Understanding the Yellow Line Rule

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I am continually surprised how much controversy arises in comment section when I mention someone crossing the yellow line in a bicycle race.  I think the rule should be called the centerline rule, but whatever it is called, there seems to differing  interpretations of it.

I do understand the guys that think that breaking a rule is breaking a rule.  Some people think that crossing the yellow line is akin to doping in the professional ranks.  But that isn’t the case.

One thing that really attracted me to the sport initially was that it really isn’t a subjective sport. You start and the first guy to cross the finish line wins.  Pretty cut and dry.  But there are some rules in the sport, that are subjective.

I know, you are going to say, no, rules aren’t subjective.  But, I hope I can explain how this is true and how it is fair.

There isn’t a problem with the yellow line rule.  The rule is very important to allow the sport to survive in the environment of our society.   Virtually no local or regional road races could occur if this rule wasn’t written down in the USAC rulebook.  Whether the rule is enforced or enforceable, that is another situation.

Here’s the deal.  Ultimately, the best bicycle race would be on a totally closed road.  But only the professionals and sometimes, a very few amateurs, enjoy that “luxury”.   The next best thing is a rolling enclosure.  That allows the racers the full use of the road, but if or when you aren’t able to stay with the pack, then you have to abide by the centerline rule.

Lastly, there are the rest of the road races.  The majority that most of you are racing.  These races are the races where the centerline rule comes into play.  The rule is –

3B1. Center Line. If a course is not closed to traffic, all competitors must keep to the right of the center line or enforcement line. 

Notice the word must in the rule.  That is a strong word.  Maybe shall would be better?  Or even a less strong word than shall.  But, it is must.  What is weird, I think the original rule had something like you can’t advance positions across the centerline, but that must have been removed a while a go.

In reality, in many races with Cat 1/2’s or professionals, the rule is flexible.  The rule is in place for the law enforcement.  You might think it is there for safety, but that isn’t the case.  The safest race is that where the road is close.  The next safest is a rolling enclosure, the next is a race where the yellow line rule isn’t enforced and finally, lastly, a race where the rule is enforced.

You might not believe this, but it is true.  You don’t want to be doing a bicycle race with 150 other guys and have oncoming traffic coming at you at 55 mph.  Or maybe worse, traffic coming by from behind at 55 mph.  When the field is stretched across the road, the oncoming traffic does yield, thus the riders are safer.  The oncoming drivers might be pissed a little, but if the lead motorcycle or car does their job properly, they warn the oncoming traffic of the race and no one is really out anything.

Another problem, one lane of a normal two lane road is very narrow for conducting a bigger bicycle race.  When there are fields over 75, not to mention 150 riders, riding on half the road is very restrictive.  Add just a small amount of wind to the equation, then it is nearly impossible.

So, we’re giving our officials an impossible task.  We’ve made a rule that is virtually impossible to enforce in many situations and then asking them to enforce it.

Most officials have raced bicycles before.  And most of them understand the situation.  They really don’t want to be kicking guys out of a bicycle race.  That isn’t good for anyone.  So many times, the officials do a lot of threatening, but the race continues.

And here is the real deal.  When there is a race where there are going to be blatant centerline violations, causing problems with the traffic and police, then the race either needs to be called or every rule violator needs to be removed from the race.  But when this happens, like I stated before, it is nearly impossible to remove all the riders from the race that have broken the rule.

Many time if there is a field of 100 riders, 92 of them are across the centerline.  It would be easier telling the guys that aren’t across the centerline that they can keep going than trying to disqualify the rest of the field.

The rule is good.  And nearly in every race I’ve done, it has been enforced correctly.  I have done 1000’s of road races in my life and probably less than 10 there has been a yellow line situation, where it affected the results.  And all of these, it was, what I considered a Nazi official that didn’t understand the dynamics of the sport.

I have been removed from a race once, yes once, for a centerline violation.  I was a first year senior (elite) rider and had moved to Austin Texas for the spring.  The 2nd road race I doing there, I got in a move with John Howard and David Meyer-Oaks.  John was one of the best riders in the country, on Olympic and Nationals teams.  David was just a notch less famous, but a great rider, one I knew of too.

