By Coach Robert Wilhite
At the ending of my last post, I alluded to writing a series about riding with a motorist mentality. If you didn’t read that post, I hope you do, because it sort of set the stage for this series. Many cyclists, family and friends (especially in metro Atlanta) found out on Facebook I was hit by a car on March 8th of this year. It should have either killed me or at the very least, left me paralyzed and in a wheel chair. Without going into the details (which I’ll do when my case settles), it’s only by the grace of God that neither of those options became a reality.
No More Procrastination
I mention my accident because when you’ve had that close an encounter with death, at least for me, it causes me to re-evaluate my life and those things on my “to-do” list; all the sudden they have a greater importance. Regarding cycling, one of those “to-do’s” has been to crack open the discussion of how cyclists ride — and how our actions can directly affect and impact what motorists do.
After seeing the same things happen over and over and over and over on just about every group ride, I’ve felt compelled to share my perspective from riding 250,000 miles on a road bike in 23 years, and what I’ve not only seen, but also what I’ve done personally and how that has literally changed things for when I ride.
I’ve stayed hesitant because I knew these topics would be controversial, go against many ideas and perspectives that so many cyclists have when they clip in. Now that I’ve been spared, I’m not going to wait any longer. So, here it goes…
One At A Time
For this post, and each one to follow in this series, I’m going to focus on one scenario at a time; one, just for the sake of the length of the post and the other to not dilute one scenario with another. I really want to narrow your attention down.
As with every topic I’ve ever written, I’ll share my perspective, the reasons why behind it, and then let you decide if you will embrace it, reject it or maybe adjust your current perspective to some degree. My bottom line motivation is to get you to think about cycling in an entirely new way. Riding as fast we can ride seems to have trumped everything else about riding, including safety. Don’t believe me? Just show up for your typical weekly or weekend group ride.
Riding in the Back Scenario
The focus of this post is the last person in a group or if you are riding solo. This person has a unique responsibility (and advantage) that no other cyclist in front of them has. Yet, I have rarely seen those at the back ever fulfill their responsibility.
In my opinion, I believe this is caused by two reasons: 1. cyclists typically ride with a “follow the leader” mentality, meaning they are relying on those at the front to do everything for the group; after all, they can see what’s up ahead, right?, and 2. this unique responsibility is never discussed at any group ride, nor have I ever heard it talked about off the bike.
Let’s take this last rider in the back and walk through what generally happens when the group is approaching an upcoming left turn. In reality, the typical “cyclist mentality” is when a left turn is about to happen, the riders up front tend to be the ones who begin to merge to the left before anyone else behind them. Yes, there will be that occasional rider somewhere in the pack who may start to merge left, either at the same time or before those at the front. That is not the norm; more the exception. Again, that’s because cyclists tend to ride with a “follow the leader” mentality. Doesn’t that strike you as inherently wrong? It should. If it doesn’t, then I would ask you to consider the following.
First off, you gotta ask the obvious question of “Who in the group has the best visual advantage to see if there are any vehicles approaching behind the group?” Of course, it’s the riders in the back; that’s a no-brainer. Well, in reality, it’s exactly the opposite. Most every group ride, do we don’t rely on those in the back to let those of us (in front of them) know if it’s clear to merge to the left or not.
The bigger the group, the more evident those on the front are clueless about what’s happening in the back — it’s impossible. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize who has the best advantage point in this scenario, and who we should be relying on for this left turn scenario.
Anytime I’m in the back of a group, and I know we are approaching a left turn, about to stop or even making a right turn, I take the responsibility to not only alert any vehicles behind us (by signaling to them) of what we’re about to do, but I also let everyone in front of me know it clear to do so. For the left turn, once I look back and see it’s clear to move over to the left of the lane, I yell out “I’ve got the lane.” There’s never been a time when I’ve done that, that it’s caused confusion; everyone knows what that means.
But I can count on one hand, with a few fingers left over (unfortunately), how many times I can recall others riding in the back having done the same thing. Isn’t that what makes the most sense, for the obvious reasons?
