We’re halfway there

July 28, 2014 § 51 Comments

As part of the “Cyclists Belong in the Lane on PCH” project, on Sunday the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department met us at 8:00 AM in the parking lot of Will Rogers State Park. They were in an unmarked Ford Explorer. Greg Seyranian and Dave Kramer had rallied the Big Orange troops, along with other riders from the West Side and the South Bay. There were about fifty cyclists total.

This was the second phase of our law enforcement-cyclist cooperative. The first phase involved getting ticketed for riding in the lane, and then throwing a shit-fit about it followed by meetings with Captain Pat Devoren and his team of deputies. Much of the heavy lifting was done by Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition wunderkind Eric Bruins. Give them some money if you’re feeling so disposed.

As a result of the meetings, Captain Devoren suggested a ride-along where deputies would follow behind a Sunday group ride. This was going to be our opportunity to educate them about the realities of riding a bike on PCH, and about how much safer it is to ride in the lane than in the gutter.

The Big Orange peloton had prepared an excellent ride plan. From Temescal to Las Flores they would ride in the gutter, switching to the lane at those points where the shoulder vanishes, or where there are cars parked on the shoulder, or where other space considerations make continued progress in the gutter impossible. This would give the following deputies an opportunity to see how dangerous it is to continually switch from gutter to lane.

After Las Flores, the peloton would ride single file “as far to the right as practicable” per CVC 21202. This would show the deputies two things: first, that a line of 50 riders going single file on PCH is significantly more of an obstacle to motorists than a single, compact peloton riding 2×2. Second, it would demonstrate with utter clarity that even when riding “FTR” there is not enough space for a bike and a car to share the lane — and that’s without the 3-foot passing law that kicks in this September.

At Cross Creek the peloton would flip it and ride back to Temescal utilizing the full lane. This would let the deputies compare traffic flow, safety, and predictability of the cyclists versus the other two methods.

The peloton rolled out and we hung back in the unmarked vehicle for about a minute. Then, we got a little surprise: because it looked like we were tailgating the cyclists, a park ranger put on his flashers and pulled us over. It’s pretty awesome getting stopped by law enforcement when you’re in an unmarked vehicle with two dudes carrying LASD badges. Suffice it to say, no one got a ticket!

The deputies were immediately impressed with the difficulty and inherent danger of doing gutter-and-lane back-and-forth maneuvers. Although motorists didn’t harass anyone or honk, the constant motion from gutter to lane was plainly fraught with potential conflict, especially since the traffic at 8:00 AM on Sunday is incredibly light compared to what happens on this stretch of PCH during a weekday, or later in the day on a nice weekend.

When the Big Orange group shifted to single file, it was also clear that there was no possible way that a car could safely share the lane with the cyclists. The deputies immediately saw that putting fifty riders in a long single file created an extremely long line of riders. When I told them that as of September the weekly Big O contingent would be double that in size, they understood the importance of keeping the group as compact as possible.

On the final leg from Cross Creek back to Temescal, the chief concern of the deputies was how traffic would be obstructed. It wasn’t, not even a little. One deputy commented that it was no different from a motorist who has to go around a slow moving vehicle like a bus or a dump truck. They also noted the incredible number of obstacles for any rider who might choose to ride in the gutter. Cars parked up against the fog line, people opening doors, surfers magically appearing with surfboards, and bad surface conditions in the gutter were all things that became easy to understand when pointed out while following the peloton at a slow speed of 20/21 mph.

The deputies were fully on board with the idea that the best place for a group is in the lane. This is a huge change and represents a watershed in the way that law enforcement views bicyclists on PCH. The only concern they still had was how this type of lane control would affect traffic when it was only one or two riders and when it was done during rush hour.

I volunteered to do another drive along, this time with only one or two riders so they could see that although the obstruction of traffic was minimal, the motorist harassment is extreme and terrifying. We’re going to set up a date for that experiment, perhaps this coming week.

The take home for cyclists who want to ride in the lane on PCH is this: the deputies will report back to Captain Devoren and based on their report we will follow up with LASD to confirm that for now, at least as regards groups of riders, cyclists can expect not to be cited for CVC 21202 violations simply for riding in the lane. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that confirmation in writing or as a directive that is sent out to deputies working traffic enforcement on PCH.

I want to stress that this is a work in progress. We’ve gotten key deputies to examine this stretch of PCH from a cyclist’s perspective, and in their words, “We’ve been educated about what cyclists face on PCH.” It doesn’t mean that the issue is fully resolved, especially with regard to solo riders or cyclists in groups of two or three.

Although it’s tempting to describe this as a “victory,” it’s much more a significant step in the right direction. The sheriff’s department has been professional and not even the slightest big adversarial with regard to these discussions. With the continued support and open-minded approach of LASD — not to mention the riders who are willing to come out and help with the process of educating law enforcement — we may not be too far from the day when all cyclists will be able to exercise their right to ride in the lane all the way from Santa Monica to County Line and beyond.

Huge thanks to all of the people who have given time, lent encouragement, and donated money to keep this project moving ahead. Thanks as well to Captain Devoren and LASD for being open to change. If you want to get involved as a volunteer, send me your contact info to fsethd@gmail.com. You can also:

  1. Subscribe to this blog: Your $2.99 monthly donation helps me advocate for cyclists.
  2. Join California Association of Bicycling Organizations. $10, cheap.
  3. Join LA County Bicycle Coalition.
  4.  Talk with your club and discuss riding in the lane on PCH the next time you’re out that way.

It’s been less than a year since Greg Seyranian and Big Orange began using lane control on their group rides on PCH. Thanks again to all who have helped.

Geeks v. Dorks

September 17, 2013 § 54 Comments

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.

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