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Road Wise:  In October of 2008 two Australian cyclists reminded us of all that we had learned about sharing the road.

Road Terror

"Do you ever get used to this?" The young Australian’s shout was barely audible in the passing truck's trailing roar. It was one of a series of roars that had ruptured our bubble of safety since our 2 pairs briefly joined together for a riding 4-some. I said nothing, though not for lack of an opinion. Instead, my answer wasn't sufficiently cryptic to fit into the brief lull before the next multi-wheeler raged past us.

Were there time to be heard, my answer to this man with whom we'd only ride for 2 hours would have been one of those 'Yes and No' retorts. On one hand “Yes, I was used to it.” Eight years of cyclotouring overseas and logging thousands of cycling miles in the States before that had acclimated me to this particular form of road terror.

Countless passing trucks and buses and dozens of 'too close for comfort' events had tempered my nerves without flattening my body or my spirit. We'd become accustomed to the shock of a fast moving vehicle being dangerously close like one becomes accustomed to the fright of nearby lightning:  the novelty had long since dropped away but each event still commanded our attention.
    “No, I've never gotten used to it” would also have been a fair comment. Despite being steady and focused while feeling under fire, the hammering by traffic still produced its own special kind of fatigue in my being. Sometimes just the stress of the deafening noise becomes too much and we have to pull off far off the road in search of a dose of quiet. Other times we pull out of traffic for a deeper recovery--one that will sooth our jangled nerves. And rarely, we've completely abandoned a route solely because of the traffic.


Holding the Course

Moments after the Aussie's unanswered question had passed, the mere presence of the next truck tailing our foursome on the narrow road triggered him to bolt. Without a word, he crossed the lane in front of the truck and the oncoming lane to reach the safe haven of a graveled pull out on the opposite side. I was stunned. But despite my horror, I was conflicted: "To follow the leader or hold my course?"

Over our years of riding, Bill and I had discussed and argued our way into a shared code of road conduct.  One of the rules we'd settled upon was to always move in unison when in heavy or dangerous traffic. Our code required that I follow the young man across the road in this situation despite it being a dangerous maneuver. But his tactic was literally and figuratively across the line; it was too risky for me to cross in front of the vehicle as he had done and, unlike him, I had felt no need to escape from the encroaching truck.

The tailing truck hadn't rattled me but violating our code of conduct by holding to my course did. I later learned that Bill struggled with the same conflict and came to the same conclusion. Yes, we had a code of conduct but in this case it was superseded by the ultimate rule, which was being responsible for one's own safety.  Over the 2 hours of shared riding time we came to understand that it didn't make sense to apply our code to the different priorities of a stranger.
    The deceleration of the truck from the driver’s release of the gas pedal communicated the inevitable:  that the driver was now perplexed. He no doubt realized that if the lead rider had darted in front of him that 1, 2 or 3 of the remaining riders might do the same. I pitied the driver as I knew that the evasive action by the head of the pack would lengthen the time the trucker spent tailing us. He wouldn't dare pass us and yet he also couldn't indefinitely travel at our speed. I settled on holding my course, as did the 2 riders behind me. Eventually our steadiness convinced the truck driver and accumulating cars to pass us as was possible on the shoulderless road.

Later I realized that the mere act of pedaling alongside this same cyclist during long lulls in the traffic was distressing the young man. Apparently riding two-abreast when the road was quiet agitated him as he voluntarily moved into the unsurfaced road shoulder of dirt and rocks--something I wouldn't have considered doing. I hardly think of myself as having nerves of steel but watching his latest evasive tactic into gravel made me more deeply appreciate the confidence and clarity of strategy that I'd developed in traffic over the years.

This man's dramatically lower level of comfort on the road had me first focusing on his riding style but soon my attention turned to looking at my own. No doubt our helmet mounted mirrors gave us an edge over the Aussie's newly acquired handlebar mirrors. The slight turn of our heads and a flicker of eye movement gave us a commanding view of the world behind us compared to the fixed window offered by their static mirrors.

We had 70,000 to 80,000 miles or more of experience riding with a mirrored-eye on our backside. These men were a month into their very first cyclotour, which was their first experience riding outside of their homeland and presumably their first experience with riding with mirrors. They began their tour in Switzerland and then pedaled in Austria--both countries with polite driving etiquette and a decided kindness to cyclists. They were stunned when the standards dropped in Slovenia and then plummeted on the Istrian Peninsula of northern Croatia where the 4 of us converged.


