Written by Addie.
As a cyclist, the reaction you get from cars and trucks and other motorized things that go places on roads is varied. Some people seem excited, supportive, or extra careful when passing. Others are careful enough not to hit us, give reasonable space, and move on.
And there are the (thankfully) few who resent sharing the road with other legal users and actually act upon the resentment. Usually people honk obnoxiously as they pass you (dumb-if I flinch under your vehicle it’s a heap of trouble for all of us). I’m not talking about resenting cyclist on roads where there are signs prohibiting non-motorized and therefore of course, where they shouldn’t be. I’m just talking about cyclist on roads where responsible use is allowed and in some cases visibly announced with signs like “Share the Road.”
I LOVE to be out of the way as much as I can. Not getting hit by a vehicle at any speed is an appealing concept. But sometimes, there are legitimate things that prevent a cyclist from being out of the lane that a vehicle driver would also be using. This doesn’t mean the cyclist shouldn’t be there, it means both cyclist and driver need to be careful, alert, and respectful because they’re both allowed to use that resource.
Some roads don’t have anything to the right of the white line that’s safe to cycle. Even when it looks nice to a vehicle driver, it may not actually be safe to cycle. There may be debris on the pavement. Trust me, when you’re driving a vehicle even just at 25mph, it’s often hard to see stuff on the side of the road that a cyclist would be trying to avoid. Broken glass, random bits of who knows what, 2×4 pieces, those black rubber bungees with the Metal Hooks on the ends (avoid!), tie down ratchet straps with hardware, nails, screws, exploded bits of tires from vehicles which didn’t stop for a flat before it just shredded off, random wire, soft drink cans, gravel, sand deposits (sudden drastic traction/resistance changes), hard plastic shards, shards of turtle shell or other roadkill. There are a lot of things that can pop tires, otherwise damage equipment, or even cause a wheel or the whole cycle to skid or bounce. Cycles have fewer wheels than cars, so balance is harder to maintain. Cycle tires are a lot smaller than a car tire, smaller stuff can push or bounce you easily and if this happens you can end up, for example, in traffic quite suddenly or off the road in a pile of pain, even if both your tires aren’t flat.
Having to stop for a flat tire increases risk to everyone–motorist and cyclist. It also means the cyclist will have to buy a new spare inner tube, and sometimes the actual tire (the treaded part that goes around the inner tube and contacts the ground). You have to carry everything you bring. Weight and volume capacity are finite, so you probably aren’t carrying more than a decent patch kit and one or two spare tubes and tires at a time. Spares are not always easy to obtain in the correct size and the incorrect size won’t work. Avoiding flats is a reasonable desire for a cyclist.
Repairing flats suck in good weather with a nice place to pull over out of the way. You often have to remove a bunch of stuff (like bags of equipment) to access the wheel and reduce weight on the affected wheel and allow the cycle to balance somehow while you work on the issue. You’ll need to get your tool kit and spares out. You have to take off the wheel, tire, and inner tube, and try to determine how the air leaked. Is there a huge slash through everything? That’s uncommon but a Major Problem because you won’t be able to reuse the outer tire or tube. Spare actual tires are bulky and obnoxious to pack so you probably aren’t hauling more than one per wheel size. If you do have to use your spare tire, you probably don’t have a second spare and now you hope your bad luck is over until you are able to get a new spare. We spent weeks looking for specific tires on our trip. Did a tiny wire poke through at just the right angle to penetrate the tire and stab a tiny pinhole in the tube? Maybe you can patch the tube and yank the wire from the tire, check the tire for other potential pop hazards, and try to reuse the tire. If the patch isn’t an option, well, you probably have a spare inner tube.
