Group riding – hotbed for bad habits

Muppets-Group-Bicycle-Ride

Just look at these characters taking up the entire lane! They must think that because they’re famous, the rules don’t apply to them.

Sometimes I think that when good cyclists ride in groups, they also do not think the rules apply to them. First, however, I wish to comment on a right we do have in groups:

We have a right to more of the lane, depending on how many are in the group. Five or six, then okay, it makes sense to ride single file on the right, or at most, two abreast if the local law allows. But if the group has 50 riders, for example, it is not reasonable to think they must ride single file or even two abreast. Heck, we would stretch back a quarter mile. With long lines like that, cars would have an even more difficult time overtaking because they could not see far enough ahead for oncoming vehicles.

However, on a two-lane road we should still try to take up no more than half the lane so that passing motorists can see around us to know when the coast is clear.

A woman who once worked for me at Nestlé, who also lived in Simi Valley, CA, complained to me about how cyclists would take up the entire right lane on Saturday morning group rides. Interestingly, she was referring to the famous Simi Ride, which is what I was participating in when I broke my neck in 2007, and subsequently wrote my book about (Head Over Wheels). Anyway, it’s a four-lane road, so cars have ample opportunity to move to the left lane to pass. My colleague simply thought cyclists were not allowed to be in the lane, so I had some explaining to do. Yes, we are allowed in the lane. “But then why don’t you stay on the right of it so you don’t block us cars?” she asked. Well, with 150 cyclists in a group and a four-lane road, it’s completely legal and logical that they should go ahead and use the entire right lane because motorists have a lane for passing. Besides, the cyclists ride at 25-30 mph, so they’re going almost as fast as cars anyway, I explained. She finally understood my points, but I don’t think she liked cyclists any more than she did before. (Since I was her boss, she HAD to give in! haha)

 But cyclists can fall under the evils of “group dynamics”

I have mentioned this in previous postings, how in groups, cyclists seem more prone to running stop signs and red lights, or turning in front of oncoming cars. From what I have witnessed, the level of flagrancy is proportional to how strong the riders are — the faster and more experienced the group, the more they ignore the rules. Groups seem to feel there is safety in numbers, as far as not being singled out for breaking a rule, so many of them just go along with the crowd. Unfortunately, they are ruining our reputation and respect among motorists. And then they wonder why motorists don’t want to share the road.

I can think of a few reasons for my observations:

1) Fast riders are focused on performance, and do not want to slow down or stop unless absolutely necessary (e.g., to avoid getting hit by a car). Not only does this lead to running stop signs and red lights, but they maintain less “situational awareness” because each rider is focused on the wheel in front of him or her. This, in turn, can lead to missing clues that a car is about to turn right or left into them.

2) The front rider in a pace line feels expected to pull hard for everyone behind him, and doesn’t want to “unnecessarily” slow down or stop lest he lose respect from his mates. The lead rider is the one responsible for all those behind him, and should be slowing (if the situation demands it) and stopping for the group, but he has pressure to do just the opposite.

3) Those farther back in a group want to remain with the group. When the lead riders hit a green light that changes behind them, the rest of the group just runs the red light to stay with them. They figure the waiting cars will not just run them down, so they go ahead. And at stop signs, the lead riders might slow down a bit and call out “clear” if there are no cars immediately waiting (4-way stop) or coming (two-way stop), and then run the stop sign. But in a moment or two, the oncoming-vehicle situation may change, which should cause following cyclists to stop. But they usually do not – they must stay with the group. What they do is piss off motorists, who lose respect for us. Recently on a group ride, the lead riders turned left on a major highway because no cars were coming. However, then a car did come and he had to slam on his brakes since the following cyclists were just playing “follow the leader” right across in front of him. He honked and yelled, as one would expect, and I can only imagine how much his respect for cyclists fell after that.

4) Novice cyclists learn from the “fast guys”. Those fast guys originally learned from the previous fast guys. The fast guys, in other words, “set the rules” and teach everyone else. The “scofflaw” cycling culture propagates itself with each generation riding the way they always have – and in groups it seems to be the worst. “I want to be like the fast guys. They are so good because they never slow down — and look how talented they are to avoid ever having to.”

Solutions?

From what I’ve seen, group riding “rules” are so embedded that for many groups I do not see things changing any time soon. I can sit here and complain about what I’ve experienced in groups, but unless the best riders in a group are willing to set new rules before the group departs, and establishes a new paradigm attitude among the entire group, then nothing will change.

If I were one of the fast guys, I would gather all the riders before departure and say that, in the name of improving bicyclists’ respect among the public, we will follow all rules, wait for all riders to catch up if those farther back get hit by a signal that the front riders did not, we will slow down in dicey situations, we will use hand signals, etc. I know it sounds Pollyanna, but I wish all the best riders would realize the responsibility they have in groups to improve cycling habits and the respect we get from the public.

P.S. GOOD NEWS! Turns out I may be too pessimistic. Five minutes after completing this posting, I opened an e-mail from the Cincinnati Cycling Club, which I just joined. Someone was announcing a club ride for tomorrow night, and at the bottom it stated in big red letters: We WILL stop at stop signs. We WILL stop at all stop lights. We WILL follow all the rules of the road.  Hurrah! It seems that some clubs are taking the proactive steps needed to change the culture I have complained about in this posting.

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