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Why do cyclists ride two abreast?

It's not illegal nor forbidden by the Highway Code; find out why riding two abreast is often the best and safest positioning.

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 back in 2017 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.

The version in force at the time stated, at Rule 66 that among other things, cyclists should:

Never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends.

So side-by-side cycling wasn't prohibited then, and it isn't prohibited now. The current version of Rule 66, updated in January this year, says among other things that cyclists should:

Be considerate of the needs of other road users when riding in groups. You can ride two abreast and it can be safer to do so, particularly in larger groups or when accompanying children or less experienced riders. Be aware of drivers behind you and allow them to overtake (for example, by moving into single file or stopping) when you feel it is safe to let them do so.

The previous version did not provide any definition of what constitutes a 'narrow or busy road', nor how many degrees are there in a bend, and the new wording, drawn up following feedback from cycling organisations reinforces that there is nothing wrong in riding two abreast.

Cheltenham New Flyer - tori and skardy 2

The Highway Code is also clear 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, and since January that is also included in the Highway Code, under Rule 163.

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." 

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 "be aware of drivers behind you and allow them to overtake (for example, by moving into single file or stopping) when you feel it is safe to let them do so," but doesn't elaborate further.

Know your group riding signals and calls 

As a result, 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 (produced when the previous version of The Highway Code was in force) 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 over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.

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38 comments

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wknight | 2 years ago
0 likes

Please bear a thought for drivers of BIG vehicles. My motorhome is almost the width of the road, for me to pass you and give you 1.5m on a narrow road I can't do that if you are 2 abreast. 

I am a cyclist too but we can all be ambassadors on the road and be considerate of all road users, not give them the finger when all I was trying to do was be a considerate road user and pass with plenty of distance 

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Rendel Harris replied to wknight | 2 years ago
3 likes

If your motor home is almost the width of the road, clearly you can't give a single cyclist 1.5m either, so don't pass! 

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mdavidford replied to Rendel Harris | 2 years ago
1 like

If it's almost the width of the road, it probably shouldn't be being driven around without a police escort to start with...

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hairyairey | 2 years ago
1 like

Having taken part in the Hot Chillee L2P London to Paris event we have had groups of 70+ riders going through Leatherhead early in the morning. No-one had the chance (or the nerve!) to try to overtake us all. We would stick together even if the lights changed because one big group going through is far less disruptive. The idea of breaking it up into several groups of 10 is just so unworkable.

We had all kinds of abuse in the UK "Get a job" shouted by an oncoming driver at our peloton. Which was hilarious for the professional riders in our group...

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youngoldbloke | 2 years ago
1 like

Club rides,12 or more, 2 groups. If more stagger start times. Ride 2 abreast, tight formation - if the riders are experienced enough. Issues may arise with groups of new riders, mixed abilities, not used to group riding, in single file with a bike length or more between riders. I came upon such a group the other day, must have been 9 or 10, or so, strung out in a long, long line - made for a long overtake! Before I moved away he club I was with was able to run traffic-free group ride training sessions for club members at a local circuit - really helpful for inexperienced riders.

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PRSboy | 2 years ago
0 likes

I have friend I cycle with who likes to have a chat and rides alongside on narrow roads and I am convinced a car will one day run head on into him around a bend.

As a result I end up riding about 1 inch from the kerb, which is not ideal for me either.

Would seem a bit patronising to tell him not to though...

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Velophaart_95 replied to PRSboy | 2 years ago
0 likes

On narrow roads, I'd advise him to watch advanced motorcycle training for positioning; get away from the centre line, and move over to a safe position.....

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wtjs | 2 years ago
0 likes

What's all this emphasis on the Highway Code? Lancashire Constabulary, and they can't be the only dodgy force in the UK, pay absolutely no attention to the present version and they will be sticking two fingers up to the next one whatever it says. LC is the biggest single life-threatening hazard for cyclists in Lancashire, because drivers know LC will put maximum effort into ignoring any offence against cyclists. When it comes to crashing red lights, crossing single or double unbroken white lines, close passing...Lancashire is the place to come if you want to do it with no possibility of prosecution. Until the police are sorted out, we're just whistling in the wind. This one came past at 50 in a 30 limit with a clear road ahead and was clearly executing a punishment for me being a cyclist- I have no idea who he is. Lancashire is now taking well over 2 weeks to read online incident reports, so they can always say it's 'too late to '. I have forced their hand by sitting on the phone in the interminable queue to log it that way, and now have a phone interview 'with an officer' in 3 more days. Even after all that effort, perfect video, indisputable guilt etc. they will try to get away with 'we'll have a word with him' or the new non-penalty penalty: sending some educational information without any warning letter

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geomannie 531 | 3 years ago
5 likes

WHy do cyclists ride two-abreast?

Because we are hypersocial creatures and we like to chat to friends while travelling. Is that wrong? Just ask yourself, if there are two of you in a car, does the passenger get in the back seat? If not, why not?

I rest my case.

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Captain Badger replied to geomannie 531 | 2 years ago
1 like
geomannie 531 wrote:

....Just ask yourself, if there are two of you in a car, does the passenger get in the back seat? .....

Vay do when I'm driving

'ere, you'll never guess oo I 'ad in my cab ve avver day....

 

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Mungecrundle | 3 years ago
2 likes

On narrow and winding roads single file is not for the benefit of an overtaking vehicle, it is for the safety of the cyclists v oncoming traffic.

