View of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

When is the Best Defense a Good Offense?

12 Minute Read

An Eventful Few Weeks of Riding

I’ve had an eventful last two weekends when it comes to riding my bike.

Last weekend, we rode across three bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area. We saw the Rosie the Riveter park and statue and took a choppy ferry from Treasure Island back over to the City.

This weekend, we went over the Dumbarton bridge, south of us, all the way up through Niles Canyon and into Walnut Creek. I even had a collision with another cyclist coming the other way when he opted to cut a corner at the base of a pedestrian bridge. Luckily, I never went down, as I had already anticipated the close call and had unclipped. We actually both hit shoulder to shoulder. Unfortunately he fell, but also fortunately, we were both able to ride away without issue.

Today on a recovery ride, I had someone cut me off in a severely terrible and rude way, saving him maybe an entire second or two of his life while also endangering mine.

Suffice it to say, I have a lot of thoughts on the subject.

My Thoughts on Sharing the Road with Cars

I personally pride myself on being very self aware of my surroundings, especially so when on a bicycle. So things typically don’t take me by surprise. People cutting me off or doing crazy things are typically things I’ve come to expect at this point, depending on where I am riding.

Cyclists, cars, and pedestrians sharing a common space in Stinson Beach, CA

Overall, road riding in the US requires a bit of mettle and grit. The roads aren’t always very friendly, and us cyclists generally know which ones to avoid and which ones we can enjoy. A lot of this can be inferred by using Strava’s heatmap along with several other resources I’ve written about in a separate post.

To better handle road riding, I’ve generally found a few things to be very important:

  • Keeping speed is generally a good idea on busy roads, as it leaves less speed differential between you and the cars on the road
  • Being super obvious in your actions helps communicate your intentions
  • Knowing the usual hand signals further helps communicate your intentions
  • Being confident and, dare I say, being a jerk sometimes can often prevent problems from occurring in the first place
  • If you see the potential for a stupid decision to be made by others, expect it to happen and be prepared for it

Drivers Rarely Judge Distances Correctly

This is something that I want to have sympathy for, but given the standards that we also should hold drivers to, I kind of just don’t. Drivers always seem to think that they’re doing you a favor by speeding up to pass you, and then further don’t realize until it’s too late that they need to turn right in front of you. With 3000+ pounds of metal at their beck and call, the consequences of their actions are far too obfuscated to their immediate decision making than it should be.

I’m not one for a nanny state where everyone watches and reports all of their neighbors’ behaviors, but sometimes I do wish I could report people for their stupid decisions when it comes to me and my bike. They should get three (verified) strikes, after which they should have their license revoked. Driving should be a privilege, and unfortunately we just don’t seem to care enough about following through on that statement.

Cyclists and our Anger Issues

If anyone reading this is wondering why cyclists can often be perceived as so prone to anger, it’s because of these kinds of things. Drivers’ sense of time when it comes to their inconvenience is like some kind of magic black hole where time expands into eons when in fact it’s a mere few seconds.

And every cyclist who spends an appreciable amount of time on the road has many, many stories of this happening to them. Drivers throwing things at them, doors suddenly opening out into their path when parked, people walking right out into the street without looking, and drivers just pulling out in front of you from any which direction.

I rarely feel like other drivers see me as another human being sharing the road with them. Far too often I am the one who feels that I am inconveniencing them, because I’m on their road.

Well, not according to the law. Bicycles can share the road with cars as part of the Uniform Vehicle Code.

Cyclists riding two abreast in a lane

When Seconds Count…

It’s often better to just be a bit aggressive to stave off having to deal with a defensive situation later.

So when you see a car coming up from the right to head out into your lane, what do you do?

My thoughts:

  • Visibility is of utmost importance, if possible move further out into the lane you’re currently in
  • This gives you better visibility to them and from them to you
  • Stare at them and be ready to take evasive maneuvers if you see the car start to move
  • I’ve even found myself shaking my head at them as I can see they’re thinking they have time to cut me off
  • It’s often worked at preventing them from attempting to pull out in front of me
  • Pay attention to the angle of the car’s suspension, is it actively slowing down or are they trying to speed through?
  • Actively think about bail out directions ahead of time just in case

Remember, you have rights as a road user, too, it’s not just about them. They have more force and stupidity going for them most of the time, so there’s always that to keep in the back of your mind, but be confident in these scenarios.

Remember also that they may think you’re one of those riders who are just casually going slow, so they almost always think they have more time before you reach them than they do!

When Cars Queue Up

Be particularly careful around these situations, especially if you’re coming up to a light that is just turning green. Often, cars two or three back are planning to turn right and won’t re-check their blind spots which you suddenly now are in. Pretend you’re invisible. They often have no idea to check a second time if there aren’t pedestrians in a crosswalk that they can actively see, and more often than not, they won’t even use their turn signal!

Cars in traffic along a small road in London

Pretend that the cars are like their drivers and read their “body language”. If you see a car straying to the right to turn (or the left if you’re in the UK), sometimes in a slow, gradual manner, it’s often that they are planning to turn right. In my experience, this behavior also is a solid sign that they aren’t going to notice you, either!

In moments like this, often a more aggressive approach is in fact the more defensive one - if you instead them veer towards their left as if you are another car ready to pass them, you’re likely more visible to them and you have a “way out” in the same way you would if you were driving. If they suddenly brake to avoid pedestrians in a crosswalk or decide to speed through the intersection, you’re in a relatively safe spot, despite being in the middle of the road.

