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OPINION

We need to talk about overtaking: All things must pass, so be nice about it on your next bike ride

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VecchioJo passes judgement on overtaking etiquette, or the lack of it among some cyclists

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.

> Sucking like a Pro: following a pro’s wheel round the Nove Colli

2023 Tour de France Femmes Avec Zwift Demi Vollering A.S.O.-Thomas Maheux - 1 (4).jpeg
It doesn't hurt to let someone know you're sucking their wheel (unless it's the Tour de France)

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.

Sagan Cavendish TdF 2017 Stage 4 crash.JPG
None of this, please

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.

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21 comments

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marmotte27 | 9 months ago
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Mont Ventoux, took me two kilometres or more to pass that guy in front who was clearly giving it all he got... only to have him stop off 10 minutes later at the chalet Renard. Bad form...
😀

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AidanR | 9 months ago
5 likes

I was out for a spin with a mate; road bends around to the left, with a turning off to the right. We signal right, move to primary and then slow to make the turn to the right when a club ride swoops around us on the right hand side.

Don't be those guys.

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levestane replied to AidanR | 9 months ago
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AidanR wrote:

I was out for a spin with a mate; road bends around to the left, with a turning off to the right. We signal right, move to primary and then slow to make the turn to the right when a club ride swoops around us on the right hand side. Don't be those guys.

A club ride coming the other way ran me off the road recently. I was returning home with 30 kg groceries on a Sunday morning. Pack mentality?

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AidanR replied to levestane | 9 months ago
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Sorry to hear that. There definitely seems to be a mentality that they must keep their speed up no matter what.

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Adam Sutton replied to AidanR | 9 months ago
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Clubs are definitely an issue that does the perception of cycling to others no favours.

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Cugel replied to Adam Sutton | 9 months ago
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Adam Sutton wrote:

Clubs are definitely an issue that does the perception of cycling to others no favours.

It depends on the club - on its history and traditions.

When I first joined a racing club, in the 1970s, there were a lot of "rules" (formal and informal) about how the club should condct itself on the public roads - how participants in club runs should and shouldn't behave.  Being considerate of others using the roads, including the pedestrians walking on or alongside them, was an important and prominent element.

As time passed, new members joined the club. They came with attitudes about all sorts garnered from the dominant elements of their recent upbrining and its cultural preferences. As time went on, from the 1970s, there was a tendency for new members to be more and more self-centred, less and less inclined to go along with "fusty old traditions". In the club I was in, they were vigorously made to conform to the traditions, nevertheless. 

But things still changed.

I last rode with this club 5 years ago, just before moving away to West Wales from NW England. Club runs by then contained some who were inconsiderate and what I tend to view as over-individualistic. They seemed to have internalised the post-modern notion that, "My ideas about how to behave are as good as anyone else's and I have a right to follow my yens and desires in all circumstances".

*********

A completely new cycling club was formed in that area from what are best described as classic MAMIL, often of the "all the gear but no idea" ilk. Now these were very rude, inconsiderate and bordering on dangerous, certainly to each other. 

No max 2-abreast or any consideration for other road users by them! I came across them quite often riding 3 and 4 abreast with a small queue of cars behind. Crashes within the group seemed to happen frequently, since they had none of the traditional club-riding habits and skills - and seemed disinclined to acquire them. Faux racing style was the be-all and end-all, with foolish jousting, half-wheeling and other I'll-beat-him stuff.

*******

How to find a club with good road discipline, habits, traditions and skills? Not so easy as it was.

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Adam Sutton | 9 months ago
5 likes

It's quite hilly here. More than once I've been overtaken on an uphill stretch only to catch up again on the downhill thanks to my lardy gravel bike and my own lardy arse speeding me up.

There is an issue with some incredibly arrogant roadies around here. On more rural roads there are a number of farms and often horses about. More than once I've slowed up to make my presence known to horse riders and had other cyclists speed past myself and the horses. Guess their Strava times are more important.

