Long gone are the days of dedicated cycling paths, with directions so well-labeled, maps and GPS are rendered useless, where cars respectfully gave way to cyclists, providing a wide berth as they passed, and loud noises stemmed from the flock of barn swallows devouring ripe cherries on the side of the road.
As we made our way from Western Europe into the Balkans, the parade of cycle travelers slowly dwindled to just the Long Haul Trekkers, with the occasional wave from a roadie out for a morning ride.
We traded regulated emissions tests and catalytic converters for decades old cars vomiting black exhaust into our faces and lungs. Courteous drivers who mostly obeyed traffic laws like stopping at red lights and stop signs, yielding at intersections, and pausing for pedestrians crossing the street virtually vanished. We had entered the land of cut-throat, anything goes driving.
Here’s our guide to the art of sharing the road in rules-optional lands.
Cycling along the roads and among the drivers in developing lands may cause anxiety, rapid breathing, heart palpitations, stress, and panic attacks. The best approach is simply to learn and accept the behavior. Pushback and aggression will only result in unrelenting anger and may even cause death.
Completely contrarian to the friendly Oregonian, where we might tap ever so lightly on our horn if the driver ahead has failed to notice a green light after 10 seconds, drivers in these rules-optional lands honk constantly.
At first, the vulnerable cyclist, occupying precious vehicle space on the road, might mistake that blare of the horn to mean “get off the road!” however, the honking seems to signify a variety of communications, rarely out of malicious intent.* Examples may include:
- Hey, cyclist! I see you and I’m not going to run you over!**
- I’m too impatient to wait until we pass this blind curve to get around you slow cyclists, so let this be a warning to oncoming traffic that I’m in your lane.
- Someone got married! See this long line of cars decorated in hearts and balloons with our emergency lights on? We’re all going to blare our horns until we reach our final destination. Beeeeeeeep!
- Way to go! My car can barely summit this hill and you’re on a bike!
*In the likelihood that these assumptions are incorrect, the best practice is to simply wave. Angry driver? A wave says, “sorry!” Happy driver? A wave serves as a greeting. This ambivalent gesture has proven a safe method for communicating with drivers.
**Cars do not seem to understand the shrill volume a horn makes outside of the vehicle. The sound will always startle the cyclist, despite expectation for the noise. Truck drivers seem to be the most unaware of the level of noise emitted from their bull horn, and may pose a serious threat to cyclists traveling along roads with manholes large enough to swallow both bike and rider whole. Please proceed with caution. Turkish horns are the worst.
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Although we Americans claim to be the only fools to use the Imperial system, I’m convinced that drivers the world around secretly think in terms of miles, jealous of our imperial ways. You see, the number 80, in terms of say, a speed sign, is a much faster speed in miles than in kilometers. Dear cyclist, prepare yourself and know that no driver ever travels the indicated speed.
Please note, that cyclists, however, should always think in terms of kilometers. Distances sound far more impressive when calculated in kilometers, especially to your American friends unable to automatically calculate between the two.
I’m too Lazy to Throw Away My Trash, so I’ll Just Burn It.
The sweet smell of diesel in your face is often accompanied by the putrid aroma of burning trash. Coating the air in a plume of dark clouds, the telltale sign of burning trash, the cyclist should prepare to hold their breath.
Emitting a nose of scalding toilets, flaming rubber, and whispers of melting plastic, roadside trash conjures the memory of massive oil spills. Each inhalation ignites a fit of coughing and coats the nostrils with a powdery soot. Burning trash pairs best with rotting fruit and roadkill.
The Passing Lane
Everywhere constitutes a passing lane in these rule-optional lands. Traveling along windy and narrow mountain roads, the cyclist may see a variety of passing signs. Some indicate passing allowed while others indicate the end of a passing zone. They all look the same and are therefore quite confusing, resulting in regular poor-decision making from drivers.
It is clear that versus dashed lines hold no meaning.
Regardless of the directive of a sign, like speed limits, these signs are also ignored. Drivers pass on blind curves, one lane bridges, narrow roads, with oncoming traffic (in both directions), while we’re passing a donkey cart that is passing a shepherd and his flock of sheep, with head-on traffic barreling in our direction.
While traveling through rural regions, the cycle tourist may encounter shepherds and their herds. Herders may graze their flocks and herd anywhere they like and cows often stop in the middle of the road, blocking the path for the cyclist.
To those touring with herding dogs, please note that the regularity of herds will excite your dog. Often, herders will allow your herding dog to assist in movement of traffic.
The cycle tourist should always expect to find a herder shepherding their sheep, goats, cows, and/or chickens across the road and give way. Often, these traffic jams are accompanied by dogs. Do not be alarmed. While the herding dog may bark, they are often adorable and will most ignore or run towards you for pets. Unless they don’t. Then they will chase you.
Warnings for such modes of traffic include a variety of strange noises emitted from the herder. One might hear “woops!” “hiyas!” or “heeeaaaaay!”. The shepherds appear to make up sounds on the spot. The animals do not always appear to understand.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
Do not expect cars to stop when one might expect, including, but not limited to stop signs, intersections, left turns, red lights, traffic circles, right turns, pedestrian crossings, any time, really. If a driver identifies a space that resembles nothing like an opening one might consider safe, simply accept that the driver will advance with little regard for the affect the move will have on the cyclist.
Further, cars never slow along the narrow streets. It is up to the cyclist to find a narrow gap – and quickly, mind you – in order to create space for the advancing vehicle.
When you notice a car pull up to such a gap, do not try to outrace the car. They will not stop. Repeat, they will not stop. Simply slow down and allow the car to proceed. The same rules apply to pedestrians. And don’t forget to wave.
The Bike Lane
Signs may indicate the sidewalk includes a bike lane. The sidewalk may even include a separated colored section indicating where the cyclist should travel. Don’t be silly, dear cyclist. The sidewalk is for car parking.
Though most drivers ignore no passing signs, some do value the lives of themselves and others and reduce their speed to that of the cyclist. Often these drivers are German, Dutch, or French. It is best to make friends with these drivers.
We offer the universal hand signal of a thumbs up to indicate safe passing. The cars are happy they can resume breaking speed laws and the cyclists are happy that they were not passed around a blind curve with an oncoming truck. This gesture also adds to the Bike Karma bank for future cyclists.
When it comes to right of way, bikes stand at the bottom of the totem pole. Just a notch above pedestrians and street dogs, yet still below the donkey cart carrying grapes and tobacco, the cyclist must remain keenly aware of their surroundings at all times.
As mentioned previously, many drivers kindly warn cyclists of their presence with the blare of a horn, however, even a moment’s lapse in attention may cause trouble. Cars suddenly appear from around the corner, the sidewalk, or a hidden driveway. Mopeds grant themselves access to bike paths, sidewalks, and navigating the wrong way down one way roads. Shoulders are fair game for travel in either direction by any mode of transportation.
And so, dear cyclist, there you have our guide to navigating the treacherous roads in rules-optional lands. Devices such as a bike mirror, blinkies, and high-visibility gear help greatly when traveling in conjunction with terrifying drivers.
Just don’t forget to wave.