Why cyclists can ride 2, 3 and 4 abreast: explaining things for indignant drivers.

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In cars, people travel on the road 2-abreast all the time. Nobody questions. In a Mitsubishi Canter 3 Sumo wrestlers can travel along 3-abreast. We haven’t even started on buses that transport their passengers all 4 abreast with an aisle down the middle, their corpulent masses forcing bus drivers to reach for first gear to get up the hills. I write so that next time some clod bores the rest of us with their online remarks about cyclists having no right to ride 2,3 or 4 abreast, you might send them a link to this page, for correction. If you are that clod, read on. Enlightenment awaits, I assure you.

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Most car and bus trips are technically unnecessary, transporting people for the purposes of socialisation or recreation. Bunch rides, the cause of most of the furore, are exactly the same. They are social and recreational. Nothing is transported, except for bananas. But if these unnecessary bike trips seem to interfere with the speed of unnecessary car trips, stop for a moment and consider the effect of car traffic, upon other car traffic.

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In fact bike traffic has been made to slow down in the city since the advent of traffic lights, an invention to address the congestion and road deaths that resulted when heavy machines appeared in the city, under the control of the fallible citizen. The average speed of car travel in cities, due to the start-stopping of traffic that cars cause with their mass, is typically less than 10kph. Most bunch rides average just over 30kph. In the past there have been cities where the only real traffic was bicycling traffic (Beijing in the 80s, Copenhagen in the 40s) and that bike traffic didn’t even have to slow down at intersections. Schools of riders just filtered and flowed. So enough talk about 2-abreast bunch rides slowing cars down, even if they do occupy a whole lane—as they aught to for everyones safety.

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Like a busload of grannies out for picnic, a bunch ride of cyclists has every right to fill a whole lane. But asserting rights is not an end in itself—at least not for the kinds of fit and intelligent people who choose to partake in this activity. We’re not banner wavers. If you see a bunch ride temporarily being 4 riders wide, it is for a technical and necessary reason, that I shall explain.

4-abreast riding generally doesn’t happen in races. One line of riders will be pushing into the wind, led by a sole rider busting his or her nuts. The parallel line of riders will in fact be filtering back, each recovering from their own brief time at the front of the fast line. It would be easier to make friends at a 2-second speed dating event than in a two-wide pace line where the order is constantly changing.

But bunch rides are not races. They are about relationship building. Their appeal is they let riders pair up and chat, like old ladies on bus seats. Everyone gets sucked along in the draft, pedalling fairly intensely, but not so hard they can’t talk—except, that is, for the two riders right at the front with no one ahead of them breaking the wind. Pretty soon this pair will be buggered and will have to drop to the rear. They’ll do so in unison, so that everyones conversations, and their own, are not interrupted and for a moment cause the bunch to be 4 abreast. Governmental and business decisions could be at stake. Conversations in bunch rides are of the kind that save marriages, or get kids off of drugs, or make sure the next Pope is the right one!

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If you’re not convinced, you may yet come around, after you have had time to think this through from another’s perspective. But if you’re still seeing red in a month, count yourself lucky you’re not a pilot. Have you seen how those birds take up half the sky!

(My next post looks at solutions.)

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