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Riding on Narrow, Winding, Mountain Roads

Old 07-02-08, 04:49 PM
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Riding on Narrow, Winding, Mountain Roads

I did a tour this past weekend in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Jose, CA. A large percentage of the road riding was on steep (4-18 percent grade) winding roads. Usually the roads had a lane in each direction, sometimes only a single shared lane. The two lane portion almost always had a solid double yellow line between lanes. The shoulders were at most 18" wide, and often there was effectively no shoulder at all. Speed limits are 20mph on the single lane sections, and usually 35mph on the two lane roads, but those speeds are routinely exceeded. The people who live in the Santa Cruz Mountains have a reputation for an anti-cyclist attitude. Since I was riding a fully-loaded touring bike, I was usually going no more than about 5mph in my lowest gear on most of the climbs.

I'm really not sure what is the proper way to handle conditions like this. As a vehicular cyclist bicycle commuter, I have no problem taking the lane when I'm riding around in urban conditions. But then, I'm usually riding 12-18 mph in a location with straight roads and excellent sight lines, and on most routes I ride, I don't have to take the lane for more than a block or two.

On this tour, I tended to ride as far to the right as possible, right on the very edge of the pavement. It felt very precarious and stressful, and cars still passed me way too close and way too fast.

On the other hand, taking the lane seems like a terrible idea under these conditions. It is all to easy to imagine one of those trucks whipping around a blind corner at 40 mph and plowing into me if I were in the middle of the lane. Not to mention that traffic would quickly pile up behind me when I'm climbing at 5mph and few opportunities to pull over.
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Old 07-02-08, 05:05 PM
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Here's what I would do:

1. Get a safety reflective vest. Can't hurt.
2. On the blind turns you speak of I would ride as far to the right as possible.
3. On straight aways I would ride as far right as comfortable or take the lane.
4. If you're really uncomfortable just get off and walk off the road (if theres like gravel, grass, etc.) It'll be slower but I would imagine worth the somewhat saved stress.

Other than that I can't think of anything else.
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Old 07-02-08, 05:15 PM
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You described like the entire state of Kentucky where I live, except here we add in dogs.

The method I use is this, on down-hills I take the lane because I will be going fast enough to make them wait, but not piss them off. Normal rolling areas where my speed is not high, I ride near the side line, but not so close that there is no room to tighten up just as the cars pass. Up hills I ride as close to the edge of the pavement as possible being as easy to pass as possible, at that speed I can really hug that edge.

Also here there is not much traffic so that helps. A trick that really works is to do some wiggling as you see the car or truck approaching (rear view mirror)and just as they pass, I pull over as far as I can. This will usually create at least 3-4 feet of clearance.

Dogs are another story all together.
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Old 07-02-08, 05:24 PM
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On the uphills stay as far right as you can. On the downhills if you roll pretty good, take the lane.

I find that I have gotten used to the cars passing close and actually prefer it to those who carelessly cross the double yellow and endanger everyone (me, themselves, their passengers, and everyone in the cars coming the other way).
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Old 07-02-08, 05:45 PM
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I thought I was OK with the technique of riding as far to the right as possible when cars were passing, but it leaves no margin for error. At one point, I was being passed by the three light trucks, and as the first one passed, I shied a little to the right, off the edge into the soft shoulder, and very nearly fell over to the left into the road. After that close call, I was quite a bit more apprehensive about leaving myself so little wiggle room.
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Old 07-02-08, 05:49 PM
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I've had the same experience touring the mtns of Baja - except the Mexican drivers and most of the gringos were cyclist friendly and would wait until it was safe to pass - even at very slow speeds uphill.

Ultimately all you can do is stay to the right as much as possible and keep an eye on your mirror if you need to bail. That works for a while, but if much of my tour was like that I'd pick a different route or a different place on the planet to pedal.

I just finished a mtn tour in Canada, but the roads were all wide enough for safe passing and the vehicles bike friendly.
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Old 07-02-08, 05:54 PM
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The reason I'm touring on roads like this in the first place is because I want to do some touring, but all I've had available recently are weekends. And where I happen to live, nearly all of the interesting places to go camping within a 75 mile ride involve spending quite a bit of time on roads like these.
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Old 07-02-08, 06:03 PM
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I wonder whether those brightly-coloured flags that stick out horizontally about 18 inches/450 cm from the rear pannier or rack actually "encourages" drivers to give a little more space. It would certainly make a cyclist visible sooner on blind curbs.

