Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

17 July 2019

When "On Your Left" Was A Right

Not long ago, suggesting that I equip any of my bikes with a horn or bell would have elicited the same response from me as saying that I should give up my cat, my books--or, of course, my bikes themselves.  No "superfluous accessory"---and, thinking like the testosterone-besotted youth I was, "accessories" were, by definition, "superfluous" (As a woman, my thinking has definitely changed!) --would ever beclutter any of my sleek, beautiful machines. Or even the ugly ones I parked on the street.

Another rationale for my refusal to add the 140 extra grams (That's just a wild guess.  I've never actually weighed a bell or horn!) to my pride and joy is that, like most humans, I was born with effective signaling devices,  the main ones being located between my head and chest, and at the ends of my wrists.  Moreover, my voice and hands (specifically, fingers; even more specifically, one finger in particular) could communicate nuance that no brass, aluminum or plastic device ever could.  Plus, I could yell some version of "On Your Left!" in about four or five languages.  

Ray Keener, who's close to my age, is wondering, "Ou sont le OYL d'antan?"  As he notes, back "in our 52-42/13-21 days", we passed other cyclists (many, I admit, older than ourselves) rather frequently.  Whether we were on secluded paths or in city traffic, shouting "On Your Left!" was a common courtesy.  More important, it kept riders from being spooked and making sudden moves when approached.

Now, those of us who are "of a certain age" find that we are passed more frequently.  But that verbal custom seems to have gone by the wayside.  A few cyclists use horns, bells or other signaling devices.  As often as not, however, younger and faster cyclists silently slip by us.  Worse, some of those passers are on electric cycles, which are even quieter than most regular bicycles.

Interestingly, pedestrians seem more baffled than anything else when they hear a bike bell.  I guess that, if anything, they expect us to howl, "Watch out!" or something less suited to a blog intended for general audiences.

I think the trend Mr. Keener and I have noted is part of a larger phenomenon.  (I hate that last clause, but it works.)  It seems that, at least in large US cities, people are less aurally attuned to their surroundings in general. Today, you see lots of people, especially the young, walking, running, cycling or skateboarding with earbuds.  

This trend began, I believe, with the widespread use of the Walkman. When those devices first came to market, they were a way to hear your favorite music wherever you were, whatever you were doing.  They soon turned into a way to shut out the environment:   Not only could  you listen to Culture Club or whoever while you were running; you didn't have to listen to traffic or parents yelling at their kids.

So, I think Ray Keener is right in noting that "On Your Left!" is a common courtesy that, well, isn't so common anymore.  He doesn't blame the Walkman or technology in general. Rather, as he observes, "riders going 8MPH faster than me aren't in my space long enough for a verbal cue to work."  His solution:  "Get a bell."  You know, I rather like them:  The brass ones from Japan are as pretty as they sound.  Of course, if you're a weight weenie, there are titanium bells.

Then again, if you're a real weight weenie, just remember that you already have built-in signaling devices!


  1. i added bells to my randonneuse, touring bike, & 3 speeds several years ago. i occasionally encounter horseback riders on some of my routes, and the riders thank me as i pass after sounding the bell. i also find pedestrians seem to hear the bell much better than my voice.

    Then there's this:


  2. To this day I still find even my new temple bell to be something of an intrusion. Walkers seem to always wander about at random even when moving forward. At my age I rarely have to pass other cyclists...

  3. Only my commuter has a bell but it works most of the time. However if I yell "On Yer Left" I seem to get one of three reactions. 1: They ignore me. 2: They actually step to the left. 3: They spin around and assume a martial arts stance and prepare themselves for mortal combat (the Hong Kong Phooey response). I must admit the third one is my personal favourite

  4. Mike, Coline and Phillip--Your comments leave me with this question: What is the best way to signal, or be signaled, when on a bike? How do we keep from spooking others, or being spooked, when we pass or are passed?

  5. When approaching a ped or rider, i try to sound the bell about 10 seconds or so (20-30 feet?) before i think i'll be passing to give them the time to react and myself the time to counter in case they panic or veer into my path. As i am just about to pass, i'll usually say "on your left." Of course, if the person i'm passing seems not to hear me or care, i'll usually ring the bell multiple times (it's a loud Crane bell!) and if that doesn't work, i will very slowly approach and pass with extreme caution & then get as far away as fast as i can.

    i always appreciate it when a rider lets me know they're passing- i don't mind a courteous "on your left" or a bell. i particularly hate it when someone passes too closely & unannounced... it's disconcerting.