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.
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In a former life, Coach Robert helped to develop (and race) a motorcycle road racing team, reaching speeds of 200 mph. Next, he gained invaluable insight from his swing coach into biomechanics while playing professional golf. When he started MyCycleCoach.com in 2005, he merged his handling skills of racing motorcycles, the principles of biomechanics from golf, along with him being a natural-born teacher, to create the most unique approach and effective philosophy to cycling that you could ever find. His 250,000 miles ridden on a road bike doesn’t hurt, either.
Don't miss his eBook that is as unique as Coach Robert: It’s NOT About SPEED: The Lost Art of Group Riding. An all-encompassing look into how group rides should function and real-life examples why most fail.