Geeks v. Dorks
September 17, 2013 § 54 Comments
I’ve been puzzled by the split of opinions about where to ride on PCH. In the lane, or in the gutter? That’s the question, and it has evoked strong reactions.
On one side are the racers/ex-racers/soon-to-be-racer geeks who “know” how to ride safely. On the other side are the bike dorks — the dudes with mirrors, crusty machines, and weird signs hanging off their saddles. This is a simplification, since many “racer geeks” have also signaled their agreement with take-the-lane positioning on PCH by, well, taking the lane.
Still, it got me thinking about the cleavage. An FB page I frequent, “Cyclists Are Drivers,” and a web forum I belong to, the CABO forum, are both filled with bike dorks. The key feature of the dorks is that they are focused on facts, numbers, and hypotheses that can be tested with regard to cycling safety in traffic. They are often in sharp, even vitriolic disagreement.
The key feature of the racer geeks is that they are focused on riding their bikes fast, or at least pretending that what they’re doing will allow them to ride faster later. Racer geeks, unlike bike dorks, keep their disagreements on the down-low for the simple reason that they spend much of their time riding in groups with one another. They’re fundamentally group animals, whereas the bike dork tends to be more of a loner, at least to the extent that bike dorks seem to commute a lot by themselves, which makes their concern with traffic safety obvious.
The dislike of public arguments between race geeks makes sense when you see some of the online disagreements between the bike dorks. It would be hard to go have a fun group ride with a bunch of people you’ve just excoriated as misguided imbeciles.
How I joined the dorks
I became a bike dork by accident, or rather, I’ve always been a dork and the bike dorks won me over with, well, logic and debate. I won’t reiterate their reasoning, since it’s available by the ream to anyone who can do a Google search, other than to say that after trying out their lane control tactics on Del Amo and then Hawthorne, I found my traffic rides much less stressful. Lane control rides on PCH reconfirmed that taking the lane is superior to being a gutter bunny, at least for me.
What surprised me is how poorly the dorks’ ideas were received by many of my racer geek brethren. One of the bike dorks I respect the most had this to say with regard to racer geeks and the authority with which they speak regarding traffic skills:
Bike racers are to traffic skills instruction as auto-racers are to driving school instruction; not qualified unless they go though certification training. I know highly trained and traffic skilled racers, … and others who are terrified of traffic and ride like children, by hugging the curb in fear, and a spectrum in-between the two extremes. Just because someone is a racer, or has good paceline skills does not mean they also have bicycle driving skills. I’ve seen too many national and world class racers operate very hazardously in traffic to buy that common misbelief.
This, more than anything else, puzzled me. Are the people I’ve ridden with for years, people whose wheels I trust, people who have performed magic on two wheels, are they unqualified to speak about traffic skills on PCH because they haven’t taken some sort of course?
Sticking to PCH
The more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. One of our recent ride additions, a bike dork par excellence, had aroused the ire of the racer geek group with his riding. What was interesting was that his same behavior had annoyed me on our lane control ride, even though his antics were simply riding closer to the lane divider stripes than I thought reasonable.
Why would this behavior elicit such condemnation?
Then it hit me. The bike dork is primarily concerned with not getting hit by cars. The racer geek, although he’ll tell you that is his primary concern as well, is mostly concerned with not getting taken out by other riders. I don’t think I’ve ever actually witnessed a car hitting a bicyclist, but I’ve witnessed countless accidents on group rides caused by bad bike handling.
Now it was starting to make sense, sort of. The bike dorks are talking about where to ride safely in the lane. The racer geeks are trying to keep conformity within the peloton because that’s where the danger is greatest. Erratic, unpredictable moves cause crashes, scare the shit out of people, and act as a total buzzkill for what is supposed to be a fun social event. It may be true that the conformity would be even more easily handled, and bad bike handling would be more easily accommodated in the lane rather than in the gutter, but for purposes of the debate that doesn’t really matter.
The bike dork is viewed as a living, breathing threat to the racer geek’s bunch ride.
Traffic skills versus bunch riding skills
No one likes to be told, “Your biking skills suck.” Except me, because mine do, and I’m reminded of it every time I ride. I was amazed at how ignorant I was of basic traffic skills the couple of times I rode with Jim Hannon’s BCCC group. My default mode of “blow the stops,” and “consider red lights as advisements only” was the tip of the iceberg.