Once you’ve got an inner tube that should hold air and a tire you think won’t damage the tube, you have to get them back on the wheel, align everything including the tire/wheel intersection on both sides and the valve stem (you need to put air back in eventually, right? you need this to poke out properly). You’re not at home so you probably are using an air pump about the size of a foot long fat broom handle or smaller, so inflation takes longer and more effort than with the nice big one at home. There are CO2 canister air pumps, but you can only carry so much total in your bags so every cartridge you use is precious. The wheel goes back on, and if it was the rear wheel (or maybe there are cycles out there that the pedals power the front wheel?) you have to get the chain wrapped properly on the gears as you do this and more inflation happens. Don’t forget the brake cables…and anything else you had to undo. And then you get to reload and put away stuff you unloaded.
Remember this process only gets more “fun” when it’s cold, hot, rainy, you’re stuck close to traffic, there are biting insects, it’s getting or is dark.
And now you have managed to get your tire back into ridable order, you get to continue on your way, having lost anywhere from maybe a half hour to an hour or more, and you weren’t resting or enjoying the time you lost. If it’s hot, you hopefully have enough spare fluids to make it to a restocking place. If it’s cold, you probably had to put on extra layers to stay warm now that you’re not exercising to stay warm, which means they’re going to have to come off now or later. Flat tires suck.
Most cyclists understandably try to avoid flat tires, so not driving over junk is important. I wouldn’t expect a vehicle to drive on what is like Russian Roulette with Caltrops to continue their journey, nor as a vehicle driver do I expect or want a cyclist to try it.
Speaking as a vehicle driver and moving to another reason a cyclist may not be all the way to the last inch over on the edge we come to Thumpers. In a vehicle, I’m a fan of those things I call “thumpers” or “chompers,” and I’ve seen a few signs call “rumble strips”. During the winter around here, there are plenty of days when they’re the best way to know where your lane roughly is. When it’s a snow storm and visibility is poor, or after a major snow storm and the road hasn’t been plowed lately, they are great. It’s nice being on the road but not being where oncoming traffic might be driving at you. Even when snow isn’t obscuring the lanes, they can give you a “hey” if you were focused on something like “is that my turn coming up, I wish I could read the road sign!” for a little too long, or maybe they say “yah it’s time to pull over and nap,” before you end up in the ditch in a coma (I don’t suggest driving tired or distracted).
Speaking as a cyclist I’m a little pickier about them. I still have near unconditional approval for the center rumble strips. The ones along the white line, though, can cause problems. They’re annoying to damaging to dangerous. As mentioned already, a cycle has narrower tires and usually goes slower than a car and the gentle thump vibration a car gets becomes a bucking and jolting, or a more vigorous vibration. On a cycle, my names of “chompers” and “thumpers” have more meaning. Even if you maintain control of steering and balance, it can literally shake equipment loose or cause things to lose alignment. It can break things. Important things. They also can push your tires around and suddenly one or more of your wheels is aiming somewhere else, taking the cycle with it. You can be in traffic suddenly, where things are heavy, moving fast and a heck of a lot more sturdy than you are. Not good, they probably expected you to not be in traffic.
On some roads, thumpers take up most of the asphalt to the right of the white line. A bicycle, having only two wheels, may be able to risk threading the needle on a few inches of pavement to the left or right of them, but that leaves a very narrow safety margin. Large vehicles passing at high speeds can blow or suck a cyclists around and that can be enough to put you at speed on the thumpers or on whatever is to the side of the pavement and either way it won’t be something you planned to do and you’re going a lot faster than is easy to maintain steering and balance. A tricycle, having three wheels means a bit easier to maintain balance because of the wider stance and extra point of ground contact–but the wider stance means you can’t thread the needle so easily. I found roads where I could straddle the chompers between a front wheel and the rear wheel but any aberration of more than maybe 1.5 inches from that sweet spot alignment meant I was on the thumpers and the cycle and I were jarring along. The rear view mirror became much harder to see anything approaching from behind because the view was shuddering, and the alignment slowly sagged from optimal aim.
