I skipped Flying Wheels

I was supposed to cross Flying Wheels off my bucket list today, but skipped it because it seemed like a bad, stressful idea.

Here are my excuses:

  1. I needed to be at the start line in Redmond at 7:00 am and was having a lot of trouble falling asleep Friday night.
  2. The 520 bridge was closed, requiring a long detour around Lake Washington.
  3. Last year it was apparently not a good time.

Most riders, of course, didn’t pee on other people’s yards, liberally apply the middle finger, or start brawls in coffee shops. Most drivers were probably irritated at worst. But, there’s something about being on the road in any kind of vehicle that turns people into monsters and leads to problems, as Louis CK perfectly describes. When you’re vulnerable, it’s scary and leads to being defensive and confrontational.

I’ve ridden on the roads through which Flying Wheels passes, and while it’s a beautiful area the experience is stressful. There are a lot of high-traffic, two-lane roads with no shoulders and no buffer for cyclists when cars and trucks try to pass. The residents genuinely do not want cyclists there and are extremely frustrated and scared by the large packs of bikes that infest their roads every summer. I can sympathize to a degree; I get nervous around cyclists when I drive, too.

The safest rides I’ve been on through southwestern King and Snohomish counties were with ride leaders that had the group do two important things. The first was to enforce riding single file, no exceptions. The second was breaking up into subgroups of four or five people with at least three car lengths between them. This provided cars with spaces in which to hang out and leapfrog their way through with much less risk of being caught between cyclists on the right and oncoming traffic. If you just have a long line of dozens or hundreds of people there’s just not much drivers can do; they’ll just get frustrated and try to speed past. The real jerks amongst them will purposely buzz you to teach you a lesson, because their irritation is worth much more than your life.

But that’s a cohesive, disciplined group. What happens when you have a few thousand people with varying levels of experience riding in these events? You get a lot of this:

  • Riding two-, three-, or bajillion-abreast instead of single file. Legally, you can ride two abreast in many areas but it’s usually unsafe. It totally prevents cars from being able to pass, and the cyclists that do it are usually completely oblivious to their surroundings.
  • Riding with headphones, thus being oblivious to surroundings. Cue the argument that plugging your ears up and filling them with sound doesn’t impair you at all. You’re so very, very wrong. You’ll hear cars and bikes behind you way before you see them, and you can tell how close something is to you through hearing. The distraction will prevent you from paying more attention to your surroundings in general.
  • Not being predictable. Always ride in a straight line. The most common manifestation of this problem is something that I see almost every day when I’m riding around Seattle: swerving in and out of the parking lane. Yes, you feel safer because you’re temporarily not in traffic, but when you swerve back in you’re likely to get crushed in between the back left corner of the car you’re turning around and the car behind you that you didn’t know was there. Or smack into the cyclist to your left—that you don’t know is there—when you speed up and lurch back in.
  • Riding too close together. When someone slams on the brakes ahead of you or doesn’t gear down enough to make it up a hill, you’re going to have a very unpleasant encounter with their rear wheel if not the pavement.
  • Not signalling. At the very least, always signal that you’re slowing/stopping and preferably call it out as well. This prevents the people behind you from ramming you because even the most observant are not prescient. I’ve had multiple conversations with my boyfriend about this one and have just given up and started keeping a ridiculous distance behind him.
  • Passing without calling out. So dangerous to the person you’re passing.
  • Ride right on the white line on a shoulderless road. Generally, take the right third of the lane so that you have space to move over if you have to.
  • Not letting people pass. I got run off the Sammamish River Trail a few weeks ago when someone decided to swerve to the left of the trail after I’d called out and started passing in the formerly-wide space to their left. On the road that would have pushed me into traffic.
  • Overreacting. If a driver is purposely trying to goad or scare you, just pull over or slow down and let them go. It’s not worth it. If another cyclist endangers you, get out of the situation, yell at them if you need to, and let it go. Otherwise, you’ll have a miserable time and be more likely to put yourself in dangerous situations because you’re pissed off.

I’m leaving “not following the rules of the road” off this list because it’s a more general issue (and following the rules of the road is sometimes a bad idea, but that’s for another day).

I’ve pondered many times how to teach people to ride more safely in groups outside of a formal setting. Modeling good behavior is definitely helpful. I saw several people learn about calling out hazards and signalling on the STP last year, and in a few cases people directly asked me about it because I am a grand master of signalling. Confrontation is alienating and doesn’t work. Having a quick rundown of SMART riding helps, but isn’t enough. A long safety lecture before a major ride will probably be paid attention to as much as the ones on airplanes. Mailing out literature along with registration packets might help. I don’t have a good answer here.

So, in lieu of the ride I was supposed to do I plan to do one tomorrow through the towns south of Seattle. There’s apparently going to be a lunch stop in Kent, and who can resist that?