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What does the law say on riding side by side, and when is it the right option?

You'll often hear that cyclists shouldn't ride two abreast – it's a classic for angry people on social media – but what does the law say and when is it appropriate? Here's what you need to know.

We reported on road.cc a couple of years ago that a police officer in Essex had pulled over a couple of cyclists and insisted they were breaking the law by not riding in single file. The cyclists were told, "You are causing other road users to drive carelessly."

Even after consulting a copy of The Highway Code, the officer insisted that the cyclists were endangering themselves and other road users by riding side by side, and took down their details.

Let's see what The Highway Code says.

Rule 66 states: "You should... never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends."

Side-by-side cycling isn't prohibited, then. 

What constitutes a 'narrow or busy road'? How many degrees are there in a bend? Sorry, none of that is defined.

Cheltenham New Flyer - tori and skardy 2

The Highway Code is clear, though, in making a distinction between rules that use the words 'must/must not', which are legal requirements, and rules that use wording such as 'should/should not' or do/do not', which are advisory. 

The instructions not to ride more than two abreast, and to ride in single file in certain circumstances are advisory. You can ignore the advice, then? It's worth bearing in mind that according to The Highway Code, "Although failure to comply with [advisory] rules of the Code will not, in itself, cause a person to be prosecuted, The Highway Code may be used in evidence in any court proceedings under the Traffic Acts to establish liability". 

Why ride two abreast?

Riding two abreast can be the sociable choice, of course, in that it allows you to chat easily with other riders rather than shouting forwards and backwards along a line. That's a big part of cycling's attraction for many people.

group riding - bunch

You might see comments from armchair experts saying that the road isn't the place for going out and being sociable. That might be their opinion but it certainly isn't a rule you'll find in The Highway Code... not even an advisory one.

Riding side by side can improve your safety too. It allows you to be seen more easily by other road users, both ahead and behind (see our article Why don't cyclists stick to the left of the lane? for more on visibility in different road positions).

It also helps motorists in many circumstances by shortening the distance required for overtaking. Cyclists riding side by side take up about half the road length of cyclists riding in a single line (the example figures of 4m and 8m shown in our illustrations are dependent on how closely each cyclist follows the wheel in front, of course). 

group riding - line

'Close pass' initiatives make it clear that motorists should always give cyclists clearance of at least 1.5m when coming by. This virtually always means moving on to the opposite side of the road, at least partially, so overtaking when traffic is coming in the other direction isn't an option. With that in mind, riding two abreast doesn't generally prevent overtaking when it would otherwise be safe and reasonable, although it might stop motorists squeezing past when there's not enough space.

Why don't cyclists use cycle lanes? 

In his cycling skills manual Cyclecraft – which forms the foundation of Bikeability, the UK's national standard for cycle training – John Franklin says, "If the road situation is such that it would be unsafe for traffic to pass cyclists riding in single file, 10 riding two abreast can help dissuade following drivers from doing so." 

John Franklin also advises, "The longer the riding group, the more difficult it will be for other vehicles to overtake and the more likely they will be to cut in between riders. For these reasons, groups should divide, as necessary, into sub-groups about five riders long, with a gap of at least 20m between sub-groups. This allows traffic to overtake one sub-group at a time."

When to single out

As mentioned above, The Highway Code says that cyclists should "ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends", but it doesn't define those terms.

Know your group riding signals and calls 

You need to use your own judgment here, and that develops with experience. You'll probably consider it appropriate to move to single file if traffic is getting held up behind you and it's safe to let it overtake.

This video with Chris Boardman makes things clear...

Side by Side from carltonreid on Vimeo.

Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.

14 comments

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trisc [10 posts] 1 month ago
9 likes

My response to a woman and her passenger who complained about us riding two abreast on a not very busy main road:

'Seems a little unfair, after all you are both sitting side by side'.

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CXR94Di2 [2773 posts] 1 month ago
1 like

As above, they can sit side by side

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geomannie 531 [13 posts] 1 month ago
0 likes

Ditto as per the above 2 comments.

Human beings are hyper-social creatures: we like to converse. In fact, just try to stop people talking if they are minded to do so. Car manufacturers acknowledge this and virtually every car built has side by side seating.

