“Five abreast…”

Comment & Analysis: “You see, the problem with cyclists is when they go out in these big groups two abreast out here on the narrow country roads.”

This conversation is not the reason why I came to the gym today, but here we are. I should never have mentioned to the gym owner dude, when he came to ask how I’m getting on, that the exercise helps with stress around finishing corrections to my thesis.

That inevitably led to him asking what my research was about and, from there, to the above statement.

“Well,” I start, “cyclists are legally allowed to cycle two abreast.”

“Three abreast, on these narrow country roads where there’s barely enough space for two cars to pass each other…”

I’m having a serious case of deja vu, perhaps double deja vu, because this conversation seems to happen to me at least twice a year. “If it’s a big group of cyclists, you’re talking about a club cycling in a peloton. On occasion someone from the back will overtake the group to take over the front position because it’s a bit more strenuous there. So, for a few moments, there’s a three-abreast situation, but it’s never for longer than the time it takes for the rider to overtake the group. This is also legal.”

I launch into a patient but brief explanation of how it’s actually better for drivers if a group of cyclists go two abreast as that’s quicker to overtake. I repeat that the only time such a group would be three abreast —

“Five abreast,” interjects a fellow gym-goer who’d been half-listening from the next machine.

I pause. “Five abreast? Are you sure?”

“Five abreast, yes, on these narrow country roads –“

“But that’s not possible.”

The gym owner dude frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the standard width of a cyclist is about 70-75cm, with wobble room we make it a metre. Carriageways are usually around 6m wide, depending on the road, with your lane about 2.5 to 3m wide. You are both referring to narrow country roads where there’s barely enough room for two cars to pass — a car is about 2m wide, I think, so you’re talking about roads that are, per your description, more likely 4 to 4.5m wide from edge to edge. If you put five cyclists side by side they wouldn’t fit into the road.”

There’s an awkward silence, but it goes over my head because I’m now oblivious to all but this strange puzzle.

“Did you notice the club jerseys? Because this means at least some of them were cycling on the wrong side of the road. I think any club leadership would be rather horrified if their members did something like this, especially if they’re wearing club gear.”

I try to remember the names of cycling clubs hereabouts, but it’s been a very long time since I was involved in sport cycling myself. Even when I was involved, it was in Louth: we’re now in Cavan. I can only think of one.

“Would you have any footage of this? You didn’t, by any chance, have a dash cam, did you? Because this is very dangerous behaviour, I mean, you really shouldn’t be on the wrong side of the road. This honestly should be reported to the Guards.”

Gym owner dude glances at the clock above the door.

“But I don’t really get how they fit,” I carry on, oblivious. I turn my attention to the other gym goer, who’d witnessed this defiance of the laws of physics. “If you see this again, could you do me a favour and just, if you have someone with you in the car who could take a photo. But this is so serious I would honestly urge you to stop and take one if you’re on your own. Get the club jersey if they’re wearing one, and then go report this to the Guards.”

“I have to go, sorry, have a good workout.” The gym owner dude leaves.

Fellow gym goer checks their watch. “Gosh, I also have to go. Bye.”

I finish my workout, brooding over what just happened. I get that what they said was just not true, it’s not physically possible. But what phenomenon happened on that road for them to be so convinced they had witnessed five cyclists abreast on a narrow country road? Could it be that a club cycle devolved into a bundle because they didn’t expect to encounter traffic? Was it a race? That’s the one context in which bundling does occur. But the observer would have known if it was a race, there’d be marshalls and things.

It’s weeks later as I write this, and I still think about it now and then. I want so badly to understand what happens in people’s minds for this to occur, this insistence that you have seen with your own eyes cyclists doing something that makes no sense from a cycling perspective, and in this case is unlikely to even be phyiscally possible.

I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever figure out.


  1. You do admit Nadia that it’s been a very long time since you’ve been involved in sports cycling but, even back then, there would have been no need for cyclists moving to the front of group to be anything other than two-abreast. One of the front two riders will move in front of the other and those behind the rider who moved will all speed up slightly to level up the two lines of cyclists.
    Maybe there is some peculiar optical defect in car windscreens that causes two cyclists to appear as four or even five?

    • Liam, thank you, genuinely, for the correction. It’s close to fifteen years since I’ve touched a road bike so yeah, the memory is a bit rusty! That way of rotating the front position makes a lot more sense. Much more sense than five abreast! :-D

  2. Super article Nadia! Have you been back to the gym since? Re the 3 abreast, isn’t it legal in any case if number 3 is overtaking numbers 1 and 2, cycling 2 abreast? Not thinking of a road bike peleton so much as say 2 friends, a couple or a parent and child say and the person behind is in a hurry and decides to overtake them (safely). Safe Cycling Éire has a good explanation I think of the optical illusion that causes us to perceive a staggered 2 behind 2 as in fact 4 abreast

  3. They were clearly exaggerating for effect to bolster their irrational belief that cyclists as a group behave very poorly and are always a menace to the poor put-upon motorist. You blinded them with facts delivered with a faux-naïvety that exposed the nonsense of their exaggeration at which point they departed in defeat. Well played.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.