Bouncing isn’t great for other gear and the extra slamming can increase risk for hitting something just right for a flat (which we are motivated to avoid). A cycle is built to rollllllllll nice and smooooooothly, not to jolt, shudder, and slam. Things may break you can’t fix or for which you don’t reasonably carry a spare. It’s also pretty annoying and uncomfortable for a person who doesn’t have spinal injuries. If your back is sore it’s only going to get more painful and damaging.
Being on a tricycle didn’t prevent me from being occasionally thrown around by the thumpers, and I definitely felt some push from larger vehicles passing at high speed (or too close). Straddling the thumpers wasn’t a great long term option.
Thumpers also come in different sizes and designs. I’m most familiar with the ones that are rectangular and … 10? inches long by a few inches wide (ok I haven’t measured them so those are guesses). They sometimes come in groups with short gaps of not-gouged pavement between strips of the thumpers. I noticed one area that had strips which were probably half or less as wide (3-4 inches?). I liked that because (assuming they still cause the vibration and sound inside the vehicle for the driver), you still have the “hey check your location and direction” warning for vehicles but it is a lot less area to avoid on the pavement for a cyclist, and seems safer for everyone.
There was also an county or two we went through near the end of our trip (can’t remember exactly which) that had a design I’d never seen before, and don’t think I like from any perspective. Thumpers I usually see are not along the exact edge of the pavement. My guess is that leaves you a fraction more time to correct your course if you’re actually about to leave the road and not just swinging a tad wide around a bend. I think it may also help slow road surface degradation, as there is intact and strong pavement at the edge, not thinner or cut up pavement. The unusual thumpers (I had to assume they were thumpers as they weren’t labeled) were not rectangular. They had a sloped bottom, starting from a point maybe 8-10 inches in from the road edge and cutting a deepening and slightly widening channel until it reached the actual edge of the pavement. I didn’t go over them in a motor vehicle to see of they were actually thumpers, but I can’t think of anything else they’d be.
Since they were on the road edge, they left an intact white line area, but the pavement wasn’t that wide that this was an advantage (and I’m not sure I remember a white line anyway). I did wonder if they would cause the edge of the asphalt to break up faster, because while they were more widely spaced than normal thumpers, they were still spaced less than a few feet apart. If they were to warn you of the pavement edge, you don’t have much time left if you feel/hear them. Because of their slope, it looked like they might actually slightly drag a cycle tire towards or over the pavement edge. No thanks. In the areas I saw them the pavement edge didn’t go to a level gravel shoulder, it mostly was a really thick asphalt edge and then a decent drop to whatever the ditch held. So… I’m not surprised they don’t seem more common.
Speaking of shoulders, there is a lot of variety out there. You may have a nice wide almost bike path like laved shoulder, or you might have zilch. Like literally the edge of the road that most vehicle mirrors would be passing above is The End and the pavement ends there and becomes gravel/dirt hill side, a drop from inches to feet, or a bridge wall. Obviously a cycle rolls better over certain surface conditions than other, and not at all over others. Some shoulders were level-ish to the pavement edge. Some were grass and some were gravel, and some was other stuff. Grass and gravel that is level-ish is passable in a pinch, however there are a lot of reasons a cyclist won’t just move over off the pavement long term, even if there is traffic. In some cases, especially if there is traffic. A good portion of that comes down to predictably. Do you trust the gravel to not have bits of sharp debris in it? Are areas packed harder than others so you experience sudden differences in resistance? What’s actually in the grass, and ok, it looks smooth but are there holes or ditches the grass conceals? What about debris? No joke, are there cacti hiding in there? We saw plenty of them.