Riding Strategies

In addition to the equipment and confidence issues, I reflected upon the several specific decisions Bill and I had made about negotiating traffic--decisions that were now distinguishing us from these younger and less experienced riders.

Years ago I became clear that the single most important contribution I could make to my safety on the road and that of everyone else in the vicinity was to ensure that I stayed upright on my bike. All other decisions I made hinged upon their impact on the probability of me dumping over. Any maneuvering I did in tight traffic had to factor in the risk of going down, which could be instantly catastrophic to me and create a dangerous chain reaction for the surrounding motorists, cyclists, or pedestrians. I decided that it was better for all on the road if I took the space I needed to make sure I didn't crash from grazing a railing, hitting a shoulder rut, or faltering in gravel.

The other key strategy we'd settled upon was to always be predictable, even at the expense of putting us in a compromised position. That was a lesson my brother taught me when I was learning to drive a car and it was equally true behind the handlebars. I convinced myself that it was safer to annoy the drivers by holding my course and slowing them down than to confuse matters with an unexpected dodge.

We'd learned by trial and error that stopping in our tracks in tight situations wasn't wise as it startled the motorists. In the early years of touring I would occasionally do that--carefully stop on the edge of the road when a traffic situation was too tense. My expectation was that the drivers would just whiz by, but they didn't. I was violating the 'be predictable' rule and even a signaled, safely executed stop on my part could trigger the tailing driver to suddenly slow down--something that could be dangerous for both of us. So 'hold the course' and therefore 'be predictable' had become our primary strategies. Any stopping we do must look logical from the perspective of a motorist to be truly safe for us.

A bus shelter commandeered for a parking garage.

We of course balance 'holding our course' and 'being predictable' with doing what we can to share the road, though cyclists and pedestrians often don't get much reciprocity in southern or eastern Europe.

In some countries motorists drive on the sidewalks, park on the sidewalks, and use the few bike lanes for cars, garbage, and cafe tables. In Croatia in 2008 we saw yet a new affront, which was using a bus stop shelter as a car park.  But as offended as we are at times by the lack of consideration from motorists, we do our best to be courteous to all on the road.

However, it looked like even these seemingly simple strategies for sharing the road--the focus on being predictable and stable--were startlingly different that those of the young Aussies riding with us.  They were definitely trying hard to stay alive in this less friendly traffic but hadn't figured out how to do that and still stay on the road.

We didn't ride with these novice cyclotourists long enough to know how they handled big descents but I had to wonder. On the up-hills we can safely cling to the edge of the road because our slow speed gives us plenty of time to spot rocks, potholes, and other pavement hazards. However on the down hills we move out into the lane a foot or 2 from the edge if we can because we may be traveling as much as 10 times faster than when climbing. That greater speed gives us less time to react to hazards so we need more maneuvering room.

Fortunately, our faster downhill speeds also mean we are less of an impediment to traffic. On the down hills, we watch for safe places to pull off and let the traffic by without risk or gradually slow so we can safely ride closer to the road's edge. If we do pull-off, we signal our intention early hoping the drivers will postpone a daring pass and instead let us get out of their way at the time of our choosing.


Style & Strengths

As we rode along with the 2 young men, I thought more about our differences, both in riding style and strengths, as they both have to be factored into one's decisions in traffic. The young Australian that was prone to darting about had a slightly lighter load than I and undoubtedly was vastly stronger than I, so his evasive maneuvers off to both sides of the road were less dangerous for him than they would be for me. His additional strength also would make him less likely than me to go down in gravel, giving him more options.

Bill's different choices because of his greater strength had often shown over the years, especially when it came to burst strength. Because of his greater burst strength--the strength needed to start-up or accelerate quickly--Bill could use stopping as a strategy where I may need to settle for slowing and finessing. Bill also can track a straight line on rough surfaces for much longer intervals than I as both my ability to concentrate and my upper body fatigue long before either of those aspects of him waiver. So, there are situations were all 3 of these men could safely make riding decisions that would be unsafe for me.