Lane control riding also required a new set of skills. Yet while I noticed — and notice — my traffic skills deficiencies, I also notice that there’s not one bike dork I’ve met yet whose wheel I’d take if the pace ever got over 21 mph, much less if it happened in a group. The bike dork, for all his traffic skill, is a hopeless threat when the pace picks up and the group gets congested.
This is where the auto-racing analogy breaks down. You will never simulate race car conditions on normal streets, i.e. tightly packed, one-way, high speed roadways with vehicles going well over 100 mph. But you will always, if you’re a racer geek, find yourself in tight bunches going at race speeds even on “easy” days. The useless car racing skills that are not relevant to traffic skills in a car become highly relevant if you’re a recreational rider who does “the Saturday ride.”
As a racer geek, I view the bike dork with great skepticism when he or she starts telling me what’s safe or where I should ride. “What the fuck do you know?” I think. “I’d drop you like a heavy turd from a tall horse without even trying.” Even more to the point, I do what every racer geek does when a new wheel appears in the group, regardless of how they’re dressed or what they’re riding or how fit they look. I give them a wide berth and pay scrupulous attention to how they handle their bike. Doing otherwise wil put you on the pavement, quickly.
It’s a two-way street
Just like racer geeks hate being told that their lifetime skills of bunch riding don’t count for squat when it comes to traffic safety skills, bike dorks hate having it pointed out that they’re slow, weak, can’t sprint, can’t climb, can’t hold a straight line, and that they terrify the shit out of everyone behind them. Bike dorks find that all the knowledge and expertise in the world won’t keep them in the group if they lack the lungs and the legs.
The racer geeks wrongly see this as proof that the bike dorks don’t know anything worth knowing. The bike dorks wrongly see it as evidence that racing skills are inapplicable to traffic, particularly when accompanied by running stop signs, blowing through yellow lights with fifty people on your wheel, etc.
Both groups are right up to a point. Bike dorks are correct that lane control works. People who do it find it less stressful than life in the gutter. Race geeks are right up to a point, as well. An authority on traffic safety who drops his head when he’s tired or who can’t hold a straight line is a much greater threat to the group than cars.
But both groups are also wrong. Bike racing skills do lend themselves easily and seamlessly to traffic skills as compared to new riders who are still unable to clip in without the risk of tipping over. It’s easier to train someone who rides 10,000 miles a year than someone who still can’t shift properly. And bike dorks are right in that lane control can make the whole bunch safer, and can more easily accommodate unskilled group riders.
One final note from the dorks
Of all the factoids and anecdotes I’ve run across, one of the most instructive was the bike dork observation that you, the racer geek, may not owe your survival to your great bike handling skills as much as you think. Cycling is statistically one of the safest recreational activities you can do, with a rate of .26 deaths per million cycling activities. Compared to skydiving, with a rate of 128 per million, cycling seems to be quite a bargain.
Better put, the chance that you’ll be killed on your bike is tiny, whether you ride in the gutter or in the lane. Whether you’re a wobbling Willy or a stoplight-flaunting Eddy Wannabe, the numbers are on your side. So it would seem that those who vociferously oppose lane control on PCH should be willing to try it out for a month or two, ’cause it ain’t gonna kill ya. Then get back to me and see if maybe you don’t have a bit of the bike dork in you, after all.
Now that the weather is cooler here, I’ve commuted to the office a few times in the last two weeks. I have to tell you, taking the lane makes all the difference for my comfort. There is still the odd cager who passes too closely but for the most part, it feels much safer. I’ve also been very quick to pull out of traffic and let a long line of vehicles pass (lots of two lane roads on my commute) if I’m backing things up. Don’t want to make anyone late for work! And when I’ve done this, I get waves of thank yous from them.
Please come and make me late for work!
I’m a huge dork already, but I need to be learned up on this stuff.
