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Passing thoughts on riding fast

Posted by on February 9th, 2007 at 10:00 am

[Editor’s note: This is the first contribution from John “Dabby” Campbell. Dabby is a veteran Portland bike messenger, bike polo player, and a prolific commenter on this site.]

Bike to Work Day

[John “Dabby” Campbell]

If there is one thing that cycling allows, it is freedom. The ability to choose your path, to clear your head, enjoy the fresh air, and to get where you need to, in the time frame you so choose.

Some people ride at a leisurely pace, having either left early to get where they have to go, or having nowhere at all to get to. This is nice; rolling around, watching the birds, the changing colors of trees, taking big, deep breaths of air. Maybe even taking a longer route into town before work.

It’s great to have that luxury.

“I am a victim of this volatile mixture. A tiny Italian seat, mounted on fine Italian steel, makes me feel like Micheal Schumacher at the start of the F-1 season. The light goes green and I am gone.”

Few are the times that I ride like this, but when I do, I enjoy it. A slow stroll through Oaks Bottom is one of the better things in life. So many blue herons, so little time.

A smaller percentage of riders are blessed with something more powerful than time, or patience. It is generally a combination of things such as endorphines, a higher metabolism, and a lust for life.

I am a victim of this volatile mixture. A tiny Italian seat, mounted on fine Italian steel, makes me feel like Micheal Schumacher at the start of the F-1 season; the light goes green and I am gone.

Whether used out of necessity, or for the love of it, speed is your friend. It can be turned up to beat your boss to the time clock, to go beyond the pain and win that big race, or it can be used to simply clear your mind, body, and soul.

It’s common in many parts of town, when pulling away from a light, to roll faster than the cars. And, when riding on certain roads, to be forced out of the bike lane due to slower bicycle traffic.

A quicker moving cyclist is more prepared to leave the bike lane than a slower one and it’s safer for the faster rider to do so. In fact, I consider it their responsibility.

Riding fast improves your tracking skills, the most useful cycling skill there is. Tracking is the ability to ride straight. At a slow rate of speed, the tendency to swerve is much greater (as is the tendency to look where you are not riding).

This is greatly understood by the fast rider, and misunderstood by most slow ones. This is most apparent when riding on or near a structure like our crowded bridges.

Our town is divided by a river and we all need to cross it at one point or another. Whether late for work or early for a coffee date, our lives are often on the other side.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that bicycle use is drastically increasing, the city has spent a lot of our money on river crossings that are too narrow. Yes, narrow is the path the city has laid for us.

This puts us all in the same place, at a different pace.

[Riding slow and enjoying the view from the Broadway Bridge, 8/6/2006.]

In order for this to work, we need to work together. They are not going to change the paths they have spent so much money on. We need to change how we deal with them.

Here are my simple rules:

  • If someone ahead of you is going slower, pass them safely (and don’t feel bad for doing so).
  • If someone is behind you, going faster, allow them the courtesy and space to pass, without putting them, or you in danger.
  • If a family, tourists, or elderly folks are in front of you, whether on foot or on bikes, slow down and let them know (in a decent manner) that you need to get by (remember, these are the unpredictable ones).

[Sharing a crowded
Esplanade, 4/15/06]

We have the opportunity to take bicycling in Portland to a new level. But if we remain divided by simple issues such as crowded, multi-use paths, and varying speeds, we are doing ourselves and our city an injustice and we’re detracting from the common goal.

There is no need to be irritated by someone passing you. If you’re a slow rider, it’s a matter of if, not when when, not if.

If this year is anything like the last, more Portlandian’s than ever will discover a love for cycling. And as winter releases it’s cold, wet grip, we will surely see more congestion on the paths we share.

Just remember, when you do get passed, don’t be mad, be glad that you just saw one more bike.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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    tonyt February 9, 2007 at 10:14 am

    Thanks Dabby! It’s nice to have someone out there giving voice to the pure joy of speed on a bike.

