Does cycle choice influence motorist behaviour?

Heavy traffic in Firenze Italy. This cyclist can read newspapers on the bus.

Using a sample size of one (again me, hot on the heels of the great hangover experiment), I’ve been conducting a protracted study into the behaviour of motorists around cyclists on different types of bike; and it’s revealed something interesting.

I use a variety of bikes. For commuting I generally use my Genesis Day-one single speed cross bike. If I’m training after work, I may use a Cyclo-cross bike set up for cross racing or my road bike. If the day involves travel, I’ll certainly be on my folder. The split here is fairly clear; performance style geometry versus the ‘sit up and beg’ style of the folder. The difference in how I’m treated by motorists could not be marked. In the outstretched riding position of the performance orientated bike, its all close shaves, cars hurtling to get past me and the occasional fracas. When I ride my folder, I get space, greater respect and a more relaxed experience. Why should this be the case? A bike is bike, surely?

Pictured here with a crate full of beer (practical eh?) , the Van Moof urban bike. Image from Broadsheet Melbourne.

After giving this great thought I’ve identified three possible reasons; riding position, personal approach to cycling and the cycling stereotype offered. Let’s start with riding position. Visibility is a definite bonus on the folder. I sit high and proud, towering over small cars and at cab height for a van. I actually feel stronger in traffic when perched on its ludicrously long seat post. The other bikes are performance orientated, not designed with negotiating traffic in mind and place the rider in a more aerodynamic position.  Drivers get a birds eye view of my backside and I haven’t got the same line of sight. Next up, approach. I do wonder if I ride a little differently on the bendy, bouncy folder. On these things, you need to go with the flow. Kick back, Relax. Am I really that more aggressive whilst commuting on a performance bike? I’d like to think not, but sub-consciously I probably give it a little extra oomph. The geometry and gearing practically insist. But how does my choice of bike influence driver perception? I suspect that the folder says ‘person getting around town in a practical fashion’ (though this is also true of my commuter, albeit in a different riding position) as opposed to an out-and-out ‘cyclist’. This is of course a sweeping generalisation and to get any real idea I’d need to flag down dozens or so cars on Boulevard De Nantes and ask for the driver’s opinion. I’m not sure they’d be happy.

Whatever the reason, cars do behave differently when I ride my Birdy. So what can we learn from this? Firstly – and most obviously – a trial involving a sample size of one is simply rubbish and barely better than any other form of anecdotal evidence. So don’t rely on my dodgy judgement and lax note taking. Secondly, I’m going to consciously ride my normal commuter like I ride my Birdy; or at least try to. Relax more. Hurry less. It may swing it with our four wheeled friends and probably draws some of that jealous ire (the bike is access all areas, cars, are not. Enter the green monster).  Finally, when my current commuter goes to that great recycler in the sky, I’ll be in the market for a more urban bike. Something that balances visibility, utility and practically with aesthetics (let’s face it; bicycles are a thing of beauty). Something that is……..comfy.  Because in the dark ages between the 1950s and the recent velo explosion, we seem to have lost an appreciation that the design of a city bike is actually best for city use.

7 replies »

  1. Vanmoof: beautiful urban bikes. And, if you’re quick, you might be able to get one at a heavy discount from the closing-down Velorution in London.

    • Velorution closing down? I’m surpirsed. They seemed to be tapping into a London cycling zeitgeist. That said, Great Portland Street must be a very expensive place to have a shop.

      I’d have a Van Moof in a jiffy, but it’s the threat of domestic violence that stops me (“Another bloody bike!” etc. etc.) 🙂

  2. I was driving with an instructor on a “go on a course and we will tear up your speeding ticket” remedial driving session a few years ago. When we came up behind a cyclist on a road bike, the instructor told me I could overtake close and without waiting for a gap in the traffic going in the other direction because the cyclist “knows what he is doing and he won’t wobble”. I was appalled.

      • Curious. My experience is that on a road bike people give me a wider berth, presumably because I’m likely to be “riding along like a nutcase”. On a safe, dependable hybrid, meanwhile, minicabs pass me with 3in to spare and cut me up regularly.

      • Interesting. When on my road bike, I find that more cars regularly misjudge my speed (especially when training) and give me short-shrift. Here’s another thought – how different are attitudes across the country? When I visit my father in-law in Settle (Yorkshire Dales), motorists are generally more sympathetic. Inevitably, I’ll be training and not commuting (now THAT would be a commute – 250 miles).

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