On Your Left!

I used to ride with a bell, and used it every day when my commute crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Foreign tourists seemed to know what it was, Americans not so much. It really saved me 5 minutes on each crossing, unless I got stuck behind a racer type with no bell.

After my commute change, I didn’t use it for a few years, and finally took it off the bike. Now I think of bells as foppish affectations, useful mostly as a McGuffin to drive DIY engineers to think up cool mounting points like headset spacers and unused DT shifter bosses.

To pass stealthily, or announce yourself?

Most of my life I’ve been a stealthy passer, until I rode with Scott, a friend who has distinct opinions on the subject. Apparently in the Midwest, failure to announce yourself before overtaking another cyclist is a sin, “You will be chased down by a beautiful young woman who is hard as nails and could tear you up in a crit, and she will chew you out for being an unsafe, inconsiderate asshole, and you will take it.”

I grew up in California, where the sin is failing to glance back before weaving or spitting.

Anyway, I’m always up for a scientistic experiment, and Scott has some force of personality, so I tried hailing before overtaking, mostly on the busy pathway. People seem to like it. I like it.

“On your left!”

“On your left” is more abrupt than I like (being from California and all), and I got a lot of people jinking left before their conscious mind decoded the message. “On your left!” is supposed to be a friendly warning if you have learned what it means. If you haven’t learned the code, it’s a command, and the verb is GO LEFT, like in sports or Drivers’ Ed, when “left” means “wrong way, dummy, go left.” Even if you have learned to ‘instinctively’ drift right when you hear it, it is still an imperative, it just means “GIVE WAY OR HOLD YOUR LINE.” So I don’t like it. I won’t say it,

“I’m coming up on your left, now.”

After some experimentation, I settled on saying, “I’m coming up on your left, now.” I try to say it in a way that implies “do what you want, but my intention is to pass you.”

It gives people time to assess your location in moving 3D stereo; their ears say “there’s someone about 8 feet back, to my left, 6 feet, he’s talking, four feet, he says he’s passing…”

It explicitly spells out what’s happening: “There’s a man coming up on my left now.”

It’s conversational and informative. It lets people assess your voice and tone. It’s polite. We’re all on the same side here, gettin’ down the bike path.

It’s chill. Everyone seemed to react positively and predictably. I’m trying to say it in an aggressive fashion, but the more force I put into it, the sillier it sounds: “I’m coming up on your LEFT NOW!” I just shrug at myself and say “so?”



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UI/UX Designer, bike nerd, artist.

8 thoughts on “On Your Left!”

  1. I too had my passing habits formed by many, many trips across the Golden Gate Bridge, and I have to admit that I’m an ‘on your left’er. I agree that if you parse the semiotics of it and think about it’s meaning for a person unfamiliar with the idiom, it can be confusing. But here’s the thing: I don’t think that these interactions happen for long enough for meaning really to be communicated. This is probably especially true for tourists on the bridge, who may or may not speak English. My main purpose in saying it is to generate an effect similar to the one you describe, simply to announce my presence by making a noise; i think most people intuit from the noise that I plan to pass. As such my “On Your Left” usually comes out as a forshortened “onyaleft.” This also saves me the effort of saying a whole sentence, as I may pass tens of times on a single bridge crossing.

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