You’re what’s known as a wanker racer geek bike dork hammer stud.
g$, a good start to learning this stuff is the article Bicyclist Behaviors & Crash Risk by Dan Gutierrez: http://iamtraffic.org/engineering/behaviors-and-risk/
And if you want a broader perspective of the issues, including how the overwhelming majority of cyclists–both geeks and dorks–have backward beliefs concerning traffic cycling safety, see Keri Caffrey’s presentation at the I Am Traffic colloquium, available for viewing here:
There’s a lecture next Thursday at 7:00 AM that will explain some of the technical details in these two treatises. Please bring your notebook and two No. 2 pencils. Afterwards, we’re going to draft some bylaws and form a traffic committee after the 3-hour written exam. Water and unleavened dough will be served as refreshments. And don’t be late.
I believe the “dorks” you speak of are more properly referred to as “Poindexters”- a sub-group of Freds who tend to be engineers, and enjoy data collection and wearing mirrors. The older ones can be identified by a slide-rule shadow in the breast-pocket of their shirt.
Let me check my field guide.
Actually, the engineers, professors, and data collectors ride recumbents. And their group (according to bikesnobNYC) is “contraption captains.” They can be found loping along in sandals with multiple cup holders on their bars, or taking the lane on a Carbent or Zockra and blowing by in their aerodynamic glory on the outside of gutter pelotons.
Anyone who defines their category with even the slightest pretensions of superiority to others falls into the third class, “bike clods.”
Great analysis, Seth! The ultimate goal with riding would be finding the balance between the racer geek and the bike dork. Nothing is more fun than going hard, and being safe in the process.
Yep. Two questions, not related.
1. “Where is the safest place to ride?”
2. “How do you ride in a group?”
There are moments in any ride when its best to take the lane and best to take the fogline (on PCH). To hysterically ride the gutter is as stupid and dangerous as it is to insist to take the lane.
I was hit frorm behind on PCH by a nice elderly woman flossing her teeth (she was going 45, I was in the widest section of shoulder). I was hit on PCH in the middle of the lane by a 70 something having a heart attack (going over 40 as well). Both are dangerous endeavors and different illusions of safety. I’ve seen first hand; a car drive into the back of a large group (at Pepperdine Hill) when Steve needed to be airlifted. PCH and riding there is fluid and about flow and luck. Where you ride has to do with making your own luck… and then there’s the community and the drivers… taking a lane where the other options are more than viable turns them against us. How many times have cyclist been hit with intent? And then your point about other cyclists is also true… the stakes are high on any open road.
I just want to be hysterical. I don’t care where or with whom. And I want Jeff Konsmo to call me “bike dork,” which he did this morning.
So, there’s that.
Noel, I agree with you that the best place to cycle on any road depends on many factors. And on my ride to The Rock with the group last Sunday I saw some stretches where I would very likely prefer to be on the shoulder as a solo cyclist, and perhaps even as part of a group.
But we are coming from different default positions. My default is lane control because from what I have studied, discussed and experienced, the crossing, door, edge and close-passing hazards generated by edge riding tend to be much more common than the danger posed by same-direction traffic during lane control–even on higher-speed roads. Your default appears to be edge/shoulder riding because your experiences give you a different perspective–and it is a perspective that I also shared for over a half century of cycling (starting as a kid on the streets of New York City).
For some reason, I was able to challenge my beliefs and change my behavior, as Seth is doing now. But I wasn’t part of a racing group when I made my switch, so it was easier for me. I find it impressive that Seth is able to make these changes while still part of a racing tribe–I think that’s much harder.
Plus, Seth’s head is harder than concrete.
And I want to add the bit about racers.. I don’t think that attitude is informed by the values and experiences or self concept one gets from racing (that’s too dbaggy). I think it comes from being on PCH 6 days a week for 2-6 hours at a time in all the varying traffic conditions and contexts over years. I really think it’s just an expression of prolonged exposure and usage rather than ego.
We all need to be good citizens of the road and there are more often than not plenty of shoulder and miles of time when riding the lane are the best option.
Any discussion that includes “dbaggy” is one I belong in!
Some bike dorks are created when engineers decide to ride their bike to work. Since there’s no peloton [or bike lane] from here to there, they either ride on the sidewalk or hit the net to figure out the best way to lifehack it. A bike dork is born.
Your blog gives me a new appreciation for my geeky brethren. And you’re right, it’s pretty safe no matter what. Can’t we all just get along? Yes we can.
Nice — and agreed!
I also think commuters have a more practical car safety concern than bunch riders since it seems that cars hit individuals more often than they plow into groups.