Another aspect is how much harder it is to maintain the same speed you would be able to travel on pavement when you’re on a softer surface like grass or gravel. A cyclist is usually trying to get from point A to Point B, not linger indefinitely somewhere in between. They’re doing that by muscle power (even electric cycles tend to require effort from the cyclist to move, it’s not like a car where you push the gas and it goes). Traveling the whole distance or even long stretches on stuff that sucks your energy and risks flat tires, being thrown into traffic, or thrown into the ditch is not required of a cyclist. If they are able to and willing to pull over occasionally for traffic to pass and the cyclist is trying to share the road too, great. But pulling over means changing road surface, and that challenges balance and steering to some degree depending on how tired you are, the difference in height and textures, and your speed. They’re risking damage and flats and increasing risks of being thrown around, and it’s costing them energy and speed. The longer they’re off the pavement, the longer in total they are on the road and the more vehicles which potentially will pass them… Don’t be surprised or insulted if a cyclist doesn’t relinquish the precious pavement because you drove up in a car… Do you pull over for every semi truck behind you because they’re using the road for hauling stuff? Remember, unless it’s a road where cyclists are prohibited, the cyclist has a right to be there, and not ever road that allows cyclist is marked with a cycle route sign.
In addition to debris along the road edge, plants can make things harder for a cyclist. There were a few areas where some species of rose grew with thick stems over the edge of the road. Mostly they were one or two stems at a time at ground level, which wouldn’t be a big deal except they have massive thorns, and were actually extending along the pavement. At least all the cacti I saw weren’t on the physical road surface!
A few plants didn’t usually affect where I traveled while moving, but the degree and placement of where I pulled over to stop along the road was often affected. Once we made it through most of Kansas, I started noticing poison ivy. And it only became more common as we moved along. Sun burn by itself is enough, thank-you, so I made a fair effort to not trample any. I may have brushed against it a few times accidentally but I’m grateful so far my body hasn’t decided to go “balls to the walls” with rashes from merely walking past poison ivy. I do not want to test that, and repeated exposure can suddenly increase your body’s reaction. Poison ivy was pretty common along most of the roads we traveled if they weren’t too dry.
I am also familiar with the tactic some plants use to disperse seeds by getting them to cling or stick to moving objects like animals. They’re variously annoying to dangerous. I even have some personal names for a few of them… There’s “stupid burdock” or worse. And there’s the little pea sized brown or straw colored seed pod things I’ve encountered along some ocean beach areas that I call caltrops (if you’ve stepped on one bare foot you know them, too). Sometimes I add a few profane modifiers if I’ve stepped on one while bare foot, but I’ll spare you those. I encountered a new one on this trip. Honestly I’m surprised I haven’t encountered it before by how common it was in many areas. Maybe I have occasionally encountered it but don’t remember because I haven’t spent many days in a row encountering and trying to avoid it. I definitely haven’t previously spent an hour trying to locate and pick a few off of/out of the pair of leggings I was wearing while pedaling and finally pulled over and pulled my leggings down around my ankles (also wearing a skirt which I kept up) to get serious about total removal and discovered about 15 in the crotch and upper leg / bum area. Watch where you squat for poison ivy, snakes, other stuff that might bite you and this horrible grass stuff.
The stuff starts out as a light green grass-like stuff with sort of arched nodding feathery seed things which have a sort of light purple tint. As far as I experienced they’re fine at this stage. The problems begin when the stuff matures and goes that golden straw color…and the seeds by now are something like a 1/4th size Tic-Tac grass seed with rigor mortis stiff squid tentacles coming off one end that are incredibly grabby and feel like they have some sort of super tiny Velcro texture… They tend to burrow in fabric when you move it. I just now realized happy I am I never got any in my hair… But I did apparently squat to pee too close to some I didn’t see because I manged to get a bunch lodged on the inside of my leggings. They must have brushed against it even though my bum didn’t, and I think this is where I connected the seeds occasionally sticking to my sock or shoe after walking through the vegetation by the road edge to an actual plant bearing them for future avoidance. I have quite a few names for the plant I don’t intend to share here but Evil Squid Sticker is a fun one, even if it’s not exactly scientifically close to accurate.
There were a few spots where I noticed them growing along the actual edge of the asphalt and with the wind blowing the plants, the Evil Squid Stickers literally had been lodged in the asphalt in gaps where the tar and sand hadn’t completely filled the gaps between the rocks in the asphalt.
