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April 2019

Riding Safely Where the Rules Don’t Rule

by John S. Allen

In a previous Safety Corner, I described concerns with safety on CRW’s Centuries, where pacelines of hotshot riders often pass too close to slower ones.

Many of us participate in another kind of large ride – a mass ride which attracts casual cyclists. Examples are the 5-Borough Tour in New York City, in May, and the Hub on Wheels in Boston, in September. Many people on these rides don’t have much experience riding in groups. When I rode the 5-Borough Tour in 2005, I had the pleasure of pumping up the tires for another participant. It was his first ride of the year. Many children participate in these rides, too.

A similar situation can occur on charity rides, especially on segments which you as a longer-distance rider are sharing with shorter-distance riders.

Under usual conditions on roads and paths, the conventional rules of the road prevail, for the most part: slower traffic keeps right, faster traffic passes on the left, and so forth. But a large crowd of inexperienced bicyclists on a road closed to motor traffic does not observe the usual etiquette. The available space is very wide. The crowd moves like a herd of animals (or a slow peloton…). People will pass you on both sides.

Traffic cones and sawhorses block traffic from entering, and ride marshals at intersections call out encouragement. These too can tend to make people less cautious. But falls, not collisions with motor vehicles, are the most common crashes even on open roads. On mass rides, the major safety issue is to avoid collisions with other bicyclists who may not be very aware of others around them, or in good control of their bicycles, or may take a fall. Some may nonetheless be quite fast from swimming, running, skiing, indoor bicycling or other exercise. It is best to avoid merging right or left. Go with the flow, as much as you can.

If the crowd comes to a stop, it is likely to become wider as riders at the rear bunch up with those at the front. This can force you into a dangerous situation if only one side of a two-way road is closed or you are pushed into the curb. Unless you are fortunate enough to have started at the front and cstrong enough to stay there, you are safer hanging back and keeping away from the edges.

Even more challenging than mass rides are road closings where there is no organized ride, as on Memorial Drive in Cambridge on summer Sundays, or for the Head of the Charles Regatta in October. Bicyclists at all skill levels, inline skaters, skateboarders and pedestrians will be moving in every direction. Downtown Crossing in Boston, the “shared space” experiment on Palmer Street in Cambridge, and any summer day on Commercial Street in Provincetown, pose the same challenges. Bicycle and pedestrian traffic dominate to the extent that the rare motor vehicles travel barely faster than walking speed. Be slow and be safe – and don’t pass those motor vehicles unless you are sure they won’t cut in or turn across your path.

I have survived all of these situations without incident. The basic tactic which has worked for me is to ride slowly. In a crowd, I ride a bit slower than the people around me – never faster. Save the faster riding for when you are in the clear. By riding slower, I’m not caught short by someone who unexpectedly cuts across in front of me – and this has happened repeatedly. I also have a view of the road surface ahead. I keep my hands over the brake levers, though also I am aware that someone could run into me from behind if I brake hard. To the degree possible, I avoid abrupt stops. The skills are quite like those to ride in a paceline or peloton, but at low speed. Stay alert.

And pay special attention on downhills. Some riders will be riding the brakes, while others will be taking advantage of gravity to go fast. A CRW member took a hard fall on a downhill on the 2018 Hub on Wheels when another rider lost control, fell and shot across in front of him. The other rider’s forward speed had been converted to sideways speed. It isn’t clear why this happened, but it likely resulted from a wheel-touching incident. In situations like this, the best you can do is to try to anticipate where there will be a gap, and ride through it. Wear your helmet.

Be safe out there!

A video of the start of a Hub on Wheels ride is at
A video of a ride on Commercial Street in Provincetown is at

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