On Being Passed While Riding A Motorcycle

Pay more attention to what’s behind us and have a plan for being passed.

touring, blue ridge parkway
If we all pay more attention to what’s behind us and have a plan for being passed, everyone on the road will have a better ride.©Motorcyclist

I don't find myself too often bored on a motorcycle. But 35 mph on the Blue Ridge Parkway is mind numbing when hemmed in by a mixed group of cruisers who had already passed two scenic pull-overs and weren't showing signs of visiting a third just ahead. Ten minutes of that put me in mind of a movie I saw as a kid, a W.C. Fields piece called If I Had a Million. A dying millionaire picks eight names from the phone directory as lucky recipients of his fortune. Fields' character, Rollo La Rue, uses his windfall to purchase a fleet of cars to run road-hogging drivers off the highways.

It’s an amusing fantasy, but it ought to remain just that. Still, anyone who rides or drives is confronted with the ethics, manners, and technique of passing another vehicle and, just as important, being passed. That last bit is something not many of us think about much, and if we’re the ones always doing the passing, we probably don’t think about it all.

It's not uncommon for motorcyclists and occasionally drivers to react angrily when passed, as though their self worth is defined by recognition as the sole pace setter for that strip of pavement. The most hostile example of this happened to me five years ago, also on the BRP. We were passing a group of four riders. The third raised a lusty middle finger; the second swerved into the passing lane in the motorcycle equivalent of a kick return block. We got by anyway, flashed a friendly wave—undeserved—and vanished two corners later. I can't explain that kind of hostility, so I won't even try. Thankfully, it's rare.

Less rare is a troubling reaction that we see often when riding the twisty bits in the Carolinas and Tennessee. It’s the deer-in-headlights look you get when overtaking a rider whose countenance clearly asks: “Where the hell did you come from?” Since a return glance can’t convey the answer, maybe Aerostich needs to make one of those flip-down license plate messages that says, “I’ve been in your mirror for 5 miles.”

And therein lies the problem. When the terrain gets interesting and the pavement snaky, some riders forget they have mirrors. Both eyes go into gimbal lock full forward. Then when they finally do spot a bike behind signaling the need for speed, a low-grade panic sets in. But it shouldn’t. On the most serpentine of roads, even at a sporting pace, there’s always a second or two to steal a glance at the mirrors. The more glances, the better to see traffic in the distance closing the gap and the more time to pick a spot to be passed gracefully and on your own terms.

I ride Deals Gap about three times a year and at a brisk pace. But there are riders who sail through faster than I do. My method for giving way is to slow slightly, drift into the right third of the pavement, and wave the rider by. Giving up just a third of the lane is probably enough for a rider skilled enough for a quick pace. But if the extra foot or two is there, why not use it? A full pull-over and stop will do, too, but I think it's overkill in most situations, even if you're being overtaken by a group.

It’s my observation that there are regional—and national—variations in passee behavior. In Italy I noticed that drivers and motorcyclists have raised the courtesy pull aside to a high art. It’s more an expectation than a rare gesture. Drivers in the California canyons appear similarly attuned to what’s behind them, which I think is a function of the state’s motorcycle culture, it being the land of the legal lane-split, after all.

You can’t do much to change the behavior of others. Aggressive brights flashing might simply steel the resolve of someone’s intent on defending the lane. But a habit we should all maintain, regardless of the road type, is mirror vigilance. You never know when Rollo La Rue is reeling you in.