Monday, 16 July 2012

Trying to be Nice - Big Mistake

Today, I had to commute on a route I've only cycled once before, ending with a mile of 6-lane highway. On the way there, no problems at all - took the lane (what we Britons call 'primary position'), the 6-lane highway goes down a fairly steep hill into a creek, and my momentum carried me up the other side almost all the way to my destination, so I was able to match traffic speed almost all the way.

On the way back, there's that same fairly steep and long hill, but going uphill this time, so I tried to retain as much momentum as possible, but soon I'm down to 10mph and puffing and panting away. Meanwhile a line of a few cars has developed behind me, so I decided to try a new technique I've read about recently: 'control and release'. So I give up my strong primary position and move right (about 3ft from the curb) so traffic could overtake in the same lane. I figured I could get back into primary position if the motorists failed to pass safely. Big mistake!

It's a fairly wide lane but I don't think it quite classifies as a 'wide outside lane' (see this Google Maps street view image), so I figured they would still be able to give me just enough room. The first three cars did, but then I get buzzed at about 1ft clearance by an SUV. By this time, more cars have appeared behind me and I was faced with a situation that was no longer controllable.

I eventually managed to get back into primary, but only after a couple more passes that were too close for comfort. I guess some motorists in Maryland have yet to see the memo about the 3ft passing law.

Lessons learned:

1. I will not try to facilitate traffic flow again - at least not anytime soon. I think it's too dangerous.

2. 'Control and release' may work in some conditions, but in my opinion it is risky: too many motorists simply do not give cyclists a safe amount of room, even when they can do so. And what at first appears to be only a few cars behind you can easily develop into a long line of traffic, so that before you know it, you can be boxed in with no way to safely retake the lane.

3. For the first time in about 18 years, I experienced what gutter-riding cyclists experience. When every third car overtakes you with just inches to spare, it's no wonder they're scared of traffic.

To motorists who may read this: if you want cyclists to 'get out of your way', ALL of you have to pass us safely. I tried seeing if you could do it today and I ended up risking my life in the process. We can't afford to help you motorists get past us if some of you are going to put us in danger when we try to help you out.


  1. Your experience trying control & release on a six-lane road provides a good reason for not trying this on a multilane road. Because there are other lanes in the same direction for passing cyclists, there is no reason to encourage motorists to pass in the same lane on a multilane road.

    Control & release is appropriate for two-lane roads in certain conditions. I use it daily on such roads as well as on "no lane" residential roads (no center line marked). I enjoy making it easier for motorists to get by me more easily, but only under my conditions. Adding a friendly wave as they come by enhances the friendly interaction between motorist and cyclist.

    To learn more about control & release and how it can be used safely and courteously, see

    1. The thing is, the other lanes were jam packed with vehicles, so traffic could not move left out of my lane to pass - my lane was the only lane with only a few vehicles in it because almost all the drivers had seen me and moved over. At that point I'm coming up one side of a valley on a very straight road, so drivers can see there's a cyclist from a mile back.

      The problem may have been partially exacerbated by drivers stuck in the middle lane moving right as soon as I started letting motorists pass.

      But again, the problems here were not really related to the number of lanes, and although my underestimating the number of cars behind me made things worse, the real problem here was drivers overtaking me too closely even when they didn't have to. If they hadn't done that, I could have safely let any number of cars pass in the same lane, and this wouldn't have been a problem at all.

      If some drivers are passing me too closely even when they have enough space to the left (presumably because they are too lazy to move more than a couple of feet off their line of travel), what chance does that give me to ever use 'control and release' safely?

      Maybe 'control and release' works when one is letting only one car by - because the motorist knows you're trying to do the right thing, so they give plenty of room. But when there's a few cars, my experience tends to suggest that the cars behind that first car go into rage mode. I certainly got the impression that one of those close passes came out of frustration at being held back before I moved right.

    2. If these were standard 11- or 12-foot lanes, I don't understand how there was room for motorists to pass you with adequate space (at least 3 feet) in the right lane if next left lane was congested and they could not change lanes (even partially) to pass. So maybe drivers of small cars were able to give you enough room but not larger cars?

      Again, control and release is usually practiced on two-lane roads. And there usually needs to be a gap in oncoming traffic for safe release to take place. The exception is when there is a large gap in a parking lane or the lane is wider than 14 feet.

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    4. Ian Brett Cooper19 July 2012 13:51

      I don't think the lane is 11 or 12ft - it may be 14ft or more as far as I know. But all I know for sure is that 3/4 of the vehicles that passed me within the lane were able to give me enough room. And this while the middle lane was chock full of traffic. Like I said, only a few of the cars passed too closely

  2. I never apply explicit control and release technique to a road with multiple same-direction lanes. Very few such roads around here have any sections which are shareable side-by-side. There are two short sections that I can think of where the outer lane inexplicably widens, maybe just due to how the road has evolved over time, and by short I mean about a medium block long. Both of those happen to be passing a shopping center. My approach to them has and continues to vary.

    Harkening back to my edge riding days, I will sometimes still move over to the right for side-by-side sharing, but I don't think I've ever bothered to communicate explicitly when I do that. I do think there have been times where I'm sorry I've done it, when the passing pack was long enough that I did not have a natural gap to get back into line at the next intersection, and had to negotiate one. Not that that was a real problem.

    But at other times, I'm mindful of the fact that after all there is another lane to pass me in, and the only motorists behind me who NEED to be the right lane are those who want to turn into the shopping center. So mindful of the potential for right hooks (and drive-outs), sometimes I share by riding in the LEFT portion of the wide lane, leaving those interacting with the shopping center parking lot to do so on my right. And sometimes that even works.

    And sometimes I just continue controlling the lane from the center, for the block or so before it narrows again. I guess it depends on the traffic at the time, and my mood.

    CyclingSavvy matches constant lane control primarily to multilane roads, and C&R primary to two-lane roads, and I guess that must make a lot of sense to me, because I do too. See my recent Facebook post about successful C&R on narrow, twisty, hilly rural roads such as where I currently am on vacation.

  3. Also, C&R is predicated on the position that you cannot safely share the lane, so, moving right to an unsafe edge line of travel in order to "share the lane" defeats that position. Often, C&R means that you pull off of the road, onto an otherwise unsafely ride-able shoulder, a driveway or take a right at the next light-controlled intersection and stop, wait for a bigger gap in traffic or enter the intersection with a right on a green light.

  4. C&R is not predicated on the idea that you cannot share the lane, nor does it mean pulling off the road. My whole argument is based on the fact that I now believe no lane is safe to share, so I guess in that sense, I agree with you.