Live center or die on the edge?

I wasn’t aware of the National Park Service’s “Suicide By Bicycle” rule until I cycled the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville, N.C.

Actually it was on the third day of cycling the Parkway when, headed north, I pulled over just after crossing the French Broad River to read a colorful sign proclaiming that I was about to encounter the “highest, most rugged elevations” of its entire 469-mile length.

There was lots of other information as well, including fairly specific instructions for bicycles. Among them that cyclists must “ride single file on the right hand side of the road.”

This next to an illustration showing a single rider hugging the road’s edge so closely that his right ankle was surly being tickled by the grass.

I’ve got no problem with the single file part. But anybody on a bicycle who follows the “right hand side” rule must have a death wish.

Why? Two reasons.

One: Sitting on the right edge seems an invitation to lead-footed motorists coming up from behind to pass you without bothering to move over onto the oncoming traffic lane….even if that means squeezing by within inches of your vulnerable body.

In fact, a sheriff’s deputy in his SUV cruiser did just that to me without bothering to either slow down or edge across the yellow middle line. Thanks John Law.

Second, hugging the right edge of the road similarly invites impatient drivers coming in the opposite way to view the remainder of your lane as a “window of opportunity” to pass the slowpoke driver (or drivers) in front of them.

No thank you.

I mostly stuck just to the right of the center of the lane. With my fluorescent yellow jersey, flashing red tail lights and white head lights, I was visible enough to give oncoming motorists ample notice that they needed to slow down until they could pass me safely employing the oncoming lane. Even if that meant waiting until there was no approaching traffic.

As it happens, very few of the numerous cyclists I observed while riding the Parkway seemed to adhere to the bicycle suicide rule. And if that sounds like cycling anarchy, I would also observe that many of the motorists who shared that narrow road with us didn’t bother to observe the Parkway’s 35-45 mph speed limits. And Parkway traffic enforcement being apparently rare to nonexistent, there seems little incentive for motorists not to speed.

I hesitate to make too much of this. Cycling remains a popular activity on the Parkway and for good reasons – spectacular mountain vistas, challenging climbs and exhilarating descents to name just three.

But given the presence of so many SUVS, RVs, pickup trucks, motorcycles and such, the intent of the ride-on-the-right-edge rule seems less intended to protect the lives of people on bicycles than facilitate the swift and uninterrupted flow of motorized traffic.

A worthy goal on a wide, high-speed multiple laned highway, perhaps. But wholly inappropriate within the tight confines of what amounts to America’s longest, narrowest linear park.

Don’t get me wrong. I still loved cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway. But I would advise anyone who wants to give it a try to avoid the stretch running through the Asheville area. It’s clear that many local commuters use the Parkway as a convenient, time-saving option to avoid the traffic lights and congestion on the city’s roads. Looking in my helmet-mounted rear mirror and seeing a line of 7 or 8 cars coming up behind me and showing no signs of slowing down tends to….well, spoil the moment.

Not to pick on the Park Service, but I think the Parkway’s right-side rule is dangerously misguided. Check out what the American Bicycling Education Association’s Cyclingsavvy website has to say on the subject:

“Driving in the middle of the lane actually protects bicyclists against the most common motorist-caused crashes: sideswipes, right hooks, left crosses, and drive-outs.  A bicycle driver’s top safety priority is to ensure he or she can be seen by motorists with whom they might potentially be in conflict, and bicycling in the middle of a lane is one of the most effective ways to do that. Most overtaking crashes involve a motorist who attempts to squeeze past (illegally) in a lane that is too narrow to share.”

If ever there were lanes that are “too narrow to share” you’ll find them on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Sorry, ranger, but I’d rather live as a rule-breaker than die in perfect compliance.

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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