Taking the lane, by any means necessary

Los Angeles has its cyclist anti-harrassment ordinance, a regular LAPD-cyclist meeting, and a Department of Transportation shaking off its auto-centric mindset by laying lots of bike lanes – but let’s not fool ourselves, riding in LA hasn’t gotten than much safer.

For the most part, it is up to us and our Vehicular Survival Cycling skills to keep ourselves safe when riding on LA’s busiest streets.

The sage advice handed out by most experienced cyclists in California usually boils down to one-liners, especially the ever important “Control the lane!”

What is taught in a League of American Bicyclist class are important first steps to becoming a whole lot happier and safer when riding a bike on streets in the car-dominated U.S. However, I don’t think those classes go far enough. I “take the lane” and yet I find myself still being placed in dangerous situations by tuned-out car drivers. That is, until I pull out my ninja bike bag of dirty tricks!

What are the black magic tricks, the dark arts, that cyclists have developed to protect themselves on the road? I will share with you what I have learned and perhaps you can leave your own velo gris-gris in the comments section below.

Invisible Loogie Wall

Have you ever seen someone spit and thought, “Ew!”? Imagine that someone was on a bike in front of your car, and while you were approaching you saw them eject some sort of liquid from their mouths into the lane of travel. Pretty gross, right?

If you want to create an invisible force field around your bike, consider using your own saliva (and perhaps whatever you have in your water bottle when your mouth dries out) to gross out cars coming from behind – inducing them to change lanes and give you the space you need to ride in comfort.

Here is how it works:

  • This technique works best on individual cars on two to three lane roads, on straight sections, when traffic is moving below 45 mph. The purpose of this trick is to get a car in the right hand lane to move one lane over instead of swerving around you.
  • Listen for cars. When you hear one approaching, prepare your loogie.
  • Hock your loogie so that it is: visible to the driver and timed to allow them to make a lane change
  • Laugh when it works, ponder when it doesn’t
  • If you spit on/in the car, you are doing it wrong. The point is to get the car away from you – not to incite the driver to violence or mess up their precious windshield/wax job.

Lazy Left Arm

A whopping 10% of the U.S. population knows and understands the proper left arm signals for a right turn, left turn, and stopping. The tiny percentage who don’t understand (90%+) what these arm symbols mean ignore them and figure you’re waving to say hello, show your solidarity with them, or have a medical condition.

In other words, these hand signals should be used – but I have personally found their effectiveness to be virtually nil.

So, what is this black magic trick all about then? Well, it turns out that people driving cars don’t know what these hand signals mean – but they know they mean something! Use car drivers’ lack of knowledge to your advantage.

Here is how it works:

  • You are on a busy road with a platoon (a pack of cars) heading your way from the rear. You can hear them coming and you know that maybe your Invisible Loogie Wall will make the first one give you room, but cars number 3 and 4 won’t give a damn.
  • Leaving enough time for the lead car to see what is going on, take your left arm and make vague, twitching, waving-esque, wobbly, arm motions.
  • Are you signaling? Is that a signal for “Dead cat ahead?”, “UFO’s in the area?”, “Good pastrami two miles up?” I don’t know, but I’d better change lanes. Keep the pseudo waving/wobbling/flapping up until the last car has passed.
  • It turns out that the 3′ passing rule is about an arms length of room around a cyclist. You just gave yourself 5′ using an actual arms length. Pretty cool, huh? Yeah, so long as nobody you know saw you do it.
  • Warning! Do not hang your arm out so far that it can get hit or ripped off by a passing car. Though the weight savings would be significant from such an alteration, you will find that your hill climbing ability will be drastically reduced.

Face Time

You are on a street where cars are coming fast and furious. You didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before. You just watched a zombie movie. You are nervous, and being nervous on a bike means one thing: every time you hear car noises from the rear you ruin your own ride by doing a quick, corner of the eye, check of traffic approaching from the rear.

Your quick turn of the head signals to the drivers behind you that you know they are there and they can blow by you at, or above, the posted speed limit. The close brush with death you just had makes you even more nervous, which leads to further shoulder checks, which leads to even more close passing. On and on it goes until you die of a heart attack, write a nasty letter to the mayor, or give up bike riding.

Despair not, nervous riders! The problem is not your inspection of traffic coming from the rear. The problem is that you are not looking at the approaching drivers long enough.

Humans have an unbelievable ability to zoom in on each others eyes. It is part of our nature to try and see what others are seeing, and the power of stares is immense. Use this power to your advantage, and when you are feeling your weakest.