Those weren’t the only gaps in the pavement I saw. A cyclist might not be over to the edge of the pavement because they’ve noticed a bunch of chunks dislodged from the edge already. Ever notice those areas of pavements where the top layer of asphalt is stripping off and leaving loose chunks and a shallow hole? Maybe the cyclist noticed the edge of the road is eroding and there are areas of pavement which have collapsed. They might suspect others will also collapse if, for example, the weight of a cycle and cyclist is placed on it.
Some edges of the road were blatant steep drops with no rail. Even a gentle step down that a reasonably able bodied toddler could make is enough to potentially wreck a cyclist and their cycle, as well as their day or longer if it’s not done at a safe speed and safe angle of approach. Riding right along steep edges is probably stupid with traffic zooming past.
Similarly, riding the edge while you’re really zooming as a cyclist isn’t smart either. The faster you’re going, the more magnified the effects of anything that jostles, bumps, or catches your tire. The more exaggerated the swerve is if you flinch as a bee hits your face. And as you travel faster, the road starts to blur, so some hazards become harder to spot and even if you do spot them you simultaneously have to be more careful to smoothly steer to avoid them while also have less reaction time in which to do so. Spotting and avoiding a tire-grabbing deep-but-small pot hole in your path is much harder with your eyes a bit watered because the wind from your speed is hitting them just right. Rough pavement texture or sand patches in the road become much more dangerous to your stability. A lot of times, downhill leads to a bridge (think stream cutting a small valley through a hilly area). Plenty of the transitions between the main road and the bridge were abruptly mismatched enough to cause a bit of a bounce. If your driving down a steep hill and there’s a cyclist in front of you, don’t be surprised if they’re not meekly hugging the absolute edge of the pavement and riding their brakes to go slowly. A cyclist works hard to earn the downhills, whether it’s a steep climb or a long slow uphill that seems to never end and looks less draining than it feels, before or after the downhill, somewhere somehow they have to go up to go down. Don’t expect them to burn up their brakes so they can limp along the edge of the road when they get to enjoy the downhill. I don’t suggest a cyclist should be zig-zagging all over the lane for joy, but they may have to change positions to avoid hazards in the road. Taking advantage of gravity to regain back some of that energy stored as height is reasonable, and helps them maintain speed up the next hill if it’s rolling hill territory. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) try to drive a typical vehicle at the speed limit on a highway on the shoulder, they’re not going to try anything similar either. Chances are they won’t to slow you down too much for too long by being in the lane where it’s safer until they reach level ground or go up the next hill and move over more to the side. It’s better they’re in the lane already instead of trying to hug the edge where they can get tossed into the lane in front of you unexpectedly.
Going up hill, sometimes the hill is stronger than your legs, and you end up walking your cycle up to the top. Yup, its slower than riding down the hill or flat land, but if a cyclist is walking with their cycle, they’re probably going faster walking that they would sitting on their seat and pedaling. We figured out a way to pull the trikes behind us while we walk which kept our shins and heels away from the pedals and prevented crouching the whole time to steer as we pushed. An advantage to trikes is they balance upright on their own, no kickstand needed, but they also tend to be heavier than a normal bike so we walked up a lot of hills that a lot of cyclists would have managed still in the seat. However, steering the trikes while towing them was approximate, so if we didn’t see or hear traffic coming, keeping them away from the edge a bit was wiser than having them tip over because the edge sucked a wheel off the pavement. Somehow it worked out that if I tried to hug the edge when I didn’t need to, I ended up hearing traffic coming at the same time I noticed the edge was trying to tempt my wheels to jump off…so I end up having to turn around while maintaining tension on the lines until I could grab the frame and wrangle the trike from an awkward angle just as the vehicle arrives. Fun. For the most part though, pulling the trikes up the hill when the hill is steep enough and your tired enough that the cycle computer doesn’t register you are even moving is better for progress, safety, and moral, and rescuing a tipping trike in traffic none.
