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The Case of the Disappearing Road – A Cautionary Tale for Group Bicyclists

Our group made a big mistake on Saturday’s bike ride. Three riders almost got clipped by a pick-up truck as we made a left turn.

The good news is everybody’s fine. No harm, no foul. But the incident has gnawed at me for the past few days. How did a group of such experienced riders go so wrong?  That mystery had me stumped.

Thanks to a bit of detective work, I’ve cracked the case. Read on for the Case of the Disappearing Road.

Quiet Roads, Country Ham

Let me set the scene for last Saturday’s ride. Imagine if you will:

  • A perfect fall day – crisp and cool with a warming afternoon sun.
  • Eight riding buddies, all good company and evenly matched, on a 200K randonneuring event known as a permanent.
  • A quiet route on rural back roads.
  • A diner at the halfway point, perfect for a sit-down meal of eggs, pancakes and salty country ham.

This is why we ride, right? All of it, not just the country ham.

Our group was following a set course that we had not ridden before. At least three riders, including myself, were using GPS devices to track the course. Others were using cue sheets.

At about mile 72, I checked my GPS. I could see a left turn coming up, but I didn’t see a side road. Checking my mirror, I noted a red pick-up truck behind us, waiting for a safe opportunity to pass. Typically, my GPS counts down and beeps to indicate a turn.  In this instance, the device beeped, but there was no road.

Confused, we continued rolling along. A couple of us speculated that there might be an error in the GPS file.

As we came around a very slight bend, the side road appeared. The cry of “Left turn!” went out just as the front riders reached the road. Instinctively, several riders leaned into the turn.

Simultaneously, the pick-up driver, seeing clear road ahead on a straight stretch, began to pass. It was a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, the pick-up driver stopped just short of the turning riders, narrowly avoiding catastrophe.

Shortly after the incident, a riding buddy and I held a debriefing at the back of our little peloton.  We both wanted to understand what had gone wrong so we could avoid a repeat of it.

Communication Breakdown

We concluded there’d been serious Communication Breakdown all round.

  • Failure to communicate among our group. Since the route was unfamiliar, the best practice would have been to call out the approaching turn well in advance. That would have alerted all riders of an upcoming change in speed and direction, while also allowing our group to properly position in the lane for a left-hand turn. Another crucial error: we failed to alert each other that a car was behind us. That information is vital any time, and especially when the group is nearing a turn.
  • Failure to communicate with the driver. I like the five Rules of the Road posted by the League of American Bicyclists. In this case, our group broke rule #2, which states: “BE PREDICTABLE. Make your intentions clear to everyone on the road.… Signal turns, and check behind you well before turning or changing lanes.” Had we signaled our intention to turn left and also controlled the lane, the pick-up driver who had been waiting patiently behind us would not have started his pass.

The Missing Road Is Found

And now for that mystery. Our misadventure had its roots in the odd cue from the GPS. The GPS file had indicated a turn coming up, but when the confirmation beep sounded, there was no road. We were momentarily confused, and the confusion was still in play when our group made that serious miscue a few hundred yards down the road.

So why had there been such a discrepancy between the GPS file and the actual road layout? Back at home, I pulled up the GPS log of Saturday’s activity. Ah! I instantly understood what had happened.

missing road, bicycle accident, bike crash, bicycle accident attorney, bicycle accident lawyer,The illustration above shows a screen shot of our out-and-back GPS track last weekend. Have a look at Road 2619. It appears to be a shortcut of the left turn we took off High Rock Road. In fact, that shortcut is no longer there.

That road is gone now, a casualty of a Department of Transportation policy that disfavors intersection angles of less than 75 degrees. When a side road joins a larger road at a severely acute angle, DOT engineers often rework the intersection to bring it closer to 90 degrees. That’s apparently what happened here.

This is indeed the Case of the Disappearing Road.

The GPS map file I was using did not reflect the updated intersection, so my Garmin beeped at the wrong time. A cascade of missteps followed.

That sort of navigational confusion on group rides is pretty common — an error in the GPS file or the cue sheet can send an otherwise orderly group into momentary chaos.  I’ve seen unfortunate accidents happen when riders unexpectedly slow, stop or turn.

Moving forward, my own goal on group rides will be to stress predictability of movement and action when those unanticipated moments arise.

As for last Saturday’s ride, lesson learned and mystery solved. I’m heading out on today’s ride with a new appreciation for and understanding of group dynamics at problem spots.

Thanks to Jimmy Williams for permission to use his photo.

While we are discussing group rides, please have another look at the often-cited post from Peter on the Lost Art of the Group Ride. And as you enjoy the Thanksgiving weekend with your riding buddies, please be safe out there.

 

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