Actually, the most common bike crash among cyclists in general is a solo fall, often involving fixed physical hazard.
And the roadway edge and sidewalk is where most fixed hazards can be found–guy-wire, pedestrian, animal, pavement upheaval, pothole, gutter seam, curb, debris, crack.
Although I wouldn’t be surprised if bike-bike crashes were the most common among the lycra crowd with lots of fast, group miles, but still with a edge physical hazard as contributing factor.
“Actually, the most common bike crash among cyclists in general is a solo fall, often involving fixed physical hazard.” AKA- Bike dork unable to unclip, tips, hits ground, takes out 4 racer-geeks. Yea, guess that’s a solo fall involving a fixed physical hazard.
Not to mention ye olde fucktarde swerve & wobble, which is #2 on the list. My list. Any list.
I’ve been a Gerk (Geek + Dork) for about 29 years, though for the first about 10 of them I was a Wannabe of both disciplines. What made me a Certified Gerk though was the lightbulb that flicked on in my head when I realized that my bicycling ought to really be like my motorcycling. Group rides and fast solo descents (Chapel Hill NC is either up or down) were like twisting the throttle. So why was I inviting motorists into my lane by riding on the right side of the lane (not TOO far right, hence my Wannabe Dork status) on my bicycle but not on my motorcycle? And why was I getting buzzed even though I was trying to be a cooperative goody bicyclist?
It became obvious that I was enabling motorists to squeeze by on my bike and that this lead to a host of other problems (Left Crosses, Right Hooks, Driveout stress etc.) but on my motorcycle I was actively using lane position to keep motorists out and was aggressively making myself seen and in a position where I could better see. I transferred my motorcycle training to my bicycling whether I was riding fast or slow and life got much better when pedaling.
The blogger cited data — from Failure Analysis Associates, Inc. (now Exponent Inc.), Design News, 10 April 1993 — that cycling produces 0.26 fatalities per million participant hours, but the blogger changed that to “per million cycling activities.” I think the former is correct.
Also, this figure includes almost no fatalities by cyclists who routinely stop for red lights, use the legally-required lighting at night, ride with rather than against traffic, and refrain from jumping on and off the sidewalk irrationally and erratically.
Cycling well is significantly safer than is suggested by the data for all cyclists.
How many cyclists in America have learned to do it properly, either by cycling with a club or by taking a class? One hundredth of one percent? Fewer?
Not I, that’s for sure!
The Blogger puts the lotion in the basket. It does this when it’s told or it gets the hose again.
Wow. Good article and discussions, Seth. I just passed 400k miles this last year….a bit of them in the rain and other crappy weather in northern Europe, where, generally, cagers are much more respectful than here. That needs to be addressed. 44 years on the bike, and the most cooperative drivers have been on narrow, shitty roads in the rain in Ireland. Seems kinda odd, huh?
Here, I quit doing the group rides (too many Cat 6’s/squirrels) because they were dangerous, and quit riding the busy roads because they ARE dangerous. Now, just a lot of solo rides or maybe up to four people, on safe (isolated) roads, and we take the lane when we need to feel safer….the rest of the time I can rely heavily on the steadiness of any of the wheels I may be on. SoCal is teeming with cars, more than ever, and I already have enough injuries to make most mornings stiff at age 59. While I want to do more group rides and hang with the racey crowd, I also want to live a lot longer….hmmm…
Die young and make a good-looking corpse!
Thanks, Seth, for your insights into these two very different tribes. This self-defined dork (never been athletic, mostly bike just for transportation, with infrequent recreational rides, and even fewer group rides) appreciates hearing the racing point of view. You’re doing us all a valuable service helping us to bridge the great divide!
“It’s easier to train someone who rides 10,000 miles a year than someone who still can’t shift properly. ”
I have found the latter to be much more open to instruction.
You’re right in regards to being open to instruction. But a high mileage rider who wants to learn new skills generally picks them up more quickly.
This is a great piece.
