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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  8/1/2008

You Talkin' to Me?

"Cahr beck!"

These words came from the mouth of Kleber (say: clay-bear), my French copain de velo (riding buddy). It was his best attempt to imitate us Americans calling out a motor vehicle behind us. Chez lui, back home in southern France, he would have said, "Attention a l'arriere," if he said anything at all. But when in California, he figured, chatter like the California riders do.

Kleber and his fellow club members from Albi, Gaillac and environs were visiting here as part of an exchange program sponsored by Neighbors Abroad, the Palo Alto Sister City organization. Gailac (Here's a bunch from the "ASPTT Gaillac" club in '99. That's Kleber on the far right.) A group of us from Western Wheelers had visited their clubs the year before; now the cyclistes francais were in the Bay Area as our guests. And I think they were impressed with how we communicate with each other on the road.

French riders are a lot less talkative when they roll along. Oh, they do, like us, chat about the weather, each other's performance and their daily lives. But they rarely pass along the word about obstacles, approaching cars or other impediments to a smooth group ride. A brief "attention!" may serve to alert riders to something, but you gotta look around to figure out what for yourself.

It's a treat to be able to talk to each other on a group ride. And to let others around you know what's up. Unlike people driving cars, we can communicate directly. And that helps us keep each other safe. Too bad the cops giving cyclists tickets a few years ago on Foothill Expressway for "tailgating" didn't quite get it. Hey, that's called drafting.

Because we do discuss such things. "Hey, jump in." "Yo, I'm on your wheel." ("Yo, get the $#&^^ off my wheel!" Or as the token blonde in the somewhat-cult film "American Flyer" put it, "You $#&^^ wheelsucker!")

Body language

My reliable idea generator Scott Martin wrote a column for Road Bike Rider a few months ago about how we communicate on group rides. He astutely pointed out that we don't just yell at -- er, talk to -- each other; we also gesticulate (and I don't mean the one-finger gesticulation).

"To warn of road debris," he claimed, "you stick your right hand behind your butt and flap your fingers as if trying to dispel noxious fumes. Which, come to think of it, explains why some of my less suave riding partners use this motion when the road is perfectly clean."

Hmmm. I've never witnessed that particular gesture. We usually just point to the debris or obstacle as we swing wide of it. And we call out, "Glass!" or name whatever it is lurking in the bike lane. I've been known to yell, "Shoe!" on occasion, and a few other odds and ends. I've even pointed overhead at a low-hanging branch, calling out, "Low bridge!"

"Everybody knows about the middle-finger salute," Scott wrote. "Years ago, an overtaking motorist tried to extract my handlebar plug with his side mirror. I thrust my middle digit heavenward, only to realize that I was wearing mittens."

Getting back to France, that particular gesture is known as "l'oiseau," which directly translates as the familiar "bird." Once in southern Provence, I was nearly missed at a roundabout by a Mercedes with German plates. "J'ai envie de lui donner l'oiseau," I said to the fellow riding next to me. ("I'd really like to give him the bird.") Despite my terrible American accent, he understood.

What puzzles me is why more cyclists don't communicate with each other. Too many sneak up on me, passing me on the right(!) with nary a word. And scaring the heebie-jeebies out of me. All they have to say is, "On your right," in muted tones. I'm not riding with an iPod or Bluetooth. I can hear the guy (it's almost always a guy).

I understand why he might not want to pass me on the left. I do tend to ride on the left side of the shoulder/bike lane, just right of the white line. It's so I can see the cars back and avoid the debris that seems to collect at the gutter. But I'd still prefer to hear, "On your left," so I can move to the right to let him pass.

One guilty silent party is none other than my tandem captain, Jim. Some riders on tours we have led have chastised him for not alerting them to his presence on descents. Suddenly he swoops past them without calling, "On your left!" It freaks them out. He maintains, on the other hand, that a shout-out coming from seemingly nowhere will scare them just as badly, if not worse. Especially flying downhill, where the scare could easily lead to a grievous bike-handling error.


IMHO, on a group ride there are always those folks who talk too much. Really, I have nothing against those strictly social outings for those who are looking for a good gab fest anyway. On my customary Saturday rides in Saratoga, you can tell the gabbers; they're the ones who drift off the back but never seem to notice.

Then there are the ones Scott refers to as "mentally challenged": the hard-charging racer wannabes who get psyched out by the oh-so-casual chit-chat. Example:
"Larry: 'Only three miles to the top.'"
Moe: "'What? I thought this was the top.' Immediately his speed drops by 4 mph."

"There's nothing like a strategically placed comment," Scott claims, "to throw your . . . riding partners off their game." This is not trash talk he's defining. It's more like competitive subtlety. IOW, if you can't be good, be sneaky.

"It's great you've gotten so many miles out of that carbon handlebar."
"You think my handlebar's defective? Was that a creak? Maybe I shouldn't pull up so hard. Oh God, don't let me crash." Et cetera.

Peace Chit-chat category No. 3 happens when one rider thinks the other isn't pulling hard enough. "Don't talk! Pedal!" Or as Captain Jim puts it when we're hauling the tandem up Pierce Road: "If you can talk, you're not working hard enough!"

But enough of this bicycle banter. Let's ride! Or maybe we should just "coast" -- "Yakety-Yak! Don't talk back!" But do tune in to the Women's Olympic Road Race Sunday, August 10 and the Time Trial on Wednesday, August 13 to root for hometown fave Christine Thorburn.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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