Here is how it works:

  • You hear cars approaching from behind and your nervousness is making your heart pound. You just read about a friend getting hit-and-run and you’re worried it is going to happen to you.
  • Instead of panicking and taking a quick look over the shoulder, you swivel your head around and look the driver dead in the eyes for one or two seconds.
  • Make sure not to lose control of your bike. Make sure to look that SOB right in the eyes with no expression on your face.
  • Feel the flow of dark side of the force as the nervousness fades away into confidence as the driver gives you a wide berth of respect on the road.
  • Worst case scenario, now you have a face to match with the make and model of the car that just hit you

This trick works best when you are at your worst. Just be sure to practice turning you head around without crashing into fixed objects or swerving too much before you try this at speed.

Chain Lock Spark Show

Anyone ever seen the movies or comic books starring Ghost Rider? He’s some sort of crazy motorcycle demon guy with a flaming head and chains, lots of chains. He reaps the souls of the damned for Satan, or something like that. I mean, that is what some boring neck-beard Wikipedia entry had to say about him.

The point being, he looks scary and he has chains. Chances are, even though you are on a bike, people in the U.S. think you are scary. They just do. Zombie movies wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t.

Make use of the fear of the stranger on the road. When you are riding alone at night, feeling totally vulnerable to drunks, sleeping drivers, teenage boys, angry rednecks, and rapists – take the power of Ghost Rider into your hands.

Here is how it works:

  • You are riding alone at night.
  • Pull out a chain, a bike lock chain would be best. Wrap said chain around your left palm a few times with some hanging down.
  • Allow the tip of the chain to drag on the pavement every now-and-again, sending a tiny amount of sparks flying.
  • Combine this with Face Time when you hear a car approaching. Maintain a neutral expression unless they are passing at low speed. If they are passing at low speed, glare.
  • You are channeling Mephisto, and he is giving you the lane.
  • You get your chain stuck in your rear wheel, you lose.

Before you get out there and start waving chains around, spitting on cars, and staring down the aftermath, please keep in mind that it has taken me a few years of practice to hone these tricks and each needs to be practiced to ensure that the timing is right and that they are effective. My odds of causing a safe lane change feel pretty high, but I have done no rigorous study to prove that.

Now you can take your Effective/Vehicular Cycling to the next level, to the dark side. Safety flags and high-viz vests never did suit me.

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  1. Mary Bonnie Bray
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    How about a passive, non-aggressive way to get the car to give you you lane? A neon painted sign that says “WIDE LOAD” attached to the back of your bike might to the trick. When I used to pedal on Wilshire Blvd. under the 405 Freeway (many years ago) headed toward Santa Monica, cars gave me wide berth because of the message on my T-shirt: “NO TAILGATING”.
    Of special note, however, is the fact that drunk drivers tend to steer into things that catch their eyes. You really do not want to attract their attention. Don’t be riding your bike on New Year’s Eve (or on any Saturday night, for that matter) when the drunks are out in full force.

  2. Eric W
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to add the blinding light to your bag o’tricks. I recently purchased a 2 watt tail light. USB recharge for power, many flashy modes to suit your mood, less than $40. Pretty much makes you see spots within 15 feet or so.

    And when approaching drivers start to see big green spots they tend to slow down, least they hit something solid, like another car. They avert their head when passing. Almost a religious experience in lane control!

    Also, my experience with hand signals is different than above. I just point where I’m going to go, with whichever hand is closer. Big large motion, dramatic pointing gesture. Work well – driver can easily predict where I’m going. Really, they no guessing – cause I’m going over there —>

    Thanks for the fun, enjoyed the article.

    Eric W

  3. Posted July 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    The arm wave and looking drivers in the eye are my favorite ways to communicate with drivers, and these techniques make me feel pretty confident about taking the lane. Through years of riding on busy street with hurried, harried and distracted drivers I have learned that being able to establish some sort of communication and acknowledgement is key. I don’t act like the cars aren’t on the road and drivers thusly cannot act like I’m not there. These techniques aren’t really aggressive, but assertive. I’ve never seen anyone really talk about these things, and never thought they were anything special, but great to see these things recognized as valuable methods for safe cycling. I’m all for the taking the lane and having a safe space to ride in, and these are excellent tips for achieving that.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Pigeon offers tongue-in-cheek advice — at least I hope it’s tongue-in-cheek — on how to take your vehicular cycling to the next […]

  2. […] to start the links with this one via Ted Rogers at BikingInLA, on aggressive vehicular cycling. Taking the lane, by any means necessary The only problem I see with these tactics in TX is carrying the chain in your hand would be […]

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