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Honing your disaster-avoiding instincts while riding in a group

I don’t really know how to describe the disaster-avoiding instincts. But, you can develop a default setting while riding in a group that will keep you safe.

by Gord Fraser

Photo Credit: Frans Berkelaar via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Frans Berkelaar via Compfight cc

This year’s Tour de France held some familiar scenes for me. My only experience with the race, in 1997, had me caught up in a few wrecks. One pileup in particular was so dense with bikes and bodies that I was wedged upright, still clipped in with Laurent Jalabert on one side and Fabio Baldato on the other. Crashes are part of the sport. Often they’re out of your control, but you’d be surprised how many crashes I’ve seen coming and avoided with a few proactive decisions.

I don’t really know how to describe the disaster-avoiding instincts. But, you can develop a default setting while riding in a group that will keep you safe. This default can be defined in many ways, so let me go through examples that you can implement on your next group ride, gran fondo or race.

Being cognizant of your complete surroundings is paramount to staying out of trouble. Key to that awareness is your vision. In groups, I’ve seen many riders getting that tunnel vision on the riders in front. Often, that zoned-out rider will mimick the trajectory of the person ahead even when it’s not a good idea. Anticipating potential hazards, such as road debris, tight turns, potholes or traffic early by constantly scanning with your central vision, can reduce your odds of incident. More experienced riders start verifying spacing with the rider in front with peripheral vision and occasional glances down to refine the distance. You’re ultimately responsible for where your front wheel goes, so relying on perfect group communication for alerts is unrealistic.

In groups, I’ve seen many riders getting that tunnel vision on the riders in front. Often, that zoned-out rider will mimick the trajectory of the person ahead even when it’s not a good idea.

Don’t take the placement of your front wheel lightly. Being directly behind someone’s rear wheel often provides the best draft, but you’re placing a lot of trust in the rider in front of you. I’ve trained myself to be off-centre slightly to help avoid contact and give me a place to go – an escape route should something happen quickly. Even in tight two-by-two formations, I’ll often sit staggered slightly. This placement gives you better vision and extra space if there’s sudden braking. It also keeps you safe from a rear wheel that gets shot back. When a rider stands out of the saddle suddenly, the bike will often drop back slightly; more so if that rider is tall and lanky. I’ve had teammates whose bikes drop back half a bike length when they stand. If you ride directly behind such a rider, you increase the odds of wheels touching. Since it would be your front wheel that gets bumped, you are in a less stable position than the rider ahead.

Another default should be your grip on the bars. The trick is to maintain control while staying relaxed. I’ve yard-saled a couple times when I hit something I didn’t see, losing grip and falling. But I’ve also counted thousands of times where my default hold kept control even through a serious impact.

Nutrition intake and its frequency is another topic. Rarely have you seen guys at the Tour complain of bonking, but it does happen. I’ve coached many athletes who get distracted and are too focused in a group setting to remember to eat and drink. A trick is to set a timer to go off at regular intervals if you need reminding. With experience, your intake will come regularly.

In fact, all of these practices will become instinctive the more you work at them. Then, your rides will be safer and more enjoyable. Even riders in the Tour make mistakes, but improving your default settings will pay off.