By Coach Robert Wilhite
In Part 2 of this series, I spotlighted the unique responsibilities of the cyclist in the back of the group. The topic for this post is more of a continuation for that same cyclist — just a different real-life scenario.
Blind Spots Scenario
When we are out for a ride, there are all kinds of blind spots that present themselves to us. Many of us are not aware of these blind spot scenarios, or we haven’t given them much thought and therefore we don’t ever do anything about them during the ride. Let me explain.
The group is cranking down the road and everyone is dialed in. We are focused on the wheel in front of us, and that’s typically about it. We rarely take into account what the terrain is doing at any given moment, or rather, what it’s about to be doing — it’s all about keeping up with that wheel in front of us. Hey, I get it. I don’t like to get dropped either, and if I have to push it a bit to keep up, that’s what I’m going to do. Especially if I know someone is on my wheel. But suddenly the road is abruptly pitching up, or it has a really tight turn up ahead, which creates an obvious blind spot. A blind spot for who? Motorists!!!
Riding With “Only” A Cyclist’s Mentality
Let’s say we’ve just started to approach one of these blind spots. I’m going to use a hill an example, because I want to share some real-life stories to drill this point home beyond a reasonable doubt.
If we are only focused on what our group is doing and staring at the wheel ahead of us, again we create that “riding in a bubble” scenario I first mentioned in Part 1. Hopefully by now you’re realizing that’s not necessarily the best way to ride.
Now we have a hill we’re about to climb and our typical thoughts are about how fast someone is going to attack it, are our legs feeling strong enough to attack it hard enough not to get dropped or if we do get to the top with group, will we need to shut down to give our legs a chance to recover. What about if we do start to slow down, will we get passed on the right, the left, or both? Are we in too hard a gear to climb, which just killed whatever momentum we previously had?
All of these real-life thoughts are focused on one thing — ourselves. Or, we can stretch that a bit and say we’re thinking about the group because we’re wondering what everyone else is going to do on the hill. I’ll give you that. But the bottom line is that even with this stretch, our typical thoughts are only focused ourselves and the cyclists directly around us. Instead of staying alert to our surroundings, traffic, etc., we are using our attention to consider how and if we’re going to survive the hill.
Riding With A Motorist’s Mentality
Same group. Same hill. Same blind spot. Vehicles approaching from behind. Yes, those same “cycling” thoughts are still there, but now we need to additionally think about what that driver might do. Right?
If we do nothing, one real-life scenario is they slam their foot to the floor and blow by us as fast as they can. Why? Because they are getting irritated about cyclists spread out all over the lane and stretched out quite a bit. All they see is us as an inconvenience and we’re going to slow them down to where they are going. Remember, no one at the back has tried to communicate with them, and because of that, we’ve created an “us vs them” scenario of who has the right to be there. Bottom line, doing nothing does not foster a potentially positive response by that driver; in most cases, it’s the opposite. So, let’s change that as best we can.
Instead of doing nothing, those riding in the back of the group should be purposefully paying attention to any vehicles that might be approaching from behind, especially when we see an upcoming blind spot. Next thing you know, there is one and they’re right on our wheel just as we are approaching the initial climb.
Because we know the climb creates a blind spot, we are going to move to the left center of the lane, and then hold out our left arm straight with our fingers spread out (the generic police officer signal to stop); this sends a very clear signal to that driver directly behind us that we are “taking the lane” and we are telling them it is not safe to pass.
Periodically, as we get closer to the crest of the hill, we are going to noticeably sit up in the saddle so we can see as far ahead as possible. Trust me, motorists will see this and it’s fairly easy to guess what we’re doing. Even if they don’t, our position and arm signal is more than enough to communicate with them.
Once we reach the crest of the hill, we purposefully do our best to look up and around the front of the group, to see if there are any vehicles approaching in the opposite direction, or if the road becomes straight and clear enough for long enough for the motorist to pass the entire group, safely.
