Thursday, October 3, 2013

Left, Right, Left? On Cornering and Traffic-Handedness

Dowland Road, Limavady
For much of my adult life, I have moved between countries with right-handed and left-hand traffic flow. However, until recently I had only driven and cycled in the former. Only when I stayed in Ireland last spring did I finally experience cycling on the left side of the road. Since then, I have gone back and forth several times, and have noticed something odd in the process: I seem to do better cycling in left-handed traffic - in particular, when it comes to cornering. 

I first noticed it earlier this summer. Cycling on the winding back roads in Northern Ireland's Roe Valley, I was somehow able to make tighter turns and to corner faster than back in New England. When I shared this observation with a riding buddy, he said "Well, sure - you're getting more practice now." But I could not attribute this improvement entirely to practice, because I noticed it immediately upon arrival. And when I went back to Boston later, I noticed a difference in the opposite direction: I was not quite as good at cornering as I had been at the end of my stay in Ireland. How could my ability suddenly diminish like that?

Only after some time did it hit me that the side of the road I was on played a role. In the US, right turns are tighter, since you are cycling on the inside of the turn, and left turns are wider, since you are cycling on the outside. In Ireland it is the opposite. And apparently I find it easier to do a tight left turn than a tight right turn.  It is not a huge difference, but it is there: I can do a sharp left much more intuitively - and therefore faster, smoother, calmer - than a sharp right. 

Noticing this has made me wonder whether others have had similar experiences in directional preference when cornering. Is it related to the cyclist's handedness, I wonder? Me, I started out naturally left-handed, but was re-trained to be right-handed at a young age... which resulted in an ambidextrous hodge-podge where I am right-handed in some tasks, left-handed in others, and indifferent in others still. What role this plays in cycling, I am not entirely sure. But when it comes to cornering, it seems left-handed traffic flow is my friend.

57 comments:

  1. I recall that somebody once built a track bike with a left-side drivetrain, arguing that having the weight on the inside of the track reduced the distance that weight traveled, thus saving energy.

    I doubt it made a difference, and on the road, it shouldn't matter. Perhaps your preference for cornering in Ireland is just a function of the newness of the riding-on-the-left freeing up your mind to let go of your patterns and inhibitions? Or maybe their roads are radiused differently from the Boston ones, and thus make cornering easier?

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  2. It's definitely because the coriolis effect is more pronounced in the more northerly latitudes.

    Al

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  3. Do you have a lead foot? Are you left or right footed? I am much happier leaning into a left hand bend and kick with my right foot... A balance thing?

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    1. I am indifferent-footed. I used to alternate starting with my left vs right foot at random, before I switched to clipless. Then once I did, I decided to be consistent about it and trained myself to always start with the right foot.

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  4. I am right handed but whenever I need to make a tight turnaround (like on a bike path) I always turn to the left. When taking my motorcycle test, we had to do a figure 8 inside a box. I found doing the left turn part of the 8 much easier than the right turn. I'm not sure why, it just feels more natural.

    Jill

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  5. I am better and more comfortable at cornering left than cornering right. This is true not only when cycling, but also in other activities such as skating. Oh . . . and I'm strongly right-handed.

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    1. I was about to make a very similar comment. One or two winters ago velouria showed some affinity to ice skating. Which way would you spin? Most right handed figure skaters spin left (counterclockwise) and jump left.

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    2. Not that I spin or jump, but yes - turning left on skates is easier, now that you mention it.

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    3. Same for me. I make sharp turns more easily to my left than the right, and I turn to the left more easily on skates. I wonder if we're instinctively favoring our dominant hands by turning in a way that leaves the dominant right hand raised and to the outside of a turn where it's less likely to get hurt in a fall?

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  6. I don't think this is too unusual. I am strongly right-handed and much prefer right turns to lefts. I feel more in control and will take them at higher speeds, cut closer lines, etc. As a wrinkle, in activities that require having only one foot on the ground, I much prefer to have my left down. So in offorading where you might use a foot on the ground for balance control, my turn preference changes to lefts. Just for giggles, you might check which side "eye dominant" you are. It often matches your hand dominance, but not always. In certain sports like archery, cross dominance is considered an advantage (right hand & left eye dominant or vice-versa). Could eye dominance affect how you evaluate a corner?
    Brains are weird.

