Gutter Bunny (Part 1)

You know the routine: you’re on a road that’s narrow, probably doesn’t have much of a shoulder if any, and the SUVs and pickups just keep roaring up behind you—what do you do? Naturally you cower, ie. move as far to the right as you can and make like a mouse, hoping to avoid getting smashed and turned into road debris. There isn’t a cyclist alive in this country that at least doesn’t start out with Survival Strategy Alpha: move the fuck over and pray. Pretty soon that becomes an ingrained habit and you find yourself riding ‘in the gutter’ all the time just to be ‘safe’. But are you?

It’s hard to argue with success. You’re alive today because you hug the gutter like your life depended on it. There is another strategy called ’taking the lane’ where you proactively (or in the eyes of 95% of motorists, impudently) move towards the center of the lane and act like you belong there and have the same rights as any other road user. Sounds good in theory but in real life it’s a lot harder to execute.

I live on a very steep street (10% average grade for 0.8 miles). It also has extremely crappy pavement, no shoulder, and some sections with no center divide due to substandard road width. It also has a hairpin blind curve just when it gets steepity. Every time I return from a ride I face a conundrum: what shall I do at the first hairpin to stay alive? As I get older it’s a rare day that I can “sprint” through the curve before the next line of cars is released by the red light. And I’m not getting any faster. There was a time when I would select a line going uphill that avoided the most execrable of the pavement cracks, and that best line was closer to the center of the road, which by the way has a double yellow line ie. ‘don’t pass!’ That would work until a car came downhill, usually at a high rate of speed, and crossed the centerline to pass a cyclist or pedestrian on the other side and coopting the entire road. Back to the gutter! Fortunately time has removed this choice because the road is now so replete with treacherous alligator cracks that there is no advantage to riding close to the centerline.

The problem is that the road is barely standard width so passing cars that stay in my lane are usually going to violate the three-foot passing law even when I’m at the extreme right side. Consequently I’ve been needlessly brushed by cars who insisted upon passing me on this curve and that’s why I shifted back to taking the lane despite the horrible pavement. I thought that by taking the lane drivers would then not pass since it’s (a) a blind hairpin curve (duh!), and (b) has a double yellow line (double duh!). Here I discovered that lack of driver education compounded by either immense stupidity and/or entitlement—a bad combination, in my opinion—leads to the following behavior: drivers pass me anyway by barging full on into the opposing lane even though they can’t see shit ahead of them. Most of the time there is no oncoming vehicle so no harm, no foul. But I’ve lost count of the number of times that a head-on collision has been narrowly averted by a downhill driver slamming on the brakes so that Stupid Guy/Gal can lunge back into the right hand lane, usually cutting me off. I’ve been lucky so far not to get sideswiped.

At this point I’m as exasperated as a rat in a cage with an electrified floor. Taking the lane as a traffic strategy assumes that drivers understand and follow traffic laws. One can no longer assume what constitutes ‘common sense’ when it comes to driving on local roads. Taking the lane also assumes implicitly that drivers are rational and don’t gamble heedlessly. But some drivers are like two-year olds who don’t understand consequences. Ironically it may be that those drivers understand the consequences all too well when it comes to cyclists, which is that there are almost none if you hit one. So hug the gutter, take the lane—what’s the diff when it comes to survival?

Both strategies work…until they don’t.

The problem with taking the lane—besides finding the requisite resolve—is that it may work 90% of the time but the 10% when it doesn’t work is when it can become extremely hazardous. What is that 10%? When drivers are not attentive, rational, or sober. When drivers are sociopathic (there are more out there than you think—were you ever bullied growing up? Those folks now drive cars.) Even when it does ‘work’, you still may have to endure punishment passes, rolling coal, being yelled at, stuff being thrown at you (I was hit with a thrown egg once).

So, although you have the right to take the lane when it isn’t wide enough for a car to pass safely, should you when drivers behave so callously?

Addendum. Here’s an example of the should-I-or-should-I-not-take-the-lane:

Despite the photographic evidence the SF police will not investigate.