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    Jeremy February 9, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Great comments, Dabby. I would like to add that when I pass someone I always say ‘hello’ or ‘howdy’ as a friendly gesture and simple courtesy; I want to ensure that the other cyclist knows that I am in no way irked by the fact that they are traveling slower than I am. This simple gesture takes the edge off and is unique to bicycle travel. Autos keep us separated by steel, plastic and glass; bikes bring us closer together. Let’s take advantage of that by extending ourselves in the name of common courtesy and community building. 🙂

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    Donna February 9, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Dabby, I really appreciated this essay. I get passed on the bridges about half the time, and that’s fine with me. If I’m on the left and don’t move over, it’s because I’m too close to a pedestrian to do so. As soon as it’s clear, I’m going to do it – really! Passing me on the right and then passing the pedestrian with 5 inches to spare seems like a recipe for trouble. Dabby, I don’t doubt you and your professional colleagues could do that safely(although you might scare the bejeezus out of the pedestrian), but I fear some of the faster cyclists don’t have the same skills. I know my limitations – that’s why I might not be moving over when someone thinks I should. I believe you know that, but I haven’t observed that other faster cyclists have such an awareness.

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    Donna February 9, 2007 at 10:44 am

    BTW, I come at this from the general philosophy that bike messengers know what they’re doing and as long as I’m consistent and leave an opening, I trust that they’ll work around me.

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    samizdat February 9, 2007 at 10:44 am

    I like the “Hello” suggestion, I’ll have to try that one out more. Also, being a fast rider myself, I’ve found an old habit from growing up skiing/snowboarding is very useful. Call out the side you’re going to pass on when you’re about a bike length away. “On your left” tends to work for me and lets people know where you’re at and gives them enough time to give passing room or start tracking a little more straight.

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    J-On-Bike February 9, 2007 at 11:03 am

    “If you’re a slow rider, it’s a matter of if, not when.”

    Just an editorial comment. I think you got it reversed. Should read: It’s a not a matter of IF (you will get passed), but WHEN (you will get passed).

    Some days I’m a slow cyclist, some days I’m a fast cyclist. I figure that the faster cyclist has the responsibility to maneuver safely (cars, peds, cyclists) and the slow rider only has to stay consistent and aware.

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    Paul February 9, 2007 at 11:05 am

    There will be a day when there are bike expressways….

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    Spencer February 9, 2007 at 11:12 am

    word. remember that signaling is good too, even if its just for other bikes. a quick point to the right or left helps to avoid collisions. Check your blindspots every so often also, so you dont get surprised by anything.

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    Jim F February 9, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Well put.

    And why is it that whenever you pass some guy who is riding along comfortably at 5mph he all of a sudden becomes Miguel Indurain and jumps on your wheel? As Dabby said, relax. There is nothing wrong with being passed. It happens to everyone. It doesn’t make you less of a man.

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    Sara February 9, 2007 at 11:24 am

    What do you think of the following scenario?
    I pull up to the bridge as a test raise is in progress in the middle of the day. I get in line behind the other two bicyclists who are waiting already. Over the course of the raising and lowering of the bridge, a few more bicyclists arrive. As the bridge gets closer to all the way down, and the operator tells us all to wait until the arms are all the way up, the other bicyclists get in line in front of me and go before the arms are all the way up. That’s fine, they can ignore the operator if they like. What irks me, is that then they go slowly, and it is a pain to pass them all, as they are milling about and passing each other. I have no problem going slowly if the bridge is too crowded to safely go faster. But if the congestion is due to people who either can’t wait in line like the rest of us, or don’t understand how their average speed compares to others’ average speeds, I get irritated. How should I rethink this to not get irritated. Am I being unreasonable? (I also have a similar sort of problem when bicyclists cut off cars in front of me, then we are forced into the bike lane and they go slowly. I would have remained in front of them if they hadn’t been driving their bike (imo) recklessly.)

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    adam February 9, 2007 at 11:31 am

    great perspective, dabby.

    I am a committed easy rider. I am often amused to see people fly by me and, as long as we are all holding our lines(tracking!!) then we are all good.