In my view its not so simple. There are dangerous roads and safer roads. You don’t ride them both the same. Danger can come from the road itself, or from cars, or drom other ridrs, or from conditions. You need to be mindful of all these. I’ve never ridden PCH but it sounds like its danger is cars or road surface depending on how you ride. I’ve learned to be wary of cars because they contain drivers. And drivers are usually people. And people can be crazy and stupid. Humanity is presented in a Gaussian distribution and there is a small percentage of those drivers you don’t want to trust their judgment, especially when agitated by a Lycra clad cyclist. My advice is to avoid those confrontations alone. There is safety in numbers. I would never count on the good judgement of the driving public. Busy streets have more drivers. And the laws of math mean you are more likely to run into a nut job. Be safe. Don’t agitate the Zombies. At least not alone.
“Don’t agitate the Zombies.”
Words to live by.
Unless, of course, you love to agitate Zombies.
“Busy streets have more drivers” who are going slower and are less distracted/paying more attention. The statistical record shows that a crowded, 25 mph, four-lane boulevard is safer than a deserted, two-lane road in the country. The country road is more enjoyable, but less safe.
A minor semantic point from another bike dork:
“controlling the lane” sounds better than “taking the lane”
You can’t “take” what is already rightfully yours.
I agree that’s a great framing Scott. However, saying “take back the lane” is also apropos is some situations depending on audience since some jurisdictions have in fact taken away bicyclists’ lane rights with discriminatory far-to-right and other laws.
1. Take a drink.
2. Take a long walk off a short pier.
3. Take your shit.
4. Take another hit.
5. Take it off.
6. Take a pull.
New York has this to say: “[bicycles]… shall be driven [note verb “driven”] either on a usable bicycle or in-line skate lane or, if a usable bicycle or in-line skate lane has not been provided, near the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway or upon a usable right-hand shoulder in such a manner as to prevent undue interference with the flow of traffic except when preparing for a left turn or when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that would make it unsafe to continue along near the right-hand curb or edge.”
If one must interfere with the flow of traffic to avoid creating an unsafe condition, it’s okay to interfere with the flow of traffic.
If one is not interfering with the flow of traffic, then one is not interfering with the flow of traffic. (Tautology.)
Those two facts provide the cyclist with a LOT of room to function.
Further, note the use of the term “undue interference” in the statute. What’s illegal is to create an undue interference, not any interference. The most-vulnerable road user gets to decide what’s due.
Clear as law.
I’m not a racer, never was, but I certainly have ridden plenty of pacelines and pelotons. Yes it takes skills to participate, otherwise you risk crashing everyone behind you. Similarly, it takes a different set of skills to travel with motor vehicles, especially by yourself, and thus be a competent bicycle driver. You certainly can have both skills, but applying both at the same time will not work unless everyone in the group has both sets of skills, and understands at what level their application is expected, because between the 2 sets, there are significant conflicts.
I think this is why decades back I mostly gravitated toward solo riding, and being the bicycle driver. It’s still great exercise, but it minimizes the road rash. And in the past five years, I’ve gone to “the dark side” with bents, and now I mostly ride a Velomobile (faired trike). So next I pass you on the PCH, you can wave knowing that I do appreciate your thoughtful insight to the bicycle geeks and dorks!
I find that, while I am riding solo, using an assertive lane position, that I need to watch for solo fast riders. Some of them will pass me on the right. If I forget, and am watching only for motor vehicles, I get surprised by a fast rider.
A paceline will always pass me on my left, but some of them do push me to the right, because the leader of pace line is less than 2 feet away on my left, and the lead rider moves (rightward) in front of me when he has about 1 bike length on me. The rightward move of the paceline around me gets closer and closer to me, and I feel pushed right to have a buffer of space.
I am a slow rider, and I use bicycle driver technique most of the time. I am a dork.
I am a dork. And a geek. I guess that makes me a desk. Or a gork.
Very late to this, but, excellent job on bringing the two cycling groups together. I’m king of hoping the PCH ride becomes a super-group of geeks, commuters, and racers.
It was strange after riding PCH on Sunday to then do the REMR ride on Thursday AM, which leaves at 5:45 and is edge-riding at all times. It felt uncomfortable to be in a group and constantly hugging the gutter, especially when we were riding 2×2 and I was on the inside.
Think bowling: gutter bad, center of lane good! 🙂
Ha, ha, ha!!!
Hello festhd-san and All,
Many years ago I would ride my bike and run in the farm area around the Narita Airport in Japan (when it was new) and ‘take the lane’ or otherwise the motorists would squeeze me into the ditch as the roads were very narrow.
