Robot’s Useless Reviews – On Your Left

The Law of Diminishing Returns posits that, at some point, increased investment in a specific process fails to bring commensurate gains. This is how I feel about ‘on your left’ now. Twenty years ago, a courteous ‘on your left’ might alert a pedestrian or another rider that you would imminently be passing on their left-hand side. Some might hold their line, so that you might go by without any sudden need to deviate your path. Others might even step to the right, widening the way for you to slip past. And then both gradually and suddenly, it stopped working.

I blame Steve Jobs.

Unfortunately, approaching from behind, it is almost impossible to tell whether someone is wearing headphones, even when they are bright white, and by now, a symbol of the creeping solipsism that affects humanity. We are, more and more, living in our own little worlds, and, as you can imagine, in that little world, a cyclist approaching at speed from behind doesn’t exist, breaking as he or she might the illusion, closely held, that one is alone here on the planet Earth.

Airpods have only made this problem worse.

I myself don’t feel entitled to the way, by which I mean, I don’t expect everyone to get out of my way on command. Still, if my first two OYLs produce no reaction at all, I do find myself shouting the third, which makes it sound like I’m yelling at someone to get what I want. And look, I understand, we all fall behind on our knitting podcasts (or whatever it is we listen to) and want to catch up while out for a walk. That’s all clear enough. But how can we enjoy the aforementioned media and also pay the minimum respect to those around us, who are very busy riding their bicycles vigorously and with noble purpose?

If you are in the UK (as I am now also, ironically), then just substitute OYR for OYL, and a lawn bowling podcast for the knitting, and Bob’s your uncle. Tony’s got a new motor. You know what I’m saying.

I’m not pro bike bell. I’ve made my feelings on that clear, but there is an argument to be made that a bell’s high pitch has a better chance of cutting through whatever cutting commentary is in the ears of your fellow humans than a demure OYL. By and large though, I find that either a single, high, piercing note or a polite OYL have the same general effect, which is to startle the ever-loving s*$t out the common pedestrian. And a part of me really likes that. Call me passive aggressive.

Lest I’ve been too subtle up to this point, let me just say now that this piece isn’t really about OYL or bike bells or even the brilliant comedy of Alexei Sayle. It’s about how we treat each other out in the world when we’re sharing the same space.

‘On your left’ is a perfect solution to a problem that refuses now to be solved. There is nothing wrong with those three courteous words, and there’s also nothing terribly wrong with hoping to get a moment to yourself, either by listening to music, or by pretending, on some level, that everyone else has died in a recent zombie apocalypse. If we don’t find a way forward, a new OYL of some sort, what we’re left with is this persistent friction between us, a heat building there, until we’re not speaking to each other at all, and every piece of pavement is worth fighting over.

Join the conversation
  1. Tom says

    I agree. I just don’t yell OYL anymore. Too many walkers jump LEFT(!) on the trails here..

    I’ve become very pro bell.. everyone knows what to do, when they hear the “ringy-dingy”of my CLASSIC kid’s bike bell!

  2. bart says

    For those of you using a bell on a drop bar bike, where do you mount it?

  3. Balky says

    @Bart Under the stem around the stem spacers facing forward for me. Out of the way and almost invisible. Might be problematic if you’ve slammed your stem though.

  4. mattdwyerva says

    Sadly, I need many tactics on MUP trails, as opposed to pleasant roads. Sometimes, I say “on your left”, sometimes I ring my fabulous Spurcycle bell when I’m still back 25 yards, sometimes I say “passing”, sometimes I ninja past, sometimes I slow to a crawl since 3 year olds (human or canine) are often curious. I use a flashing headlight as well, pointed slightly down, even though some likely shake their head in dismay at that.

    I also try to remember to look up :).

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