    The point is that whether you are talking about pedestrians, other bikes, or cars – going at a similar rate of speed as those around you is simply the safest way to do it. So, be aware of your surroundings – and, if you wanna go F-1, have fun!

    maybe we can start an “Ask Dabby” column? I still wanna know why you feel like you do about CM ;)…

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    Oldguyonabike February 9, 2007 at 11:37 am

    And why is it the slower, unaware riders are the ones without helmets or lights at night? After courteously passng a slow, unlit rider this pre-dawn I was stopped at a red-light which he just cruised through (again – no light, no helmet). I chased him down once I got the green and suggested to him he had a death wish. He flicked me off.

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    bArbaroo February 9, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Nothing wrong with going slow; nothing wrong with going fast. I like the let’s all ride and let ride, be courteous, spread the love, message that I see as the root of this article.

    One of the things that I’ve always loved about bicycles is that each person can define their own experience and express their personality, whatever it is on a given day – fast, slow, serious, playful, one gear, 100 gears (well…), baskets, horns, flowers, shinny chrome, flat black paint, kodachrome stripes,…

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    Matt P. February 9, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    I totally agree – nothing wrong with passing, or being passed. Being in reasonable shape but overweight, I’m far more often the one being passed, especially on the Hawthorne Bridge. I do have 2 requests for everyone, though:

    1. If you’re passing someone, please consider taking the courtesy to ring a bell, say “on your left”, or anything to alert the rider you’re passing as to your presence. It’s as much for your own safety as mine.

    2. If you’re being passed, please consider investing in a mirror, and please look behind you or to your left before drifting from your track or turning. Again, as much for your safety as mine.

    I think Dabby is right on about the need to be able to ride fast, and ride straight, and how one affects the other. Seattle to Portland was a difficult ride for me last year – not because of the mileage (not that 200 miles was easy, mind you), but because there were so many inexperienced or “casual” riders. Only about half of the riders I encountered looked like they knew how to ride in a paceline, or keep a straight track, or to look behind or to the side before radically changing their direction of travel or position in the lane. Those skills are so important to have when riding in congested areas like downtown Portland and especially when crossing the bridges.

    That being said, it’s also always nice to be considerate for all the beginners out there while they learn, and to be patient with each other when we make our inevitable mistakes. We’re only human.

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    Darren February 9, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    General rule of thumb: For casual riders and everyone under age 10, the bike goes where the head is pointing. When coming up on a youngster or a slower rider, watch their head.

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    Klixi February 9, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    I’m a slow rider but very courteous towards my faster counterparts. I definitely understand what you mean when you say the slower you go the harder it is to ride in a straight line too. Awesome post, thanks.

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    beth February 9, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks for the speedier perspective, Dabby.

    As a professional slow rider myself, I have no problem with being passed, as long as the passer lets me know ahead of time that s/he is doing so.
    “Hello” is good, and so is a cheery-sounding bicycle bell.

    As for the assumption (dont remember who offer it) that the slower riders are more likely to go without helmets and safety awareness, au contraire! I revel in my safety gear (helmet, lights, reflective stuff) and the geekitude it represents; and I know I’m not alone.
    Happy riding!

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    peejay February 9, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    as a passer and a passee, I like it when “on your left” is followed by a “thanks.”

    Slightly off topic: Does anyone else have problems with walkers who don’t know the rules on Hawthorne Bridge? I came to a complete stop because someone walking towards me kept moving to his right – my left, thinking it was like the esplanade. Right in front of him was the painted sign showing how peds always keep to the railing side.

    I understand his confusion, though.

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    OnTheRoad February 9, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    I don’t mind being passed, and I do my fair share of passing. I use my mirror constantly to check behind and ring my bell if I have to pass someone in close proximity.

    What gets me ired are faster bicycles who pass on the right. This often happens on lower Hawthorne going east, where riders with momentum down the ramp blow by those who were stopped at the light.

    I WISH they would leave the lane into the traffic lane (as someone mentioned above). But instead of merging into traffic, they pass in the parking lane!!! I cringe when people do this fearing a slower someone will make a right turn in front of the unannounced speedster.

