Here’s the thing. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was new to riding a bicycle once. I bought my first bicycle as an adult four years ago, and if you think I wasn’t embarrassingly inept for the first year, you’re completely tripping. There is no way to become a serious cyclist who knows what they’re doing without spending a long time learning by trial and error. We’re biased, since we bleed chainlube if you prick us, but we think every human with the physical ability to pedal a bicycle should at least try riding in the city they love.
Even the most ardent supporters of community cycling have a hard time coping with the influx of novices every spring and summer, though. Suddenly the empty lanes we owned all winter are full of creaking, out-of-repair bicycles that are passing us on the right with like two inches of space between our knees despite the fact there’s a red light coming in two seconds, and we want to fucking strangle everyone.
The new Chicago bikeshare program, Divvy, means lots of ordinary citizens are experimenting with cycling, and we love it. But a few minutes on the road will show you that most users of the program could use a crash course in bike etiquette.
We’re not saying anyone should be ashamed of being new to cycling. We’re not saying anyone should be too nervous of making a mistake to even try. We’re not trying to make the bar to entry even higher. We’re saying that, if new cyclists take a few simple considerations to heart, we probably won’t even know they’re new to cycling when see them out there sweating it out on Milwaukee. We’ll just think they’re one of us.
Ignoring the rules listed here can be seriously dangerous. They make commuting on a crowded street more inconvenient for everyone. You might think they make your trip safer, or easier, or faster, but in the long run you’re putting yourself at risk and delaying/endangering other cyclists for your own selfishness. This is the kind of stuff that will make other cyclists seethe.
Now, do hard and fast rules exist in cycling? No. The same red light that it’s just idiotic not to run at three in the morning is equally idiotic to run during rush hour. There’s a difference between riding along a deserted sidewalk instead of taking a very sketchy bridge, and weaving through pedestrians on the sidewalk for miles. The same route that a bike messenger takes everyday without incident might seem like a certain deathtrap to someone without the same skill level and disregard for personal safety. I’m not saying “never pass a cyclist on the right even if you’re about to be hit by a car and that’s the only path available to you.” I’m saying “if you pass a cyclist on the right instead of waiting two seconds, looking over your shoulder, saying ‘on your left’ and passing on the left, please be aware that they’re beaming psychic death rays at the back of your fool head.”
1. Pass on the left, with a audible verbal warning.
Passing on the right is unexpected, puts you closer to the danger of parked cars, and is just incredibly rude. Cyclists are looking for you coming up over their left shoulder. They’re not looking for you on the right. And it’s fucked up to shove them closer to car traffic because you’re too much of a wimp to wait for an opening to pass properly.
If you’re passing a bike within the same lane, you need to say “on your left.” If you’re close enough to reach out and tap someone on the shoulder, you need to say “on your left.” I cannot emphasize this enough.
Hate saying it? Then only pass people when it’s safe to take the lane and pass someone with a few feet of space. You don’t just get to breeze past people because you’re too shy to say three words to a stranger. Or just practice! I used to hatehatehate saying “on your left,” and now I breezily say “coming up on your left, hon” or “I’m going to pass on your left, thanks dear.”
Fun fact: when you say “on your left,” tons of people say “thank you” back. Absolutely zero of them say “Whatever, Safety Ranger, what a nerd.”
2. Only two people can pass within a bike lane at the same time.
Listen, I get how frustrating the peloton of douchebaggery up and down Milwaukee gets. But if the person in front of you is passing the person in front of them, you need to wait a minute until everyone is single file before you try passing them.
Once I was passing a very slow creaky person on Milwaukee during rush hour after work. Someone, who had probably already been accelerating to pass me, decided that he was going to continue passing both of us at the same time, without saying “boo” to alert me of his presence. There is NOT room for a parked car, three cyclists, and a moving car on one half of Milwaukee Avenue. Somebody’s path strayed an inch, our bars clipped, we both went down, and homeboy got sent to the hospital unconcious, strapped to a stretcher. Cyclist-on-cyclist collisions are serious fucking business; look at how many people get injured during road races and on the track. I’m talking “broken skull” and “missing teeth” injuries, not sprained wrists and road rash.
3. Don’t ride two abreast.
This also means that you and your homeboy can’t ride next to each other chatting away, because then nobody can pass you. It’s actually illegal in Illinois.
Now, is it fine to ride two abreast when you’re cruising down a residential sidestreet to a party and there’s no other vehicles around? Yes. But if you’re pulling this shit on a busy commuter street, I promise scores of people are cursing you and wishing you would die in a fire.
