There is a subject that is related to the somewhat contentious act of waving at other cyclists, but is a gaunt and pale comparison in that it can only just manage to elicit a mild tut, a sigh, a raised eyebrow, or if you’re lucky, maybe a wry smile once in a while. It should be a simple matter without any elevation into controversy, but too many times it can become a situation that drifts into unnecessary bellendery. Such is cycling, and much of life. Sigh.
This is the simple and necessary action of overtaking other cyclists, and on the flipside, being overtaken.
While it might not stir up as much lively and disgruntled discussion as the topic of waving (or not) at other people on bikes, the experience of overtaking, or being the overtakee, is another issue that has often cropped up in friendly cafe stop conversation. It has also caused a few miles of confused internal dialogue on a ride. It is a matter in which only the smallest amount of basic etiquette is required, and yet we’ve all been subjected to those who just don’t have it.
I’ve spent enough time out on the road and in between the tapes to have been both the overtaker and the overtakee, and been face-to-face (or face-to-arse) with the good and bad in both situations. I’ve done my best to practice the former, but every so often with a number on my back it’s lapsed into the latter. Rubbin' is racin' after all.
Lapse is often the operative word, as a poorly-timed overtake might have coincided with characteristic poor control or below par traction on my behalf, and we’ve bumped along for a bit before undocking to continue our separate ways with frantic and sincere apologies. As a cyclist you’ll have experienced both sides of the passing coin too, and you’d expect there would be a certain amount of do unto others, but that doesn’t always seem to apply.
Let’s start with the most annoying and something which we have all experienced: that clunk clunk of the gear change that happens behind you a few seconds after you’ve overtaken someone. While there’s nothing wrong per se with immediately jumping on a passing wheel and benefitting from the timely arrival of a slipstream, especially when you’re nearly home and a little bit piffed as I’ve done unashamedly and gratefully enough times, it can be seen by some as an eye-rolling, unwanted intrusion into their ride. Even if it isn’t, most cyclists are happy to help out another rider who might be struggling, but it’s prudent to inform the rider doing all the work that you’re sucking their wheel, and actually polite to ask them if it’s okay to hover back there. Maybe mention the science that it benefits them too if you have the breath in you.
There’s also the off-chance that if you don’t announce yourself, the rider up front may not even realise you’re skulking in their shadow if they’re wrapped up in their own little world of heavy breathing, snot and head-thumping effort, so they might not think it's necessary to point out any potholes or drain covers in the road that you might then crump through. For this reason alone, it’s in your best interests to show some manners.
On the other hand, they may certainly know you’re there and be deliberately aiming for teeth-jarring puncture possibilities as a less-than-subtle way of getting you to back off a bit. Who knows? It’s a lot more of a passive-aggressive tactic than just gradually increasing the pace until you can no longer hang on, although the jury is out as to whether the gradual fading of a squeaky jockey wheel or the ooooft of a successful pothole bullseye is a more rewarding sound...
If you’ve been the one benefitting from the tow and have recharged a bit back there, then by all means take your turn at the front as a small gesture of thanks. Don’t do that thing where you immediately ramp up the pace though, no one enjoys that. This started as a symbiotic relationship, and there’s no need to turn it into a race now you’re feeling feisty enough again. Just don’t be that person, and when it finally comes time for your passing acquaintance to part ways, say thank you. Always.
There can be fun to be had with this though, but it does play into a deeper issue within cycling (and much of life) which is a discussion for another day. One of my favourite games unfolds when out with a certain female riding partner, and we’re steadily gaining on a cyclist up ahead. I’ll drift to the front leaving a few bike lengths gap between me and her. We both know what’s going to happen in this silly game, and she’s more than capable of taking her turn up front if needs be.
I will overtake the cyclist and exhale a quick “Hi”, and apart from a grunt back, nothing at all will happen and I'll carry on my way... but as soon as the bloke (because it is always, always a man) sees a woman overtake him, a few pedal strokes later and his ego starts to painfully wither quicker than his speed. There will be that familiar predictable clunk clunking of gears and an attempt to grab her wheel and keep up.
This is the bit in the game when she takes to the front and sees how long her new friend can stick with it while I sit at the back having a quiet giggle. Childish behaviour? Probably, but they brought it upon themselves. Well done men for continually being men. Men, don’t do this.
If you’re going to overtake someone, then do so with grace, style and courtesy. It’s not even totally necessary to generate a greeting on the way past, although just like waving at other cyclists, some people will take grievous umbrage if you don’t acknowledge their existence.
Diplomacy works well here. Wishing a struggling cyclist a cheery hello or words of encouragement as you spin past on a climb might not go down so well, no matter how well intentioned. But most importantly, if you’re going to overtake, please make it stick. The amount of times I’ve been overtaken by a man (because it is always, always a bloke) in a sausage-show of huff and bluster only for them to run out of heart rate when they’re 100 metres ahead, where they’ll dangle like the non-Duracell bunny for a short while before I gradually catch them up in my constant pace, is legion.
My first lane away from the suburbs and into the countryside hosts this little scenario more frequently than any road deserves to. It’s a play in four acts characterised by four climbs: the first is an inconsequential easy drag, the second is a steeper but still short, sharp and straight climb up to the village sign, the penultimate one winds up longer and has a steep little ramp in it (how I’m feeling by that stiff third climb is a good indicator of how the rest of the ride might pan out, but I digress), and the final one climbs up through the trees, with the last 50 metres making themselves known to your thighs.
Because that first rise is easy and it’s not far from town, it’s common for riders to smash it, oozing spunk and glory, and that’s fine. The sign at the top of the next climb is something to aim for if you’re feeling KOMy, but it’s the next one that lets you know if you’ve overdone it already. It’s most probably where I’ll catch you up again as I spin metronomically along. Age and guile and all that.
Conversely you’ll know when you’ve been overtaken by someone who is genuinely faster than you, because you’ll hardly know. They’ll breeze past all smooth sleek and silent, and with maybe just a raise of the hand as a greeting before they waft out of focus into the distance. No show, no elbows out last few metres of a Tour stage posturing on an empty country road, no needless huffing bike sway with something to prove, just a whirr and blur and glide past.
Try and emulate that if you can. It doesn’t even have to be that fast, just peripheral and civil. Don’t brush past as close as you can as an aggressive reinforcement of your speed and prowess on the bike. The rider you’re passing might not be as awesome and experienced as you, and seldom used to brushing elbows with their club mates or race adversaries every Sunday.
Perform the overtake like you were passing a cyclist in a car. Give them plenty of room, and if that isn’t possible then a respectful amount of space should be the aim, even you Mr Bump Past On The Bike Lane Pro Commuter to whom every other rider is an adversary.
For the briefest of interactions as one cyclist passes another, the overtaking manoeuvre should just be an insignificant blip in a ride. There are the rare moments where it becomes a welcome slice of roadman camaraderie when two riders join to help one another out, so don’t be the person who wants to make something of it and lets basic road manners pass them by.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.