I was in a 3 up break, minutes up the road and was happier than I had ever been. I was pulling as hard as I could each and everytime I got to the front.  I was expecting to get third, but wanted to do my share.

Tom Boyden, a Texas hardass official, was following our break.  We were riding in a wicked sidewind and were nearly side by side, the wind was so strong from the left.  All of a sudden, this official, Tom, pulls up and says something like, “number 77, you disqualified, remove yourself from the race”.

We spread across the road and John started talking to Tom. I can remember it now.  He said, “Tom, what seems to be the problem.”  Tom explains that me/I, #77, had cross the centerline when there was a gust of wind and that I was out of the race.  John explained that the conditions were extreme and that he thought that wasn’t fair.  I told Tom, (I didn’t really know him then), that I didn’t mean to cross the yellow line and promised I wouldn’t do it again.  He told me I was out.

John apologized to me and said that Tom was an asshole and that he would suspend me if I didn’t quit.  He said sorry and they rode off.  I was devastated.

After the race, John came over and said he felt badly, then invited to me a party he was having that night.  It turned out to be alright. The party invitation offset the injustice  and made it seem less important.

This is an example of a time where the rule was enforced completely wrong.  I’ve been in a few races where the wind is coming so hard from the side that it is nearly impossible staying on one side of the road.  Especially with 5-10 guys ahead of you trying to hold their bikes upright.

This situation has been the same every since I started racing bikes.  The situation and the remedy.  Like I said above, it is an impossible task for an official to enforce this rule fairly.  When it rains, it pours in this situation.  And it goes across all categories.  No one, officials included, is happy when the it arises.

Anyway, people shouldn’t get so worked up with the centerline rule.  It works, it really does. There isn’t a problem with it.   It works even when the word must isn’t enforced.  Bicycle racing is very dynamic.  Trying to officiate the sport is a very hard job.  The best officials understand racing and do their best to keep the race fair and safe.



centerline copy

Tucker doesn't mind getting a little muddy.

Tucker doesn’t mind getting a little muddy.

22 thoughts on “Understanding the Yellow Line Rule

  1. TwiggyTN

    Here we go again Steve. Look, the way it’s typically done here in the mid South is if you get bumped over by another rider and you immediately get back in without improving your position then cool, they let it go. But if you go across and move up you either get told to move to the very back of that group or if it’s blatant enough you are DQ’d and pulled immediately. Seems fair to me because all it takes is for one guy to move up across the line and then it’s a free for all by everyone else, especially if it’s hard to move up in the race. Better get you popcorn…..

  2. Bart

    The Fond du Lac Road course (ToAD) SE of town is done due to center line violation, residents got tired of having to dodge the riders.

    When racing I pushed the centerline and the officials patience, as an official I try to bend as much as I can based on the course, wind, amount of traffic, and local knowledge.

    In my dealings with riders, prior to a race start the riders are warned that infractions by a rider counts against the pack as a whole. This builds from warning, discussion, DQ, and possible stopping of the race if the pack is being silly. If the wind or a pack surge pushes a rider across the line that rider is in a bad place and needs to move. Advance your position in any way and you’ll be coming back for a chat. Next rider to advance their position over the centerline will be DQ’d. After that cross the line at your own risk.

    Consider that if one is riding on the center line half of the rider and their bicycle is on the other side of the road. If that rider gets bumped, blown, or pushed into traffic by a pack surge said rider is probably going to be killed.

    In the end it’s just a bicycle race and not worth your life.

    1. Bart

      Reference for the Fond du Lac issue. The local residents lit up the Fond du Lac Sheriff’s office switchboard with complaints about riders blocking the roads. In response the Sheriff made the promoters and officials finish and stop the race. After, the Sheriff advised that the course would never be used again.