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    jeff February 9, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    nice article.

    if you are going to move fast, being able to hold a line is important, passing or not. plus the ability to look back without swerving is key (don’t turn your head so much as you tuck your chin onto your shoulder.

    i’ll also check my speed when passing, it’s not uncommon for me to slow to their speed, give a heads up, pass w/ a ‘thanks’, then accelerate again.

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    Garlynn February 9, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    I believe that when Dabby said:

    “There is no need to be irritated by someone passing you. If you’re a slow rider, it’s a matter of if, not when.”

    …he actually meant “when, not if.”

    Just a minor quibble. 🙂

    Also, I know from personal experience how hard it is to keep a bell on a fine road bike. Yet still, I believe that we should all try to mount a bell on every one of our bicycles, somewhere, if we plan on riding it in the city, and especially for riding across the bridges. A bell is such a good way to let people know that you’re coming in a friendly manner. And it works no matter if it’s fast bicyclist approaching slow bicyclist, or any bicyclist approaching pedestrian.

    So… get creative, and get a bell on your bike! You will thank yourself later. 🙂


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    Elliot February 9, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    I’m usually the passer rather than the passee, but lately I’ve been trying to mix up my riding and see things from the slower side. I’ve started injecting some scenic detours into my ride home once or twice a week, when I don’t have a schedule to make – taking the long way around to look to admire some of our older neighborhoods or watching the cityscape roll by from the esplanade.

    As for passing, I think it’s important to note as a courtesy to NOT pass someone if you aren’t going to be able to stay in front of them. If I’m unsure, I’ll slow down and pace the rider in front of me to confirm that I’m going fast enough to pass them, and I’m not just riding some temporary momentum from a hill that I won’t keep.

    Recently, I had someone pass me on a fixie but I got stuck behind him on a long downhill because his gear ratio capped his speed. Just a pet peeve.

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    Dabby February 9, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    I must say thank you for the great responses.
    In regards to this piece:
    I wrote it in response to a article this late fall that Elly Blue wrote.
    Not so much just in response to that article, but also to the many sordid comments that ensued.
    I have been worried about how it would come across actually.
    The editing?
    I really left that up to Mr. Bike Portland. I can’t remember if I wrote that sentence that way or not in the first and really only, draft.
    Bringing it “round the Turkey and into your living room,

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    Dabby February 9, 2007 at 3:25 pm
    My Blog, check it out…

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    Brad February 9, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Nicely done!

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    N.I.K. February 9, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    And why is it the slower, unaware riders are the ones without helmets or lights at night?

    It’s not *all* of them, certainly, and we won’t get into the helmet debate, but these same characteristics are frequently accompanied by others, including but not limited to:

    -unpredictable jumping from road to sidewalk and vice-versa

    -riding in the gutter while on the road, with the wheels just barely avoiding the edge of the curb

    -edging over towards the crosswalk when proceeding straight through an intersection

    -riding on the road but using the crosswalks for left turns, then merging back into the roadway against signal/right-of-way

    -riding noisy-as-hell drivetrains in dire need of some TLC until they just plain fail utterly (or at least, it SOUNDS that way)

    -constantly riding in too high of a gear, figuring biking should be a struggling push-push afair

    -no signaling

    -bearing down on the cranks like mad to charge through a stale yellow and then slowing back to a crawl (why such a hurry for the light, ace?)

    Mind you, I’ve seen plenty of *sensible* slow riders who know what they’re doing, and that’s great, to each his own. But the bad slow riders are just as bad, if not worse, than the suicidal speed demons who don’t know how to handle themselves.

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    Adam8 February 9, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Hang on… Did you steal the BikePortland access password? I can’t believe they allowed you to post. Crazy dabby.
    ~Adam #8

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    SKiDmark February 9, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    My only beef about people passing me is when some hammerhead passes me about an inch off my handlebar, with no sort of l warning, verbal or mechanical (bell, horn). I ride either fixed or a cruiser and most of the time I am in no hurry. Any sort of warning, “excuse me” “passing” “ding,ding” “honk” will do, and I will get over to the right and hold my line. Being passed doesn’t bother me* as a beginner at the Velodrome I am used to hearing “stay” which means to hold my line while someone passes over me. But don’t be suprized if you pass me on my fixed and I pass you going up the next hill, it’s just the nature of the fixed gear to climb faster and descend slower.

