Partner bicycling conundrums

When we met, our interest in, and commitment to, biking for transportation was one of the things that Matthew and I shared (along with a love of cooking and eating delicious vegetarian food).  Perhaps because of this shared history, it’s particularly frustrating when bicycling becomes a point of contention in our relationship.  I’m not talking about, “You spend all your free time riding your bike,” kind of contention, though.

In general, we don’t ride our bikes together all that much.  Bike trips to work, or to run errands, are usually solo ventures.  Duo trips are limited to weekend (or rare weeknight) outings, so it took a while for us to notice the problems.

Prior to April 2011, the primary point of contention was that I was riding too close to parked cars.  I understood Matthew’s concern, but I felt uncomfortable riding farther left in the traffic lane.

Enter CyclingSavvy.  We took the basic course together in April 2011, and went on to become instructors two months later.  This course gave me the knowledge, confidence, and skills I needed to get out of the door zone and away from the edge of the roadway for good.

It seemed this would be just what we needed for partner cycling bliss.

We do great on multi-lane roads, usually riding two abreast in the right travel lane, then singling up in spots with on-street parking (or other features that narrow the effective lane).  But we don’t want to always ride on arterial roads, since there are lower-speed, less-trafficked options, nor do these big roads always serve our destinations.

And here’s the thing.  We agree on all the basic principles: 1) follow the rules of movement, 2) practice good communication, 3) never ride within 5 feet of a parked car and you won’t get doored (or startled), 4) never, ever ride up along the right side of a tractor-trailer (or bus, garbage truck, etc.).  Those are just a few examples, but suffice it to say, we agree on most things when it comes to how/where we ride.

But then are the “gray areas,” the judgement calls.  Where, exactly, on a given roadway do I need to be to encourage safe motorist behavior (i.e., discourage unsafe passing)?  When should I actively (or passively) encourage someone to pass me?  When should I passively (or actively) discourage passing?

The answer to all these questions is, “It depends.”  It depends on road design, traffic conditions, weather, and a number of other dynamics.

The main north-south route we ride is a tricky one for these questions.  It’s a street with two-way traffic, and on-street parking on both sides.  Portions of it are too narrow for a center stripe (perhaps just barely wide enough for two cars to eek by each other if there are also parked cars on both sides at a given spot).  Other portions do have a center stripe, creating a narrow lane of travel in each direction.  The blocks are short, with a stop sign at almost every intersection, so it’s difficult for anyone (motorists or bicyclists) to work up much speed.  There are also alleys that exit onto the street in between every intersection, so LOTS of potential turning conflicts.

But it’s a neighborhood street, with low speed limits and relatively little traffic, and it offers an alternative to a traffic sewer (Kingshighway, which we do ride portions of).

We’ve ridden this route for years, and when we’re riding solo, we each navigate this stretch as we see fit.

In general, I move a bit slower on my bicycle (especially when I’m hauling a kiddo), and I tend to look for opportunities to “release” a motorist who ends up behind me, even if it means I need to slow down a bit more to facilitate the pass.

Matthew also practices control and release, but, when on his own, is usually moving a bit faster, meaning less opportunity to release (and perhaps less real need, though there’s still the “Must Pass Bicyclist Syndrome” to deal with).  He also tends to ride MORE than five feet from the parked cars, to discourage unsafe passing by both overtaking and oncoming (because the passable street width is so minimal with on-street parking) motorists.*

I prefer to stay closer to the right as a default position on this stretch (though still at least 5 feet from the parked cars, not riding the edge, not weaving in and out of parked cars, etc.), and use active encouragement/discouragement to communicate with motorists about when it is or is not safe to pass.  (In truth, I may be cheating in a bit on that 5 feet from parked cars along some of these stretches — we may need to bring out the tape measure on this one, to double check both of our perceived vs. actual distances.)*

Yet what we do almost effortlessly alone, with one bicycle, becomes REALLY difficult when we add the other person and that second bicycle.

  • The dynamic changes for Matthew because, in order for us to actually ride together, he’s traveling slower than normal.
  • Instead of time and space to pass one bicyclist (it’s too narrow for us to ride two abreast on the streets in question), overtaking motorists need time to pass two bicyclists.
  • The front rider (usually me, setting the [slow] pace) needs to decide if it’s safe to encourage a pass, but the rear rider needs to communicate with the motorist.
  • On these short blocks, by the time I see a gap, make a decision, and communicate with Matthew, the gap is gone, or we’re at the next stop sign — too late for him to signal the motorist to pass.

So our shared bicycle outings, times where we should be enjoying our common love of bicycle transportation, become fraught with tension, disagreements, and stress.  Instead of feeling good, we arrive at our destinations feeling “yuck,” and, for me, at least, wanting to give Matthew a five minute lead on the way home, just so we don’t have to deal with it.  And wanting to never ride our bikes anywhere together again.

So we’re taking advice.  Do any of you cyclist pairs have suggestions for harmonious partner bicycle travel on roads/in situations like what I describe?  Any tricks for clearly communicating with each other on the road?