  3. Jpete

    I remember one race where I was in the final group in super windy conditions coming into the final 3 miles. The group fanned out, all the way across the road, uphill, around a bend. Completely blind to traffic. I decided then that, despite being strong enough to sit in, it wasn’t worth the risk, so I stayed on the legal side of the road. Seconds later several guys were about taken out by a pickup. The driver, not at fault was clearly pissed. More bad vibes for cycling. I was slowly getting shelled in the wind, when a gust knocked two guys into each other, and 4 or 5 guys hit the pavement. I just rode by. I think we still have some responsibility to keep our race “in bounds”. It’s there to protect us, and provide passage for others.

  4. Dave M

    Could not disagree more. So, oncoming traffic – screw them, if we are all across the road they’ll have to yield. So, maybe some drivers are pissed. Racing your bike is vitally important to the world, after all. You do recognize that 99.9% of the folks in the US would be perfectly happy if there was never a bike race on a public road in the first place, don’t you? Sure, the rule is tough to enforce for officials. That’s why I have heard at road race after road race the promoters and officials practically begging the riders to stay to the right of the center line on their own. The penalty? No race in the future.

    The rule is written the way it is for a multitude of good reasons, and isn’t magically going to change to your fantasy wording. And the vast majority of officials understand that circumstances could force a rider to cross the center line briefly, but expect you to get back over the line as soon as possible. Your little story may be a tear jerker, but it’s not typical. And I have seen plenty of riders blatantly violate the rule for the sole purpose of advancing their position.

  5. mks

    I find it amazing you can justify “cheating” when a centerline rule violation occurs. And yes – it’s cheating. As you comment above – the ONLY time a centerline violation becomes an issue is when a echelon has formed secondary to a wicked crosswind. I’m sure you’d agree that cycling is a very tactical sport – one of the major components of the tactical side of the activity is “placement”. Typically that placement involves doing less work if possible (drafting, echelon) or being in the right place at the right time (prepping for sprint, etc.). The centerline rule is all about this – IF you can get in that echelon and are strong enough to stay in the echelon you’ve earned the right to be there. If you can’t and you get guttered off – well, that’s too bad but you aren’t as good as the people in front of you. IF you choose to violate the centerline rule and tag on the back of the echelon without having “earned” that position you’re cheating. Plain and simple. It isn’t in the same class as doping – it would be ridiculous to think that. But it’s cheating. Again – amazing to me you see this allowable. Final comment – it IS about safety. I was in an event several years ago when a woman crossed the centerline – a truck pulling a trailer went by in the opposite lane. Cyclist was clipped by the trailer and ultimately died from the crash. The use of the word “must” in the centerline rule is intentional, be certain of that.

    1. Krakatoa East of Java

      Running afoul of an established rule and CHEATING are sometimes two totally different things. Sometimes they are the same thing.

      My first time (ever) racing on the track, I won a race. I swerved up a bit after I crossed the line, as I was not yet completely used to fixed gears. I broke a rule. The ref knew this was my first race on a velodrome. Knew I wasn’t trying to be reckless. He gave me a stern warning about holding my line after the finish, and I never forgot it again. Was I a cheater? I’d already won the event. I broke my rule AFTER crossing the line.

      If the violation of a rule is always cheating, then the rule book needs to direct the official to automatically DQ the rider. Note that some rules DO specify an automatic DQ. Most don’t (including the CL rule).

  6. Terry

    Once in a lead break of 4, I was dq’d for lapping a group of cat 5 stragglers. I don’t even know if I went more than 2 feet over for 10 seconds… in any case, I felt the official clearly had no ability to see beyond black and white, and that it was clearly unjust.

  7. Wildcat

    From an officials point of view – lots of local races can’t afford to have a moto-ref or ref in a wheel vehicle following every group. So sometimes it’s just somebody’s wife or whatever who is following a group in a wheel vehicle. Also – if there is a significant break it’s up to the discretion of the person driving that vehicle to follow the lead group. What I’m getting at is that in small local races refs can’t follow all the action of the race in each group. You simply have to rely on the guys (and gals) racing to police themselves. At the end, results are posted and a protest period is given. When there is a protest you have to listen to all the guys complaints and different stories on what may have happened to try and play judge. Sometimes riders are reasonable, but most times some are not. You just have to do your best to sort it out.