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  7. well, most people experience this same thing when turning corners on ice skates as well so I assume it has something to do with physiology.

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  8. My suspicion is that your aptitude with sharp left hand turns has to do with your skill as a rider when you first moved to Ireland. While in right-handed driving areas, you were learning the basics of riding, and so tight right turns still have a beginner rider at their foundation.
    The opposite is your tight left, learned when you were a much more experienced rider, and so your basic knowledge of making that kind of turn was first learned by an experienced rider.
    That kind of early wiring in your brain (and your reflexes) is really hard to overturn, though with time I'm sure the gap would close.

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  9. I write right handed but bat and golf (if you could call it that) left handed. I would hold a pitol or rifle on the right side. Tennis right is more comfortable single handed, left is more comfortable if I had two hands on.

    Right turns to me seem more easy, intuitive, fluid, etc. Even just thinking it through at the desk. I have been on narrow paths with no traffic with turns to each direction. Rights are much easier it seems.

    I don't know if that contributes any useful info for you.

    vsk

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  10. For me it has nothing to with handedness, eye dominance or footedness (which is relevant); it has to do with keeping the eyes level and hips pointed to where I want to go.

    With these in mind even my old crooked body fights itself less. The best athletes are highly body symmetric; I'm not one of them.

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    1. Symmetry sure does help. I've a friend with one leg amputated at the knee who rides at a high level anyway. Think for a minute how out of balance that cat is. His low back and core strength workouts are a major part of his life. On his best days he can even put on a pair of normal jeans over his CF leg and normal shoe on the CF foot and walk so straight no one knows. Just walking straight is a greater accomplishment than his world champs on the bike.

      The bike itself is not symmetrical. The drive is all on the right. Torque steer. Powered turns are absolutely different right and left. It does not help that bike designers and crank manufacturers have given up even trying to keep pedal eyes equidistant from the centerline of the bike. We are all riding sidesaddle.

      All the other points being made in this thread are more or less valid too. The starting point for any other biomechanics, the bike, just isn't symmetrical.

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  11. I think I remember having read somewhere that staying to the left side of the road used to be more commonplace everywhere, because people preferred to have their sword hand outward when they passed each other. And then, if I recall correctly, Napoleon's armies started marching on the right side of the road, and they created a continental standard. (I think Napoleon was a lefty.) But who knows if the source was correct, or if my middle-aged brain is remembering correctly.

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    1. I believe this is the reason the groom stands on the right at a wedding as well and also why spiral staircases in castles mostly all go the same way around

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  12. I am definitely better at the left turn, also more comfortable skating, running and doing anything else to the left. I am probably right handed, but mostly ambidextrous and am a commited right footer when pushing off on the bike....starting with my left requires intense concentration. I don't know what the reasons are for any of it.

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  13. One thing to consider is eye dominance. If you are much more dominant in one eye or the other this could effect how "comfortable" you feel turning left or right. I am right eye dominant and one day noticed that i feel more comfortable getting closer to right edge of the road than the left, this effected the lines I chose when turning one way or the other.

    That said, I take this observation with a large dose of salt.

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  14. I am a rightie, I am much better at left turns too

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  15. Are the roads high crowned or low; could make a difference.

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  16. Now I understand how I've managed 10,000 miles on filthy wet Northern Ireland roads over two years without mishap yet landed on my arse navigating a roundabout on a beautiful Sunday morning in Switzerland.

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  17. I find left hand turns easier too, I live in Australia where we ride on the LHS so left turns in traffic are less complicated, but I think it is the fact of the drive train being on the right. Wouldn't that make the right pedal a bit closer to the ground than the left on a turn? I'd never really thought about it before ...

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  18. Novice unicycles tend to favor a certain direction. I don't remember now which direction I preferred.

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  19. I learned many years ago as a ski instructor that we are not a symmetrical as most people believe. Almost everyone has a favorite direction to turn in skiing. There is no reason why cycling shouldn't be the same.

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  20. I think eye dominance is probably the stronger factor here.
    I too am ambidextrous and left-eye dominant
    (I think we discussed this once).
    Funnily enough, I just noticed during a ride this morning how much easier it was for me to execute a left turn at speed than a right one.