From A Motorist Perspective
Now, we’re going to take this exact scenario and now put yourself in the drivers seat. You’re driving along and all the sudden, you see this group of riders moving over to the left, without any signal whatsoever from the pack. In one split second, you are confused at not only what those cyclists are doing but also why are they doing it? Again, no one in the back of the group has signaled they are turning left.
I say this because in the real world, just about the only cyclists signaling are those at the very front, and everyone behind them assumes if those at the front turned, then it must be safe for them to go too. Many times without any signal at all! Trust me, many times when I’ve been at the back, I’ve purposefully waited to see if those riding with me would: 1. look back to see if it’s clear, 2. take the lane first and then let everyone in front of them know they are taking the lane, or 3. signal to the vehicles behind us that we were turning. Sadly, I’m still waiting.
Because cyclists typically ride with that follow the leader mentality, we are thinking more about what’s happening in front of us than what’s behind us. Yes, I get that and totally understand we need to have that mentality, but only having that mentality creates an immediate gap of communication from cyclists to motorists.
That follow the leader mentality is just part of the cyclist mentality; all that does is create a bubble when we’re out on the road. If you never take into account what that driver is doing, potentially thinking, etc. then this invisible battlefield that exists, will just continue to get worse.
When we “take the lane,” this is visually communicating to those drivers behind us that we are purposefully occupying that space in the lane; that’s the “what.” Signaling to them of our impending left turn tells them the “why” behind my actions. There’s no ambiguity. Furthermore, when I’m on the back, I also stretch out my left arm with my fingers spread open, which is the universal signal police officers use to get us to stop when they are standing out directing traffic. This static signal tells that driver behind us to not pass but stay back.
Doing this, not only protects me, but every rider in front of me. All I did was change my position and use my arms…in a very specific manner. We can’t assume motorists behind us know what we are doing; they’re clueless. We have to be the ones to communicate with them and the BEST ones in a group to do that, are those in the back of the group.
I’m going to close this post out with what I’ve witnessed (unfortunately) countless times, when those in the back fail to fulfill their unique responsibility. This is their responsibility. When merging to the left, and this is when I’ve not been in the back, I’ve seen motorists who will fly by us — on our left — right where we are trying to go.
In a few instances, when that vehicle was blowing by us on the left, there ‘happened’ to be a gap in the group turning, and no one was hit — barely. If you haven’t been in the middle of this exact scenario, then you ride long enough and you will, unfortunately.
This is why when I’m not in the back and we are turning, I do my best to be in a position to look back to see for myself if it’s really clear or not. Why? Because no one in the back is doing their job. NO ONE cares about your safety more than you. Brutally honest…that rider in front of you is more concerned about themselves getting through that turn unscathed than what happens to you; they’re looking out for numero uno.
When you are riding in the back of the group, not only do you have that unique responsibility to communicate to all those cyclists in front of you, but you also have that unique responsibility to communicate to any motorists behind you. If we only think about ‘us’ when we’re riding on the road and forget or don’t think about those driving near us, then we do ourselves a huge disservice. The only motorists who are going to “get it” about what we are doing on the road, are those who are cyclists, too. That’s a very small percentage. Are you willing to bet your life with those who aren’t? I’m not. That’s why I’ve spotlighted this “back of the group” scenario, in hopes that you won’t either.
There you have it. I’ve laid out my case and what I’ve seen to be a huge missing component, and why. I would really like to get your thoughts. If you disagree, that’s great. Tell me why. If you never thought about it before, that’s great because now I’ve hopefully caused you to think about a realistic scenario that happens every time you clip in for a ride.
Follow my blog so you won’t miss the other posts for this series, or other topics I share about cycling in general.
Great analysis and rider advice.
Unfortunately there is typically a HUGE mix in riding conduct among riders in a group, even when a ride leader takes the time for a ‘pre-ride briefing’. Some very experienced riders don’t ride too well in a pack, and some relative newbs are very attentive. Some ‘back of the group’ riders reliably call out cars back/passing/lane clear while others say nothing & expect all commands/communications to come from the rider in front. And then there is typical rider rotation among pack positions complicating what conduct to expect from the Lantern Rouge of the moment.
Best advice I have for ANY position within the pack is to always communicate clearly with your fellow riders (with loud enough voice to be understood). And always expect that cars are out to kill you!