  8. Krakatoa East of Java

    Man, you guys are so fucking BINARY in your thinking. Steve’s not saying it’s “OK” to break rules. He’s saying that some rules are less black-and-white than others, and some analysis of the situation should be considered when enforcing them.

    Just like it’s not alright to wrap your arms around your opponent in boxing (a clever way to rest and stop being beaten any further), it’s not OK to cross the center line. But it happens. Often. And it’s not always “cheating” when it’s done. If every boxing rule was enforced the way you’re suggesting we enforce the CL rule, then we’d have no boxing champions. They’d all have been DQ’d.

    Sometimes, in certain situations, depending on… the available amount of room on the road, the number of riders confined to a small space, the amount of wind, etc, people end up on the other side of the road. Sometimes lots of them. Sometimes all of them (not all at once). Sometimes (as in my Ridgecrest example) the smartest choice is to just end the race (not pull out your rulebook and start DQing 3/4 of the peloton).

    In Tilford’s example with John Howard… That was an official that lived his life in a high contrast world of absolutes. Black and white. Positive or negative. Binary. He didn’t see the bigger picture. A simple warning would have sufficed, and Steve probably wouldn’t have crossed a center line for another full year.

    It IS possible to break a rule, continue onward, and not be a cheater.

    The cheaters are the ones who sit in the back dicking around with their friends for 15 miles, ignoring the fact that a big climb is approaching, and they fail to properly position themselves to squeeze through inner-peloton traffic and get into good road position for the climb. They don’t want to waste energy passing dropped riders on the way up, so they bolt across the CL and pass 50 guys. THOSE are cheaters. Big difference between that and what Steve did in Texas.

  9. jeffc

    we used to race in the gatineau park (Cat 1/2) on tuesday nights.

    The place is patrolled by a federal level cop shop, rules are enforced… but, we managed to get legal rides in with a car following in front and behind. The yellow line rule is in place now. As before, its take your chances… if you cross the line and get hit, well that’s your own misfortune really. Yah took the chance and lost your pants sort of deal… its like do the crime do your time sorta deal… so, if yah take the risk, yah gotta live with the consequences. Its like in BC Canada, people say – what ever you are comfortable with, you gotta live with the results of YOUR actions… so be it, live and let learn I guess … can’t protect everyone from their own actions or stupidity really. Do as you may cause policing it is very very costly, cost us a fortune to police everything.

    1. LD

      And what about the poor driver who kills the errant cyclist? He/she has to live with that cyclist’s bad decision for the rest of their life. Not fair at all.

  10. Asocratic

    “less than 10 there has been a yellow line situation, where it affected the results.”
    I would argue this is factually wrong by a large margin.
    You need to qualify that by saying the “results of the winners”
    I am sure nearly every race that has bad cross winds that splits the field has riders that get drop because they feel the center line rule is not a subjective and consider it cheating. This choose has a significant impact on their results.

  11. Mike G.

    The image on the page from an officials training manual is mine, and is illustrative of how violating the centerline rule on open roads – for any reason – can get you DEAD. Lance is on the correct side of the centerline NOW – but a few seconds before he was on the line where the right side of the MOVING car is. He’s lucky he didn’t get everyone killed, and a minute later was told in no uncertain terms to “get out of the race” by the official in the lead car (The Iron Fist of Justice – Cyndi Smith).

    If the road is open to traffic going both ways, and does not use POLICE to move oncoming traffic off the road, there is no situation where riding across the centerline is acceptable. Any rider who does so BY CHOICE (not by accident) must be DQed – simple as that.
    Crossing the centerline on purpose is cheating (taking unfair advantage), it creates an unsafe environment for themselves and all the other racers on the road (drivers forced off the road will often take their ire out on any other riders they see), and puts the officials on the road in danger when they have to pass the field to pull alongside and enforce the rules.
    Officials recognize there’s a difference between being bumped across the lines or drifting across for a second at the back of an echelon (honk at or issue a verbal warning), but those riders making a decision to pull around another rider and advance (relegation), and going to the gutter on the wrong side (instant DQ) should realise there is no leeway granted when it comes to racer safety.
    It’s important to teach riders as they move through the ranks of amateur racing that taking chances with your life and livelihood and that of any others is absolutely positively totally uncceptable.
    Pro racing is a totally different world. Their races are organized and officiated differently, with total road and rolling enclosures, team cars, and rules that can be bent and broken with only a cash or time penalty. They know you “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”.
    When you get to the pro’s, you can revel in that world. Until then, don’t be a dick.
    Tom Boyden was, indeed, a trip…