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  21. Talk to mountain bikers about the differences in riding downhill single track into right hand or left hand switchbacks. I don't know what shapes the behavior, but the differences you describe are very real. And I suck at left handed switchbacks.

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    1. It's unnatural to brace the left leg and use it from a position of confidence for many strongly right handed people, particularly if they come from ball sports.

      A lefty switchback relies on a brace/ twist that is less natural than he's used to, like throwing a ball.

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  22. You were trained to use your right hand? That is so old school! My dad is left handed and was forced to learn how to use his right, and the results are awful. He is one of those severely left handed people, so it was not a shining example of taught ambidexterity. My dad is brilliant, but so clumsy, can't handle basic tool use or repairs, screws things in backwards, gets frustrated, his writing is illegible, and other such things. I'm very left handed too, but I don't use the 'I'm left handed I cannot do it!" excuse as much as my dad does. I severely injured my left arm, and was facing a possible life with it being a useless limb, so taught myself to write with my right hand very quickly, but it was not easy, had no affinity for it. Luckily I refused to accept the prognosis and worked hard to get the use of my arm back.
    But like most left handed people I do have that unique sense of space, so I would not be surprised if I could ride better on a left hand drive road.

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  23. Another thing for me is that if walking with a bike, pushing it up a hill etc, i always HAVE to have it on the left side of my body. If I try be on the left side of the bike pushing on the right side, I cannot stand it, my brain freaks out.
    but other than that can't say I'm handicapped riding as a lefty other than the usual everything geared towards the right.

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  24. I feel much more in control on left bends. Especially at speed downhill - there are lots of those here in North Wales. When hill walking, I'm more comfortable with a cliff drop on my right than on my left. I'm right handed and Welsh :)

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  25. I know exactly what you feel about left/right turns!
    For me too the left turns are the easiest thing to do and the right ones the hardest part.. (Still, I'm saying this for emphasis, not that I can't make turns! :-P)
    I have been telling this to my boyfriend and he said that a lot of people feel this way not only when cycling but also when driving(!), they had a discussion at his work one day about it. I personally borned left-handed, but know I use my right hand for many tasks too, because I felt weird being the only left-handed person at school/family enviroment, so I tried to learn to use the right too (but mostly at playing sports - tennis, basketball, when cooking, etc.)

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  26. This is none of my business and there is no reason you should take advice from me but if you're going to race (not just participate but really try to beat people that are better than you) you gotta get out of your head about this kind of stuff. Smart athletes know how to quit thinking.

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  27. How about stopping on skis and skates? I turn better left at low speed but when I hockey stop I much prefer to twist to the right (my feet rotate clockwise).

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  28. I share the understanding of the commenter about the history of left side-Roman, right side-Napoleonic road usage. During the early days of the motorcar even in the USA they had the steering wheel on the right side. Look at first decade of the 20th century photos.
    In Canada many provinces did not switch to driving on the right side of the road until the 1930s. And Newfoundland did not switch until it join confederation after WWII.
    Road safety conscious Sweden did not make the switch from left to right until 1967. To their chagrin, they have not been able to match their previous safety standards since. Maybe the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, etc. have it correct after all.

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  29. Another vote for eye dominance.

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  30. Perhaps it is because when you turn left your right (dominant?) leg is pushing down on the outside pedal? As a kettlebell sport lifter, I am well aware that my gluteal muscles are not equally strong on each leg - though I seem to train them equally and can do single leg standing activities equally well. (I too was a left-handed child trained to be right handed. As a result I am fairly ambidextrous.)
    Janet

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  31. It Seems that all closed circuit racing events are left turning. Auto and motorcycle track racing, running, bicycle track racing,horse racing, speed skating, and probably many more that I've forgotten, all seem to turn or go in a left handed direction. Is it because the majority of us are right handed? Has there ever been a study of this? We must know now!
    Emile

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    1. Reminds me of a Gary Larson cartoon from “The Far Side” where a bunch of native American Indians are circling a wagon train. They’re all circling it the same way except one, who’s circling it the other way, and the Chief’s shouting to him, “Counter-clockwise, White Eagle, always counter-clockwise!”

