The challenge of a stale green light
Imagine you’re on a committee at work focused on operating efficiency and safety. Not the strategy for how to accomplish those over the long haul, but making decisions on efficiency and safety that are implemented in real time. You volunteered for this committee and it meets every week (sometimes more often) for at least two virtually uninterrupted hours, often either at dawn or at the end of the day.
It has two co-chairs, but here’s one of the challenges: the co-chairs change every couple of minutes. Yes, minutes. And members can join or leave the meeting whenever they want. And many times the co-chairs aren’t even the same pair. In fact, there are members you might have never met. Sounds like chaos, right?
It also sounds like the typical group ride paceline.
We pay a lot of attention to the responsibilities of those leading a paceline for good reason. When you’re on the front you have the best perspective on hazards, traffic, and road conditions. You’re in the best position to keep the group safe, and to set a pace that keeps it moving as quickly and efficiently as possible.
But everyone else in the paceline has a responsibility to the group even when they’re not on the front. And it goes beyond not running into the person in front of you or letting a big gap grow. You are not a passenger, just watching the scenery until it’s your turn on the front. Just like in a meeting at work, to get the most accomplished everyone has to be actively engaged.
In a paceline, that means not locking your eyes onto the wheel in front of you. It means watching for overtaking traffic, or dogs coming into the road that the leaders might not have seen.
It also means anticipating what’s ahead. That may mean noticing when a gap forms a few riders ahead and preparing for the pace to pick up to close it. It may mean anticipating a gentle rise or a more substantial climb. And it may mean anticipating a changing traffic light.
I was on a group ride recently where a traffic light changed as we approached it. James and I were on the front, and when it changed to yellow I yelled “stopping!” to alert the 15 or so riders behind us. Not everyone stopped, and no one even made it to the intersection while the light was yellow.
It was a really tough call for a couple of reasons. The speed limit there was 25 mph and we were on a downward slope going a couple miles per hour faster than that. Because the speed limit is so low, the light is only yellow for four seconds.
My bias when approaching a light is always to stop if possible so that those on the back don’t have to run a red light just to stay with the group. If we had been 10 yards closer to the light when it changed, given our speed, I think I would have rolled it. But we weren’t.
And fortunately, there was no oncoming traffic turning left, or traffic entering from the right.
Like I said, it was a really tough call. A call I made in eight-tenths of a second. How can I possibly know that? And know exactly how long the light was yellow? Let’s go to the video, shall we?
Once I heard the confusion behind me and saw that the intersection was clear I kept rolling to make a pileup less likely.
Maybe I should have called out early for everyone to watch the light. It was a stale green and had been since we could first see it. Maybe if everyone in the group had been aware of that we could have begun slowing early and stopped safely and without chaos.
Or maybe our speed and the timing combined in a way that made running the light inevitable, and we were just lucky there was no traffic.
That’s the thing about meetings: sometimes even when the right people are in the room there’s just not a solution that solves the problem. But you’ve always got a better chance for success when everyone’s engaged.
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