Narrow Roads & Traffic
The most obvious problem with cycling in Baja has to be the triple-threat formed by:
1) The prevalence of narrow paved two-lane roads;
2) The almost complete lack of shoulders; and
3) A fairly continuous stream of high-speed vehicular traffic.
Some states in the US have laws on the books that protect cyclists by prescribing the minimum distance a passing vehicle can come to a cyclist, usually three feet. In Baja, where there is an absence of such laws, common sense must prevail. I say this to clarify that many sections of Baja’s roads are not wide enough for passing vehicles and cyclists.
Semi-trucks passing each other present the worst case scenario. We regularly looked on in amazement as up ahead, opposite-direction semi-trucks used up every inch (and then some) of the width of the road’s surface while passing. It looked many times like the only thing preventing the two trucks from scraping sides, ripping mirrors off, or worse, was the outward swaying motion that resulted from the momentum of each moving further right, exactly at the last second. The sight of big trucks ‘bobbing’ past each other in this way can be quite unsettling.
The good news is that, for us, the triple threat mentioned above occurred only infrequently. Many days we found ourselves on narrow roads but the traffic was light. Other days we found ourselves on sections that had some shoulder. Still other days found us riding down very wide roads with four foot wide shoulders. But for days when we found ourselves on highly trafficked, narrow and shoulder-less roads we had a plan.
We took it upon ourselves to devise a method to minimize the chances of us encountering oncoming traffic on both sides of a narrow shoulder-less road at the same time.
First, each of our bikes was quipped with a rear view mirror, an essential piece of touring kit. Next we always rode single file in the presence of motorized vehicles. I rode in front and Sheila rode in back. My job was to announce oncoming traffic. Sheila’s job was to both announce all traffic approaching from behind us and to decide our course of action should it appear that the dreaded confluence was going to occur. Finally, we spoke aloud the following words or combination of words to report real time traffic information to each other: “Car/truck way/close back/ahead”, “Hill” - in the case of the field of vision being obstructed by an ascending or descending road - “Curve”, and “Coming fast,” or “Slowing down.” Again, the aim of relaying this info was to try and prevent a situation where everyone meets at the same time and at the same place, not an uncommon situation.
Cyclists Taking the Lane (When Necessary)
For the most part, this method worked like a charm. We would speed up, slow down or even stop, sometimes even pulling completely off the road (if conditions allowed), to provide vehicles the room needed to safely pass. Occasionally Sheila would even “take the lane” (the act of riding in the middle of the lane) when it became obvious that a driver approaching from the rear was not going to do the safe thing or when we could see oncoming traffic that the car behind us could not. Amazingly, taking the lane, along with waving an arm up and down to signal “slow down”, was rewarded with good behavior from drivers. As a testament to the wonderful character of the people of Baja, not once did drivers honk or display signs of frustration with us for taking such measures. In fact, most of them waved and smiled when it was, once again, safe to pass us. Try this where we’re from (even though it’s perfectly legal) and you may get an earful of horn and possibly even aggressive and dangerous driver reactions.
Luckily, we rarely needed to deploy our “taking the lane” technique since the vast majority of drivers regularly slowed down on their own and patiently waited for the opposite direction traffic to pass before passing us. Another thing we noticed, and were grateful for, was the tendency of drivers to illuminate their car’s flashers to indicate caution to all oncoming vehicles. When the potential threat expired, the flashers would be extinguished. These impromptu actions and techniques, seemingly invented by local drivers (I doubt taught by the Mexican version of the DMV) work really well and improve safety on Baja’s narrow and winding roads.
Of course, roads lacking adequate shoulders are only an issue when combined with a regular flow of traffic. Although visitors at other times of the year may find different conditions, the good news for us was that many sections of the shoulder-less paved roads were quite free of traffic. This goes-double for the non-paved roads that snake their many ways across much ofBaja’s less traveled areas. You’re lucky to count ten vehicles per day on some of the back roads. Plus, it should be noted that the federal government is addressing the narrowness issue of Baja’s main roads with an ambitious road widening project. We benefited several times from this ongoing work.