There is a fundamental truth in cycling, and it is this:
When riding on a trail, it’s virtually impossible to pass a walker, runner, or hiker from behind without scaring the living shit out of them.
This puts us in something of a bind. After all, the cyclist-pedestrian relationship is a fragile one, and in some communities our trail access hangs in the balance. However, what are we supposed to do when our very presence is all it takes to frighten people out of their shoes?
No doubt this has been an issue since the very first velocipedist called out, “Ahoy!” And over the years our fair warning cry has evolved thusly:
“On your left!”
It’s one of the most common utterances in cycling, but to me it's also one of the most cringe-enducing phrases in the entire English language, right up there with “Welcome to TGI Friday’s!” and “OK, I’m going to check your prostate now.”
Of course, giving people a heads-up when you’re about to overtake them is often a good idea, and in this regard “On your left!” has certain things going for it. It’s concise, it conveys your position relative to the passee, and it consists of three monosyllables for weight savings and enhanced stiffness.
The problem, however, is in the delivery. Too many bike-path cyclists handle it as awkwardly as they do their carbon time-trial bikes. “On your left!" they bellow imperiously, their hips rocking on their maladjusted saddles as they push a way-too-large gear into the distance.
In this sense, “On your left!" is like a Godfather impression. Sure, some people can pull it off, but the vast majority sound like idiots. For this reason alone, it deserves to die.
Of course, the fact remains that you’re almost certainly going to scare (or at least annoy) people regardless of how politely you warn them of your approach. I know this because I’ve been conducting pedestrian passing experiments for years. Moreover, I’ve been doing so in and around New York City, which as the most densely populated metropolitan area in the United States makes it the CERN lab of passing studies. Here are some warning techniques I’ve applied, with varying degrees of success:
If you’re riding somewhere so crowded that you’ve got to warn other trail users and all you’ve got time for is “On your left!", then you’re riding too fast. Slow down and use your grown-up words. The rules of polite discourse don’t change just because you're riding a bike, and if you wouldn’t say it in a supermarket aisle or on an escalator then you probably shouldn't say it at all.
In theory, the delightful chime of a bell would evoke a Buddhist monastery and elevate both you and your fellow trail users to a state of mindfulness. In practice, it can be jangly and irritating, plus there’s just something about ringing a bike bell that can make you feel like an idiot.
This is not to say the bell has no place on a bicycle. After all, if you want to communicate your imminent approach from a distance, it’s a whole lot better than shouting. Plus, there are all sorts of fancy bike bells now that are just as at home on your race bike as they are on your townie, so it’s not like you’ve got to ride around with a great big saucepan on your handlebars.
Still, depending on the circumstances, your bell might only be slightly less likely to startle someone than an “On your left!” and the only time it gets a uniformly positive response is when you use it to greet large groups of schoolchildren.
Using Your Bike
To some extent, warning people that you're going to pass is less about not startling them and more about choosing when to startle them. Do you want to scare them shitless with the bell from 50 feet away or do you want to do it at point blank range when you finally enter their peripheral vision? (Generally you want the former so they don't veer directly into into your path, but in a way it’s all like waking a sleepwalker anyway, so what’s the difference?)
However, if (and this is a big “if”) the person you're passing is not wearing headphones, you may be able to gradually enter their consciousness without frightening them by using the mechanical properties of your bicycle. For example, certain boutique hubs emit a loud ratcheting sound while coasting, and that may be enough to gradually get someone's attention without startling or angering them—assuming they're not suffering from PTSD after a killer bee attack. Gratuitous shifting might also offer enough of a subtle warning, though if you’re running an electronic transmission the whirring of the servos might make them think they’re being stalked by some sort of killer robot.
Or, if all else fails, you can pop your rear wheel up and down and hope for some chainslap.
Using the Environment
If it’s an unpaved trail, you may be able to ride over some twigs or rustle through the underbrush. The best-case scenario is they stop and stand stock-still like a deer. The worst-case scenario is they go scampering into the forest like a deer.
Waiting Silently for an Opportune Moment to Strike
If the walker, hiker, or runner is hearing-impaired due to the application of some form of in-ear speaker, then you may have no choice but to follow behind until there’s room to pass and then pounce. The danger here is that the person you’re passing will almost certainly bolt, so make sure you wait until there’s plenty of room to minimize the risk of collision. Also, in these situations, you can be sure the person will tell you off for not warning them—and loudly, because they’ve got to shout over the music.
In the End You Can't Win, So It's All About Your Attitude
Sure, the indignant suburban power-walker or the headphone-addled runner may be annoying, but do you really want to live in a world where people can't relax and zone out once in awhile? As long as they’re not operating heavy machinery, what’s the big deal? And in the absence of motor vehicles, it’s you who's operating the heavy machinery, so act accordingly.
And save the “On your left!” for warning people about impending animal attacks.