      Curiously, almost all auto road (as opposed to oval) racing circuits are run clockwise, with a predominance of right turns. That’s why the majority of two-seater racecars, such as those that race at Le Mans, are right-hand drive (Audi is one of the few exceptions), irrespective of their country of origin. It’s partly for weight distribution (the driver’s weight being on the inside of the majority of turns, the driver being the heaviest single component in the racecar; that’s also why they’re always positioned as low as possible in the chassis), but also for visibility.

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  32. Well bicycles are all designed for travelling on the left. It's why the chain is on the right. so it doesn't become damaged on the kerb and is away from you when mounting dismounting the bike. - Though i doubt that's actually the reason!
    It may be something to do with the road camber, roads are generally built with the outside higher than the inside on bends (like a velodrome). I expect most places in the world do this, but it may be the specifications for cambers is different in different countries. The type of tarmac can also vary, different mixes are used depending on climate, if the level of grip is different then clearly it will allow you to corner more sharply.

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  33. Great topic. In my little neighborhood cul de sac route that I use for my regular workout rides, there's a dead end where I have do a U-turn. This is where I eventually realized I strongly strongly *strongly* prefer turning left. Kind of a relief to learn preferences in this department aren't unusual. FWIW I'm right-handed. I also do a little ice-skating and there, too, I feel much more in control going left.

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  34. I always corner better on left handed turns even on the mountain bike in tight turns in the woods going at very slow speeds. I think most of us are just predisposed to preferences. This is the same in the car. I almost always choose a parking space on my left than on my right. Mostly because in the US, we sit on the left-hand side of the car. Maybe this is where we get most of our practice? I dunno. Just writing to say that I'm one of several who have experienced this phenomenon. Interestingly, my tandem captain prefers right turns, so we like to think we compensate for each other.....

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  35. I've been thinking about this since you put it up the other day and wondering if I had anything worthwhile to add, I don't, but I wonder if this is another one of those things that either comes from our relationship with horses or can be understood a bit better by thinking horsey thoughts...

    I either read or was told that the chain is on the right side of bikes because people automatically mounted them from the left side because that's the side from which everyone agreed to climb up onto horses and who wants to soil they're tweeds with lube ya' know. I agree that if one wanted to standardize the operation of horses for military, transportation and recreation purposes than this is one of the areas you would want to get everyone to agree( for resale too, who wants to buy a horse you gotta back into a parking lot so as not to kick the next guy(who's liable to be carrying a pistol or mace or whatever) in the face when you alight) so maybe it's just arbitrary and we just trained all the horses to tolerate that way the best.

    OR, and this is where it might get interesting(or not)...
    What if horses just naturally prefer being climbed up on that side and WE adapted and the driveside of a bike is where it is because the HORSES are calling that particular shot... I wonder if like 8% of horses get all cranky getting mounted from they're non-preferred side and thus never fully acclimate to slavery to humans and become BAD horses and suffer the consequences of that for their whole lives, becoming rodeo saddle-broncs, those tattooed ponies you see hanging out behind the trailers drinking beer at carnivals or just going feral and becoming all carnivorous or whatever like so many left-handed people. See where I'm going with this?

    So, I'm like pretty left-handed,(in SPITE of Mrs. Mendietta tying my left hand to the desk(with a SHOELACE!) to force me to write right(it might not be a right/left thing in that case, she might have just been trying to see if there was a way to get me to do any writing at all since I was also pretty bone-idle even then, truth be told, but still, pretty un-PC in an unfortunately difficult to litigate for money sort of way)), I also survived just about as many horse crashes as a kid as I did bike wrecks and can definitely say that I have no clear recollection of whether I fell off more turning one way or the other on 2 wheels or 4 legs, so, there you have it, hope that helps clear all this up...

    Spindizzy

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    1. I'm not a horsey person but I assume one mounts a horse from the horse's left side because if you're right handed, your sword will be hanging on your left side, and you don't want to have to swing that over the horse as well.
      The first bicycle with one-sided chain drive was developed by Lawson in Britain in 1878/9, so either it's based on the military horse precedent, or it's just better to mount the bicycle from the curb/left side, away from traffic, if you drive on the left.

