Can Cyclists Legally Ride Side By Side? – Passing Etiquette & Dealing with Angry Riders

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Cycling etiquette and riding side by side

I’m sure we all expect a little abuse from people behind the steering wheel, but when it comes from people behind the handlebars it can be a small shock.

Saturday. Sunshine. Ocean breeze and views. Basically the perfect day for a group bike ride. A few friends and I were riding side by side in a very wide bike lane. We happened to be discussing racing and the types of people who throw fits when they get bumped or scream at fellow riders to “hold a line.” My friend turned to me and said, “Life’s too short to waste it worrying about angry people. It’s so nice outside, and we’re on bikes!”

I laughed. Agreed.

I focused on the beautiful rhythm of pedaling and listened to the soft click click of the freewheels. The truth in cycling.

And then I heard, “GET THE [expletive removed for coolness] OUT OF THE WAY!!! YOU’RE THE REASON PEOPLE HATE CYCLISTS!!!!”

Cycling etiquette and riding side by side
Photo by Anders Sandberg

Passing us in the bike lane was a fuming and foaming couple on a tandem bike. A tandem mountain bike. (First of all, how does that work when you’re headed down a sizable mountain? Secondly, how does that work when you’re headed down any sized mountain?)

I left off my group and came alongside the pair–whose cloud of anger was, I’m pretty sure, trailing them in a visible exhaust. I’m not generally a confrontational person. Actually, I am scared of confrontation. In karate they told us not to hit people for real. But I stopped enjoying my ride and started, in perhaps not the nicest way, “explaining” how we were legally allowed to ride side by side and that they neither warned us they were behind us nor shouted a courteous, “On your left!” We had no clue they were there until the profanity hit us.

In the words of my dad (a pastor, so, yah he got this from the Bible), “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” Sorry Dad, I failed you there. Not too kind or Christian of me. But I just couldn’t quite understand how anyone could be spewing anger so readily on such a pretty day. What cycling courtesies am I taking for granted?  And we really are allowed to ride side by side in a wide bike lane, right?

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So I did a little research, and here’s what I found.

Riding Side By Side in a Bike Lane

Based on his shouting, I assume the fellow on the front of the tandem was angry that we weren’t letting him get by us. The bike lane was at least 6 feet wide on a low traffic, two-lane highway. We rode two abreast and were holding a fairly solid line–not weaving or quickly changing speed. The tandem actually had enough room to pass us on the left without crossing the white line, but even if they had crossed the white line, there was little to no traffic to contend with. So were we legally in the wrong?

No. I looked up the penal code, and found a few articles. Perhaps the simplest explanation of the law comes from attorney (and former pro cyclist) Bob Mionske who lays out the law by state, so you can check the rules where you live. According to Mionske’s data, it is implicitly legal to ride side by side in California so long as the bike lane is wide enough to safely accommodate two riders. If our lane had only been wide enough for a single rider, then we could have been at fault. But we were completely within our right to safely ride next to each other and chat.

So, we were cool in that regard, but what about etiquette?

How to Be a Kind Cyclist

Here’s where I should admit to fault. We should have been more aware of who was behind us, but, in reality, they must have only been following us for a few brief moments because I had been constantly checking to make sure we in the front weren’t gapping our friend behind us. They likely turned to follow us from a trail or a cross street. None of us knew that the tandem was there until the screaming fit was passing by. Yes, we were riding at a social pace. If our speed was so slow and we were blocking the lane completely, then I could also see that we were in the wrong. But our pace was not dramatically different from that of the tandem, who didn’t put immediate distance between themselves and our group.

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But there’s something to be said for etiquette here. Admittedly, I’m not much versed in the intricacies of mountain biking. But I do know that bells are a thing, right? Or somehow letting others know you’re behind them and wanting to pass.

Generally, it’s a good idea to follow a few of the unwritten rules of cycling etiquette:

  1. Call out, “On your left!” or “Passing!” well before you’re alongside someone. If a rider isn’t aware of you, they may swerve into you when you hit their peripheral vision because you freaked them out. Give them space to react to you and then pass them when they know you’re there.
  2. Although passing on a busy road can sometimes make this tricky, try to give the rider a few feet of space both behind them, to the side, and when you overtake them. Don’t nick their front wheel in your haste to get back over, and make sure to pass them only when it’s safe to do so.

So Why The Diatribe?

I know I’m being defensive here. Who likes being cussed out for doing something they enjoy? But it really spoke a larger issue to me. How do we treat those around us? I feel guilty for returning the pair’s anger. I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did. I should have responded with a soft answer and been a decent example of a cyclist. I was just as guilty of breaking cycling etiquette. So why is there so much anger wrapped up with our sport?

I can only say this. We’re in a growing passion. More and more people join the ranks of cyclists every day. Not all of us ride the same equipment or average the same speed. A little camaraderie and a few pleasant words can go so much further than a lot of hate. We already get that from society at large. Let’s not let it seep in amongst ourselves. Be kind. Be courteous. Happy cycling.

So what’s your story? What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you while riding? Let us know in the comments!

About Bek 301 Articles
SLO Cyclist's former chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek made sure everything ran smoothly around here. She was also the one who reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

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