Thank you, I completely agree. Have been on rides in the past where people blow thru intersections and decided a long time ago to not trust. 🙂
Why not use a mirror? Cyclists are the only riders on the road that don’t use mirrors to look back. It may not look cool but it could save your life.
robert wilhite says
majority of riders don’t use mirrors,….for various reasons.
Dean Stevens says
Been using a mirror since 1972. You learned all those other road skills but not the mirror. Try your car with no mirror. Not fun. You can learn to use a mirror and be so much safer. More vision is better.
Wow, since 1972. Thanks and Great advice. I won’t ride without a mirror.
David Stihler says
Excellent, I get it. I was riding in a group during a bike driving training exercise and we were about to make a left turn (about 10 people) I was in the rear of the group with a follow on instructor behind me. Lots of traffic. As we closed on the intersection which would be a left turn for us, the person behind. me slid into the left turn lane and signaled. She then said, “I’m keeping the cars off of the group”. She was teaching me how to properly handle the back end of a pack. The interesting thing was those in the group had no idea this was taking place. They just made a safe left hand turn and all was well.
robert wilhite says
glad you got to see this dynamic in practice 1st hand. each one, teach one!!!!
Fortunately, where I am riding in a small city, we do not have large organized groups. Ours are about 3-6 people max. We always signal long and visibly. The drivers where we live are “mostly” very respectful, but there is always one that is not and I don’t want to be in their crosshairs. Your advice is very important and well taken. Thank you for this very enlightening article.
robert wilhite says
I need to come ride with you, then. metro Atlanta is NOT cycling friendly….by any means.
Jim Langley says
My tip would be to know what group you’re choosing to ride with. Any good group will have riders that when they’re at the back, shout out to warn of cars passing or waiting to pass. In decades of group cycling all over the country, I can’t remember the last time I was riding in a group and people behind me did not do this.. And, if I were to overtake a group and was sitting in at the back for awhile, I would alert the folks in front if a car was overtaking us.
robert wilhite says
WOW, then you’ve been incredibly fortunate. riding 23 yrs (mainly in GA) but in many states, I’ve been the lone ranger doing this. On a few, and I mean few, occasions, others picked up on what I was doing and started to do the same thing when they were at the back.
Great point. Thank you. I do not ride anymore with any group larger than 2-3 for a lot of reasons, but this is good info.
Ditto the comment about mirrors. I wouldn’t ride a bike without one. I learned to ride a motorcycle a couple of years ago and my training instructor emphasized how important it is to know what’s going on around you in every direction and be prepared to take action as needed. Why cyclists don’t want to know what’s approaching from behind mystifies me. How many right hooks might be avoided if you knew a vehicle was coming up from behind as you near a street or driveway? Some people call this is victim blaming but at least in the motorcycle world, you’re expected to be responsible for your own safety and always have an escape plan. BTW, let’s call the incident you experienced a collision rather than an accident (which implies no one was at fault).
larry english says
to me, this is a bunch of reasons why ”groups” create more dangers than they solve.
i have never seen the point of practice-racing on the street
i mean sure you go a little faster, but the danger and complication is way more
what is the point of going faster, to get home sooner?
you could also go faster with a fairing, or a recumbent with fairing, or riding behind a locomotive on a wooden track…
but no one does that..
so why do practice-peloton?
just my 2c
i have no experience with it, but also no motivation 🙂
Don Niemi says
I appreciated the article — especially the “ride wide” comments. I learned the hard way to ride wide when I was about 12, en route to pick up the newspapers I was to deliver. A driver opened a car door right in front of me, and I ran into it. I wished I had already picked up my newspapers; the weight of the papers in my basket might have caused some damage to the car door. Fortunately no one was hurt, nor was my bike damaged. And I had a lifelong lesson to ride wide. I have since taught my three children and seven grandchildren to ride. In addition to car doors, other reasons to ride wide include: if you’re close to the curb, your pedal can hit the curb on the downstroke and throw you off balance; sewer grates are a hazard if you’re close to the curb; if you’re riding close to parked cars, you down have time to react and avoid kids, balls, dogs, and squirrels running out into the street. Probably every reader of this newsletter knows all these things. I offer these thoughts as items to include when you’re training the next generation of riders.