That motorist can’t see the front of the group or what the road and traffic conditions are. We have the slight advantage here. As soon as we see it’s safe for the pass, we wave our left arm to let them know. Finally, as they are literally passing us, we wave to them. None of this is difficult to do — it just takes conscious thought and effort.
Every single time, when I’m in the back and approaching a blind spot, I do what I just described. Almost 100 percent of the time, that motorist stays right there and my body actions are such that they can see I am constantly looking ahead to see when it’s safe for them to pass. You don’t have to be 6 feet 4 inches and wear all yellow, like me, for a motorist to see what you’re doing — you just have to make it intentional to catch the attention of that motorist.
I mentioned I purposefully chose this scenario because I wanted to share real-life examples, to prove my point.
When I was the head cycling coach for a local club, I facilitated all the club training rides. On one such ride, I was riding beside a few cyclists when we approached a small climb, which still created a blind spot. As you just read, I moved all the way over to the left, even though there were no vehicles behind us at that specific moment.
Because this route was pretty hilly, with endless rollers, those same cyclists saw me do this abrupt movement to the left several times, all of which there were no vehicles behind us. It took a few times of me doing this before one in the group asked me, what the heck was I doing? I explained it just the way I’ve done in this post, but I also literally pointing out the blind spots and them actually seeing it, on the spot, which was a huge advantage. They immediately got it. Collectively, all of them had the same response — they had never thought about the whole blind spot perspective, either from a cyclist’s perspective or from a motorist’s perspective. But, they saw it and they got it.
The very next hill — you guessed it — I did what I had been doing all along. This time, not only was there a vehicle behind us but it was clear they were trying to pass us, even though there was a clear blind spot. I continued to motion to them with my arm and stretched fingers.
At one point, they actually started to cross the center line but because I stayed in my same position, I can only assume they realized they weren’t going to take the chance of passing us in a huge blind spot. My position was forcing them to get all the way into the oncoming lane to do so. As soon as they got back into our lane, an oncoming vehicle came blowing over the hill; it was obvious they were going well over the speed limit. When my buddies saw the oncoming car come flying over the hill, all I heard was, “Whoa!!!”
After I signaled it was safe to pass, I waved as they drove by us and we got that gentle toot on their horn. Once we got past the crest of the hill, everyone was blown away that what I had just described to them really worked. They just witnessed it with their own eyes. Had I not been riding on the far left, had I not continually signaled to that motorist, had I not sat up in the saddle, clearly indicating to that motorist I was trying to look ahead, I’m convinced that motorist would have not pulled back into our lane, but they would have continued to pass — right into that oncoming vehicle that they couldn’t see.
Now, let’s pose the obvious question. If that motorist continued to pass us and then saw the oncoming vehicle flying over the crest of the hill, what do you think the passing motorist would have done? Well, as I see it, they only had four choices: 1. not enough time to react and a head-on collision would have occurred, 2. the motorist could have swerved to the left, which is not human nature and almost never happens, and probably gone off the road, 3. the motorist would have swerved to the right, to try and get back into the lane, which is human nature, or 4. they could have slammed on their brakes, hoping they could stop and hoping the oncoming car would do the same.
No matter which one you think would have happened, the real question is what do you think would have happened to us? I think it’s safe to say that we would have been hit, ran over, ran off the road; all the above. The probability us escaping this without serious bodily injuries or worse is highly unlikely. Those riding with me at the time, learned this valuable lesson in the best way possible — up close and personal.
I can guarantee you they will never forget that scenario. Matter of fact, I was riding in a big charity event a few years later and our group caught up with another group, which included two cyclists who was riding with me on that training day. As we merged into one big group, a hill suddenly appeared in front of us. Guess who were the first to move over to the left? Yup, those same two cyclists. I had a huge smile on my face!
In closing, I hope this scenario becomes just as real to you as it did to those riding buddies that day. I guarantee you, if you ride long enough, you will experience this real-life example — and when you do, if you’re on the back, I hope you consider doing what I do every single time, and what I saw my riding buddies do a couple years later. In my opinion, this maximizes our safety, the safety of every cyclist in front of us and it bridges the communication gap between us and motorists. Though they may not realize it (fully) at the time, your actions and mine at the back, also maximizes their safety, too. That’s riding with a motorist’s mentality.
