driver, but it's some tiny consolation.

Meanwhile, in the "I mountain bike because it's safer" crowd, the casualty list includes one separated shoulder, one busted collarbone, and one rider who fractured two vertebrae and busted the top off of his femur.  And the Cotton Valley Trail continues to claim numerous victims with its numerous rail crossings. Wherever you ride, your own judgement is always your most important defense.

1 comment:

Steve A said...

My dislocated shoulder was obtained while I was on a road bike. You have to be able to get your foot out of the toe clip before the bike tips over!