Gary Pates says
Just like UPS I no longer do left turns I go through the intersection push the walk button and wait. I’m now 75 and have been hit twice recklessly turning left
Sound advice. Safety before everything.
robert wilhite says
For many years all of my road bikes have had this mirror and I would not leave home without it.
David B says
Mirror’s great if you’re in the back. If you’re in the front of a group… not all that much help, imho.
That’s why I don’t ride in groups.
Kerry Irons says
Agree completely, though many groups I have ridden with behave better than described here.. And as an experienced cyclist I assume the role of teaching others how to behave properly in a group. It’s the only way things get better.
David B says
And I thought I was the only one in the world that felt this way. The rear most rider should always initiate lane change type movements. When it’s initiated up front, by the time the rear riders start to move, there may be a car that has come up behind the lead riders in that lane and you basically have a small gridlock rolling down the road, a frustrated car driver, and a split group. I do this every time. When I’m at the back and I see a lane change signaled from the front (or know we’re going to turn because of the known route) I immediately signal and look back and try to make the move first to “take the lane” and then let everyone know it’s good to come over. As you say, complete no-brainer.
robert Wilhite says
Thanks David. You are not alone……just in VERY small company. Every group ride I’ve done this yr, everyone is brain-dead at the rear. Who ever called it “common” sense, should be shot. They SHOULD have called it “rare” sense!!!! Just sayin’
I always ride with a mirror on my glasses. My wife’s is attached to her helmet. I feel naked without it – like driving without my seat belt fastened. With the mirror on my glasses, I can glance behind me without turning my head. I can be looking down the road ahead and a quick flick of the eyes lets me know what is behind me.
True, We don’t drive our cars are motorcycles without mirrors. What makes bikes the exception?
Dustan Martin says
This is the way I try to drive, I was taught well. If I am following someone pulling a trailer it’s my job, as the one following, to get over first to clear the lane for the one pulling the trailer. Just makes life easier to work as a team. Same principle when several people are following each other while driving, if the one in back gets over first the group can stay together easier. However, just like riding in a group no one seems to have a clue how to work together as a unit or a team, and most people have no clue how to lead either, whether it’s following a friend when you don’t know where you are going or in a bike paceline.
John Klever says
Great article and comments. I would add the importance of NOT saying “Clear” at intersections but rather saying “Check it out”. By the time the whole group gets to the intersection, it may not longer be “Clear”. This is another example of following the leader into danger. “Check it out” also emphasizes an individual’s responsibility for his/her own safety.
Dean Stevens says
I always thought saying clear was dangerous. Saying check it out is a great idea. Thank you.
When making left turns the call of “take the lane” is ingrained in the culture of the Sumter Landing Bicycle Club https://slbikeclub.org On my first ride here I was like….brilliant!
robert Wilhite says
GREAT to hear your club is practicing AND teaching safe group riding dynamics!!! Yep, I typically yell out, “I’ve Got The Lane”…..and my voice carries really well.
In the town where I live the local club teaches “taking the lane” along with lots of other useful info in their annual New Rider Clinics. Unfortunately many riders admit they don’t ever see themselves doing such a thing as taking control of the lane. I like being the rider in the rear of the group so that I am able to practice this safety move, but, at the same time, it is also difficult to get people to lead. Thankfully, my groups are usually in the range of 8-12 participants and I am able to manage. Given a choice I would always choose to be in the back of the group.
Tom Alford says
At the beginning you spoke of your serious accident. In these two articles you’ve spoken of hugging the right and getting buzzed and “taking the road” and having cards move over for you. I’m wondering which position you were in when you were hit? Were you on a solo ride?
robert wilhite says
Hey Tom, I’d LOVE to provide details of me being hit, BUT my attorney told me not to put on the web.
Actually, while bound to the couch right after I got home from the hospital, I wrote an article, detailing my experience, why I was riding ‘where’ I was in the lane, etc. etc. I wanted to do that since it was all fresh on my mind.
When my case finally settles, posting that article will be the 1st thing I do. It’s incredibly detailed and I was NOT knocked out, so I remember and saw everything. My attorney read it and was blown away….
Stay tuned for that, but I’ll prob post that on my Blog (see my website).