Staying Up: Avoiding Crashes in Bike Races and Group Rides

Photo (c) Zui Hanafusa

I just barely avoided falling in the largish crash on the last lap of the CRCA handicap race in March 2000, and that got me thinking about the key elements in avoiding crashing.

The first is to convince yourself of something that isn’t completely true — that you are one hundred percent responsible for staying upright and avoiding crashes. Sure, in reality another rider might take your front wheel out from under you or cause a big pile-up but, whenever you are on the bike, you’ve got to believe that you are responsible for yourself. That’s the only way you can ensure you’ll do your best not to fall.

The last time I crashed in Central Park was in the club championships about five years earlier. Another rider slammed me from the side and we both fell off. I was vaguely aware that he was next to me and knew he was a bad rider. So while he “caused” the crash, I simply should not have been near him. That was my mistake.

The second element also involves attitude — it’s learning to not give up when a crash is happening and instead to do whatever it takes to find a way around or through it. Bikes might be falling all around you, but you’ve got to have the confidence to keep fighting to find a way out. Don’t accept that you will fall.

Most importantly, don’t look into a crash as it happens — instead look for open space and get your bike through that space. You tend to steer your bike where you look and if your concentration is on falling riders, you’re going to get caught up in their trouble. Too many riders see a crash, stare at it, jam on their brakes and then ride into the crash. Instead, as soon as a crash starts you want to try to get around it as fast as possible. It’s sometimes OK to touch your brakes for a split second to give yourself some time to find a way around, but at racing speeds you’re rarely going to actually avoid a crash by stopping. Instead just look for open space on either side of the crash and go for it. You might even want to accelerate into the open space before the crash spreads.

I really can recall almost nothing about the crash in the handicap race. Bikes started flying around in front of me and the next thing I knew I was looking for clear space. At first that space seemed to get farther and farther away as the crash got bigger and bigger but, eventually, I got through at the very edge of the road. I never looked at the actual crash.

It’s possible to practice focusing on open space by using a similar technique to deal with potholes on training rides — as soon as you see one, don’t look at it. Look for smooth road. With time this will become second nature.

Fourth, whenever riding, keep a broad focus and stay aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t stare at the rider in front of you but instead look further ahead. The faster you’re going, the further ahead your focus should be.

This broad focus will often enable you to deal with trouble before it even starts. You’ll see people getting squirrelly or the road clogging up on one side and be prepared to deal with it. Recognize too that in much the same way as you want to accelerate around crashes, you often should accelerate around trouble. Move up in the field before the road gets narrow. Get to a difficult corner at the head of the group rather than in the middle. Try to rely less on your brakes. Don’t ride around in group rides or races with your hands on the brakes. Learn to deal with trouble by getting past it, not by just slowing down.

This sort of “aggression” is important not only to placing well but also to your safety.

Fifth is what lots of people talk about, but too few do — work to improve your bike handling skills while on training rides. Some of these skills are to make you a smoother, more predictable rider. Others are to enable you to deal with situations in races where other riders, intentionally or not, try to take your space. Both types of skills are important.

Learn to keep your upper body relaxed. Gain an understanding of how you use your hands, butt and feet to steer the bike. Practice cornering, riding on bad roads and bunny-hopping so you’ll be lighter on the bike. Practice pacelines and ride closer and closer to other riders. Practicing bumping into other riders and touching wheels is good too — you might want to start learning this while riding slowly on a grassy field. Learn about protecting your front wheel and handlebars. Riding off-road, on any kind of bike, is great to improve your bike handling.

There are a lot of details to bike handling that I won’t go into here; the CRCA’s coaching sessions are a good place to start.

You can also use other sports to improve your balance and body awareness. Skiing, skating, soccer, basketball and dance are good. (Motorcycling is supposedly great.)

Sixth, make sure your bike is in good working order. It should be reliable and fit your body well. Your weight should be properly distributed over the two wheels — with just slightly more weight on the back wheel than the front when riding in the drops.

Finally — be aware of your limits. Crashes often happen when riders are tired and get sloppy. They don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them and their reactions slow. If you find yourself fighting with the bike and riding with your head down, make a conscious effort to relax and keep your eyes up. If you can’t do that, back off from the race — you’re a danger to yourself and others. As you improve as a racer you’ll find you get better at staying alert and in control even when very tired.

Your limits are not only physical, but technical and mental too. Learning and improvement come from pushing the boundaries of what you’re comfortable and proficient at. Bike racing is supposed to be difficult and a small amount of fear is normal. But if you’re consistently stressed about crashing, or spending time constantly riding your brakes due to fear, it might be worth backing off in the race and giving yourself some space, even if you get dropped. A lot of times when I’m scared I ride right at the front, or go way to the back where there is more space until things calm down. Later, you can work on your skills and confidence so that in the next race, you’ll be more in control

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