Sometimes, nice guys don’t even finish

May 16, 2014 § 41 Comments

There is a rancid piece of burnt meat that bicycle “advocates” regularly wrap in a burrito and try shove down the throat of everyone else. It goes like this: Cars hate us because we’re not nice. Until we are nice, we will never get the treatment we deserve. The latest purveyor of this bankrupt, blame-the-victim, “Can’t we all just get along?” vacuousness is someone named Richard Fries. You can read his thoughts here.

Or not.

The problem isn’t, and has never been, that “we are our own worst enemy.” It is something much simpler. Road cycling is a negotiation for space. For the car, more space means quicker travel, if even a mere second faster. For a bike, more space means reducing the chance of hitting something or getting hit.

That’s all there is to it. If you’re going to use the roadway, you will have to negotiate your place on it every pedal stroke of every single ride, and it’s a zero-sum game. The more space for you, the less for the car. You win, they lose, and no none likes to lose.

Negotiation theory

Of all the losing strategies in a negotiation, none fails as quickly or completely as “being nice.” People win tough negotiations by being tough, by being firm, by being consistent, and by understanding the strengths, weaknesses, psyche, and intentions of the other party.

There are two scenarios in which bikes have to negotiate with cagers. The first is the group ride. In this scenario, the bikes are in a strong position. They occupy the entire roadway. The cager, if he’s going to pass, has to be ultra-cautious in order to avoid getting hit by oncoming traffic if it’s a two-lane road. If it’s a four-lane road, he has to be careful not to hit anyone in the group — not because he cares about them, but because doing so will expose him to liability due to the large number of witnesses.

In the group ride scenario, being nice adds nothing to the negotiation. Unless the driver is severely impaired or intent on killing you, in which case your demeanor means nothing anyway, you’re going to win the fight for road space. The cager will give you and your pals a wide berth. He may honk, he may flip you off, he may scream obscenities, but you will certainly win the negotiation for space on the roadway.

“But if you’re a jackass then he’ll hate all cyclists!” the Friesians claim.

Maybe he will, but so what? There’s no evidence that being a “nice” group rider, whatever that is, will cause him to treat a single cyclist any differently. It’s like saying that because he got beat by someone with a full house, he is going to go easy next time on someone with a pair of two’s. The group ride is the strongest hand you have. If it makes you feel good to wave and smile at cars, do so, but it isn’t affecting your negotiation at all. You’ve won, the driver has lost. Sucks to be him.

The single cyclist scenario

The other scenario is when the cyclist is alone. In this negotiation, the rider’s mere presence will not force the driver to cede ground if the rider is up against the shoulder. The cager need not slow down, and need not particularly fear hitting the rider, especially if the driver is confident in his driving skills.

Ever meet someone who admitted to being a shitty driver? Me, either.

In this negotiation, the cager has (for him) a small risk of getting hit since he needn’t change lanes or cross the yellow line, although a miscalculation could scratch his clearcoat or get some of your internal organs on his door handle. He also has much more size and speed relative to the single rider. Against a group of 20, the car’s mass is much less intimidating, and the driver has to psychologically contend with the multitude of riders who might, quite reasonably, come to the defense of anyone who was hit.

The single cyclist is in the weakest of all positions. He’s against the shoulder, so he’s at the mercy of whatever detritus the road offers up. He’s alone, so there’s no one to back him up. He’s fighting for a narrow sliver on the edge that doesn’t put the cager in much, if any risk. Even if the rider wins this negotiation, the cager loses nothing and the rider’s risk increases exponentially.

Make no mistake, the driver calculates all of these risks, summed up as “Am I gonna hit him?” and almost every time the car will make minimal adjustments in speed and position for the single rider who’s playing gutter bunny. The only thing the single rider can do to put the cager at risk is to occupy the full lane and force him to increase his risk by making bigger adjustments.

Now the cager has to make some hard choices. “Kill the cyclist and fuck up my hood and possibly have him come through the windshield and knock out my implants?”

