Getting the Road to Yourself

The key to confident cycling lies in your powers of observation. The safest and most competent traffic cyclists are not necessarily bold or fast. They are observant. They identify patterns in the chaos and they take advantage of them.

One thing most cyclists find intimidating is having a mass of speeding cars bear down upon them. Truthfully, it can be disconcerting to the most experienced and confident cyclist. But what the observant cyclist knows is that the mass of cars won’t last forever. Traffic lights create waves of traffic. And between them are gaps with few, or no, cars.

One of the things I’ve learned on my regular route is how to manage those gaps to my advantage. For instance, Corrine Drive can sometimes have intimidating waves of traffic. But I arrive at Corrine via Winter Park Rd. (mile 5 on the map). There is no turn on red there, so I can comfortably wait for a green without worrying about a motorist behind me wanting to turn right. When the light turns green, and I turn into the right lane. The cars behind me turn into the left lane and pass. Instantly they’re gone and I have the road to myself. (Note: Corrine has a parking lane and some cyclists treat it as a bike lane. I don’t ride in that, I ride in the right traffic lane.)

When the herd* is let loose, I’ve been established in the lane in clear view of them for a good long time. The motorists in the right lane manage to get their bad selves into the left lane by the time they get to me. They all go speeding by and I still have my lane to myself. When they’re gone, I have the whole road to myself and all is quiet again.

Now, in the unfortunate event that I arrive at a red light at Bumby and am first in line, the herd inevitably piles up behind me. I don’t much enjoy that. So I do one of two things. I proceed through on green, then make the next right and use the scenic route (which is a little less direct, but pleasant), or I pull over and wait 10 seconds for them to go away and have the road to myself again.

Revisiting the right-turn-on-green

This is a powerful tool unrecognized by most cyclists. When we think with motorist-mind, we think only of getting there ASAP. When we think with cyclist-mind, we should think of getting there via the path of least resistance. What’s 10 seconds when you can have the road to yourself? Many times, I see cyclists cutting corners or slipping around a right-turn-on-red, only to have a wall-o-traffic bearing down upon them. Then they squeeze themselves into the gutter to make up for the intrusion and they get buzzed. Self-induced stress. Ugh.

Study the dynamics of your route

You can learn to read traffic the way a whitewater kayaker reads a river.

I learned, by accident, that if I took Nebraska (mile 6) to 17-92, turned left, then right on Virginia Dr., I could get 2-lane Virginia to myself for almost its entire length. I discovered this because I got fed up with the crappy washboard pavement on the 4-lane section of Virginia. But the 2-lane section used to be a point of frustration, too, as impatient motorists would occasionally pass me into oncoming traffic, scaring the bejesus out of all of us.

I use a similar technique on Fairbanks Ave. on my way home in the evening. Unfortunately, the traffic light (at Dinky Dock – mile 5.3) is often not long enough to give me a good jump on the herd. New England dumps 2 lanes of left turners onto Fairbanks only seconds after the short green for Dinky. And they are, in the words of Phil Liggett, “in an angry mood” at rush hour. But in some brilliant act of traffic engineering, the upstream timing stops the Fairbanks traffic flow a few seconds before I get a green light. I watch the pedestrian countdown clock and at about 10 seconds I have a shot. Fairbanks is slightly down hill there, so the herd often can’t catch me before I hit the last curb cut for the Mizell offshoot. And I often can’t resist pumping a fist in the air when I beat them there. I’m silly like that.

(I wish Winter Park would put in a proper curb cut at Mizell and make that portion of Fairbanks an official bike route… if anyone’s listening.)

I recently suggested a route to a friend who was looking for an alternative to Palmer Ave., which is closed for construction. The alternate route included using the protection of a green light to turn right into the far left lane of US 17-92 in Maitland, ride one block and turn left at the next light into a network of residential roads. She’d easily get to the left turn lane before the herd got the green light. Route selection and technique are intertwined in smart cycling.

Turning left from a 6 lane arterial

Managing gaps works well for making vehicular left turns on multi-lane arterial roads. Sometimes, you can time your merge for a gap by slowing down a little. Remember, you can ride in that left lane for as much time as you need, so merge when you have the gap, don’t wait until you’re 50 feet from the intersection. Realize that no matter which lane you are claiming, overtaking traffic will be deflected into the other lane(s). It’s more difficult to merge when a wave of traffic is already flowing around you. So make that merge to the left lane in the gap and let the traffic flow around you to the right.

Anyone can do this!

You don’t have to be fast, aggressive, elite, or any such thing, to ride this way. You need to be observant. Watch the traffic patterns. Think through your moves. When you learn the dynamics of your regular routes, you can use it as a decoder ring for any roads you choose to travel.

First Come First Served

Always think in terms of being a slow moving vehicle with a right to your space on the road. While you have a gap, establish yourself in the lane you need for your direction of travel, then all you have to do is hold that position when the waves of motor traffic pass. They’ll go around you.

*It’s easy to think of traffic as a mindless herd rather than individual people driving vehicles and making choices. That has cultural consequences I won’t go into now. There is a certain amount of group-think occurring in traffic, but we cyclists can still humanize drivers through our interactions. For the purpose of this post, though, I’m treating traffic as a unit.

Smart Moves will be a series of related posts that offer tricks and tips for confident cycling.

6 replies
  1. Earl Lang
    Earl Lang says:

    Your verbalize things that i have learned the hardway, and make excellent sense with your “traffic wave theory”.
    With thousands of miles touring, I learned something from you today. Great job.

  2. rodney
    rodney says:

    My commute, especially the return, offers at most a 15 second delay at a major bottleneck. I’ve timed the “wave” and found once the last motorist has passed, I have the entire road for nearly two and a half minutes.

  3. Glenn
    Glenn says:

    Enjoyed your article. Only about 4.5 of my 13.5 mile commute is on streets (I have a wonderful river trail that is my cycling freeway along my route) but I have found a few places to do some of the things you mention. The right turn at a green light trick works great on one street where I turn right and in a short distance need to get to a left turn out across the three lane street. The green light protects me from the herd and gives me ample time and clearance to get across to the left lane. I like your analogy of reading traffic like a “whitewater kayaker reads a river”… it really does work that way.

  4. Jeff Gross
    Jeff Gross says:

    You approach a herd of cars stopped at a light. The road has a shoulder now, but it comes and goes elsewhere. The cyclists in front of you take the shoulder to get to the front of the line at the light. Your approach: get out in the lane, and take your place behind the last car. You avoid the stampede in front of you. No worries about getting right hooked by a turning car, and any cars that come up behind you can wait to pass you until you clear the intersection and move back to the shoulder. Tradeoff: your friends beat you down the street, but they have a less pleasant and more dangerous experience.

  5. Robert Raymond
    Robert Raymond says:

    I commute orlando and my route touches yours (Mapplewood over to Merritt Park, along Corrine). Same thing – the light at Bumby gives me the spacing so I can slip easily across.

    I need to find the next course held in Orlando and take it. I’m really having troubles coming south on 1792, from Lake to Lee. Frankly, I hold the sidewalk under the Railroad bridge – I can’t imagine any other way to do this. So I’ll take the next course and see what I learn.


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