Group Rides and Groupthink
Cyclists – like most humans – often follow the herd. So it's helpful if someone will lead the herd in the right direction...
One of the area's largest group rides departs from Ballston every Tuesday evening. At its summer height, there are well over 200 riders who show up for the 17-mile loop through northern Arlington's hills. It's fantastic to see so many cyclists out using our roads.
The ride generally goes quite well.
While it starts out as a mass, it quickly breaks up into smaller groups of similarly skilled cyclists. The faster riders off the front get in a great workout. The slower riders in the back get a bit of social time with fellow cyclists. Those in the middle get to enjoy the torture of deciding between suffering enough to catch those in front of them or easing up to join the chattering classes in the back. It's a great time for all.
The ride isn't perfect, though. While most of the route takes place on wide streets with few stops, it necessarily passes through a number of intersections and stoplights. This is where things can get a bit... tricky.
Most of the time, there are no problems. But some times, a few of the riders at the front of a particular pack will decide to swarm up to the light on both sides of waiting cars. This isn't helpful, especially when that creates a situation in which there are riders in front of and behind the car, which sometimes ends up moving along slowly in the middle of a pack of cyclists. There's nothing to be gained by the cyclists here, and it just annoys the drivers.
Similarly, it's the riders at the front of the groups that set the tone at stop signs. If the first ones there come to a complete stop, chances are very high that everyone else will. If they blow it? Chances are just as high that most of the riders behind them will, too. Never mind the legality of it – it definitely creates unsafe situations at some intersections.
So while it's often said – and true – that bad cyclist behavior is simple herd behavior, individual riders have the opportunity to change that herd behavior. When you're at the front of the group, approaching that intersection? Think about those around you and do the right thing.
Mark Blacknell is chair of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, a member of the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, a League Cycling Instructor, and someone who has, occassionally, failed to live up to the standard he asks for here.