You can change the world, even if it’s only yours

We’ve all had post-ride arguments about the “safe” way to handle a particular intersection or stretch of road when riding with our group, and perhaps the finest aspect of Facebag is its ability to get various dissonant voices all screaming at each other simultaneously while plodding through the morning email.

These discussions typically degenerate, or lead to nothing because different cyclists have such vastly different perspectives on what constitutes safety. They have different views because for most riders there is no shared platform of ideas about how to ride other than each cyclist’s personal experience.

“I’ve been riding this way since ’84,” “Don’t pull that crap on my ride,” “I never do that,” and “That’s daaaaangerous!” all represent a rejection of shared riding theories and the primacy of personal experience. In other words, people have little to no chance of ever agreeing.

In most fields there are a series of shared practices that form the basis for operating on the road, or in the air, or on the water. The same is true for people who file lawsuits, conduct medical research, build houses, or cook for a living. Only in cycling does each rider make it up as she goes along, blown by the vagaries of the particular group she happens to fall in with.

I’ve been fortunate enough to fall in with a group of cycling instructors who teach bike-in-traffic principles by borrowing from the same practices and ideas used when you teach people how to drive a car. Whether you agree or disagree, sitting through a bicycling class can have a profound effect on the way you cycle. There are different curricula for bicycle riding instruction, but all share a few core elements.

There are lots of reasons that bike instruction hasn’t taken off in SoCal. One is that it’s not mandatory. Another is that people think that because they can ride, they can ride safely in traffic. Another is because people ride for freedom, and what’s more antithetical to freedom than being told how to do something? (Hint: Getting killed or maimed.)

A bike group that operates in what is arguably America’s most challenging group ride environment, the Long Beach Freddies, spurred by the recent deaths and catastrophic injuries of cyclists in the South Bay, paid for and took a course offered by Cycling Savvy, a curriculum that teaches cyclists how to drive in traffic. Spearheaded by Scott Stryker, Bill Holford, Scott Raymond, Bill Harris, and Gil Dodson, the Freddies have begun grappling with the considerable issue of safety that is posed on every one of their M-F group rides.

This is because their route always travels for several miles along extremely congested stretches of Pacific Coast Highway where there is no bike lane, where the shoulder/gutter are filled with debris, pavement irregularities, and where for long sections riders are exposed to the door zone of parked cars. “It’s only a matter of time” was the sentiment that led this performance-oriented Lycra crowd to do the unthinkable: Take bike riding lessons from hairy-legged dorks on cargo bikes.

Cycling Savvy instructor Gary Cziko gave a tremendous presentation filled with facts, laws, video clips, strategies, and advice for how to conquer the fear of cagers and how to turn the roadway into a safe operating space. None of it involved tossing water bottles at offending cagers or the phrase “Fuck you!” The entire gang of speedsters was awestruck by the opening video clip showing Keri Caffrey, a yellow-shirted commuter on flat pedals, totally owning a fast, congested roadway in Orlando by completely controlling the traffic around her.

We all thought the same thing: “If she can do it, why can’t we?”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Freddies are on the cutting edge of change. One person can’t change the world, but each person can change her world, and in the words of instructor Pete Van Nuys, “When you see things differently, you change the things you see.”

There are multiple levels of change required if cyclists are going to take their rightful place in the transportation network. Some of those changes are legal, some will require cager education, and in some few cases they will require infrastructure. But the one place that change must also occur is among the cyclists themselves. As Brad House loved to say, “I’m not in traffic, I am traffic.”

Taking the time to take a class, think about it, and apply it to your own regular rides will bootstrap safety discussions from “I think therefore it is,” to “This principle suggests that the best choice is [x].” And once you’re educated it’s a tiny step to asking others to take the time to get educated, too.

Shared principles among cyclists for riding in traffic that don’t include flipping off cars? Well, yes.



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24 thoughts on “You can change the world, even if it’s only yours”

  1. Hats off to the Freddies for being open to the idea that even very experienced cyclists can learn valuable techniques from a good traffic cycling course. And CyclingSavvy is the best there is.

