How Well Do You Communicate?

Lately, I’ve been doing most of my riding alone. I haven’t planned it that way, it just happened because of a combination of my schedule and the weather. It’s been too chilly in the mornings to hit the club ride (tell that to the hardy souls who do show up!), and my work keeps me from getting in an evening ride. So I get out when I can.

But the days are getting longer, and I expect the group rides will resume soon. That reminds me to brush up on my communication skills. Over the weekend, riding with my wife, I made sure to point out road debris, broken glass and the like.

Signaling road debris.

In a group, it’s even more important to relay those signals. Trailing riders might not be able to see around bikes in front of them, and wouldn’t be aware of any upcoming hazards.

A couple of months ago, I was out riding with a friend. We were going single file on a narrow two-lane road. I was in the lead. I must have zoned out, because suddenly a jagged-edged pothole appeared right in front of me.

“Yipes!” I yelled, and yanked the handlebar over to miss it.

It caught my riding friend completely by surprise. “Whoa!” he yelled. He missed it too, but it was a near thing. I felt that I had been negligent by not pointing at the pothole as I skirted it. It was my responsibility, and I blew it.

Signals from the lead rider can help other riders get past the problem area more smoothly, too. All you have to do when someone in front points at a hazard is move your bike in the opposite direction. If there’s broken glass in the gutter, cyclists can get a little farther left to miss it.

While you’re passing along hand signals, verbal warnings are just as important. Riders at the back of the group should certainly call, “Car back!” when a car is approaching from behind, and in enough time to allow riders ahead to pull into single file and let the car pass.

But for me, verbal warnings can be problematic. Sometimes, the wind carries sounds away from you, or noise within the group makes it hard to understand. On my very first club ride more than two years ago, we were at an uncontrolled intersection, waiting for traffic to pass.  I heard what sounded like, “Clear right!” so I pulled out into the intersection. A car hit its brakes while I crossed in front of him. The rider who had shouted the warning quickly caught up to me. “I said ‘Car right!’” he told me. “In this group, there’s no such warning as ‘clear right.’”

In fact, when I reach an intersection now, “clear” is one warning I do not give. I prefer to determine for myself whether the road is clear enough for me to cross, and I hope other cyclists in the group feel the same way. I know they don’t — “clear!” is one of the more common verbal warnings on any group ride.

As a lot of us get ready to take part in large organized rides as part of our charity ride training, it’ll be interesting to see just how many novice cyclists are familiar with hand and verbal signals to communicate with the riders around them.

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9 thoughts on “How Well Do You Communicate?

  1. Good post. You hit on one of the problems of verbal communication in noisy environments. Use of standard, unambiguous phrases is important. “Car right” sounds like “clear right.”

    Never been a fan of the “clear” call. I’ve seen it used on unsupported rides to go through stop signs. I would prefer to have a traffic cop or ride marshall clearing me through an intersection or turn. In lieu of that I prefer to check for myself.

    What would be nice is a list of what would be considered the standard signals/calls expected on a group ride. Perhaps some of our LCI friends could chime in?

  2. The group I did training rides with last year was very good about teaching and enforcing communication when riding in a group. Things like car back, walker/runner up, gap, slowing, stopping and signals for debris, slowing, or turning.

    Your example of ‘car right’ and ‘clear right’ reminds me of when I was in the Navy and they would harp on us for using words that were so easily misunderstood and could cause problems. Words like ‘increase’ and ‘decrease’ (I’m sure oldguy can attest to this). Very similar but mean vastly different things. Because I worked on nuclear reactors a lot of emphasis was placed on careful choosing of words.

  3. As a new rider, last summer I went on my first group ride. I was surprised how helpful it was to hear things called out and pointed out. “Car back/right/left,” “Stopping/slowing,” “Pothole,” etc. were all very helpful. I never heard anyone in our group use “clear.” Probably for good reason since it can be easily mis-heard as you pointed out. By the end of the 35 mile ride, I was comfortable enough to call things out for those behind me. It seemed natural enough that I sometimes found myself “saying” the call-outs to myself in my head as I rode on solo rides. I refrained from saying them out loud, though. That would be just silly. ;-)

  4. I don’t belong to a club, but over time I found myself riding with a small group of riders, made up from different clubs. They have taken me under their wing, and along the way I learned about group riding and signaling.

    In our group we only use sign language, yelling out obstacles is frowned upon, for the reasons illustrated by N00b and Bryan. After a while I got very used to ‘our’ signals, but quickly learned that other groups have their ‘own signs’. The primary difference is usually in the signs for ‘slowing down’ and ‘stop’ and some confusion between ‘pointing out obstacles’ not to be confused with left- and right turns.

    Whenever I hook up with a group I have not ridden with, I now just ask for a quick rundown of their signals, and that has worked for me.

  5. It’s a delicate balance… some groups call out every little thing, which can make it hard to distinguish between minor and important warnings.

    I find it best when a paceline simply follows a smooth trajectory around obstacles and those in back follow the same line as the leaders, eliminating a need to call out so many minor obstacles.

    Then, when something is brought to your attention, you know it’s important. Managing the “signal to noise” ratio, so to speak ;-)

  6. I agree with Tom and not all obstacles such as manhole covers, which are easily rideable, need to be pointed out. You forgot to mention one of my favorites – waving or pointing behind your back when approaching a walker/runner or a parked car on the side of the road. Though often times “car up” will be heard.

    You know you ride a lot when you are driving alone in the car and you see something up ahead and begin to make that motion. I’ve caught myself doing that too many times.

  7. I like this post. I was out riding today (in town) and a few times the lane split to go straight or to go right. I stuck my hand out every time to indicate I was staying straight.

    Different kind of riding, but communicating just the same.

  8. I didnt know about the hand signaling until I started riding with my husband more a year ago, whom does alot of group rides. He informed that when im in the lead of someone I need to start doing these signals for the sake of the cyclists behind me, especialy if I start riding in their group.

    I will say that it takes some time to get in the habit of doing the signals. Its so easy to just zone out in a ride. There have been a few rides that I just forget about it until after I pass a pothole and my husband groans lol.

    Thanks for the post and reminding me of the signals, which i’ve forgotten about over the winter. :)

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