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.