Just to clarify, will actions such as I’m advocating here work every single time? Of course not. There will always be the kind of drivers, who, no matter how much we try to do the right thing and communicate with them as best we can, will act in a manner that could or will jeopardize our safety. However, I’m convinced that if we cyclists ride with more of a motorist mentality, we actually can make a positive difference in their perspective, how they think about us and, most importantly, how they react around us.
Stay tuned for Part 4, which will be the final post on this series. If you have a topic you’d like for me to cover, just post in the comment section of my blog. As always, I would love to hear your feedback and what’s you’ve seen or experienced on this scenario.
See ya on the road.
John D. says
Great advice! I have been engaging with motorists that way for many years, so far…so good.
I’ve realized that most drivers really don’t know what to do as they approach from behind (I wear TAKE-A-LOOK mirror on my Tifosis so I know where they are). When I signal with my arm, either to pass or slow down due to approaching traffic, most usually they respond positively. And many times, as they go by, almost always WAY around, they wave back or toot toot in appreciation. I think very few drivers want to hit a cyclist, they just don’t know how to deal with us. We can help with hand signals.
I also wave at oncoming cars / trucks on lonesome roads. The bigger the truck, the more energetic my wave. 98% wave back. Now drivers on my usual routes often see me and wave first. What the hell, can’t hurt, right?
robert wilhite says
that’s exactly the scenario we all can create….. extremely few riders even think about trying to make a positive connection with motorists, but what you described, and the countless times for me, it CAN BE DONE. we just gotta get more riders outside of their little bubble when riding.
Mike M says
These are thoughtful, considerate, and safe approaches to riding. Thank you, and I look forward to the next post.
robert wilhite says
and that’s the WHOLE reason I write these articles, is to get folks to stop and think. even if they don’t agree 100%, at least they consider other perspectives that they may not have every thought about.
one more article in this series….coming up!!!!!
Will Haltiwanger says
I use hand signals to tell cars when to wait and when to pass. Also when a truck or SUV passes me I to give a wave indicating when it is safe for them to pull back to the right since their rear visibility is limited.
Dan Driscoll says
An additional thought is to be aware of the painted striping on the road. Once our group waved a driver past us, but it was a double yellow line, the driver was pulled over by a police man for passing in a “no passing zone”, as bikes are vehicles in our state, we had encouraged the driver to break the law.
Waving at motorist, is powerful, it lets them know we are real people, also, not just a bike.
robert wilhite says
good point Dan. we gotta make sure what laws are in our state regarding passing on solid yellow line. it’s legal in GA.
Greg Titus says
I want to differ on the advice for cyclists in the rear of a group to wave a car on when it’s clear for them to pass. Unless everyone in the group knows that you’re waving for that car to pass, you shouldn’t do it. There can be a cyclist in the group who doesn’t know a car is overtaking, and veer left (for whatever reason) into the path of the overtaking car. If there’s someone in the group who might not be aware that a car is being “told” it’s OK to pass, then those in the back should not signal the car to pass. Let the driver exercise his/her judgment to pass when it’s safe. Motorist irritation in this scenario is a secondary issue, and not as important as getting a safe pass executed.
Riding solo or with only one or two other cyclists is a different scenario and I don’t differ with the advice in those situations
Kerry Irons says
Agree on this point. And while it is sort of implied by the general theme of these articles, the person at the back should also be continuously communicating verbally to the rest of the group. They need to know there is a vehicle behind and if that vehicle starts to pass, they need to hear about it from the tail gunner.
robert wilhite says
Correct, Kerry. communication from the back, forward is JUST as important as from the front, backwards….
Jack Hohag says
Every time a driver from behind makes an obvious effort to give me tons of space when passing, I do the hi-sign-thank-you wave. I agree with John D; Giving motorists recognition for being considerate and safe can’t hurt.