Dear Fellow Fast Cyclists: We Have A Problem… And It’s Us.
See that picture from Amsterdam? Most people see a “cycling utopia”, a city engineered and designed to support people on bikes. To many riders, especially in cities like New York City, this is The Dream.
What I see are a bunch of slow cyclists in my way. Why? Because I am one of the most hated cyclists on the road. More hated than someone who shoals. Probably more hated than all the salmons. I am that person you hear bark “on your left” as I pass you. Yes, I am a fast cyclist.
Please know, this is not a brag. I am not the fastest cyclist by any stretch of the imagination, there are plenty of people faster than me. But, when I ride in these gravel, pothole, and glass-riddled NYC streets, I’m more likely to pass you than to be passed. I use strava to track my rides, to try to get trophies, to get king of the mountains, to beat my personal best. A stretch of road with a series of green lights is an opportunity for these gams to fly! Shut up legs! Pedal!
Where you see an 80 year old woman on a 50lb Dutch bike going 5 mph up the Williamsburg Bridge, I see a carrot dangling in front of me that I must put behind me as quickly as my legs and lungs will let me. All other bikes are marks for me to pass. Anyone I measure up as at or above my level, I engage in a fredtastic Cat 6 race, with or without their knowledge. I must destroy all humans! But this is not to say I’m a bad cyclist. I give those with the right-of-way the right-of-way. I don’t put people in danger. I don’t yell at people unless they put me in danger. My commute is my workout. I just like to ride fast.
By now visions of spandex and a $10,000 carbon fiber road bike might be sprinting in your head, but you’d be mistaken, dear reader. You see, I’m a Bromptoneer.
Riding my silly little bike in cut-off jean shorts, a t-shirt, floral knock-off sunglasses, and the only skater-style helmet that didn’t make my head look like a giant mushroom (well, kinda), I blast through city streets, taking car lanes to pass slow bikes, drafting buses and delivery trucks, and taking on roadies on their way to, from, and around Prospect Park.
In my travels, we cyclists who like to “go hard” come in all shapes, sizes, and clothing & bike types. Why just this week I had a guy on a ugly flat bar hybrid start drafting me after I passed him going up the Williamsburg Bridge. He pushed it, huffing and puffing, trying to pass me on the way back down. It was an unspoken race to an unknown finish for the Cat 6 history books before we went our separate ways.
Yes, some of us look like we want to be Lance Armstrong when we grow up, but spandex and a fancy aero bike doesn’t make the cyclist fast, the cyclist does. All that other stuff just helps you go a little bit faster. Which, by the way, makes it all the more sweeter to pass them on a Brompton.
So why tell you all of this? Why confess to being part of this most laughed at, hated, and occasionally celebrated — you know, like at the Tour de France or Olympics, well, until you fail a drug test that is — why confess?
Because fast cyclists have a problem and the problem is us.
The other day my friend, fellow Bromptoneer and bicycle activist Dulcie, posted this photo of a poster she saw on the West Side Greenway bike path here in NYC.
If we assume for a second that the victim of this crash was truly part of a hit & run with a “racing cyclist”, then shame on the cyclist who did the hit & run. If you are part of an accident with someone, you need to stay there, do the right thing, and work together toward a solution, whether it be simply exchanging information or calling 911.
Beyond the crash itself though, what struck me most were the comments posted by fellow cyclists seemingly of the non-racing variety. “Another two wheeled douche”, “these pricks”, and “louts in drops” were flung with abandon. Note the use of plurals, even though the hit & run violator was one person.
This is not the first time anger and hate have been expressed toward fast cyclists. There are articles about fast cyclists doing loops in Central Park and Prospect Park being a “menace” (one of the more common words used). Pressure has pushed them further out of the city, a strip of road starting at the George Washington Bridge called 9W has become the home of spandex-clad riders, but New Jersey doesn’t want them either. And besides, is it fair to make someone who, for example, lives knee deep in Queens or Brooklyn, who just wants to ride their bike fast, ride 15 miles just to start their real ride? What’s a fast cyclist to do when everyone, even other cyclists, don’t want you around?
One commenter wrote, “Going fast in the dropped position on a road bike in urban environments is actually anti-social, arrogant & dangerous!” — But is it?
On my Brompton, or back on my CX commuter, my road bike, my steel 10 speed, or even on a citibike, I’ve had plenty of near misses and dangerous situations with really bad cyclists, of all shapes, sizes, bike types, and riding clothes, from slow ones to unsure ones, ignorant ones, brakeless ones, road raging ones, kids messing around, and ones going the wrong damn way, but it’s the roadie that “gives cyclists a bad name”.
The way I see it, fast cyclists have two issues:
1) We have a perception problem. The people who look like fast cyclists (i.e. the spandexed among us) are automatically assumed to be assholes on sight who will do whatever it takes, including buzzing and even knocking someone down, in order to keep on chugging along. Everyone has a “this fucking Lance Armstrong wannabe” horror story. A lot of people hate cyclists, but everyone hates roadies.
2) In some cases, there are legitimate issues of safety based on how we ride. The hit & run in the above example and these two deaths in Central Park both highlight the issue of how dangerous it is when people from speeds of 2–3mph on foot to 5mph to 30mph on bike all share the same space. Yes, dangers and safety are not always the roadie’s fault and yes, many non-roadies have caused many accidents (I’m looking at you, brakeless kids flopping your knees, weaving, skidding, trying to stop), but please go back to issue #1, we are the fast ones, which makes us the arrogant, the reckless, the dangerous, and the anti-social ones!
