Why cyclists ride in the road
I’m going to make two assumptions. Firstly, I assume you have driven a car. Secondly, I assume that, at some point as a driver, you have encountered a cyclist on the road who blocked your way.
Before I go any further, let me offer a genuine apology on behalf of my cycling brethren. We truly do not block you on purpose. Furthermore, we are beholden to you, the pilot of a large automobile, to keep our fragile bodies intact. We seek a peaceful coexistence, not war.
I want to use this post to explain some common reasons cyclists ride in the road (a.k.a “take up the lane”). I realize there are some idiot cyclists who ride carelessly and ignore road etiquette. I also realize there are ignorant, small drivers who hate cyclists for no particular reason. Consider this a post for the middle ground. I want to tell you, the average, compassionate American driver why we, the average, compassionate American cyclist, are often forced to take up your driving space.
Sometimes we have no choice
American roads are notoriously bike unfriendly. Sometimes we literally have no place to go except in the road. This can be because there is no shoulder, or because there is no safe lane for the bike to use. If we decide there is no safe way for a car to pass on the left, we will sometimes ride in the lane. This is our way of being visible to drivers. We are saying, “Hey, I know I’m blocking you by being in the lane, but even if I was as far right as possible, we still couldn’t fit side-by-side. I’m just in the lane so that you see me better and don’t crush me against the guard rail.”
Shoulders are often dangerous
Few motorists get to see the true character of the road shoulder. I recommend taking a close look at the shoulder of a well-traveled road, if you have never stopped the car and seen it. Shoulders are often full of glass, ruts, rocks, and assorted debris that wreak havoc on us. Our tires are 23mm wide and contact the road in about a square inch of area. We can be knocked over by hitting a dime-sized rock the wrong way.
Additionally, the shoulder is also home to car doors and unaware pedestrians. We will often take the lane if we see a parked car with a person inside as insurance against being broadsided by their door.
We descend faster than cars
This one is surprising to most drivers: a bicycle can descend faster than cars. We do not go faster on a straight downhill, but the bike can take turns much faster than any 4-wheeled vehicle on the road. I have experienced many times when a driver has passed me around blind turns on a descent, only to feel stupid when I catch them (and pass, if it’s safe) and ride away.
Cyclists also take up the lane for safety reasons when descending. This allows us to pick safe lines through turns and gives us freedom to steer around obstacles at high speed. Again, our 23mm tires at 40 miles/hour afford us little room for error. If we are pinned in the shoulder, we are forced to ride over sand, rocks, and potholes that will pull our wheels right out from under.
We make left turns, too
It’s much more safe for all of us if the bicycle occupies the lane to make a left turn. There’s no way to avoid this and we promise it will only take a moment of your time to let us into the lane to turn. With proper hand signals and reasonable warning, we can usually make lefts without any disruption to your motoring experience.
We are vehicles
The bicycle is a vehicle in the law’s eye. We are legally entitled to use of the road (with certain stipulations) as much as the car you drive. That said, 99% of the cycling community does its best to keep clear of traffic and let cars have free reign. We want you to be happy to share the road with cyclists and (99% of us) actively refrain from provocation, even if treated unfairly.
And what are you to make of that other 1%, the cyclists who disobey traffic laws? I can only offer my apologies on their behalf. You, as a motorist, should feel free to reprimand (in a safe, civil manner) a rider who thinks traffic laws do not apply. I am a racer and so are many of my friends. Racers have big heads and log many hours on the road. This sometimes gives them the impression they are above the rules. I’ll add that honking is not a helpful way to reprimand. We get honked at by any number of gun-totin’, buck-toothed idiots in the course of a ride. Your cause for honking may be legitimate, but too many have cried wolf for a honk to be meaningful. Far more effective would be a rational conversation at a stop light or, if the rider is wearing a jersey, a letter/email to the team/club for which they ride.
Thanks for reading. We cyclists look forward to sharing the road with you this summer and appreciate your patience.