Few topics are more divisive, so let’s be clear on this: the controversy surrounding riding two abreast has nothing to do with the law, and everything to do with the social implications of doing so.
It’s legal. Almost everywhere in the world. There are less than crystal clear suggestions as to when it’s not recommended in various road handbooks in different countries, but the bottom line is that it’s legal.
So what’s it all about then?
It drives motorists nuts when they see cyclists riding two abreast, and, it makes many cyclists feel less safe
The question of whether or not it’s legal is, for most people, not even a factor. Riding two abreast is one of those situations where everyone just seems to operate on feel.
When motorists see cyclists riding two abreast, they see a bunch of cyclists playing bikes in the road, and worse, that they are doing so with complete disregard for anyone around them. They don’t care about your feelings, they don’t care about your expectations, your rights, the fact that you want to be over there 10 seconds ago, and they certainly don’t care about their own safety, right?
The feeling from many cyclists is that they are more exposed to passing traffic when riding two abreast, but what also prevents them from doing so is the anticipated frustrations of motorists that are vented at them through such means as shouting abuse, close passes, throwing objects, or other intimidation tactics that weigh on many cyclists minds at all times. Only a few will do so, but the feeling that you will be abused at any moment if you step out of line stays with you and increases the more exposed you feel.
The important thing here is that it’s all about feelings. Feelings don’t always correspond to reality, they aren’t always rational, and yet they are incredibly strong. Often, stronger than facts.
From the motorists perspective, it’s a tough one. In places like Australia, there is an expectation that if you are in a car then you have the right of way at all times, and there is very little to suggest otherwise. There is no meaningful history of having to share. The laws do not suggest otherwise. The media certainly suggests otherwise. The roads are constructed with few reminders that there is any need to consider those around you. Others should consider staying out of your way. Usually, roads maintain the same layout leading up to crosswalks that they do on motorways. It is no wonder that when people in cars encounter people on the roads who are not in cars, it seems unnatural.
Because cycling is not legitimized as a normal thing for normal people to do, in a place where the infrastructure does not specifically cater for it, and where cycling is largely thought of as sport, I completely understand that people behind the wheel of a car feel the way they do about cyclists at the best of times, never mind when they may appear to be making an obstacle of themselves on purpose, by riding two abreast!
So, I get it. I understand why we feel the way we do about cyclists on our roads, and I definitely understand why that is amplified when seeing cyclists who are riding two abreast.
This might help, but it probably won’t
Here are a few summaries from various sources (and countries) about why cyclists ride two abreast. These first two examples speaks directly to motorists:
Here are a few reasons as stated by Bike Law, a network of lawyers and law firms in the US who have a special interest in the law as it applies to cycling.
Here is a perspective from Australia, again, trying to keep things rational.
Oh, and did I mention that riding two abreast is legal?
Here’s the thing, though – because the controversy surrounding riding two abreast is all based on feelings rather than a rational understanding of all the facts, none of this matters.
That cyclists have the legal right to ride two abreast has nothing at all to do with the impression that they are holding me up from my maximum potential speed, that they don’t need to be, and that therefore, they must be holding me up knowingly and without just cause. Essentially, cyclists riding two abreast are thumbing their nose at all that is good and decent.
Pointing out that it’s safer for various reasons can sound like you are telling the driver that they are doing it to account for your inability to drive safely, which, clearly, you always do. And how dare you suggest otherwise!
Pointing out that it’s actually easier to pass a group of cyclists riding two abreast than in a single-file line should be pretty conclusive, but it simply doesn’t have the same strength behind it as the image of people on bikes forcing you to safely change lanes to pass them. That is unnecessary and a complete waste of time when one could simply wizz past in-lane and not have to change course or slow down at all.
Or, anyway, cyclists just shouldn’t be on the roads at all… for their own safety, obviously (the irony of that statement is mind-blowing).
How do you deal with this? Well, aside from that last one, which you can’t, the only way to achieve real understanding is through empathy. I’ll let you ponder a practical way to achieve that one on your own time, at least for now.
You don’t need to ride two abreast all of the time, and you don’t need to ride two abreast at all if you don’t want to, but here are some reasons why you might want to give it a go in the right circumstances (I do have some caveats that I’ll mention below).
It’s safer, for multiple reasons. First, and as stated in a few of the articles above, two cyclists are more visible than one.
Second, sometimes when drivers pass a longer line of cyclists, they misjudge how long it will take to pass them all and end up choosing to squeeze the cyclists rather than a potential head-on collision (given the options, that makes sense). Less time to pass means easier passing, meaning safer for everyone. It also means that those who do wait for a safe opportunity to pass don’t have to wait as long.
Third, and for me the most engaging reason, is that on a section of road that you really don’t want a motorist passing you, riding two abreast makes a point of forcing the driver to consider their actions. If they have to actually change lanes to get around you, they will be less likely to feel the need to squeeze you into the gutter when passing you in-lane. If the lane narrows to the point where you, a car, and enough space between you cannot be provided for, then removing the option to try anyway is absolutely a good thing. On the other hand, blind corners are tricky (though I’d argue that the further into the lane that you are, the sooner you will be spotted), and as the speed differential increases and the ability to see ahead diminishes, the higher the risk of riding two abreast becomes, so use your judgement as to when doing so tips over from being more safe to really not very smart.
That third point is a bit tricky to feel comfortable with for many cyclists. It is essentially an intentional move to make yourself more of an obstacle, and as I stated above, imagining the forthcoming abuse from drivers for doing so can lead you to end up feeling more exposed and less safe than hunkering down in the gutter in single-file. It’s also just never great feeling when people are upset at you, so even where there is no real physical threat, it’s still a disincentive to claiming your space in the name of safety. There are situations where riding two abreast is better and some where it’s not, and I’m certainly not going to recommend that anyone do anything that puts them in danger or makes them feel unsafe, so just use your best judgement.
An example of how to ride in a group responsibly is to look at people who do so for a living. You’ll never see pro-teams on a training ride in single-file. Ever. They are always two-up, in a compact group.
Depending on the road, there are a few things you may want to think about. More than 3-5 of you? Double up. More than 10-14+ of you on a single-lane road? Consider splitting it up so cars can have some chance of getting around you. Lane too narrow for 1 cyclist plus a car plus a comfortable and safe amount of space in between? Double up (or if on your own, move further into the lane). Lane wide enough for a car to pass you safely in-lane? Single-file. Riding two abreast? Follow the wheel in front. Don’t echelon all across the road. That’s not really two abreast, is it?
Great – now what?
So riding two abreast is legal, and in many places a good idea, and it even improves the situation for motorists, but these are just mere facts. Words on a page. Without a personal, direct understanding of the dangerous and frightening situations surrounding close passes, or the deep realization that cyclists are people just like you who are getting to work, and people just like you who are going somewhere for fun, riding two abreast will continue to outrage motorists.
Likewise, telling a fellow cyclist who already fears for their safety that riding two abreast – or, further from the kerb – can actually be a good thing for them, is abstract when compared to the primal fear of getting attacked by a much larger animal. It’s kind of like telling someone that if you just make yourself as big as possible and shout, the bear will go away, and yet all you want to do is run for your life.
So, that’s all I can offer. It’s not an absolute solution that will work every time – the closest and most terrifying pass I have ever experienced was when I was riding two abreast. On average, however, when used in the right circumstances, I believe that riding two abreast is a tool that more cyclists should make use of more often, and more people in cars should have an enlightened understanding about, because it has its merits.
Header image: source