I like your blog and your style. I will buy a copy of your book – the sales part of Smashwords is not working for me – so I read the free part of your book and will try to buy it again later. I am not attempting to curry favor.
Maybe Bruce Brown can make your book into a movie – I think he is only 75 now.
And I’ll bet Tom Wolfe likes it too.
Gutter vs. Lane ………….. or shoulder vs. lane ………… or segregated bike lane vs. traffic lane
John Pucher vs. John Forester
clincher vs. tubular steel vs. titanium vs. carbon
It seems it would be great to get the various cycling advocates heading in the same direction but that is slow in coming and ….. maybe …….. ‘vive la difference’ is most interesting.
I am in favor of segregated bike lanes when practicable as they are safer and promote an overall increase in cycling.
However on a long curving downhill I take the whole road if the motorist traffic is 35 to 40 mph …. or faster if the hill is steeper pitched.
In the city I take the lane if the motorist traffic speed is no greater than 25 to 30 mph and I would otherwise be riding in the door zone ….. so it is not always a cut and dried choice.
The VC (Vehicular Cyclists) or EC (Effective Cyclists) are fearful that the right to use the motorist travel lane will disappear when segregated bike lanes become ubiquitous ………….. so they often do not favor bike lanes in most any shape or form.
As Blanche Dubois said in ‘Streetcar Named Desire’, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
That’s what I figure I am doing when I take the lane …. depending on the kindness of strangers.
So ….. what kind of motorcar drivers are these strangers? No malice intended ….. they are horseshit drivers.
Human motorcar drivers have a rather consistent overall and rear end crash record …. year to year ….. for the US (and other nations). It is primarily because of human frailties …. vision irregularities, lack of focus, short attention span, distractions, bodily sickness, handicaps, inadequate training, picking their nose, memory lapse, falling asleep, etc.
The bottom line is that the human motorcar driver often does not comprehend objects directly in front of them correctly (if at all) to apply the brakes or steering and avoid hitting the object.
This happens about 3 million times each year (8,219 times per day every day, yesterday, today, tomorrow …. it makes you tired to think about it) in the US for direct rear end crashes (half of the time the brakes are never applied) and of course there are several million other type motorist crashes each year. (10.6 million total motorcar crashes per year in US and many, many humans are killed)
If the motor car drivers cannot stop for an object as large as another motor car or truck how are they going to see me in my aero-narrowness when I ‘take the lane’?
But then again ….. to make a case for ‘taking the lane’ …..
There were 677 bicycle deaths from bicycle/motor vehicle crashes in the US in 2011 or about 1.85 per day.
Not bad odds …… even factoring in that the majority of cyclists do not take the lane as a plus or minus depending on which camp you hail from.
The number of reported injuries involving bicyclists has followed a similar fluctuating but downward trend, from 61,000 in 1995 to 38,000 in 2011. However, we know from research into hospital records that only a fraction of bicycle crashes causing injury are ever recorded by the police, possibly as low as ten percent.
Depending on using the larger number of 380,000 bicycle injuries per year or about 1041 injuries per day or the smaller number of 104 per day you might want to bet on that stranger directly behind you in a motor car when you ‘take the lane’….. more properly called ‘controlling the lane’.
So when I ‘take the lane’ I ask myself ……. are you feeling lucky today? …… and sometimes …… just ….. do it …….. who gives a shit?
+1 mph Faster
In addition to Volvo’s auto braking for cyclists Nissan (Infiniti) has another feature that will benefit cyclists (and motorists) which is lane departure alert and automatic steering. As you will note some fatal bicycle crashes are a result of the motorist departing the driving lane and striking the cyclist on the shoulder or in a bike lane.
I would expect considerable pushback and lobbying by the collision repair industry to the implementation of these laws.
In my opinion the effect of these new safety systems will lead to a substantial ‘dent’ in the multi-billion dollar auto body collision repair business
These safety features have been mentioned as becoming lawfully required for all new motorcars in the US in 2015 and we should prepare ourselves to argue for them …… if they work as advertised they will be a boon to help prevent cyclist death and maiming no matter which part of the road you ride on.
I expect to die any day now. On my bike.
Very nice and thoughtful post … thank you!