I also see people riding two abreast when they try to pass a stranger but they’re not actually fast enough. It’s ok to ride behind someone, you know.
4. Use hand signals.
It’s pretty easy, kids. If you find it difficult to take your hand off your bars, I suggest practicing on a trail after you’ve been riding for an hour or so and you have your balance down.
5. Don’t shoal.
When you reach a red light, you should wait behind the cyclist who is already there. If you don’t, you’re shoaling. As Bike Snob NYC explains it: “No rider, no matter how slow or diminutive, will ever come to a stop behind another rider at a red light. Instead, it is standard practice to pass that rider and stop in front of him, even if this involves doing so in the middle of the crosswalk or in the actual intersection, well ahead of the traffic signal. ‘Shoaling’ is an incredibly rude practice, and it’s tantamount to cutting in front of someone at an ATM, supermarket checkout, or urinal line.”
Dummies, for the love of god, cut this shit out right the fuck now. If people are out there in front of you, obviously faster than you, what do you hope to accomplish by cutting ahead of them at a light? THEY’RE FASTER THAN YOU. You’re just going to get passed again. And if you ARE faster than them, there’s plenty of time to safely pass them after the light has changed.
6. Don’t ride against traffic.
Bicyclists must ride in the same direction as other traffic. Riding in the opposite direction of traffic is both dangerous and against the law. You and a car have much less reaction time to respond to each other when you’re actively hurtling toward each other. It’s also mindboggling disrespectful to the cyclist who is riding the correct way and has to go around you. How come it’s never the person who is riding the wrong way who takes the lane and moves into traffic? Because they are horrible people who only care about themselves.
7. Don’t try to beat the red at six way stops.
That thing where you ride in the crosswalks in a brilliant gambit to defeat the six way stop’s red light? Or that thing where you pedal halfway across and then sit on your bike in the middle of a huge, dangerous intersection in order to have a 15 foot head start on whoever was obeying the law and waiting behind the crosswalk? It’s pointless. And dangerous. And annoying. Stop it.
8. Learn to trackstand-REALLY trackstand-or put a fucking foot down.
If you’re stopped at a red light, you should be behind the crosswalk line, with your butt off your saddle and hovering over the top tube, one foot on a pedal and one foot on the ground. Exceptions are made if you can trackstand. But can you really trackstand?
If you’re slowly inching forward until you’re four feet into the intersection? You can’t trackstand. If you’re riding your bike in little circles in the crosswalk? Oh my god, is that even saving you any effort? JUST PUT A FOOT DOWN.
I was once riding my bike and I ran into a boy I think is really cute and was maybe trying to holler at. When we got to a stop, he started riding his bike in dorky little circles instead of sitting on his top tube and talking with me. I thought, “Welp, we’re never having sex.”.
9. Take out the headphones.
If you’re into sensory deprivation and danger, get Mistress Apollonia to wrap you in saran wrap with a tube to breath out of. Don’t hinder your ability to hear warnings and approaching dangers when you’re on a bike in the middle of traffic.
10. It’s not a Cat 6 race.
If you’re going a comfortable speed and safely passing other cyclists (see rule number one), well, good for you, Jensie. But if you’re dripping sweat and shoaling and killing yourself just because you can’t stand to look at another riders’s butt, you need to calm right the fuck down. It’s not a race, and there’s no shame in being behind someone who’s going the same speed or a little faster than you.
I consider myself pretty fast for a commuter. And I loathe being in big clusterfuck groups of cyclists, and will speed up (or deliberately catch a red light!) to separate myself from them. But I don’t automatically pass everyone I see without judging whether I can maintain the speed necessary to stay out of their way. I consider how likely it is that we catch a red light in the next few blocks; there’s no effort more futile than mashing like hell to get past someone and then having them catch up to you at the light looking refreshed and relaxed. And when I find myself getting competitive and aggro, I remind myself I’m just going to work, not trying to be first in line at a Free Ice Cream and Makeout Party.
If you need to compete against other cyclists and prove you’re faster? There’s a little thing called track racing, and road racing, and cyclocross, and alleycats…..
Ok, so maybe you’re not doing wheelies on your Divvy bike yet. And maybe the giant u-lock clanging off your handlebars and your pristine Chrome bag still signal to everyone that you’re a newbie. Don’t despair. Just focus on being a respectful member of the road, and everything else will only get easier.