Bicycling Street Smarts
7 - RIDING IN GROUPS
Whether you're touring, training or just exploring country roads, riding with friends can add a lot of fun to your bicycling. With a local bicycle club, you can meet people and share information about routes, equipment and bicycling events. In addition, athletically inclined bicyclists often push themselves harder and improve more when training together.
But you can spoil the fun if you run into one of your companions. Bike-bike crashes are just as common as car-bike crashes, so it's a good idea to give some attention to safe group riding.
THE SAFETY COCOON
Imagine a "cocoon" of space around each bicycle in your group of riders. It's easy to think that you can safely pass closer to a bicycle than a car, because the bicycle is smaller. But the bicycle can turn to the side just as fast as a car. Keep 3 feet of clearance when you're passing another bicyclist - more at high downhill speeds.
At any time, one of your riding companions might be about to pass you, so be especially careful to ride in a straight line. You don't have eyes in the back of your head, and you can't constantly trace the position of bicyclists behind you as you ride.
When you're about to pass another bicyclist, it's your responsibility to do it safely. The other members of your group can't read your mind to know that you are about to change position in the group. Check behind you before you change your lane position. Call out, "On your left" to the bicyclist you're passing, and pass on the left.
Never sneak past another bicyclist on the right - if you do, you force the other bicyclist farther toward the middle of the road without warning.
RIDING SIDE BY SIDE
Bicyclists often like to ride side by side so they can talk with each other. Riding two abreast is legal in most places. It's okay on a straight, flat road. There, drivers can see you from behind, and you can usually see or hear them approach.
Side-by-side bicyclists occupy a whole lane. On a multilane road with light traffic, cars can pass in the next lane. On a narrow road or with heavier traffic, be courteous! Don't make drivers wait for you. Pull into a single line well before cars reach you. It takes only one thoughtless rider out to the left of the group to endanger the whole group. Call out, "Car back" to let the group know it's time to single up.
A rear-view mirror helps you to check on the cars behind you. With a mirror, you can ride side by side more often and still pull back into a single line to let the cars pass you.
Never ride side by side on a hilly or winding road. Don't make yourself into a last-moment surprise to a motorist coming around a curve or over a hilltop.
INTERACTING WITH OTHER ROAD USERS
Some bicyclists fall for a "herd instinct" when riding in groups - as if the group protected them, or there's nobody else on the road besides the group. It's tempting to play "follow the leader" in a group of bicyclists - tempting but dangerous.
When preparing a lane change or turn, you must look out for yourself. It can be safe for the bicyclist ahead of you to change lane position, but not safe for you, since cars or other bicyclists could be approaching from the rear. You must look back for them just the same as when you ride alone. Look left, right, and left again for traffic at stop signs - don't follow the rider ahead of you into an intersection.
The only exception is in a tightly organized, small group that moves completely as a unit. The first and last riders are understood to be on the lookout for the entire group. Don't count on this service unless it's understood in advance.
When crossing lanes, a line of bicyclists should "snake" across, one at a time, each rider in turn. This way, you leave a safe passage for cars. A ragged line of bicyclists blocks the entire lane.
"Snaking" across a lane, the cyclists can allow the passing car to make its right turn, while they turn left. Each cyclist looks back before crossing the lane.
Make a neat, straight line when waiting at intersections. Groups of bicyclists who pile up at intersections block the road. This practice is unnecessary, discourteous and dangerous.
When you stop to rest, to read your map or to wait for companions, pull completely off the road. It's surprising how many bicyclists fail to observe this simple caution.
DRAFTING AND PACELINE RIDING
When you ride close behind another bicyclist, you don't have to work as hard. The bicyclist in front of you serves as a windbreak, reducing your air resistance. Experienced bicyclists take advantage of this effect, drafting each other in a paceline.
In a paceline, each bicyclist works hard for a little while at the front, and then drops back to the rear along the left side of the line of riders. Large groups may ride in two lines side by side - a double paceline, with the leaders dropping back along the outside, right and left.
A well-coordinated paceline is poetry in motion, but drafting is always a little risky. To take advantage of the windbreak effect, you must follow the rider ahead of you closely; but you must never let your front wheel overlap that rider's rear wheel. If the wheels touch, you suddenly can't balance and you'll almost certainly take a quick, hard fall. Other riders behind you may land on top of you. Ride in a paceline only if you've developed good control over your bike, and you know that the other bicyclists can also manage the situation safely.
Everyone in a paceline must ride smoothly, with no quick braking or swerving. Look past the rider in front of you: Don't stare at his or her rear wheel. Try to anticipate the moves the lead rider will make. The lead rider should announce road hazards: "Glass," "Dog right," "Car up," and maneuvers: "Slowing," "Left turn." The last rider should announce "Car back" when a car is about to pass the group. Hand signals aren't a good idea in a tight paceline group - it's more important to keep both hands on the handlebars.
Four types of pacelines. The two at the left are relatively easy, but the two at the right require a well-coordinated group of expert riders.
When you pull in behind another rider to draft, call out "On your wheel" so he or she will know you're there.
There's a major exception to these rules of cooperation: In a mass-start road race, riders often swerve deliberately to make it hard for others.
Meanwhile, other riders lurk behind, drafting each other until the final minutes when they sprint all-out for the finish line. The tactics of a race - drafting and solo sprints, cooperation and competition - make it exciting for the racers and spectators.
But leave this kind of excitement for the racers. When riding in a group, focus on cooperation, not competition. Relax and enjoy your ride!
Group riding can add a new dimension to your bicycling. Except in the special situations of the paceline or mass-start race, the rules of the road apply to you with other bicyclists just as they do with motorists. Remember to keep the safety cocoon around you, be predictable, and don't follow another bicyclist into a dangerous situation. The rewards of increased enjoyment of bicycling with others are well worth the extra attention.