“Run over the cyclist and deal with insurance, ambulance, wrecker, and possibly the police?”

“Curse the bastard, slow down, change lanes, and honk?”

Very few cagers make the conscious decision to kill or intentionally hit. Rather, they make the obnoxious adjustment of braking and changing lanes or worse, waiting as their blood pressure mounts and you gaily pedal on to work with that smug satisfaction of knowing that you’re not only saving the environment but you’re driving someone insane in the process.

What’s nice got to do with it?

What’s most important is that none of the cager’s choices depends on the cyclist’s demeanor. Whether you’re Miss Manners or a fire-spitting demon’s rectum, the driver is going to make his decision based on where you are in the lane and how much risk you pose to him and his cage. The more risk he faces, the more he will compromise.

The only time that nice would be a factor is if you somehow were able to divine the driver’s demeanor, and something in it told you that smiling or waving would get you more roadway than, say, implacably taking the center of the lane.

Ask yourself when the last time was that being nice got you a good result in a conflict. Without exception, it’s when you had zero leverage, the other person had all of it, and your only avenue was to smile. Think getting pulled over by a cop. Forgetting your wedding anniversary. Trying to get a credit card company to take off a late fee.

Nice is the last ploy before you get your head staved in.

In scenarios where you have leverage, the best results are always obtained by maximizing the leverage such that it increases the other wanker’s risk. Ever won a chess game by being nice? Ever won a bike race being nice? Of course not.

It’s the same when you’re alone on your bike. You can depend on niceness if you want, but the best way to get your piece of turf is by playing the hand you’ve got and playing it to the hilt. Take the lane and hold it against all comers. Make them consciously choose to kill you — there will be infinitely fewer who make that choice than those who clip you by mistake as they veer too closely while you’re sucking gutter.

And if for some reason you’d rather be the sniveling, smiling simp begging for mercy, I guess that’s okay. Just don’t demand that I do it, too.




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§ 41 Responses to Sometimes, nice guys don’t even finish

  • Jeff Cozad says:

    Spot f’ing on

  • garyR says:

    Thank you. Well said. This silly Fries article has annoyed me for weeks, and I’m truly surprised how many cyclists have shared it (and agree with it) on FB.

  • Peter says:

    Well written and too true.

  • darelldd says:


  • DangerStu says:

    100% agree, I would add that I wave thanks after I have made someone drive around me when I taken the lane etc, naive perhaps, but I think that little bit of niceness helps them do it again the next time the same situation arises. On the other hand I will give you a ration of shit If you drive like a fucktard and then get stuck at the next light.

  • El Rosito says:

    As a professional negotiator I affirm the author’s premise, reasoning & conclusion. Some of the best riding and negotiating advice I have read ever!
    As a cyclist of 30+ years I confirm his and my own well learned lesson that the “cager” honking, screaming, flip-offing you is doing exactly what you have manipulated him to do…focusing intently upon you, your position on the roadway, and getting around you, angrily, but safely. This type of cager poses no threat because he/she is acutely aware of your presence. They are staring right at you!
    These venting cagers are school yard bully types, blustering with no desire or intent to confront you except from the comfort & safety of their rolling cage. They always continue on their way, imagining they have given you a piece of their mind-a piece no one would ever want-and shown you a thing or two. The reality is you won, you made the cager perform as they should, and gotten them around you safely with no damage to you or to them! You are your brother’s keeper, and owe a responsibility to the hapless cagers to protect them from themselves; even if they do not like it. Someone in these encounters must keep their wits about them and be forward thinking; but don’t count on it being the cager if you want to be a cyclist of 30+ years.
    The cager to worry about is the one who is nice, loves cyclist, and is texting, spilling coffee on their lap or changing his/her CD selection when they encounter you. They are nice, you are nice, they always smile and wave back at you when you do the same…when they see you. So what! How does that make you feel when they run you over from behind because they never noticed you? How does it make them feel the rest of their lives when carrying a manslaughter conviction?
    Ride smart, ride tough, be bold, take you rightful place on the road. Don’t put yourself in a dangerous submissive position, it invites attack. We are all animals out there in the jungle. Be strong and you shall ride free.
    I still love to ride; and don’t forget we all are cagers too.
    El Rosito

    • fsethd says:

      Excellent commentary — from one part-time cager to another!