Review Defensive Maneuvers

I recently discovered an ancient video put up on YouTube that was based around a very controversial figure in bike / car relationships here in the US named John Forrester. I think a lot of what he proposed in terms of road bike infrastructure missed the mark, leaving cycling to the only bravest among us, but there were some fantastic points made in this video around defensive maneuvering, particularly with what they called the “instant turn”.

I think it’s worth a watch, if only for these few minutes, starting at 13:29.

They’re Not All Bad, Though

As we were riding up Niles Canyon this past weekend, several times we were pleasantly surprised at just how reactive and responsible some of the drivers were behind us. With a lot of rain and road damage that we’ve had these past few months here, there was a lot of debris in the (already small) road, making for a bit of a perilous ride through what is otherwise a beautiful ride.

Without a lot of room, we had to be smart in determining when it was safe to pull a bit further into the lane when seeing a choke point ahead. It helped to each have our own Garmin Varia radar units, as we could get an early sense of what was behind us and how many there were, even when they were beyond our peripheral vision.

Being direct and very obvious with our intentions by using the “slow” hand signal and moving into the lane when we knew the road was straight and had good visibility wasn’t always easy, but paid off when we noticed some aware drivers behind us slowing down to give us the room we needed to feel safe and comfortable out there.

When you encounter this rare breed of human, make sure to give them a wave to show your appreciation!

On Sharing the Roads with Other Cyclists

Unfortunately we also have a lot of issues within our own team, so to speak. Being aggressive in the same way here doesn’t make as much sense, as there’s a more equal sense of “power” assumed from either side.

I’ve seen the whole gamut of cyclists and bicyclists. “Bicyclists” are more often the general term for those of us who aren’t out there in lycra, and they can often be incredibly dangerous themselves. We’ve all seen it - the beach cruiser, casually talking to a friend, swaying side to side without a care in the world, wandering left and right with each pedal stroke. Or someone ducking in and out of sidewalks and basically ignoring most, if not all, traffic laws.

Basically unpredictable behavior. Behavior that makes me extremely cautious around them to the point where I often play the defensive card and let things play out a bit first before I attempt anything too close near them.

Children and often dogs require the same response, so take it slow and observe the situation a bit before blasting right past.

Bully Cyclists

On the other side of this, I’ve also seen a bunch of cyclists, clad in lycra and clearly capable of great speed and power, employ what are essentially bully tactics to get around other riders. It’s often accompanied by a certain sense of frustrated speed. I see this a lot when going across the Golden Gate Bridge, as there are hundreds of tight quarters to pass in. Often, this slows people down to the speed of the lowest common denominator, i.e., the selfie-taking tourist who seems to not understand just how many people they’re annoying behind them.

These are experienced riders that, while not commonly causing accidents, basically scare everyone they pass as they jump from group to group, threading the needle in reckless ways without leaving a whole lot of room to error. Their actions require others around them to cater to their needs, as they seem to thrive on making others uncomfortable.

While these cyclists may be employing a certain sense of “the best defense is a good offense”, in most of my experience, these are just assholes who think those around them are less important and should get out of their way. It’s basically what most other cyclists complain about when it comes to drivers.

On occasion, I’ve actually ridden up to these riders to tell them that what they did was stupid or terrible. I try to be nice about it, they clearly understand that I could have kept up with them, so the “respect” card is played, but I try to be direct in the few seconds I may have with them.

I want everyone out there to enjoy riding together, and being safe while passing other cyclists is especially important. We have enough ire between us and cars, we don’t need any more of it within our own ranks.

Cyclists riding the grounds of the Palace of Versailles

On Sharing Paths with Pedestrians

This is especially problematic when roadies who can carry speed show up on a casual bike trail. Too often walkers are out on these trails, pretending it’s a slow moving sidewalk, and so therefore are oblivious to anything behind them. They often take up the entire path and rarely seem to notice or care when you as a rider come up behind them.

Definitely a lot of self entitlement on these paths in my experience.

I understand that people may want to take a casual walk through a secluded bike path, but it doesn’t absolve you from being obnoxious and entitled. Imagine if you were on the sidewalk, taking up the entire path, walking slowly, ignoring the fact that you had several groups of people behind you trying to get around. It’s decent human nature to be generally aware of this and to be nice and move out of the way if you’re the slow one. This is precisely the reason that Disneyland has annoyed me more in recent years, but I digress.

To manage this whole situation, I have an awesome and loud bell on my handlebars from Spurcycle. I use it all the time because I know my voice doesn’t carry as well by comparison (and it’s small). I usually use a combination of both one or two bell rings along with letting my (also loud) freehub speak for me as I come up behind people. Additionally, I will often say “on your left” if I am unable to ring the bell or they do not somehow indicate that they know I’m coming.

I’m always in shock at how much it takes to get people’s attention. I chuckle each time I see one partner far more aware than the other, as they pull the other away from the center of the path.

Don’t Let Any of This Discourage You, Though!

As you begin the wonderful journey that is cycling for fitness and for exploration, you’ll definitely come across more and more of the examples listed above. Over time, you’ll grow more acutely aware of each of them, knowing what kinds of behavior to look out for next time. If you’re an avid driver like I have been, growing up with racing games and generally having a good sense of distance and speed, you’ll find that a lot of those skills and tactics translate here, too.

A safe ride is a great ride, so I definitely want all of you safe out there, even if you’re out there to get a good workout and want to go hard and go fast!

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