You might think you're giving runners, dog walkers, and other trail or bike path users ample notice of your approach with by saying, “On your left!!” In reality, all those folks actually hear are shrieking last-second alerts that they’re about to get run over. Here’s a newsflash: that verbal cue that’s so ingrained in cycling circles not only means nothing to non-cyclists (and especially, non-racers) but you’re also creating the exact opposite effect you’re hoping for. They probably think you’re a jerk.
Hopefully you already are giving other road and trail users some kind of warning that you’re approaching – and hopefully you’re being cool about it. You diligently voice your approach in as friendly a manner as possible, you try your best not to startle anyone, and you always make sure to pass predictably and at a reasonable speed. And dammit, you smile! But there it is once again – the look of death. What’s the deal, right?
Much as some of us might like to think otherwise, that evil stare probably didn’t come from someone who’s having a crappy day. It’s more likely that your definition of a courteous pass differs from theirs.
Ever actually stopped to ask those other trail and path users what their point of views were? Well, I did, and here’s what some of them said:
“I would say that 70-80 percent of the people do not let us know [they’re coming], and they’re cycling way too fast. No warning whatsoever.”
“Some of them will call out, ‘on your left’, or ‘on your right’, but very few of them actually have a bell, a horn, or whatever. They appear to be annoyed that you’re on a multi-use path – like ‘what are you doing here?!’”
“I’m happy to move my dog over but if only if I know you’re coming. Guess what – I’m not looking behind me; I’m looking in front of me.”
Thankfully, there's a super easy solution to all of this: just use a bell.
It doesn't matter what bike I'm riding; a bell is practically mandatory
I have bells on nearly every bike in the stable – both personal and for work – and more often than not, I get a smile, wave, or even a cheery "thank you!" (sometimes all three!) as I roll past. Imagine – people are happy to move over to the side for me. Compare that with the reactions you usually get when passing another trail or path user with an ‘On your left!’ and just try to tell me that there isn’t a difference.
Bells serve a number of functions when it comes to managing traffic between multiple user groups.
For one, their high-pitched tones are easier for people to hear, meaning you can alert them from surprisingly generous distances. Unlike verbal warnings, a bell’s ‘ding’ doesn’t get buried in the background noises of everyday life, and it’s far more likely to interrupt a conversation than your own voice – or, for that matter, the seemingly impenetrable barrier of earphones that so many trail and path users annoyingly insist on using.
And unless you like violently shaking giant cowbells when you ride (in which case, you’re nuts and probably really should be avoided), it’s virtually impossible for a bell to sound anything but friendly.
Using a bell isn’t just about trying to be a good citizen, either; it’s better for you, too. If people can hear you from further away, that means they also have more time to prepare for your approach (i.e. move out of your way depending on the situation). That not only improves safety all around, but also (hopefully) keeps everyone happy. You don’t come off as a tool, no one gets scared, and everyone gets to carry on with his or her merry way.
Heck, I’ve even used bells in racing situations with similar effects. Everything I’ve described so far applies to other racers but keep in mind that races are usually held on public trails (or roads) that are open to other users. You might be the only one out of two hundred riders to use a bell for a non-racer but if you’re the only one they remember, that can make all the difference.
Even better, bells haven’t yet fallen victim to the technology arms race so at least for now, the vast majority of them are still extremely affordable. One of my favorites (at least for mountain bike bars) is the good ol’ Incredibell, which is usefully loud, impressively durable, weighs next to nothing, and occupies little space. For sure, there are nicer options out there (like the Spurcycle) but this one more than does the job for me.
We all love riding bikes but it’s important to maintain perspective of how the other side experiences the same piece of real estate. Oftentimes, all it takes is a quick conversation to open up a few eyeballs, and sometimes there are easy fixes to what might seem like insurmountable issues.
Cyclists are already fighting an uphill battle in terms of public perception: other road users think we’re selfish and entitled; trail users perceive as out-of-control hellions on wheels. Let's not make things worse and actually be the rude, self-entitled jerks non-cyclists already think we are, eh?