    *except at Zoobomb, heh

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    Elly February 10, 2007 at 7:41 am

    Nice column, Dabby!

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    Michael February 10, 2007 at 7:44 am

    Some passing thoughts:

    In countries where bikes outnumber motorists the great majority of the bikes ride slow, very slow – maybe 10 mph or so.

    When we ride hard and fast, or wear athletic clothing for a simple commute, we make the biking option look a bit intimidating to potential or newbie cyclists.

    Riding fast, it takes me 30 minutes to commute to/from work. Riding easy, it takes 40 minutes and often saves 10 minutes in the shower.

    Riding fast in traffic is as tense as motoring. Riding slow on a side street is as calm as walking.

    Riding fast requires more attention to my intended path and potential danger. Riding slow allows more time to smell the scents, look at the trees, and listen to the birds.

    Riding fast gets me to work faster than Trimet. Riding slow gets me home about the same as Trimet.

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    newbies February 10, 2007 at 10:19 am

    After reading this article and the many comments of others, it is refreshing to to hear that cyclists who want to ride fast understand those of us who usually do not. My wife and I are recent “empty-nesters”. We turned to cycling as something we can do together; enjoy the ride, often side-by-side, and to get exercise. As new cyclists, we are slower riders. We are doing our best to learn proper cycling courtesy and expected riding behavior, while at the same time still enjoy cycling. When we decided to invest in bicycles, we never dreamt that there would be so much more to it than simply riding around and enjoying ourselves. Sure we understood there are laws and rules, but the other factors were a surprise. Occasionally, although rarely, we too enjoy the feeling of the faster pace, and we certainly understand the need for such, either for pure enjoyment or necessity. During the few months we rode around Beaverton last year, we were shocked to come across several cyclists to seemed to simply not want us sharing their space. While they were the exception more than the rule, we were still surprised when these cyclists yelled us for not getting out of their way, and in 2 cases even spit at us they as they sped by. We know that there will always be some bad-seeds and we try to hold onto the belief that most cyclists are not that way.

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    Nick February 10, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Amen my friend. You have a witness from the congregation!

    Portland will continue to be bike central with this philosophy and courtesy among all of our riders.


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    PFin February 10, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    Just wanted to give a shout out to mirror-wearing cyclists: You make it easier for everyone by knowing what’s going on 360. This solves problems on bridges aplenty. Thank you.

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    2ndAveFlyer February 10, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    Looks like Dabby hit a home run with this article, judging by the overall positive responces and additional suggestions.

    I have the Italian steel bike that Dabby is talking about and I often like to fly about town. I enjoyed Elly’s article about bells and find in my riding group very few riders have them. You just can’t have a 16-19 pound bike and put on a 30 gram bell, can you?

    Well I find an Incredibell an essential part of my around city componetry. I wish more of the ‘fast guys’ would give it up and put on a small bell. It really increases your enjoyment and safety when riding around town.

    I have found that the first bell should be rung while at least 50 bike lengths behind a rider to be overtaken. If they don’t here it you can ring again. You know how scary and irritating it is to have a car blast its horn when passing you? The same is true of a bike bell. A good bell can easily be heard from quite a distance back. It gives the overtaken rider a chance to look around, swerve if they must, and adjust to your presence. It gives them an opportunity to make adjustments and feel in control like you do. I have never had an unpleasant experience passing someone in this manner, even if I’m going well over twice their speed.

    I particularly liked Dabby’s third rule; everyone out there isn’t a professional and everyone has their own interests and agenda. If the bell doesn’t draw a response and no one seems to know what’s going on behind them this is clear 3 mph pass. No big deal. Say high, thanks for letting me pass, and then practice your acceleration. When people learn what others are doing on the trails in a nice way they’ll be more accomodating each time they meet someone on the trail or bike lane.