It's thus a bit rich a car driver telling cyclists to single up at his/her command. I might just consider it if they exile their front seat passenger to the rear, but then probably not.

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brooksby [5291 posts] 1 month ago
3 likes

Its even worse, IMO, when a motorist sitting in a car *on their own* tells you that you're taking up too much of the road...

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Mungecrundle [1665 posts] 1 month ago
3 likes

But the cyclists are never just 2 abreast. Listen to any driver moaning about being held up for a few seconds by a group of cyclists and inevitably you will hear;

"They were all over the road, 4 or 5 abreast".

Which may be a slight perspective issue when viewed from behind but, as ever when complaining, a certain amount of hyperbole makes the story more interesting and detracts from the storytellers basic inability to drive properly around slower road users.

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Sriracha [351 posts] 1 month ago
1 like

What is the correct protocol when cycling in large groups? I've often been there myself, somebody at the back yells "car" and we all string out into single file. So now the driver is faced with overtaking all 18 of us safely, but the opportunity never arises to do that in one go on a minor road, there is always another bend or an approaching car.
Do clubs have their own custom and practice?

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liam92 [22 posts] 1 month ago
4 likes
Sriracha wrote:

What is the correct protocol when cycling in large groups? I've often been there myself, somebody at the back yells "car" and we all string out into single file. So now the driver is faced with overtaking all 18 of us safely, but the opportunity never arises to do that in one go on a minor road, there is always another bend or an approaching car. Do clubs have their own custom and practice?

 

Our club generally will only single up when there is physically not a wide enough road for a following vehicle to safely overtake. However, this in reality usually means  single track farm lanes and so even when singled up, it is often a bit of a squeeze to get past. As such, we'll either continue to the next junction or find a suitable passing place to pull over let them through. 

On any normal single carriageway road, there's virtually never a need to single up because the oncoming lane provides more than enough space to complete a safe overtake; its just trying to get through to impatient drivers that you need to wait for there to be no oncoming traffic to do so. Singling up and hugging the gutter only endangers the riders because it gives the impression to the following vehicle that there is enough space to safely overtake while in the same lane. Certainly on 99% of roads I ride on, there is never a single lane that is so wide I would consider it safe to overtake without moving over to the next lane. 

The only exception I would make to this is if riding just in a group of 2. going from 1 to 2 riders long doesn't drastically increase the length of time taken to complete the overtake but does move the rider who would have been on the outside slightly further away from the overtaking traffic. But again, when doing so I would expect to ride a primary position to avoid encouraging close passes.

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trisc [10 posts] 1 month ago
2 likes
Mungecrundle wrote:

But the cyclists are never just 2 abreast. Listen to any driver moaning about being held up for a few seconds by a group of cyclists and inevitably you will hear; "They were all over the road, 4 or 5 abreast". Which may be a slight perspective issue when viewed from behind but, as ever when complaining, a certain amount of hyperbole makes the story more interesting and detracts from the storytellers basic inability to drive properly around slower road users.

My wife is guilty of this. I've tried to explain the principle of drafting but it falls on deaf ears.

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Sriracha [351 posts] 1 month ago
2 likes
liam92 wrote:
Sriracha wrote:

What is the correct protocol when cycling in large groups? I've often been there myself, somebody at the back yells "car" and we all string out into single file. So now the driver is faced with overtaking all 18 of us safely, but the opportunity never arises to do that in one go on a minor road, there is always another bend or an approaching car. Do clubs have their own custom and practice?

 

Our club generally will only single up when there is physically not a wide enough road for a following vehicle to safely overtake. However, this in reality usually means  single track farm lanes and so even when singled up, it is often a bit of a squeeze to get past. As such, we'll either continue to the next junction or find a suitable passing place to pull over let them through. 

On any normal single carriageway road, there's virtually never a need to single up because the oncoming lane provides more than enough space to complete a safe overtake; its just trying to get through to impatient drivers that you need to wait for there to be no oncoming traffic to do so. Singling up and hugging the gutter only endangers the riders because it gives the impression to the following vehicle that there is enough space to safely overtake while in the same lane. Certainly on 99% of roads I ride on, there is never a single lane that is so wide I would consider it safe to overtake without moving over to the next lane. 