And then there was the study that showed that drivers gave cyclists more space when cyclists were NOT wearing helmets...
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Old 07-02-08, 07:09 PM
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I used to ride that area routinely on my road bike. Paired with another rider I typically felt a lot more safe. But I always acknowledged drivers when the passed with a smile or a wave, I felt that made them more courteous.
It also that the mountain folk aren't anti-cyclist, they just don't like intrusion and people that drive slowly on "their" roads. I lived in Los Gatos for 10 years and routinely road around Lexington Reservoir and the Highway 9 route for training for rowing. Great cycling scenery and pretty good roads.


You could always just cruise down into Los Gatos and hit up Great Bear or the Roasting Company and hang out with the lawyers on $10,000 Pinarellos.

Better luck next time!
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Old 07-02-08, 08:07 PM
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Jamison, loaded..... shudder.

I used to live there and loved those roads. The only bad one was 9. Where were you?
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Old 07-02-08, 10:06 PM
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On the first day I took Los Gatos Creek Trail up to the Lexington Reservoir, then Alma Bridge Road and Aldercroft Heights Road, Old Santa Cruz Road, and Mountain Charlie Road up to Summit. After crossing 17, I took decended down Mountain Charlie Road, Glenwood Drive, Scott's Valley Drive, and Glen Canyon Road. The first day wasn't too bad. There was virtually no traffic until I reached Aldercroft Heights Rd.

On the second day, I took Soquel-San Jose Road to Summit Road, and then retraced my route from Old Santa Cruz Road. The road that bothered me the most was Soquel-San Jose road. The traffic wasn't heavy, but it was pretty steady. And as I mentioned, the shoulder was often non-existent, with plenty of sharp blind corners.
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Old 07-02-08, 10:36 PM
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Thanks for the reply - I've ridden all those, and ridden the way you took from SC to SJ loaded. I had a different experience, but I guess I got lucky with the traffic.

I've never descended Mtn Charlie, must have been bumpy!
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Old 07-02-08, 11:03 PM
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The decent down Mountain Charlie Road wasn't too bad. A bit bumpy and a bit winding, so I was riding the brakes quite a bit. The decent down Old Santa Cruz Highway however was a dream. I think it was the best descent of my life! It was smooth and fast. And my loading touring bike handled beautifully. It was like I was on rails.
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Old 07-03-08, 11:37 AM
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I ride Soquel-San Jose and Summit regularly, and the rest occasionally. The advice to hug the shoulder uphill and take the lane downhill is the way to go. There does seem to be an antagonistic vibe with a lot of motorists in SC County, and I think it's due to the packs of club cyclists that take up entire lanes.

Once, riding from my home in Hollister to Capitola, I was waiting at a light near Watsonville. I was stopped on the line between the right hand throughbound lane and the right turn only lane. A guy in a battered red pickup pulled abreast, window down, and screamed "get the flock off the road!" I'm guessing he had a bad day because I had not impeded him or other motorists in the least.

I get squeezed and honked at there waaaay more than nearer to home, where I usually get a nod or a wave.

I think a smile, a positive attitude, good sense and the conviction that cyclists have a RIGHT to be on the road sends a powerful nonverbal message to all but the truly twisted.
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Old 07-03-08, 03:15 PM
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Originally Posted by Icycle
I thought I was OK with the technique of riding as far to the right as possible when cars were passing, but it leaves no margin for error. At one point, I was being passed by the three light trucks, and as the first one passed, I shied a little to the right, off the edge into the soft shoulder, and very nearly fell over to the left into the road. After that close call, I was quite a bit more apprehensive about leaving myself so little wiggle room.
My method is to hold a steady predictable line close to the right. No veering right as they pass, just a steady line. I think the veering gives the signal that cyclists will move for them and encourages them to pass even closer. I consider it my job to be visible, steady, and predictable and their job to miss me. In 50 years and many thousands of miles of riding I have never ridden into a ditch and am still quite alive.