    • Agree completely. The smiling, texting, coffee-spilling, CD changing cager, however, is more likely to notice you in time to avoid you if you are in the driving lane than if you are on the white line, so it’s still a good idea to control the lane.

  • sibex9591 says:

    Once again I have to agree with you Seth. There are plenty of places where the road is wide and I can give them the lane. When there is no shoulder though? Out into the lane I go. I do my best to at least ride a decent tempo, but I will not give up that lane until it is safe for moi to do so.

    • fsethd says:

      “Keep your mind in the gutter and your bike in the lane.”

      • sibex9591 says:

        I should have remembered this post last Saturday when we had to negotiate about two miles of elevation loss on Route 6 towards Bear Mountain. The shoulder usually isn’t that bad, but after this years winter, it was horrendous. I should have grouped everyone together, taken the lane, and proceeded at the safest speed possible for everyone until that stretch was done. There was no reason, other than white knuckle fear, to take that stretch individually. Except for that two miles it was a ride for the memory books!

  • packmonger says:

    Bravo! Well said!! The “Be Nice” folks are almost as bad as the “Safety Nazis” who call out every freaking move as they teeter along.

  • Rick says:

    Well written. And great perspective on negotiation. Something that I know a bit about.

    Here is a nugget that is worth considering: The person that cares the least controls the relationship. Its always true. It is true for parent/child. Husband/Wife, Cager/Cyclist.

    The core issue in this negotiation with cagers is who cares less. Being nice, is caring. It is natural that cyclists care more because the consequence of a collision is asymmetric in favor of the cager. So we often try and avoid conflict. However, if you are bold enough to be prepared for battle in almost a “crazy” way. Then the cager will care more. And the negotiation is won. You have to make the cager care more.

    • fsethd says:

      “Caring less” is another way of describing risk. The person with the least risk cares less. Good negotiation brings up risk elements that the “less caring” party may not have considered, may not be aware of, or may not be exposed to. When you’re in the gutter, the cager’s risk is minimized and yours is maximized.

      When you’re in the lane the cager’s risk is substantially increased, at a minimum in terms of liability. Of course the counter argument is that by putting yourself in the lane you are raising your own risk level, and this is where lane control advocates and gutter bunnies differ fundamentally.

      The gutter bunny fears being rear-ended; the lane-control rider fears getting rear-ended and/or clipped. Intuitively it feels less risky on the edge, but lane-control riders will tell you that based on experience the reverse is true.

      In any event, lane control appears to force cagers to assess risks that gutter dwelling does not, hence the negotiation always (up until now, anyway) has always been won by ME. In other words, I’m batting a thousand over thousands of miles of tarmac. Which is how I like it.

  • Serge says:

    As someone who is way beyond negotiating for space, I’m going to disagree. I see traffic more as a business venture where we strive for cooperation for mutual benefit than a battle in a zero-sum game. After all it’s not really about acquiring (more and more) space, but just about temporarily using space necessary for travel., and relinquishing it just as quickly,

    For many of the reasons you cite here, I don’t need to negotiate for space. I just use the space that I need. Usually it’s right in front of me and available, so I just use it. When the space i need to use is next to me I can usually just use it or briefly wait until it’s unused; a few times per ride I have to negotiate for right of way to use adjacent space. Regardless, it’s never a big deal. Like you say, I’ve won that battle. And it’s no more challenging riding solo than in a group. Using the full lane and changing lanes is trivially easy, and the full lane is PLENTY of space for a cyclist.

    But there is still plenty of room for being nice. For example, in a group ride when the front enters on green, but the light turns yellow and then red as the rest of the group rolls through, it really seems to take the edge off the animosity that motorists might feel and express if some of us wave “thank you” to them as we bisect the line from their eyes to a green signal.

