Picture a world where people on two wheels are ubiquitous. Where bicycles are lined up in the springtime sun outside every outdoor cafe — and their riders are welcomed, indeed wooed. Where vehicles, even hulking buses, give way to groups of riders, and where the toot of a horn is more likely to communicate camaraderie than consternation.
That place is Majorca, the small Mediterranean island off the eastern coast of Spain that attracts an estimated 250,000 two-wheeled travelers for road cycling training each spring.
A gentle climate, varied terrain, cheap flights from most of Europe and affordable accommodations make this a cycling Mecca for pros with names like Contador who arrive in January and February and the club teams, triathletes and cycling enthusiasts who follow in March and April. I spent seven unforgettable days there last week with Signature Cycles and GPM10 Training.
What have quarter of a million road cyclists spinning up rugged hills or sprinting across the olive-tree-lined countryside got to do with the bike lanes of NYC? More than one might guess, it turns out. While training in this cycle-happy setting improved my fitness base and road skills, it also provided hours (and hours!) of saddle time to reflect on many topics — including why motorists and cyclists seem to be able to share the roads in relative harmony on this small, picturesque island.
Here’s what I observed that’s translatable to NYC, no matter what kind of bicycle one rides:
Numbers matter — Because there are so many cyclists on the roads, from highway shoulders to the narrowest of mountain switchbacks, motorists are accustomed to seeing them. They consider bicycles part of the normal traffic flow, rather than interlopers.
Everybody knows his and her place — One reason why motorists and cyclist can travel reasonably well together is that everybody knows and can therefore anticipate where the other will be. This requires that both parties follow generally accepted rules. For example, motorists can usually anticipate that cyclists will align on the side of the road that follows the traffic rather than in random locations, will steer wide when passing through traffic circles and will stop at signals.
Each party has road rights — Both parties seem far more willing than in the U.S. to acknowledge the other’s right to share the road. One among our group of riders suggested that, on Majorca, this live-and-let-live attitude is fueled by economic self interest. After all, he noted, cyclo-tourism contributes generously to the local economy. He’s right, but I have difficulty envisioning that the average Joe or Jane in a car or truck is choking down annoyance in the name of a Euro. It seems more likely that acceptance is embedded in the culture because cycling is more popular in Europe in general.
Cyclists and motorists talk — I don’t mean that they literally speak. Rather, they communicate through eye contact, hand signals, a discreet tap of a car horn. This helps maintain order — particularly at high speed. Motorists can pretty well expect that a quick toot of the horn on a narrow descent will trigger cyclists who are, for example, riding in a double line, to single up for easier passing, or that they will signal their destination when entering a roundabout. Cyclists can be assured that motorists won’t lay on horns on a narrow mountain pass, but will rather wait until either they see a clear road, or the cyclists signal (because they can see farther ahead) that it’s safe to pass.
There’s another word for all this: common courtesy.
Can some of this mutual respect be attributed to a massive presence of cyclists who possess well developed bike handling and road skills and who are accustomed to telegraphing their actions because the safety of the entire line depends on alertness to danger? Maybe. But following rules, communicating and treating others with respect aren’t exactly exotic concepts. Most of us learned them in kindergarten. That’s why, after my time on Majorca, it’s so puzzling that the rules are often forgotten or neglected on the island that I call home: Manhattan.