    See you on the road.

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    PoPo February 10, 2007 at 8:57 pm

    Way to encourage understanding and patience and thoughtfulness and empathy. Such are the building blocks of community.

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    Dilla Dog February 10, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    my favorite thing to do is pass the fixed gear bikers, especially when pedaling up-hill. this way they can see my gigantic leg muscles! i love it!

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    Andre February 11, 2007 at 10:42 am

    For the 16-19 lb bike set does anyone know any local shops selling these? Because I know on my cross bike (which sees far more miles off course than on) I have ridiculous oversized wing drop bars which are nigh-impossible to mount a bell on.

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    Dabby February 11, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    I do not use bells, never have owned one, so I cannot help you too much.
    But I know that there are bells widely available, for all bar and clamp sizes, at most every bike shop.
    While I have your attention, I would like to throw a word out there.
    There are many bike shops in this town.
    I go to three.
    Bike Central, a shop I seem to have been going to for 10 or more years.
    City Bikes, where I have been going even longer, and have always been treated with respect.
    And Velo Shop, where I have not been going for more than a couple of years, but from day one, I was treated with respect, and courtesy.
    If there is one thing I understand, it is mutual respect.
    And these three shops are where you should go to get, and give it! (and spend your money!)
    Tell them Dabby sent you.

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    marc February 11, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    i second, third, or fourth the small bell suggestion. nothing says ‘i love portland’ more than seeing a $3 bell on a $50 bike and then going around the block and seeing the same bell on a $10K meivici serotta – truly a sign of the strong bike community here.

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    Jo Routens February 12, 2007 at 7:36 am

    Fast is fun! Good to hear the message your way, Dabby. You should be speaking to middle and high school students–let them know that speed doesn’t have to come from burning dinosaurs. Your message is urgently needed in the ears of testosterone-poisoned male teenagers contemplating their first cars.

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    jeff February 12, 2007 at 8:29 am

    PFin #33 – “a shout out to mirror-wearing cyclists”

    If a mirror works for you, great. I would not insinuate that mirror-waering cyclists know “what’s going on 360”.

    I’ve ridden with a mirror before and ride with a few folks who use them, but I think they can lull you into a false sense of security. Looking over my shoulder is automatic, fast, done without breaking my line, and gives a much broader view of what is behind and to the sides of me. Further, not having to move my vision from ahead of me to a small mirror very close to my eyes allows me to check behind quickly and keep my focus ahead.

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    vj February 12, 2007 at 11:02 am

    As a very slow rider, I totally expect to be passed, and that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm. But I have to echo the others here — just let me know that you’re passing me. A hi, a bell ring, whatever. It’ll make my day if you do.

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    Dabby February 12, 2007 at 11:25 am

    I meant to echo the sentiment of Jeff above on mirrors earlier.
    A mirror is only so good, for so much.
    I think of it like a crutch, when you have a broken leg.
    Only really needed for a certain time frame, then those muscles need to be exercised.
    There is nothing better than turning your head and looking, or as someone above put it, tucking your chin into your shoulder and taking a look behind you.
    I in no way endorse relying on a mirror to tell you what is going on.
    What if all these drivers rolled around just looking out of their mirrors, with out doing a head check very regularly?
    Put away the mirror, and exercise those neck muscles…..
    Or, if you must, use them both.

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    ange February 13, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    dabby, i see you in the bike gallery downtown all the time. what, no love?

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    IceArdor February 13, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    This piece made me really happy, somehow. This isn’t just words, it’s literature. The words flow together so well, as do the paragraphs. You only come across an article this well-written once every blue Portland moon. Please write again some time, John Campbell.

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    Dabby February 14, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    I could not be happier about the response to my little piece here.

    And, to top it all off, the last comment, by Ice Ardor, is what every one who ever had a inkling of thought that they may be able to write, wants and or needs to hear.

    Thank you so much!

    It truly just serves to inspire me more!


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