    And the whole premise of “control and release” – to control the lane by default but “release” traffic by temporarily moving aside when it’s safe and some are backed up behind you – is about cooperation. Sometimes I want them to slow down to let me in. Sometimes I can move aside to let them by. It’s win-win, man. It really is.

    • channel_zero says:

      You ride in a place where a single rider gets along as easily as a group?

      Where is this paradise? I’ll plan my next vacation there.

    • fsethd says:

      If you want the space and they want the space, it’s a negotiation. You can’t both be in the same place at the same time.

      If you get your space in the middle of the lane it’s because you have presented the driver with a risk that he’s unwilling to take.

      Call it whatever you want, but you can’t occupy the lane without convincing the driver that he’d better let you have it. If that’s not negotiation, I don’t know what is.

  • darelldd says:

    Great discussion here, on a subject that is near and dear to me. I won’t bother repeating my views… my relevant comments are already posted under the Fries article that Seth linked to.

    I can’t figure out why drivers seem to take delays in stride when they are caused by other cars or pedestrians (grid-lock anybody? Is that caused by cyclists??)…. when on the other hand, if a cyclist is creating a multi-second delay, those cyclists need to “learn the rules of the road” or maybe just be taught a lesson.

  • Mark says:

    Yes, there is a sub-species of cager that think they are doing the world a favour by teaching cyclists a lesson. Brushing past at speed, horn blaring & “get off the fuggin road!”. I wonder at how many accidents they say: “Sorry officer, not my fault, I just didn’t see them” because it sounds better than: “Sorry officer, not my fault, I was just trying to teach them a lesson”.
    Oh, and “lessons” are pretty much only given to lone cyclists. Because that’s how cowards work.

  • Andy Morris says:

    Its not a competition, its more like a dance. Yielding is not losing a wicket, controlling a lane is not gaining a run.

  • Mike says:

    Of course, staying alive is a non-negotiable. However, when I saddle up in the morning and head out on a ride, I’m not thinking “Can’t wait to “play the hand I’ve got and play it to the hilt!” I’m looking forward to the feel of the road, the challenge of a climb, the scenery, the satisfaction that comes from my muscles finally responding to the weeks or months of training etc.

    Do I have have to ride with constant situational awareness to make sure I live to enjoy these rides? Of course. Does taking the lane make sense in many situations? Sure. However copping an attitude, taking the lane without exception, and pissing off a motorist and being screamed at or worse (and not implausibly), having a driver so enraged that he swerves into my path, throws something out the window, etc. (and the resulting anger, fear, adrenaline high and crash on my part) is absolutely counter to the main reason I went for a ride in the first place – to feel good.

    “Being nice” doesn’t have to mean smiling and waving. It could mean pulling off onto a shoulder, turnout, or into a driveway to let someone pass on a narrow road or a road with limited sight lines. It could mean a wave to thank someone for letting me through an intersection so that he/she does the same for the next cyclist. It could mean that I plan my routes for less congested roads, roads with wide shoulders, or riding during off hours/days. It could mean riding predictably and with obvious awareness of all of the vehicles around me.

    Being assertive and being an asshat are quite different and being the former most often results in the types of rides I enjoy.

    • fsethd says:

      Everyone rides with her own purpose, but whether you’re nice or not doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not you get the space you deserve on the road.

  • fritz says:

    I got hit in the back with a half full beer riding across Arizona. Should I have occupied more lane to force a more angular shot?

  • Vlad says:

    Yes, but if you get hit by a car while riding in the middle of the lane, you’re a hood ornament and likely paralyzed or a goner. If you survive, your comparative fault in a lawsuit is huge. If you get hit while riding in the edge, you might get side-swiped, slide, and survive with road rash and broken bone or two to ride again.

    • fsethd says:

      If you were right, that lane control is illegal and more dangerous than riding on the edge, with this comment you would have just single-handedly won the debate about cycling and traffic safety.

  • ipdamages says:

    Here is what can happen if you don’t take the lane (esp if the whole lane is designated as a bike lane):

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