The only exception I would make to this is if riding just in a group of 2. going from 1 to 2 riders long doesn't drastically increase the length of time taken to complete the overtake but does move the rider who would have been on the outside slightly further away from the overtaking traffic. But again, when doing so I would expect to ride a primary position to avoid encouraging close passes.

I'm with you on the 2-abreast. Cars overtaking should be using the other lane regardless, just as if overtaking a tractor, so 2-abreast actually makes the task easier by halving the length.
But even so, with a big group - say 18 - that is a long group. Do you tend to break it up into 4's or 6's so that cars can leapfrog?
Convoys of slow military vehicles always used to split up like this back in the day, I always assumed it was so cars could overtake safely.

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liam92 [22 posts] 1 month ago
1 like
Sriracha wrote:

I'm with you on the 2-abreast. Cars overtaking should be using the other lane regardless, just as if overtaking a tractor, so 2-abreast actually makes the task easier by halving the length. But even so, with a big group - say 18 - that is a long group. Do you tend to break it up into 4's or 6's so that cars can leapfrog? Convoys of slow military vehicles always used to split up like this back in the day, I always assumed it was so cars could overtake safely.

 

Ah yes good point. So my club (glasgow green cycle club) all meet in a city centre location, and we will ride out of the city in multiple groups of usually no more than 10 riders to allow traffic to pass, and once we are out of the city we will divide up in to different groups based on ability and continue the ride from there. I'd say its sensible to limit group sizes if possible for the reason you suggest. 

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muppetkeeper [48 posts] 1 month ago
1 like

We all know why some people who drive cars get upset with people who ride bikes riding side by side...

THEY CAN'T SQUEEZE PAST YOU.

In Spain, where I'm lucky enough to cycle half of the year, people who drive cars generally are taught to OVERTAKE, rather than squeeze past, so they think it's a great idea for people who cycle to ride in pairs.

All of the graphics above show the reduction of length of the cycle group, it's all pointless indicating this, because the arseholes who are making the most noise about it NEVER CROSS THE WHITE LINE when they overtake people who cycle anyway.

The sooner the people who do pretty graphics and videos realise that the issue is "the non overtake" or squeezepast, the sooner we can get the message out. 1.5M overtaking space should be the law.

 

 

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Judge dreadful [448 posts] 1 month ago
2 likes

If you widen the 'bus' you shorten the 'bus' and therefore reduce the time exposed to danger by passing traffic. Given that the motorist is supposed to give you 3 feet clearance anyway, 2 bikes riding abreast, should be a non event, as the outrider is in a space that isn't the motorists to use anyway.The argument then ( repeatedly ) comes, that if you give the outrider 3 feet clearance, that puts the motorist over the central line, which isn't strictly legal if the lines are solid. There's a rule about it not being illegal if the vehicle your passing is driving at less than a given speed ( I believe it's 20 mph) but don't let that get in the way of a good old angry motorist rant. When ever I'm riding with a large ish group, I try and keep everyone 2 abreast, wherever practical, and put the more experienced riders on the outside.

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ktache [2357 posts] 1 month ago
2 likes

JD, its 10mph or less, rule 129.

 

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david rides [23 posts] 1 month ago
0 likes

it doesnt matter if you ride two, three four or five abreast to me, i just overtake in the same way. Wait behind, slow down, wait for gap, go for overtake, carry on.   Its piss easy to overtake cyclists, IF you are one. So many car drivers have no clue what to do. Ive always applied the logic to people telling me to use the cycle lane, or keep left, when find them in traffic jams, i ride my motorbike up to their window and point left, tell them to use the bus service or get on your motorbike! confuses the fuck out of them until they realise im the cyclist they pissed off and i have a great memory for numberplates D    but why is it ok for one person to sit in a road, with an empty seat beside them, at under a walking pace for hours... but not ok for a cyclist to ride two abreast at 20 mph? Which is faster? hg09foj is one such moronic lady.    Anyone who can't overtake or understand how passing cyclists riding on a road shouldnt be allowed to drive on it.