*Regarding our roadway position, and where we need to be to get safe passes — in our small sample, it seems there may be some motorist bias based on bicyclist’s sex, i.e., motorists behave better around female cyclists than around male cyclists, so Matthew has to ride differently (i.e., farther left) to get the same passing distance I get when riding a bit farther to the right.



  1. Karen Karabell says:

    I understand only too well what you describe in your post, Melissa! When I’m riding with Harold, I’m on “Harold time.” If I don’t want to be, we ride separately to our destination. This simple choice has maintained peace for us 🙂

  2. EcoCatLady says:

    Oh my, I understand this conundrum quite well – though I think the specific issues that CatMan and I deal with are probably a bit different just because of the nature of our riding. CatMan usually rides in front – it just works better for us that way. He rides with a rear view mirror so he can still “see” me when he’s in front, whereas I tend to get a bit worried when I can’t see him if he’s behind me.

    Usually he sets a pretty good pace, but sometimes he goes faster than I feel up to. I used to burn myself out trying to keep up, but I’ve finally just decided that it’s best to simply fall behind if he goes too fast and eventually he’ll stop and wait for me to catch up and/or slow down a bit. Likewise, sometimes I’ll need to stop for some reason and he’ll be too far ahead for me to shout out to him. It used to frustrate me, but now I just stop if I need to and trust that eventually he’ll notice that I’m not there and either wait or turn back.

    There are also times when I get frustrated because he’ll actually ride slower than I want to – it’s mostly an issue with the frequent hills in our area though. He has back problems so he rides fairly upright whereas I ride in a more traditional road bike position. This means that he encounters much more air resistance than I do, so he goes slower down the hills. A lot of our hills here in town are the kind where you go sharply downhill followed by a steep uphill – so it’s helpful to build up some speed going downhill to have momentum to carry you back up. And often what happens is that by the time we make it to the bottom of the hill I’m practically in his back pocket, so I then have to put on the breaks as we’re starting up the hill and lose all of my momentum. SOOOO frustrating! Sometimes there’s enough room on the path to pass him, but often not – so I just have to remind myself to leave more space between us (like at least 30 feet) to avoid the problem.

    But I think what it boils down to is that taking care of yourself on the road needs to be your first priority, and sometimes that can mean less “togetherness” while riding. I know that my stress level went down significantly when I finally decided that it was better for us to ride further apart for the majority of the ride – whether that was because he was going faster than I wanted or because I needed to give myself more cushion to deal with the hill issue. Often he rides 50-100 feet ahead of me, and it just works out much better that way. There are still plenty of sections where it’s flat and the trail is wide enough to ride next to each other and chat – and it’s soooo much nicer when those “together” parts of the ride are full of happy exchanges rather than grumpy recriminations about who did what “wrong”.

    So I dunno… maybe things would be easier if you didn’t try to ride “together” for the whole ride – riding further apart in sections where there are traffic issues, and saving the “together” riding for the stretches where it works.

    Sorry to write a novel here – guess you struck a chord!

  3. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

    So two votes here for maybe just avoiding riding together (at least on this, or similar, stretches). Not exactly what I was hoping for, but worth considering. Other suggestions included pulling over, if necessary, to allow people to pass without maxing out their patience (again, a strategy that I’m more okay with than Matthew is, in general). We’ll try some working on better planning ahead of time what we’ll do in various situations, who will make the call, etc., before giving up on it altogether.

    1. EcoCatLady says:

      Well… I suppose another option would be to ride closer – like right on each other’s wheel. I see people doing that all the time, and CatMan (who used to race) knows how to do it. But frankly it scares the crap out of me, and I’m not sure it would be advisable in that situation because the rear rider needs to be able to “pull out” quickly if something happens, and in the situation you’re describing he could very well be pulling out into the path of a car!

      I dunno… maybe you could try coming up with a system of hand gestures and a pre-determined course of action for letting cars pass. But on the rare occasions when CatMan and I do ride in the traffic lane, I’ve noticed a trend that sorta frightens me. A car will pass me and then start to merge back into the lane, not realizing that there is a second rider ahead of me – so I think in that situation it might be worth trying to “up” the visibility of the front rider somehow.

  4. Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 says:

    Joe and I don’t ride together very often, but we will sometimes ride to Grant’s Trail together. He goes much faster (more gears and impatience, don’t you know) and I think he resents finishing the trail before I do and having to choose between riding home alone or waiting for me. Meanwhile, I love that the trail is flat enough that I feel like I’m going fast (12 or so mph), but I don’t have to push so hard and can enjoy the sights and sounds. Not coincidentally, I suppose, we also don’t enjoy running together. Because I practically jog in place while he walks next to me. Speed differentials are a real thing. I think the other stuff is easier to overcome.

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      I don’t think Matthew minds adjusting to my biking speed, but it only works if he rides in back. If he rides in front, he just unconsciously creeps ahead, bit by bit. The best bet for us having a somewhat similar pace (without me really pushing it or him slowing down) was me riding Baby Jake while he rode either his hybrid Giant or Big Blue. When I’m on the slower, heavier bike, the speed difference is really amplified.

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