Is it ever OK for one cyclist to offer advice or criticism to another?

One of the (many) fine things about being on a bicycle is that, instead of being cooped up in a box, you're out in the great wide world.

Which means that it's often easy to communicate with a fellow cyclist while rolling or stationary – even if you've never met before. No windows to wind down, no complex gesticulating or confused hooting, just a smile, a nod and a quick natter.

I always enjoy saying g'day to other riders I encounter, and seeing people on bikes tends to make me smile.

Interacting with bike-riding strangers has also taught me things, helped me find my way, won me friends and riding partners (often the same thing) and even led to offers of beer, accommodation and chocolate biscuits.

But here's a question: When is it acceptable to give other riders unsolicited information or advice, even with the best of intentions? And is it ever OK to criticise their actions?

To start in the shallow end of this murky pool, there are instances when I feel it would be foolish NOT to say something to another rider.

I was recently heading home at night, and noticed that the rider ahead of me didn't appear to have any illumination. When I got closer, I saw he had a flashing red light attached to his backpack – but it had flopped sideways and wasn't sending its beams anywhere useful.

I mentioned this and he stopped and changed his set-up – just as I once gratefully received a warning that one of my pannier straps was loose, and trailing dangerously close to my spokes.

Then there are possibly helpful but less than crucial observations. I wouldn't call myself a bike-fit expert, but I can't help but wince when I see someone toiling up a hill on a bike seat that's way too low.

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Would it be doing someone a favour to say something - especially if they are obviously cycling with sporting intentions, and not simply rolling around on a cruiser? There's a tricky line between helpful and bossy, and I'd hate to be seen as the latter.

I mentioned this to a friend, who replied "at least you don't get 'mansplained'," and recounted how a bloke had cycled past her and said: "Just settle in, get in a low gear and you can do it."

This while climbing a hill she rides up twice a week, in club kit. She passed him near the top.

Legal objections

Then there's the deeper end of this debate - cyclists who break the law. Is it ever useful or acceptable to say something, especially when their actions aren't negatively affecting others?

In a recent survey, cyclists said they often flout regulations out of a desire for self-preservation when infrastructure is unhelpful - which is why it doesn't bother me when I see someone rolling along cautiously on a footpath in one of the four states in Australia where it's illegal.

Meanwhile, people have told me they've had other cyclists say "where's your helmet?" when riding bareheaded, even though their actions are hardly causing a danger to others.

Light brigade

And then, of course, there is that most contentious of issues - red lights.

I was waiting at an intersection with a few other riders earlier this year when one of them looked left and right and, seeing the way clear, rolled through the red. Next to me, another cyclist yelled: "Oi, mate ... red light!"

The observation was ignored or not heard, and I don't know what kind of an exchange the two might have had, anyway.

A common motivation for these challenges, I think, is that some feel lawbreakers give a bad name to bike riders generally.

Cycling is surely the only major form of locomotion saddled with a concept of shared guilt.

As a societal "out-group", it's common for people to lump cyclists into one category: "They're all a bunch of lawbreakers." I've never heard of anyone saying that texting motorists give all drivers a bad name, or that we should stop building footpaths until pedestrians get their act together and stop jaywalking.

To criticise, or to not?

So, when is it constructive to give advice, or even criticism?

For the latter, the prevalent human response to being barked at is to bite back - it's hardly a way to start a constructive conversation. And appeals about protecting the "image of cyclists" don't cut much ice with people who don't see themselves as members of a homogeneous group - they just happen to be riding a bike.

There are ways to discuss such topics constructively, but it'd be hard to be successful during a brief moment with a stranger on the road.

As for trying to help others out, it surely depends on how it's done - and it's probably best to err on the side of caution.

There's so much "do this, don't do that" attached to cycling these days, I reckon that so long as someone is rolling along without causing a dangerous situation, a smile and a "g'day" is the best interaction.

Have you had any good or bad exchanges with other riders when out cycling? Let us know in the comments section.

Comments will be carefully moderated and only those addressing the topic will be considered for publication.

Writing on a topic so often dominated by emotive opinion and knee-jerk reaction, Michael O'Reilly has become one of Australia's most respected voices on road cycling issues. His measured and well-researched opinions have earned numerous awards and accolades and he occasionally appears on cycling programs on SBS.

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