    Other clubs in SoCal can get the same course for $150 (beer and pizza cost extra!). The regular version of the CyclingSavvy classroom course that spends more time on the basics but doesn’t include the group riding techniques is also available in California and 16 other states. Contact me at gcziko(at) if interested

    Individuals should check out the new online courses at the above link.

  2. One of the things I used to do but stopped doing, especially when there are cagers around, is blowing red lights and stop signs. It pisses cagers off and they are already pissed off enough. To be sure, there are indeed times when a red light cannot be tripped by a cyclist and one either waits for a cager or safely rides through it. But casually ignoring the most fundamental rules of the road only reinforces the idea of cyclists as a breed of outlaw “super-pedestrians” in the minds of the motoring public. “You are not in traffic, you are traffic.” I like that and I ride like I have a rightful place in the traffic stream except when forced not to by poor infrastructure design. don’t even get me started on that issue…

    1. You are right. It’s extremely difficult to do, and Gary had a great discussion of “stop” versus “yield.” Playing [mostly] by the rules and especially by the rules in the presence of cagers is almost always the best play.

    2. I have found if I slow to a snail’s pace at a stop sign to let a car in the other direction go by, as often as not they will motion me thru, even when they have the right of way. So I get to glide thru the intersection without pixxing anyone off.

      1. I’ve found it most convenient at all-way stops to slow way down 5 to 10 feet before the intersection. This way another driver getting there ahead of me will not wave me through and take his or her proper turn. Then I can glide through with no confusion following the rule of first come, first served.

      2. I’ve found the same. They just want to see that you know the law and are prepared to obey it.

      3. Serge Issakov

        Ceasing to pedal and unclipping one foot and moving it away from the pedal is amazingly effective at conveying, “I’m yielding; go ahead, please.”

        Don’t have to slow to a crawl to get them to go if you do this.

    3. “Cagers” seems kind of insulting. What’s wrong with “motorists” – or even “fellow road-users”? We are, as otherwise well-expressed, all in this together.

      1. I can’t resist a few gratuitous insults. If I were to completely cleanse my lexicon, the next thing you know people would be calling me a journalist, or worse, reasonable. You’re right, of course.

  3. Like in most other aspects of life, attitude plays a huge role.

    If you see traffic as a war zone, riding in it is a battle where danger lurks every moment.

    If you see it is as a cooperative endeavor, riding in it is at least safe and comfortable, if not a pleasure, and anticipating and avoiding predictable hazards (static and dynamic) is just par for the course.

  4. Karen Karabell

    Seth, thank you! Another idea that I learned from CyclingSavvy:

    When you change your behavior, you change your beliefs.

    This was tough for me at first. I had come to CyclingSavvy trained to teach another bike ed program. I took myself to Orlando because of an article in Adventure Cycling Magazine: “Revolution In Key West: Tired of the Nerd Factor in Safety Education? A Cure is Hatching in the Deepest South.”

    I thought I would learn a few tricks in Orlando. Ha! “You don’t know what you don’t know,” my colleague Pamela Murray likes to say.

    Little did I know that I would mostly have to “unlearn” so that I could transform my bicycling into the joyous and useful activity it has become.

    CyclingSavvy is only partly about how to keep yourself safe, wherever you choose to ride.

    In truth, CyclingSavvy is about something much larger: How we bicyclists are equals on our public roadways. But most assuredly not the same! And strategies for dealing with that.

    Our problems on the road by and large go away…when we treat ourselves with respect first.

      1. Karen Karabell

        You are amazing, Seth!

        We’ll know we are “there” when we are no longer “bicyclists” ~ just people using the most ingenious transportation ever devised 🙂

  5. “…by completely controlling the traffic around her…” As I have said elsewhere, it’s not lane control; it’s traffic control. Someone needs to drive the car.

  6. Serge Issakov

    “There are lots of reasons that bike instruction hasn’t taken off in SoCal. One is that it’s not mandatory. Another is that people think that because they can ride, they can ride safely in traffic.”

    Perhaps the biggest reason is people don’t fully appreciate how much their safety depends on their behavior.

    Time and time again I encounter the defeatist attitude that is resigned to accepting much more risk than is necessary, unknowingly. People talk about crashes as if there was nothing the cyclist could do, like positioning in particular plays no role. They really just have no idea.

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