Car Back, or Got Your Back?

John Allen

As long as I have been a CRW member, the call “car back” has resounded from riders at the rear of strings of cyclists. It has become almost reflexive. I have used it myself. If there’s a car behind, then someone near the rear of the group calls out “car back.” 

And what are riders ahead supposed to do then? Well, get over to the right and let the car pass. 

But, is this always the right thing to do?

Much of the time, certainly.  And, too often there is the one rider who obstreperously or cluelessly hangs out to the left of the group, despite repeated cries of “car back,” The car could have passed safely, and everyone could be happy, if only…

Or an aggressive or oblivious driver may pass anyway when it is risky. It is not always the right time to invite a motorist to blow through our rolling party. Moving over to the right is an invitation for a driver to pass.

Is there a better way? I think so. I tried it on one of Eli Post’s beginner rides recently. I was riding sweep. The group was of about ten people. Everyone except the leader and I were new to CRW rides, mind you. That may actually have made the group dynamics easier to manage. When I called out “car back,” people would move over and the car would pass. 

But when it was not safe for a car to pass, I tried something different: got your back. I wouldn’t say anything, but instead I’d ride in the middle of the lane and stick my left arm out straight, all fingers extended, palm of the hand facing the rear, warning the motorist not to pass. When it became safe, I’d call out “car back’ and move over to the right. 

It does help that I use a rear-view mirror so I can easily see a car approaching in time to decide what to do about it. But somewhat to my surprise, “got your back” was clearly much more comfortable not only for the group, but also for the car drivers.  The compliance rate was very high. 

Why less discomfort? I was sending clear and intentional messages. I wasn’t inviting drivers to do something they knew at some level was unsafe. I was being courteous and accommodating to the extent consistent with the safety of the group, but I was not being pathologically polite by inviting motorists to put me and the other members of the group at risk. 

CRW has been having more rides recently with a group leader and sweep: Eli’s intro rides; the Jack’s Abby rides; follow-the leader groups on the Centuries. Whenever there is a group of, say, twelve or fewer that stays together, “got your back” is easy to do. It works with slow intro ride or a fast paceline group. If the group gets too big, then it can split, but then it needs another sweep. 

The more usual CRW Sunday ride over decades has been the amorphous show-and-go ride where groups form and disperse more or less randomly depending on who is faster up hills, who had to wait at the traffic light, who had a flat tire, etc. etc.  This kind of ride is a great way to meet a variety of people (including the one who hangs out to the left of another rider to chat -- or maybe you are the one pulling up on the left). All well and good as long as you keep an eye on what is happening behind you. Unless you are in the middle of a group, and someone behind you calls out “car back” even though it is unsafe to pass, and being In the middle of the group, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t move over. 

When a substantial percentage of the people on CRW rides know and practice “got your back,” then this doesn’t have to happen, but there is a learning curve and I’m not sure how soon we’ll get there as a club. It did work like a charm on the intro ride and if intro riders can do it…

With “got your back” group dynamics, it also is possible to make good choices about when to ride single- or double-file, but this article is getting long and maybe I’ll write about that next month.



Riding single file would eliminate problem.