Navigating intersections in a group
by John S. Allen and Bob Zogg
CRW arrows its major rides and often staggers its ride starts to avoid larger groups riding in close proximity as well as pileups of cyclists at intersections.
For some of its largest rides, CRW also works with police to control traffic at major intersections. While these steps can help spread out cyclists, groups will still form. Indeed, we often prefer to ride in small groups, be it a pace line, a group of friends intentionally riding together or a group assembled by chance, which is common on CRW rides.
Navigating intersections in groups is more complex than when riding alone. The temptation is to try to cross an intersection all at once so that the group remains together. When the lead cyclists enter an intersection, however, it does not mean that it's safe for others to follow. Each cyclist must decide for him/herself when it is safe to enter an intersection. Considerate lead cyclists will slow the pace momentarily upon clearing an intersection to allow others to catch up.
It is most efficient to double up when approaching an intersection if a stop will be needed. This tactic generally allows the group to cross an intersection more quickly, making it less likely that a changing traffic signal or cross traffic will require cyclists at the rear of the group to wait.
If you are first to arrive at an intersection, think about those who will arrive after you. Signal the turn if you are turning. Your position as you wait sets up the situation for those following. The standard rule for bicyclists is to merge to the rightmost position that is appropriate for your destination. You may do well to be a bit more assertive about lane positioning if there will be others, to hold room for them.
Motor vehicles also may arrive while you are waiting at an intersection. They can't go for the same reason you can't; hold your position in line. If a motor vehicle is waiting, pull up behind it. Few encounters are as inefficient, confusing and annoying—to both bicyclists and motorists—as bicyclists' "swarming" around a motor vehicle. It is efficient for cyclists to wait side by side, two by two, behind a waiting motor vehicle. Remember to single up after leaving the intersection so that traffic behind your group can pass.
Getting into the proper lane position when preparing for left turns can be particularly challenging for cycling groups. Sometimes, the lead cyclists are able to merge left, but then a motorist approaching from behind prevents the trailing cyclists from following safely. The motorist, however, cannot pass, because the lead cyclists now block their path. By the time the situation sorts itself out, it's too late for the trailing cyclists to make the left turn safely and the motorist has had to slow to a crawl. What to do? While it takes some advanced coordination and communication, this can be done with grace. First, well in advance of the intersection, the trailing cyclists signal and merge left, claiming the appropriate lane position. After allowing any motorists in front of the trailing cyclists to pass, the lead cyclists then signal and merge left. By merging first, the trailing cyclists take control of the lane, allowing time for the whole group to take the appropriate lane position. If a motorist approaches from behind after the trailing cyclists have merged left, the motorist simply waits until the cyclists have cleared the intersection or until it is safe to pass the cyclists on the right.
Again, each member of the group needs to be on the lookout. No matter how experienced and skilled the group, conditions can change and people can make mistakes. It is not safe for trailing members of a group to start across an intersection simply because it was safe for the ones ahead, nor is it safe to change lanes simply because someone else did, either ahead of you or behind you. The expression "clear" is an invitation for trouble; playing "follow the leader" is a game for children, not cyclists. Don't get swept up in groupthink: please, always look before starting to cross, and look back before starting to change lane position.
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