I had learned over the years that my edge over Bill was my more flitting attention pattern which allowed me to more effortlessly watch and listen for traffic changes in all directions, especially from behind. I am constantly checking my rear view mirror (often every few seconds) and so I can ride in the middle of an empty lane more safely than he can as I'm less likely to get caught by surprise. Bill tends to have a more fixed forward focus than I and so his use of the rear view helmet mirror is relatively more event driven. It's riskier business for Bill to drift away from the edge of the road when there is no traffic as it's harder for him to maintain the higher level of surveillance needed. In contrast, my monitoring level is the same regardless of where I'm riding, so I can safely take a break from the tedium and fatigue of holding a narrow course.

The Aussie probably didn't recognize my competency in tracking traffic with my mirror and my ears and missing that point had likely unnerved him when I rode along side him. He panicked and road off the road when I lingered next to him to chat. It was only in hindsight that I realized that he probably thought I was totally inattentive to the threat of traffic behind us. Unfortunately, by the time we met up with them, he seemed so shell-shocked from the menacing traffic that he wasn't able to learn much from riding with us.


Taking What You Want

Part of the motorist behavior that was agitating the Aussie cyclist was the habit shared by too many Croatian drivers--that of not changing their position in the lane if there is a bike present, even if there is no oncoming traffic. Rather than sharing the road with cyclists, the motorists appeared to have a belligerently piggy attitude about claiming their patch of asphalt. In reality I suspect what felt to us like intentional malice was really behavior driven more by indifference or inattention.

But regardless of their intent, cyclists often feel that too many of the Croatian drivers pass by too closely for comfort, that they take too much of the road. And as a result, cyclists feel put at risk for no reason other than the driver's bias in doing so.

The popular Croatian driving habit of straddling the center line tells us that they don't have strong teachings like "Stay inside the lines," which adds to the feeling that being skimmed by drivers is malicious. And the consistency with which Austrian, German, and Italian tour bus drivers passed without crowding us on the same Croatian roads underscored that the driver attitude had more to do with our sense of safety than the road conditions themselves.

Weeks later when we were north of Dubrovnik I was reminded that the careless/hostile motorist attitude wasn't my imagination, it was real.  It was there that we rode on our first 3-lane roads in Croatia--roads that provided a second lane for the uphill traffic. Inexplicably, too many drivers still chose to terrify us by crowding us where we were on the outside line rather than moving themselves into the second lane despite the lack of another vehicle in sight. "If they happily straddle the center line, why can't they use a passing lane?" was our unanswered question.

Croatia is one of the countries where we repeatedly  get skimmed by the cars if we share the road by riding in a tight single file formation on the edge. It's like we aren't there at all and so the drivers don't give us an inch even if the whole road is available to them. Amazingly, if we are a bit more consumptive and inch-out relatively closer to the center line, the drivers will often pull out and give us lots of room. It seems that they won't budge to go around us unless forced to do so.

After observing this apparent willingness to yield space to us if we took it, I realized that my flitting eyes that are constantly scanning traffic from behind gave me an additional tool for dealing with some annoying drivers. When I was fed-up with too many close calls in light traffic, I'd take the position of follower. Bill would be in the lead, riding close to the edge of the road. I was inches behind him but would drift towards the center line about 18", which put my front wheel roughly in line with the outside edge of his pannier.

When riding in this wedge formation, I was close enough to Bill that I suspected we looked like a tidy unit, one that was practically linked together. My wider position forced the line-hugging drivers to shift towards the center. It worked remarkably well and the configuration didn't trigger any more horn-honks than our single-file alignment. This strategy did however require that I was impeccable with my surveillance as if there were oncoming cars I would pull in behind Bill to share the road with drivers in both directions.


Eyes Fixed Forward

We both consider our helmet-mounted rear view mirrors as essential safety equipment and it is the frequent look-back in the mirror that allows me to occasionally claim more asphalt for both of us. And yet, we both confess to not using our mirrors in the most dangerous riding conditions.

When we are riding on narrow truck routes with heavy traffic in each direction we don't bother looking in the mirrors as they offer no new information. We know what is behind us without looking: more trucks in a steady stream of traffic. Instead we both shift 100% of our focus to straight ahead.