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Rendel Harris | 9 months ago
6 likes

Mentioned this on here before but apposite for this article...a few years back, toiling up Box Hill, heard a man and a woman on my back wheel, chatting away without a care in the world. "They shall not pass!" I thought, and wound it up close to the red zone...bastards still drifted past me as if I was standing still, still chatting away as if they were on the flat. Flash TeamGB kit, very fancy bikes. Mmph. Chagrin somewhat assuaged at the top when everyone in the cafe was excitedly asking each other if they'd noticed Laura Trott and Jason Kenny on the climb.

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Lenslion | 9 months ago
8 likes

I've actively slowed down before to avoid passing someone. If there is a decent differential in speed it is okay, but nothing worse than coming across a stranger doing a similar pace, slowly overtaking with the benefit of a draft and then forcing them to look at your arse for a few miles and panicking you may now be slowing their pace up a hill. Much better to ease off a respectful distance and hope they turn off soon! (Maybe I'm just being antisocial).

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bensynnock | 9 months ago
3 likes

I had somebody riding behind me once taking advantage of my slipstream. I had no idea he was there, so it came as a bit of a shock when I stopped suddenly to move some debris out of the path. He almost collided with me, and then threw abuse at me that I should 'learn how to ride a bike', and sped off. Sadly he was not enthusiastic about my invitation to have his face broken and failed to come back as I was picking up the obstacle.

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grOg replied to bensynnock | 9 months ago
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If you abruptly propped in the path, rather than pull to the side, he was probably right about you learning to ride a bike..

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mctrials23 | 9 months ago
11 likes

I passed some old chap when I was doing a new and unknown route to me with the usual pleasantries "how do you do" etc. Turns out the bastard knew there was a vicious hill coming up and was probably chuckling to himself as someone half his age shot past.

Half way up the climb I was dying. Had to have a little break. Lo and behold, up he comes slowly but surely and passes me. "Quite the hill" I remark. "Yeah, done it about a thousand times" he smiled back. I learned a lesson that day. 

If you are going to pass someone and then crash and burn on a hill, hide in the bushes for 20 minutes until everyone you passed has gone by. 

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PRSboy | 9 months ago
7 likes

I've had a couple of people I've overtaken inform me that they are on a recovery ride.

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mctrials23 replied to PRSboy | 9 months ago
6 likes

I just pant at them "i'm in zone 1, zone 1!!!!"

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Brauchsel replied to mctrials23 | 9 months ago
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But what do you say once you get south of Vauxhall Bridge? </londoncentricity>

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andystow | 9 months ago
16 likes
  1. As mentioned, make sure the pass can stick.
  2. About one bike length behind, sit up and put your hands on the hoods.
  3. Relax your face and slow down your breathing even if your heart rate is north of 160.
  4. Smile, wave, and give a friendly greeting.
  5. Keep pushing and don't start breathing hard again until you've gained at least ten bike lengths.
  6. If you hear them start to catch up, take the next left.
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NOtotheEU replied to andystow | 9 months ago
7 likes
andystow wrote:

If you hear them start to catch up, take the next left.

🤣

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henryb | 9 months ago
4 likes

When overtaking someone I say "Nice bike!" only if they're riding an identical bike to mine (quite rare)

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Flintshire Boy replied to henryb | 9 months ago
4 likes

.

Oh good - thought I was the only one doing this! (Though mine is re. their ProViz jacket, if applicable).

.

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chrisonabike replied to Flintshire Boy | 9 months ago
4 likes

I hope you add something about Labour councils if they're wearing red and cycling inexpertly...

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Pyro Tim | 9 months ago
7 likes

A few years back I had a pair of suckers on my wheel for about 4 miles, from Sandbanks ferry to Studland, then after I'd been climbing a while, 1 shot past, then the other said to me as passing "thought you big fellas were meant to slow down on the climbs"

I wasn't impressed as they never offered to do a turn, or say thank you for the tow. I responded with "I thought you were meant to do a turn." He sheepishly gave me a tow letting his mate go on. We stayed within touching distance until Swanage, where our routes diverged. I came across them twice more on my rides, both at the bottom of hills, I passed them each time and didn't see them again on the climbs.

If you are going to make use of someone, do it as comrades, don't steal it

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