Yes some drivers pass really close and over the years a few have actually brushed against me. Some of the places I ride near home (Baltimore Md area) it isn't unusual for a car to pass by a foot away, but the majority allow 3' or more.

On tour I have found that on my way across the country EVERYWHERE else that I have been was better when it came to the drivers being courteous than at home.
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Old 07-07-08, 08:55 AM
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More safety tips for narrow windy roads

I rode 1000 miles earlier this year in New Zealand, on many narrow windy roads. Here is what I did to stay safe:
1. Everything I possibly could to be seen as soon as possible: orange reflective vest, flag on my BOB trailer, sparkly bits on my helmet, and sometimes put the orange rain covers on my pannier bags (I had rear panniers plus BOB trailer) even when the sun was shining.

2. Attached a flag that stuck out horizontally into traffic to keep them away from me a little bit. This works. I used a retractable presentation pointer from my corporate days, with a small red plastic flag attached to it (the kind you see when they mark underground water and gas lines). I would extend it its full length when I felt threatened, and collapse it when I had plenty of room, or was walking my bike on a sidewalk or riding on a bike path. I have just learned about the Flash Flag, and have ordered a couple. Even more visible! https://flashback.ca/bicycle.html

3. Used my mirror and my ears to tell me when I was in danger. I prefer a handlebar mirror, and never ever a convex one, only flat glass. But helmet mirrors work too. Less vibration on the handlebar mirror.

In a case like this, often you, the cyclist, are the ONLY one who knows that trouble is brewing. Only you can hear the vehicles coming from both directions. Only you can realize that all three of you are going to line up on a narrow windy road at the same time, with barely enough room for 2 vehicles, and no room at all for 2 vehicles and a loaded bike. So that means that you are the one who has primary responsibility to keep all of you as safe as possible. When I would see this situation develop, I would watch in the mirror for the truck or car coming up behind me, and pull over as far as I could. If I was lucky, I could ride on the grass for a bit, and then get back on the road without stopping. Once in a while, I actually had to pull over and stop, because there was no place for me to go, or there was a curb I couldn't climb. The truckers truly did appreciate my willingness to pull over and stop in these situations, by tooting and waving.

4. When I ride on the far edge of a windy road, the vehicles can't see me until they are on top of me. So, whenever I could see the road behind me in my mirror more than 100 feet or so, I would ride in the car lane, and use my mirror to watch for cars (and especially trucks) coming up behind me. They HAD to see me, because I was in their lane! And they had to slow down, too, or run over me. Once I knew that they had seen me, often by hearing a change in their engines, I would pull as far over as possible. This showed them that I was a considerate cyclist (by pulling over), and it slowed them down enough that by the time they passed me, they were going much much slower. And doing this, not one single driver out of thousands ever gave me grief. But when I would ride as close to the edge as possible, and then have to move into the lane even a tiny bit to avoid an obstacle, like a very obvious road construction sign, I would get angry drivers. You see, I had, in their mind, cut them off, by leaving what they saw as my alloted space along the edge of the road. Again, this only works if you can see the road behind you. Where it is too windy, you can only rely on your ears. Also, you need to keep an eye out in front for cars who want your lane for passing purposes coming toward you! One reason I never ever drink and ride. I need all my wits about me to stay alive.

One more thing. If you absolutely must ride a narrow windy road with lots of traffic (like Highway 1 in New Zealand), time your ascent for when there will be the fewest cars possible (Sunday mornings, usually). Your life is at stake here. It is worth planning to keep it.

I hope these tips help!
Diane
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Last edited by Diane Emerson; 07-07-08 at 09:05 AM. Reason: errors in my links and spelling
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Old 07-07-08, 10:00 AM
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Try riding around New York City some time. That'll learn ya to deal with cars.

By the way, I rode Route 1 from Marin County to San Luis Obispo last year, and only felt a little nervous on about 2 hills the whole time. No reflectors, no problems. Same for nearly a dozen other bike tourists who did the route around the same time.

There apparently are some dangerous spots on Route 1 near SLO though, which is (I assume) why the Adventure Cycling route avoids them.

While I fully support using any legal and predictable means to ride safely, I don't think there is all that much cause for concern here.
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Old 07-07-08, 10:16 AM
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Diane, this is the best description I've ever seen of this strategy, which is the same one I use.

Thanks for posting.
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