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  36. I've never felt any preference for a particular turn direction on a bike, or car, or motorcycle. Most sailplane pilots tend to favor one direction over the other when it comes to circling in thermals though. Now that so many of us carry flight recorders (and upload them to a site in Germany for the world wide Online Contest in cross country soaring) it's really easy to look at and see the percentage of left or right circling for thousands of pilots. Turns out that I'm in the minority by having my thermalling turns split almost exactly 50-50 right and left (on the occasions I fly in areas where there's a lot of thermal flying). I always thought this was because all my training and early flying and the vast majority of the rest of my airtime was on short ridges and turns on ridges are always made turning away from the mountain. Thus you fly along the ridge with the mountain on your right wing climbing in the lift, turn left at the end of the ridge fly along the ridge with the mountain on your left wing turn right etc.: repeat until you're at cloudbase or the altitude where the lift tapers off. You pretty much have to split left and right evenly. When I was thermal flying, which involves circling in the rising air, I figured that my previous experience just resulted in me continuing to not favor any one direction over the other. Reading your post I'm starting to wonder whether it might be some intrinsic lack of bias built in to my brain! I'm very right handed but I've still never found that I favor either direction over the other on a bike.

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  37. Cycling Tips had a similar article a while ago. It was interesting although not terribly scientific.

    http://cyclingtips.com.au/2012/08/the-dominant-left

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  38. I cycle and drive on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the English Channel, I have recently for the first time experienced driving a left hand drive camper van in Ireland and am surprised to find certain advantages, along with the obvious disadvantages, to driving on what amounts to the wrong side of the vehicle. there is I would agree something to being on the inside of a tight left turn.

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  39. My guess is you are right handed.

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  40. I hope all is OK ! Missing the new prose!
    Tried the MS bike ride on a fully loaded randonneur. Got a good lesson on lugging too much stuff up hills in a (loosely) timed event on wet roads. Losing a bunch of weight pre-ride would definitely have helped as well !

    I hope you're back on line here soon!

    Victor K. / Brooklyn

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  41. I have the same issue when playing ice hockey. Tight left turns, wide right turns. I'm right handed and often use the stick to eanon when making a right turn just to increase my rate of turn. Unfortunately I haven't found a way to carry a hockey stick while riding in order to tighten up the turns.

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  42. Recently returned from Ireland. A 2 week vacation in the southern parts. Have you moved there permanently?
    DummyDiva

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  43. Most people have a slight twist in the pelvis which puts the right hip slightly forward. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with being right or left handed. The natural posture is in a state of constantly turning left. Running tracks are made to run anti-clockwise. Everything's set up that way. They're always trying to turn you off the straight and narrow.

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  44. Just to add to the discussion: Being throughly ambidextrous - one parent of each hand, I can see the cultural imperative of attempting to have a right handed world. I can write with either hand. I things that have no cultural clue I'm 50% - 50%. In things like opening doors, tools, writing in school I'm right handed. Bikes, either way works - it's the same.

    If it helps anyones theory - Yoga has show me that much as I thought I was symmetrical, there are many, many place of difference. Ms. V. - measure the exact length of your legs - I bet one in longer by a couple millimeters.

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  45. I was definitely preferred one side back in my telemark skiing days but I can't remember which side ...

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  46. I've noticed that on the coverage of the Tour de France the peloton does seem to prefer to ride on the left, despite being composed almost entirely of righties. I wonder how Valeria was at driving on the left, did it seem easy or hard? For myself despite much time overseas driving on the right just never seems natural, I still have to consciously consider what I'm doing.

    I remember seeing a documentary once about aircraft carriers. The original US carriers had the conning tower on the left as per the car steering wheel, and landing planes kept either crashing into the sea or (much worse!) the tower. This problem was fixed by moving the tower to the right-hand side, where it has been ever since. Odd.

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  47. I was reminded of this post today when I took advantage of some welcome sunshine here in London to take a gentle spin along the Thames Path. There were a set of stairs from road level down to the canal side and, alongside them, five or six short, paved switchbacks for cyclists and others with wheels. Sure enough I found that making slow, tight turns to the left was easy but right ones felt very unsteady. Guess I'm a natural left-sider too. Good job I live in the UK.

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