So what do we do?
We can’t change how people feel about fast cyclists by getting into internet fights, nor do I believe we should be expected to not ride our ride. As long as we aren’t breaking any laws, then we should be able to ride at the speed that suits us. But, there are some things we can do to improve our standing in the ever growing cycling community.
- Audio Alerts: I know a lot of roadies like to belt out the occasional “On your left!”, but I think it’s time to upgrade this a smidge. First, flick a bell. Yes, sorry, in the city, ride with a bell. A small little brass one will do the trick with nary a weight penalty and besides, it’s the law. My Brompton has an integrated bell, but on my other bikes I used to have this little guy. Brass gives a nice, clean, and loud “PING!”. Flick the bell twice and well before you are up on their ass. Then let them know you are passing, how many are passing, and where you are passing. You and a buddy are riding a paceline along a bike path? PING-PING, “Two bikes passing on your left!” Say it loud, clearly, and in a non-aggressive tone. This is important. Don’t fucking scare them, don’t yell at them. We don’t need “fight or flight” syndrome to kick in (which I’ve seen and experienced a few times, people do not like to be scared)! And if you really want to go the extra mile, a small “thanks” as you pass them (especially by the last person in the line) goes a long, long way, but, as mom would say, say it like you mean it. Have some empathy, put yourself on their ride, and imagine how you’d want to be alerted if someone was charging up your ass.
- Wide Berth: Nothing is worse to the slow cyclist than the perception of nearly getting knocked over by a bike or group of bikes flying by at 25–30mph. The more the number of bikes, the wider the berth to give. The narrower the berth you got, the nicer and more empathetic you must pass. You have to put yourself in their shoes, even if they know you’re coming from rule 1, it can still be overwhelming and scary when you thunder by, especially in a huge group or paceline. If a bike path is tight, take the car lane! I prefer the car lane anyway. And if things are messy with bikes coming and going and you can’t pass cleanly, here’s the kicker….. slow the fuck down, chill out, and pass when it’s clear. I know it sucks, I know having your momentum killed is a pain, but think of it this way, it will only make you stronger! And then as you pass, remain nice and cordial to your fellow cyclists.
- Watch The Clock: Look, you should be allowed to ride your bike at any time and any place that bikes are allowed. BUT….. if you have an option of, say for example, 7am or 1pm at Prospect Park, pick 7am when it’s less busy. If it’s after 9am and you have the choice between crossing the Brooklyn Bridge or the Manhattan Bridge, cross the Manhattan Bridge because you know that the Brooklyn Bridge becomes a tourist pedestrian path chock full o’ selfie sticks once the day gets going. When you have a choice, pick the path of least human resistance. When you don’t have a choice and it’s during the busy time or place, be patient, be nice, keep your cool, be empathetic, and refer back to rules 1 and 2.
- Empathy: You may have noticed a theme in suggestions 1–3. Empathy is the toughest for people, me included. When you are cruising along, whether by bike, on foot, in car, whatever, regardless of how fast you are going, anyone in front of you and going slower is in the fucking way. They are no longer a person, but an obstacle. Trust me, I know. I’ve huffed and puffed at the slow people in my way. Don’t they know I’m trying to “win” here? This is the big kicker because WE are the fast ones, so THEY are the obstacles… always. We have to learn to understand how they feel, we have to put ourselves in their cleats, er, I mean shoes. No more yelling, barking, and scaring people. We have to treat other cyclists like what they are, human beings with a full life, feelings, and existence outside of that blip of a moment when we pass by. They are people who are doing something that we love too, riding bikes! This is not to say we can’t get frustrated at situations or bad cyclists, of course not, but if someone is just riding their ride, we have to respect that, even if it gets in the way of our rides. Until we respect their rides, how can we expect anyone to respect ours?
As cycling becomes bigger, the diversity and range of skill set of riders increase, but so does the number of bad cyclists.
Look, cycling is getting bigger and bigger, even if simply because there are a lot more humans on the move and a certain percent like to ride bikes. When you were young, it was easier. I like to ride bikes, you like to ride bikes, let’s ride bikes together, but now there are thousands and thousands of people in NYC every day who are out riding their bikes. And just like anything that increases in size and popularity, from a political movement to comic books, the more people that are part of it, the more diverse that group becomes, the bigger the range of people in the group, and the more bad members of the group you get.
When your favorite band that only you and your friends listened to suddenly hits the big time and then both, your mom and that asshole jock in class both love the band and say it’s their favorite too, well, it can kind of suck.
Point is, as cycling becomes more and more supported in cities, with bike lanes popping up everywhere, bike share stations added to every street corner, and as people embrace cycling as a form of transportation, exercise, and as a way to help reduce their carbon footprint, AND as bike companies make more interesting and varied types of bikes for all kinds of riding, the activity becomes bigger and bigger and bigger meaning the roads become smaller and smaller and smaller. We are the fast ones, we are the “hardcore” riders, we are the leaders. We have to learn how to ride with the other cyclists and we have to be examples for bad cyclists and help them become good cyclists.
The other option is to continue to piss people off and either have speed limits or be prepared to get banished to the countryside— psst, they don’t want us either!
Now comes the hard part, practicing what I preach! PING-PING! Passing on your left!