The busy roads thing, I'll admit to not understanding. Either it is safe to overtake with a 1.5m gap or it is not. To me that would imply either single file or side by side, the overtaking vehicle will be fully utilising the opposite carriagway and side by side cyclists require a shorter overtake distance.

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PRSboy replied to Mungecrundle | 2 years ago
0 likes
Mungecrundle wrote:

On narrow and winding roads single file is not for the benefit of an overtaking vehicle, it is for the safety of the cyclists v oncoming traffic. The busy roads thing, I'll admit to not understanding. Either it is safe to overtake with a 1.5m gap or it is not. To me that would imply either single file or side by side, the overtaking vehicle will be fully utilising the opposite carriagway and side by side cyclists require a shorter overtake distance.

Agreed.  Don't get the busy road bit at all.  The only situation I can possibly think it would make a difference is on a very wide A road where there is space to safely pass a single cyclist without crossing the centre line, but not if the riders were two abreast.

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wycombewheeler replied to PRSboy | 2 years ago
0 likes
PRSboy wrote:
Mungecrundle wrote:

On narrow and winding roads single file is not for the benefit of an overtaking vehicle, it is for the safety of the cyclists v oncoming traffic. The busy roads thing, I'll admit to not understanding. Either it is safe to overtake with a 1.5m gap or it is not. To me that would imply either single file or side by side, the overtaking vehicle will be fully utilising the opposite carriagway and side by side cyclists require a shorter overtake distance.

Agreed.  Don't get the busy road bit at all.  The only situation I can possibly think it would make a difference is on a very wide A road where there is space to safely pass a single cyclist without crossing the centre line, but not if the riders were two abreast.

Indeed, I would rather the code stated on narrow roads (without a centreline) or wide roads (over Xm wide) which would allow passing without crossing the centreline.

Because even when the road is wide enough to allow passing if the passing car steals a bit of lane from the oncoming car, the oncoming car will object to this with a massive blast of the horn, normally when all three vehicles (bike, passing car, oncoming car) are aligned.

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belugabob replied to wycombewheeler | 1 year ago
1 like

If the rule was simplified to "cross completely to the other side, when overtaking" it would be easier for people to understand.
It would also reduce instances of people overtaking into the face of oncoming traffic.
The amount of people who feel that they need to stay in the lane, with the cyclist they are overtaking, is quite frightening - especially as a lot of them do this when there is no other traffic for miles

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Sriracha | 3 years ago
1 like

Regardless of "should" or "must" the fact that the HWC says you "should ... ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends" indicates an understanding that this is preferable even if not mandatory. This ought to be challenged if it is incorrect since the wording undoubtedly reinforces an attitude that cyclists ought not to ride two abreast.

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Pilot Pete replied to Sriracha | 3 years ago
2 likes

Not quite because the 'should' you refer to says that cyclists 'should never ride more than two abreast'. Which means three or more abreast. It does not reinforce an attitude that cyclists ought not to ride two abreast. That is simply a complete lack of knowledge on the part of a large number of drivers who simply believe riding two abreast isn't allowed.

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Sriracha replied to Pilot Pete | 3 years ago
1 like

The 'should' equally refers to 'ride in single file on narrow or busy roads...', which is less than two abreast.

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Captain Badger replied to Sriracha | 2 years ago
3 likes
Sriracha wrote:

Regardless of "should" or "must" the fact that the HWC says you "should ... ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends" indicates an understanding that this is preferable even if not mandatory. This ought to be challenged if it is incorrect since the wording undoubtedly reinforces an attitude that cyclists ought not to ride two abreast.

As it is safety advice wrt to oncoming, it really is nobody but the rider's business - the oncoming should be on their own side anyway. It is fine as it stands, it is just inappropriately quoted to suit the agenda of shit drivers.

As with most safety advice (should wear a helmet, light coloured clothes etc) it really is at the discretion of the rider and no other fucker's business. Over taking is dealt with more than adequately by 163 and 167, and is the responsibility of the o'taking party to do so safely and legally.

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Gary's bike channel | 4 years ago
7 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.         

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ktache | 4 years ago
5 likes

JD, its 10mph or less, rule 129.

 

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Judge dreadful | 4 years 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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Captain Badger replied to Judge dreadful | 3 years ago
0 likes

If the lines are solid and the cyclist is going over 10mph, it is most definitely not legal;

"129
Double white lines where the line nearest you is solid. This means you MUST NOT cross or straddle it unless it is safe and you need to enter adjoining premises or a side road. You may cross the line if necessary, provided the road is clear, to pass a stationary vehicle, or overtake a pedal cycle, horse or road maintenance vehicle, if they are travelling at 10 mph (16 km/h) or less.
Laws RTA 1988 sect 36 & TSRGD regs 10 & 26"

3 feet is to low - that's less than a metre. 1.5m is police advice, but HWC 163 is clear (see image)

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Captain Badger replied to Judge dreadful | 2 years ago
1 like

SASQUATCH

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muppetkeeper | 4 years ago
0 likes

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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Sriracha | 4 years 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 replied to Sriracha | 4 years 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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Sriracha replied to liam92 | 4 years 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 replied to Sriracha | 4 years ago
2 likes
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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wycombewheeler replied to Sriracha | 2 years ago
0 likes
Sriracha wrote:

all 18 of us

kiss

why not ride in two groups?

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Sriracha replied to wycombewheeler | 2 years ago
0 likes
wycombewheeler wrote:
Sriracha wrote:

all 18 of us

kiss

why not ride in two groups?

Well that sort of was the question.

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