A lot of people I talk with about cycling, including many cyclists, simply don’t understand how I, or anyone, can ride a bike on a street or highway. “I couldn’t do that — I wouldn’t want to! It’s way too scary for me … it just seems so unsafe with all the cars and trucks, and I just don’t trust drivers!”
Motorists often share those sentiments although in a slightly different way.
“I really don’t like seeing cyclists on the road. I know they have a right to be there and all, but they scare me — I mean, I’m afraid I might hit one of ‘em sometime! I just don’t trust ‘em.”
As you can imagine, I don’t subscribe to either of these views, though I do understand them. If, as a cyclist, you’re really afraid to ride on a street or highway, I’d prefer, speaking as both a fellow-cyclist and as a motorist, you stay on the trails (not on sidewalks, though, which are for pedestrians!).
The cyclist who is fearful of traffic really shouldn’t be on the road because that fear manifests itself as a lack of confidence which then leads to a lack of control resulting in erratic and unpredictable behavior while on the bike. To me, the only cyclist scarier than one riding in an erratic, unpredictable fashion is one who deliberately ignores or flouts the rules of the road.
I don’t have the statistics to prove it, but I strongly suspect that the latter stands a far better chance of being hit and seriously injured or killed. I still get anxious when I see a hesitant, unconfident cyclist in traffic, though, because even if the odds are slightly lower, the end result can be the same.
Over the summer I observed a number of instances where a cyclist’s lack of confidence and control put them at risk. Sometimes I was riding with them or close by and had the chance to offer some constructive feedback on their cycling behavior.
Most of the time they seemed appreciative and, for a bit at least, we could all ride less apprehensively. It didn’t mean they got over their fears, but they managed to call up enough confidence to get back home or to a nearby trail with less risk to themselves or others. When I was behind the wheel of my car, there wasn’t much I could do except hope their behavior improved somehow and they got to their destination safely.
In August, riding a multi-day event in eastern Montana with some 350 other experienced cyclists ostensibly knowledgeable about the risks and the rules of riding on highways, I witnessed way too many instances of what I’ll call cycling hubris. That’s a combination of over-confidence (especially in the skill, ability, and attention of other cyclists and motorists), a sense of entitlement (it’s “my” road, so get over it all of you out here with me), and distraction (the scenery, the conversation with friends, etc., degrading attention and alertness).
Needless to say, that kind of attitude and behavior can raise risks significantly. It also doesn’t endear a cyclist to a motorist any more that it would a motorist to a cyclist.
Perhaps a story closer to home best illustrates the central point I’m trying to make. Last month I got a call from a motorist who wanted to talk about an incident she’d been part of. Now, fortunately no one was hurt, no property was damaged, but she called to tell me she’d been concerned as a motorist by the behavior of a group of cyclists she’d seen out on the roads in Sequim.
She was quick to tell me she had nothing against cyclists and understood their right to be on the road.
Her complaint was about how they were riding and she listed the things that, she said, made her fearful she might inadvertently hit one of them. In short, this group of cyclists had become distracted — they were more involved in socializing than in paying attention and, as a result, they were erratic and unpredictable.
More specifically, according to this woman, they were riding two-or three abreast instead of single file, they seemed unaware of traffic behind them, and they made sudden turns without signaling. They weren’t rude or disrespectful to her; they just didn’t seem to her to be as aware and as careful as she thought they should be.
Given the location and the time of day, I knew which group she was talking about. I ride frequently with those same cyclists. And I know them well enough to say that this was neither a fear of being on the road nor cycling hubris.
In this case was it was kind of “occupational hazard” that comes with riding regularly in a familiar setting along the same routes: cycling complacency.
I know what that’s like because I’ve found myself making the same mistakes; I simply got far too comfortable and didn’t have my “head in the game” the way it should be when riding a bike on a street or highway.
So the following Friday, before our ride I took advantage of our regular “safety check” briefing before we head out to remind my friends (as well as myself) of the need to always ride alert and be predictable. Being who they are, they took that feedback onboard and the ride that day (as well as those since) have been safer and more in keeping with what we always aspire to as good cyclists.
If the woman I talked with had been out driving that day, she’d have seen a more responsible, alert group of cyclists.
For myself and my fellow cyclists, I’d like to thank her again raising the issue and politely conveying her concern. This is another way of “sharing the road” so that it’s safer and more enjoyable for everyone. Thank you!
Ken Stringer is president of the Olympic Peninsula Bicycle Alliance. Cycling Around is a monthly column focused on cycling in Sequim and the surrounding area. For more information, go to www.olympicpeninsulacycling.com or contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.