Long-distance car rides are really just a group ride of a different sort. Driving the family up to Oregon to spend Christmas with the in-laws, I had lots of time behind the wheel to compare the two while everyone slept in the car. It’s amazing how many cycling group ride principles apply on the highway:
1. Moving along at high speeds just a few feet away from other speeding metal boxes requires everyone to heed a code…or at least the law. It just takes one knucklehead to ruin everyone’s ride.
2. Everyone has their own favorite place to unclip and fill up a bottle on a long ride. For us on the way to Oregon, it’s In-N-Out Burger in Redding. Double-Double with cheese (animal style, worth looking up), large fries, strawberry shake. Probably not the best fuel for a long bike ride but does the trick in the car.
3. Patience in the Paceline – Here’s the scenario: you’re cruising along at a good clip in the left lane somewhere in the middle of a long group of cars. Suddenly, a slower moving Safeway truck pulls out into the left lane up ahead to pass an even slower truck, splitting up your group. A gap opens and the cars in front of the truck form a little breakaway. You go from 70 to 55 and your pack stacks up behind Safeway. Everyone groans but sits up patiently for a few seconds. Then it happens: a car behind you gets impatient and flys up the right lane squeezing in at the last minute just behind the truck, cutting in front of your line of cars. Poor form. A card’s been played. Allegiances change. Alliances form. Line-hopper may have gained a few seconds on their trip but they alienated the rest of the group. Soon after, say 20 minutes down the road, line-hopper gets stuck behind another Safeway and guess what? No one wants to let ‘em back in the paceline. Line-hopper is out in the wind now. Here’s the moral: There’s a code on the interstate just like on the bike. It’s actually in our best interest to follow it.
4. Sitting on a Good Wheel – Something I like to do once I get out of the city and on the open road is find another driver who seems to be traveling at a consistent pace I feel comfortable with. Then I sit on. Wheelsucker. I don’t tailgate or anything. I simply follow at an appropriate, non-stalker distance. I don’t think I even get a draft. But often, if the relationship sticks after an hour or so, I’ll move in front, give a little head nod or wave, and take my turn in the wind. We’re not racing or speeding (much) but just generally looking out for each other. Speed traps, swervy trucks, unexpected corners, etc. I’m actually surprised how often other drivers play along; like some weary-traveler camaraderie. On one cross-country trip, another family and I looked out for each other this way across New Mexico, Arizona, and the Mojave Desert. We actually wound up getting gas and a few meals together. A little weird, I admit, but really fun. I’ve always wanted a CB radio. I hear truckers do this stuff all the time.
5. Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast – No one likes to follow a shifty driver or bike rider. Sudden lane changes, not signaling, and unnecessary risks all have the potential to put others in harm’s way. Being deliberate, intentional, and predictable is the best way for everyone to get where we’re going safely, efficiently, and quickly. If you’re on the front of the train and a faster driver pulls up, do what you would do in a group ride: flick your elbow and smoothly move out of line.
6. Eye on the wheel in front, eye on the front of the group – I practice this in a group ride and make use of it behind the wheel. I’m sure you do it too. Watch the back of the car directly in front but also look through them a few cars ahead. Anticipation of slow-downs and surges keeps things steady and fuel efficient on the highway and in the group ride.
Any other principles of highway driving that also apply to the group ride?
When you’re holding your eyelids open on the next long-distance drive and the rest of the family is sleeping while you slog away behind the wheel, picture yourself in a group ride. Just don’t get tactical, start a lead-out train, or go for a town-line sprint. That’s where the comparison totally breaks down.
Be smart, be safe!