A Cyclist’s Manifesto

Passing and passive-aggressiveness on the bike trails

Two cyclists on a bike path.

photo by Mikael Damkier – Fotolia

During the warmer months, which recently included February, I average about a hundred weekly bicycling miles on the Twin Cities’ network of off-street trails. There, unmolested by motor traffic, I can entertain important writerly thoughts often having to do with when to eat my energy bar. In April and May, as bicycle traffic increases, I try to foster bonhomie on the paths, offering lilting greetings or an incompetent hand with changing a flat. It would be easier to sustain this spirit past spring if everyone’s ideas about trail etiquette matched my own. 

The hot zones of bike-path conflict and danger are where trails intersect roads, especially when those roads are four-lane thoroughfares. Most of these intersections have stop signs for trail users but not for motorists. On the whole, this is reasonable urban planning; except during rush hour in a few bustling spots, street traffic will ebb soon enough for bikers and others to safely cross. I’ve rarely had to wait longer than it takes to savor three sips of warm water, adjust a helmet strap, and recite the 23rd Psalm. But certain impatient cyclists can’t endure these pauses, and have been known to imperiously extend an arm to halt oncoming cars, perhaps implying that flouting traffic laws is a just reward for their commitment to fitness and ecology. 

Owing in part to such lawlessness, drivers frequently cede their right of way at road-path intersections, waving bikers through, sometimes with detectable resentment, sometimes with misplaced solicitousness. These volunteer stoppers might be well intentioned, but they’re kindness depends on wider motorist participation than they can guarantee. On a busy road, the Subaru driver beckons with a poison apple if another lane’s oncoming Costco truck is late with a delivery. Besides, if there’s a stop sign and cars coming, I’m gonna brake to a halt, so you’re not saving me any trouble. More than once this has led to lengthy standoffs of increasingly inflamed deference. Although these exchanges tend to be gestural rather than verbal, the dialogue is clear enough to me:

“Go ahead, brother, and may I just say how much I admire your vintage cycling jersey.”

“Thanks so much, but I have a stop sign. After you.”

“Nevertheless, I’ve come to a complete and inconvenient stop, so please pedal away.”

Here is an aspect of Minnesota Nice that can lead transplants back to crueler locales. 

Accidents and misunderstandings could also be avoided through more routine use of hand signals. Cyclists have gotten better at cueing their turns, but they too often neglect the signal for slowing and stopping, an extension of the arm with a 90-degree bend at the elbow, hand pointing downward. (This signal, I’ve found, is also useful at supermarkets, though in the produce aisle I fear it was once misunderstood as an obscure obscenity.)

Passing on the trail is a more troublesome spot, second in severity only to intersection conflicts and illegalities. All the civic authorities recommend that bikers, when about to pass, give an audible signal. “On your left” is customary, if sometimes uttered through perceptibly clenched teeth in conservative districts; bells and horns are popular with children and uncostumed clowns. This is the safest practice, but some bikers announce their intentions with such exclamatory force that it’s hard to imagine the pass being more alarming than the signal. And at times, all the calling out seems overcautious. After all, as drivers we signal but don’t honk when passing on the highway, and for many stretches the trails are quite wide, allowing the passing cyclist to maintain five or six lateral feet between herself and the sluggard being passed. A collision in those cases seems unlikely, provided the slower party doesn’t make an extremely capricious change of course. In light of that, I sometimes pass apparently predictable riders without warning, but I always call out when I’m about to overtake potential free spirits, including unicyclists, singers, processions of Segway tourists, those on the poles of the age spectrum, and the lithe and demonstrative Rollerblader who appears to work as a padded Santa when the trails are covered in snow. 

Considering the diversity of the trails’ users and uses, interactions there are impressively harmonious and could be more so with a few added concessions to law and order. So let’s all stop on the trails to chat, by which I mean, let’s all come to a signaled and complete stop and briefly say hello.

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