All that matters in heavy traffic is keeping going and staying upright so our eyes are glued to the immediate pavement. We rally all of our strength and concentration to track a steady line and hope it works out. Our safety is totally in the hands of the nearby drivers and there is little more we can do. I've occasionally heard about cyclists diving off the side of the road to avoid being hit and yet we rarely see any place to dive into in these conditions. Often if there had been a smidgen more space, they would have made the road a little wider anyway. Though we've been terrorized by plenty of thoughtless drivers, we've never felt that one was intentionally 'gunning' for us--an experience Lance Armstrong and others have had.


Route Selection for Riding Safely

Ultimately route selection is a cyclist's most potent tool for being safe on the road. Bill has refined his map selection and map reading skills so as to be highly successful in picking low traffic roads if they are to be found. 'Roads to nowhere' are what he calls his top picks. Those are the little roads that seem like extras on the map and that don't provide a direct path to cities or freeways. Old roads that parallel new freeways are another good choice.

His route planning challenge is to plot a route that eludes the traffic but isn't so elaborate that it's hard to find or follow. The addition of GPS for part of our 2008 traveling season made finding and staying on these back roads much easier than any paper maps we'd used. In contrast, when we met the Aussies, they didn't even have a road map of Croatia. They were lacking the most basic tool to help match their traffic tolerance to the route options.

But best laid plans don't always work out. Once or twice a year we'll abandon part of a day's route or more because of impossible traffic. It may be that we can't find a way out between the freeways and industrial parks as happened one year when leaving Barcelona, or when the traffic volume is just too high as it was along the Rhone River in southern France. In both those cases we hopped on a nearby train to exit the problem area. Public transportation isn't always available when one is looking for an escape route but we never hesitate to use it if we feel too threatened.

And then there are places like Croatia and parts of southern Italy where the traffic feels a bit too dangerous at times, but we press on anyway because of a shortage of options. In those areas we may stop more often to calm our nerves, plan shorter riding days, take every short alternate route, or find other ways to cope. In Croatia, coping means drifting out a bit to command more of the lane; in southern Italy where the drivers were considerate but the traffic was heavy, it meant eating lunch early so we were riding when more of the drivers were off the road enjoying their meal (and having a drink).


And Then There Are The Cities

With the help of our map, we deposited the Aussies at their turn-off for an island-bound ferry where the off-season riding would assure them fewer traffic headaches.  In contrast, we'd still be fighting to hold our own on the Istrian Peninsula coastal road for several more days. We'd then have an idyllic 60 miles south of Senj with wider roads, less traffic, and kinder drivers. The worst traffic conditions were ahead for all of us, around Zadar and Split.

When we hit the horrific riding conditions farther south in and out of Zadar and around Split, I again thought of the Aussie's skittishness with the passing of a single truck. On these urban approach roads, they and we encountered a steady stream of intense traffic. It was like being on a freeway at rush hour but without shoulders.  This was the 'head-down, don't bother to look in the mirror' riding. And in these places the traffic pressure was so prolonged that we had the additional challenge of trying to stay relaxed. 

I know that stress triggers a hunkering-down posture in my body, which means scrunched shoulders and a clenched jaw. Tightening up eventually makes me less resilient so my additional challenge in these conditions is to relax. Every few minutes I reminded myself to lengthen my neck, drop my shoulders, slacken my jaw, and breathe. It was a cycle I repeated dozens of times around both cities to keep my cool, to keep from getting frazzled, to keep from getting hostile.

We also pulled out at every safe bus zone or driveway where we could take a break from the noise. We'd take a moment to compare notes on how we were coping and to allow the brief connection to deepen our relaxation. Letting the tension accumulate increases the chance of doing something impulsive, which could be deadly. As we struggled to maintain our literal and figurative equilibrium at these urban approaches, I wondered how the young men had fared in these areas. It was at the limit of what we were willing to do and it surely put them on overload too.

We never received the follow-up email from these very pleasant Australian young men that we'd hoped for. No doubt they, like we did in our early years of cyclotouring, found a way to survive. Perhaps they too were hashing-out their own team's code of conduct on the road that would help them to navigate the Croatian traffic with increasing success. Hopefully they were learning how to amplify their safety by working as a team rather than continuing to function as independent riders. Perhaps in their own way, they were "getting used to it".


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