  12. Jshein

    Strict enforcement of the CL rule can also be used in a negative fashion. Many years ago we had a bunch of juniors racing in a CAT4 road race. Some adult racer felt superior to the juniors and wanted them out of the race. He positioned himself in a manner that forced several of the juniors across the center line on purpose. The moto ref DQ’d the juniors. At the finish, the juniors (DQ’d or witnesses), all from competing teams banded together to protest the actions of the adult and successfully got him relegated for his pitiful actions. Of course that was a wasted race for the boys who were booted out and didn’t get a finish, but a lesson was learned.

  13. mike crum

    steve, your headline “understanding the center line rule”.. my question.. do you? you race down a road, make a right turn, sure you’r across the centerline..but wihig 100 yards everyone is back on the correct side..thats cool, you can also slow down to a crawl, make your turn at 5mph and sta on the right side, but realisticallly, i een the officials not bitching cause within 100 yards everyone is back on the correct ide of the road.. now, watching lots of videos of the pros, they hammer down a big road cause a narrow road is coming up after a turn.. so being in position is key.. at local races, with a 30mph wnd at your back you up the pace to 40, but once you turn onto a road and are in a crossind, you still go by the yellow line rule and ride on the correct side. an old country road with no markings, dont go over the center ofthe road… which means maybe 3 at most can eschelon..sure, the small road may be good for wide, but the 3 should be DQ. dosent matter how hard the winds blowing, hammer to the crosswind section then g 3-4 wide as long as you aintcrossing the yellow line orimagineary yellow line.. a huge gust of wind blows someone across the line, get back asap and ride where you are supose to…pretty simple… if you play by the ..rules. from what i got out of your post, and what i think you said, its ok to go on the wrong side of the yellow line if its rally windy.. WHY IS IT OK TO DO THIS STEVE??

  14. Bp

    How much good does the whole road really do? If you are guttered against the yellow line, you’ll be guttered against the left side of the road. I have lost my belief in the second echelon.

    1. carlos flanders

      Almost nobody knows what a second echelon is any more. Anytime I call it others think it’s a trick.

      P12s should have the skill not to do dangerous things but we can’t trust cat 3s or Masters to use judgments correctly. Most races let the P12s do what they will but are hard on the other fields. That’s how it should be. When we start copying the P12s it’s gonna get dangerous. There are some masters riders in my area who are incapable of riding to the right of the centerline unless the moto yells at them every minute. Cat 3s will risk their lives for anything.

      1. Krakatoa East of Java

        Are you kidding? P/1/2 fields are the FIRST to spread-out across the road when it gets windy.

  15. Bernie Flanders

    It would appear to me Tilford has never actually read a USCF rulebook back from the day. Probably just kept it buried in his travel bag. yEah, they used to print these.
    Or maybe there was a different USPro rulebook with these subjective-objective rules he talks about?
    Looks like another “living the dream” interpretation.. Like all the dudes, including the Pros you guys think are nice guys, who sweep or chop late race, and then when confronted postrace say “that’s racing”… Sorry but if you endanger my health like that, you get to eat your teeth(but I digress)…
    In 30 years, never had any official explain what “version” would be enforced. They might say no warning or 2 warnings against field… Always assumed I was always game for DQ if violated… And oh yeah…that thing called safety… enough reason for me to stay to the right. no matter what.
    There is nothing funnier/sad than watching masters racers hopped up on whatever the hell they’re on, spread all away across the road.
    My wife is still HOT! I wanna make it back home dumbasses.


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