What Does “Car Back” Mean to You?

It happens every time more than one cyclist is riding on the roads. Sooner or later, one will raise the call, “Car back!” It’s an important warning, because whenever we cyclists tangle with two tons of metal, we’re going to lose — so it’s a good idea to minimize any possibility of car-bike contact.

However, I’ve been concerned lately by some behavior I’m seeing on the roads.

If cars aren’t around, cyclists tend to ride side-by-side and have rolling conversations. This social aspect of cycling is one of the things that attracts people to the pastime. We’re not just out riding — we’re spending some quality time with our friends.

Harrisburg (PA) Patriot-News

Nothing wrong with riding side-by-side. The law says it’s fine, too: Persons operating bicycles on a roadway may ride two abreast. (Texas Transportation Code, 551.103c)

However, in that same paragraph, the law states: Persons riding two abreast may not impede the normal and reasonable flow of traffic on the roadway. Here’s why we (or at least I) yell, “Car back!”

Now, what’s supposed to happen when that call is raised? I like to see cyclists out in the middle of the lane ease into single file. A person operating a bicycle on a roadway who is moving slower than the other traffic on the roadway shall ride as near as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway (551.103a). Riding in single file accomplishes two things: It lets the overtaking vehicle pass, which will free up the lane more quickly so cyclists can resume their chats; and it creates goodwill between cyclists and cars.

Here’s what I see sometimes: The rider on the inside of the lane (closest to the center line) moves closer to the line of cyclists along the edge of the roadway, without getting into the single file. The overtaking car swings wide to pass. In the most egregious cases, the rider doesn’t even attempt to make way for the car.

We can’t be doing that, folks. Things are tough enough out there between drivers and bikers without adding to the animosity. And yes, drivers can be prats sometimes (often?). That doesn’t justify antagonistic behavior.

So the next time one of your co-riders cuts loose with a bellowing, “Car back!,” do what you’re supposed to do. Stop the chatter, ease into single file, wait for the car to pass, then resume the conversation. You’ll finish your ride with a lower stress level.


  1. Rob says

    Great post! As someone who is usually riding at the back of the pack, it is frustrating to see people ignore the “car back” warning. It’s in everyone’s best interest to act respectfully out on the road and a short interruption in your conversation is a small price to maintain that respect.

  2. Tim says

    Well said Noob!

    One minor point is that there are some important exceptions to the “far right as practicable” rule, but they don’t apply to riding two or more abreast

  3. Ronan says

    You will see exactly the opposite here in France: people (like me) riding solo in the same position on the road as they would be riding two abreast. Why? Because if there is not enough room to pass two cyclist, there is not enough room to pass one cyclist.
    A fast estimation: 10cm of room on the right+40cm for the width of the cyclist+150cm on the left of the cyclist (MINIMAL distance between a cyclist and a passing car out of urban areas as written in the law) +170cm (width of a small car) = 370cm between the right edge of the road and the left edge of the car. That means that a car that passes one cyclist HAS to bite on the opposite lane. And bitting “a little” on the opposite lane is as dangerous for the car as totally taking it.
    The tentation to do unsafe and unlawful passings is sometime to hard to bear for some morons. To prevent them from doing their moronic stuff, I (and many others) while riding alone take something like 70cm between the right shoulder and the edge of the road. This put the bike’s wheels in the trace of the cars’ wheels. As an added benefit, there is very little crap lying on this portion of the road. Tomorrow there will be frozen puddles here and there, and by taking the line I am pretty sure I won’t meet ice.
    Adding a second cylist is fairly easy: move 20cm to the left and fit her/him on your right. You will have a gap of twenty or so cm between the handlebars.
    I usually do three or four middle finger salutes a year to honking cars.(baseline of 100km/week for commuting, another 100km/week or so for recreation, when the weather is good enough). When I do this I usually move another meter to my left, because if the drivers decide to do a stupid trick I want the room on my right available for evasive manouvers.
    I have yet to here the local version of “car back!” during a group ride. Usually when I can hear the guy behind, I can also hear the car. And if I can hear it, then that means I am going slow!

    To give an example of the roads, this is one of the place I ride to work. It is usually more crowded (the picture was taken on a sunday). You can barely see a bit of the Pyrénées in the background.

    Thank you for bearing with my rusty English, and for giving me an opportunity to shake a bit of the rust away.

    A last point on the law here:
    – there is nothing about not blocking the flow of traffic (or maybe there is, but definitely nothing about cyclists specifically)
    – The minimum distance between a car and a bike is of one meter in towns
    – It is one meter and a half out of towns.
    The distance are not respected that often, but still, passing is most often done reasonnably.

    • says

      It seems we might be dealing with a different set of definitions pertaining to the width of a lane. I put in a lot of miles “as far to the right as praticable” and don’t have an issue – but our roads in the States are A LOT wider that the photo Ron provided. Under those circumstances I could see why he’d ride farther to the left. That’d be down right spooky riding in those tiny lanes mushed all the way to the edge of the road.

  4. Ron says

    It depends, on a 2 lane road with no ride-able shoulder you should be riding on the right hand tire track. You should not move to the right for a car back. Doing so encourages the cars to pass you without moving over to pass safely.

  5. says

    Excellent post and I wholeheartedly agree. It is foolish to not heed the “call back” warning and is frustrating when we have to repeat it a few times.

    There are situations where we ride in a two-abreast paceline for safety, however there are differing opinions. In the Spartanburg and Greenville area, where there is a large and vibrant cycling community, we tend to ride this way with larger groups. The thought is that this compacts the group and makes it quicker for cars to pass. The alternative would be an extremely long paceline where cars may have to weave in and out in order to avoid oncoming cars.

    The drawback is that it is not as easy for cars to find opportunities to pass. That can be a good thing for us, because it means they will generally only attempt it when there is clear traffic. Sometimes the cars get a little angry, especially on busy roads, which we try to avoid as much as possible. If there is a car backup, we might try to pull over and let them all pass.

  6. Andres Esquivel says

    We yell the warning to let other cyclists know what’s going on around us. What they do with that warning is up to them. We’re not going to change an a-hole driver’s attitude whether we are single file or double or even more.

    We’ve all had near misses even when we were doing everything right.

    My whole take on this is just ride. Keep calling out obstacles, debris, and cars. Do it because it feels right to you, it makes sense to you, it’s logical. But when you tell other cyclists how they should behave, you’re trying to make the world live by one set of rules and then you’re just kidding yourself. No need to go down that path — that way madness lies.

    • says

      Well, the point is that there is a set of rules. They’re called laws. I’ve seen a-hole drivers, but I’ve also seen a-hole cyclists. My concern is that lots of cyclists aren’t as familiar with the laws as they pertain to cyclists as they should be.

  7. Andres Esquivel says

    I think it got lost in there that I agreed with you. I know the rules about cycling, and I am happy to follow the rules. The rules and laws do not impede my ability to ride or to enjoy myself on the bike.

    I really do wish more cyclists followed the rules, too. I probably won’t go out of my way to tell anyone anything, though. I do like offering ideas, though.

    So, if someone want to start a positive change in cycling, I would suggest after someone calls out, “Car back!” that other cyclists start calling out, “Single file!”

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