Brooking photo

Stories From the Road

We all have stories. When it comes to bicycling, they are all too often negative. Bicyclists gripe about motorists, motorists gripe about bicyclists, media outlets play up the conflict with an endless stream of “bikes vs. cars” stories, and social media magnifies all of it. It can get downright discouraging.

Too frequently, it’s these negative stories that stick with us. We remember the one motorist who honked at us, and forget the other 99 who passed us safely with no drama. But not only do we get a great majority of drama-free interactions, we also sometimes have good interactions! At least I do. I hope you do too. Let’s try to remember some of them.

Motorists are excellent at taking direction.

CyclingSavvy “stay back” gesture

To start, there are many positive situations that happen too often for me to remember specific instances. For example, I may need to hold back a motorist in an unsafe passing situation, then release them afterwards. If I have held them back with the CyclingSavvy “stay back” gesture, left arm diagonally downward, palm back, I like to release with a friendly wave. That’s usually the end of the situation. That typically happens up to a half dozen times on my 5-mile commute.

If they’ve had to stay behind me a longer-than-normal time, I try to make my gratitude more pronounced by not just waving, but turning my head and mouthing “Thank you” as I wave. Occasionally, I’ll be rewarded with an obviously friendly short beep. A few weeks ago, I even got a thumbs-up! Thumbs up

Bicycle hand signals

© Urban Cycling Survival Guide

That reminds me of at least once in the past when someone slowed next to me after a turn to say he appreciated that I knew the hand signals and used them.

We talk about this kind of communication a lot in the CyclingSavvy classroom session. I like to say that communication is the most useful thing that most cyclists never do. One of the things motorists sometimes say they dislike about cyclists is how often they seem to be oblivious to what is going on around them. While I think it’s probably not always true that they’re completely oblivious, many do seem unaware of how much communicating would help the situation. They are shy about interacting with motorists, or don’t even know how.

Two Lights Road in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

A motorist thanked me for preventing him from making an unsafe pass on this road!

I always try to tell the story in my classroom presentation about my trip to a seafood restaurant in a nearby coastal town, which I blogged about here a few months ago. Spoiler alert: The motorist behind me for 1/2 mile or so actually thanked me for actively holding him back when passing was not safe, and of course releasing him when it was.

Riding in the "right tire track" in a travel lane can encourage unsafe passing.

This bicyclist may not realize he is tempting motorists to pass too closely

In a recent conversation about this topic with my wife, she said that whenever she happens to be behind me on my bike when she’s in her car, she appreciates how clear I am about my intentions, by my lane position and signaling. I’ve had several other people say the same thing over the years. From the opposite perspective, someone told me once that what she finds most difficult about dealing with cyclists on the road is not getting any indication from them of what she’s supposed to do. I think part of that  confusion is how many cyclists hug the edge as close as they can even in an unsafe passing situation, subconsciously tempting following motorists to do just what the cyclist fervently hopes they don’t. Ever since I heard that, I’ve tried even harder to be clear in such situations.

Sometimes we can read too much into a situation. For example, we’ve all experienced motorists gunning their engines as they pass. It always sounds aggressive, like they’re expressing impatience towards us. But years ago, someone on a mailing list pointed out that it could just be that this is the way engines sound when the driver is trying to get back up to speed quickly, especially if they are going uphill. Maybe, just possibly, it’s not about us!

Closely related is the common aphorism which I would express in this context as: “No need to attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by carelessness or misunderstanding.” Sometimes the motorist may actually be unaware of what they did. Pursuing a discussion with a motorist is often unproductive, but on occasion, it has ended well.

Two months ago on a 4-lane road, a motorist passed me somewhat closely (not completely in the next lane), at what felt to me to be a high rate of speed. I admit that I was ticked off enough that I kept an eye out for the distinctive pickup truck, and saw it in a parking lot a few blocks up. I decided to approach it, and the driver was still sitting in it, so I calmly asked her about it. She was unable to tell me how fast she was going, but was very apologetic. She explained that she had been the second car behind me, and didn’t realize I was there until the car ahead of her changed lanes to pass, so she was a little startled. She then told me that she used to ride a motorcycle, but stopped after having gotten in a crash. I still feel she could have been more careful, but she apologized multiple times, and we left on good terms. I hope she is more careful in the future.

Once a “student driver” car passed me and did something I didn’t like, I forget exactly what. Maybe passed a little close, or honked. I happened to catch up to them at the next light and asked what that was about. The teacher in the passenger’s seat said that they hadn’t meant anything bad by it, and that I certainly had the right to be riding where I was.

Another time two guys in the car I caught up with at their apartment building lot told me that as a bicyclist, I had more right to the road than they did! That’s not exactly correct, but I’ll take it.

Of course, every once in a while, a motorist is undeniably a real jerk. Even then, it’s possible that they are just a jerk to everyone, not just you on your bike. Riding an arterial road past some interstate ramps a few years ago, I heard some honking quite a distance behind me, and looked back to see a car driver apparently harassing another car driver. When the harasser passed me, my annoyance was immediately replaced with great amusement by this bumper sticker on the back of the car he (yes, he) was driving:

Humorous Bumper Sticker

His wife’s car? If so, he was certainly proving her point! Maybe he was already put out by having to drive her car around with that sticker on it.

Winter Cycling Cartoon (copyright Calvin & Hobbes)

Me and my son? 😀

It’s always nice of course to have friendly interactions that just arise organically, rather than out of a potential negative interaction. The one that stands out in my mind is the motorist who complimented me one snowy winter day because he had seen me out there every day, and just wanted to tell me that he admired my tenacity. (I think he may have been a fair-weather cyclist himself.)

Friendly interactions also happen with other non-motorized users. For example, it’s always nice to stop for pedestrians and have them thank you as they cross. I especially hope that when I do this in our busy Old Port area where the tourists roam, it gives them a positive image of our city, so friendly that even the cyclists stop to let them cross! 🙂

Most recently, just a few weeks ago a “roadie” in full kit passed me on my morning commute and complimented my on my new CyclingSavvy jersey that I was wearing that day. (Thanks, Gary Cziko!)

Just another day biking in traffic. 😀

John Brooking in CyclingSavvy Jersey

John Brooking modeling the new CyclingSavvy jersey. If you would like one, consult the sizing charts at hubbubonline.com to determine your size, then email Gary Cziko at gcziko@gmail.com. They are fitted jerseys, so you can order a size or two higher if you want a more relaxed fit.

1 reply
  1. Frank Krygowski
    Frank Krygowski says:

    Regarding communication: I find it very helpful to “take charge” at four way stops and roundabouts, always strictly according to the law of course. As I approach, I will “wave through” a driver already stopped at a 4-way, who may be uncertain I’ll stop. Conversely, when I’m in a roundabout and a motorist approaches a bit briskly, I’ve put my palm out in a “stop!” signal and seen very satisfactory deceleration. Many motorists are confused by the presence of bicyclists. It helps to give them guidance!

    Reply

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