In a similar category to hills and thumpers, we have curves. A lot of curves are banked for vehicles, so they are able to somewhat maintain speed and complete the turn without flipping over or having other problems. On a cycle you’re usually not going the speed the curve is banked for, so suddenly you’re fighting not to be pulled to one side or the other. Left turns weren’t usually as bad as right turns. Even though a left turn means you’re being pulled down the bank into traffic, you’re also on the outside of the curve where it may not be as steeply banked because it’s not as tight of a turn. Some of the right turns were pretty ridiculous. If it wasn’t for the feeling you were about to tip over you’d laugh at how silly it felt to be sitting almost sideways in your seat. But yeah, you felt like you were about to tip over as well as being dragged to the right and off the road. And sometimes “off the road” mean into a ditch with no shoulder, and maybe thick asphalt with a sudden sharp and steep edge. Trying to maintain travel exactly on the edge wasn’t smart or safe.
Sometimes it’s animal life that causes a cyclist to not be riding that fine edge of the road. We saw a LOT of turtles in some areas, most of them unfortunately dead. Dead smashed dried turtles are sharp hard edges as you don’t want to run over as well as being sad to see. When we had to avoid frogs and toads, it was because it was rainy. Luckily we were on a separate bike path for the main time we encountered them, and then it became night so while we were doing some swerving, we didn’t have to worry about motorized vehicles, hadn’t seen other cyclists in hours, didn’t expect to see any, and were cautious anyway about scanning for oncoming lights. However, we weren’t so lucky about dogs. The segment of trail we skipped to avoid an insane heat wave as well as get to Mammoth Cave (Ryan’s first cave) was also reported to be the worst west bound cyclists had experienced for uncontained dogs which ran after and attempted to or actually landed bites on gear or cyclists with anyone we talked to even as far west as where we started in Colorado. Despite that, there were dogs that did run up to us and along side us. Ryan actually had gear damaged as he avoided being chomped. Some dogs just watchfully ran along the edge of their field or yard and seemed content but gave the vibe that if you stopped or moved closer (e.g. moved further over to the edge of the road) they may consider you more of a threat to be neutralized. Staying on the road is way safer for the cyclist as well as for drivers. It’s easier to avoid a calm cyclist making typical progress on the road instead of a cyclist and dog stand off or battle that’s progressing onto the road. Even if the dog isn’t hostile, it’s still another moving part in the equation of staying safe on the road, and for me, I’d be super upset if I saw a dog get hit even if it wasn’t my dog. Trying to keep the dog from following you by not engaging them was important if not always successful.
There are a lot of reasons that a cyclist may be cycling where a lot of motor vehicle drivers usually consider their private domain, but both cyclist and vehicle have equal right to be there. I’m definitely not saying cyclists can or should be weaving all over the road or just be in the middle of every lane every where. When traffic stacks up because they’re not finding a safe place and time to get past a cyclist, and they’re stuck for a long while, a polite cyclist might occasionally move to a more optimal section of road briefly to let drivers past if it’s safe. It’s not responsible, safe or smart to back traffic up indefinitely, and it’s not sharing the road. However, a cyclist also isn’t likely to nor should they be expected to constantly stop and pull over, or ride on unsafe or risky road surfaces. Often the safest and fastest place is somewhere in a lane. Forcing your vehicle past at full speed by running oncoming traffic off the road is a bad idea for everyone. Blasting your horn as you pass won’t make it any safer for the cyclist to continue on the gravel, but it makes you look pretty bad tempered and selfish. Luckily we didn’t meet too many rude honkers and I think only 3 instances of someone actually slowing down and screaming like a psycho out of their open window for us “crazy @@@@@@ idiots to get off the road…” Come to think of it, all of those happened on posted cycle routes, too…. well you can’t please them all. Many thanks to all the considerate drivers, and especially to the “at least resigned to sharing the road whether you like it or not” drivers out there who share the road against their personal preference, we appreciate not getting smashed.