Thursday, May 01, 2008

Racing - Worrying About Crashing

On the forums, in the race section, riders inevitably post a question about racing and crashing. It might be phrased one way ("Should I do the Masters 5 race or the normal 5 race?") or another ("Should I race my race bike or my beater bike in my first crit?"), but ultimately they ask the same question: "Will I crash?".

Such questions garner a flurry of responses. Some people think using the beater bike negates the reason for buying a race bike. Others think that the Masters are always safer. You'll even find people who think that if you're worried about crashing that you shouldn't race at all.

As someone that's been racing for a long time, mainly in the 3s, and riding in high pace groups for even longer, I *know* that I have an opinion, but it was hard to express until I thought about it some. So here is my rule:

If you feel comfortable in a big group ride (20+ riders) where at least a bunch of them are racers, then you'll be fine. If you don't know what riding comfortably in a 20 rider group feels like, then you're probably not ready to race.

Racing is like a performance, a show, where you use your known bike skills, kind of like playing a violin at a recital.

At a recital you don't play the piece you're just learning. Likewise you don't ride at your absolute limit of bike handling when you race, except in emergencies - but hopefully even then you're within your comfort range. Fine, the pace may be hard, but the bike handling should be easy.

When you select a piece for a recital, you play a piece that you play extra fast because you've played it so many times it's boring. When I played violin I was performing pieces that I'd finished learning a year or two earlier. I never performed the last couple pieces I worked on because I never got super comfortable with them. Since they were the equivalent of, say, time trialing at 29 mph (i.e. Cat 2 or 1 level), I realized I lacked something in violin playing. The last piece was especially hard for me - I struggled to learn the first 1/3 of it for a year and never mastered it. So I stopped taking lessons because they cost a fortune and I didn't want my parents paying for them. To give it perspective my sister blew through those same pieces when she was 12 or so, and she studied pretty consistently for another 12-15 years. If I was a decent Cat 2 on the violin, she is probably a domestic pro level violin player.

Bike racing was more fun so I kept racing

So, if you are worried about crashing, check out how you ride and decide for yourself.

You steer with your hips? (Aero wheels require a smidgen of bar input in addition to hips)
You coast when you need to ease, not brake?
Can you regularly get within 3-6 inches of a rider you know?
You hold a straight line when you look around?
You look down to look back when you're in tight company?
You understand you cannot choose your line when you're in a field?
You understand the difference between riding on the hoods and riding on the drops? Implications regarding braking, accelerating, turning?
You feel comfortable bumping someone?
You rarely (if ever) bump someone except in drills?
You check your rear quarters before you move laterally?
Can you ride out of the saddle and have your *torso* follow a straight line?
Can you do that without thinking about it?
Can you avoid being near riders you want to avoid?

If you answer affirmative to all these things then you should go race. If you don't, I'd consider doing more group rides, doing drills with someone more experienced, etc etc.

Most crashes are caused by one of a few things: Lack of group riding skills/judgment, lack of individual riding skills/judgment, mechanicals, or conditions.

Almost all crashes are caused by lack of group riding skills or judgment. Skills are easy to define - these are things you need to be able to do without crashing yourself or others. Drafting in close quarters, light bumping or touches, being able to hold a line, things like that. Judgment refers to making decisions without taking into account the group around you. So if you decide to set up for a right turn by swerving left first and you *don't* take into account all the riders to your left, you'll probably cause a crash. The latter is a more common error in racing - many riders know how to ride in a group but still ride like they're out on a solo training ride.

A decent percentage of them are caused by inferior mechanical work. Typically they include crashed caused by a poorly installed chain, poorly installed tire, lack of general maintenance, or even a catastrophic mechanical (i.e. one that has no warning and a 100% part fails catastrophically). I've rarely (if ever) seen a true catastrophic mechanical and this is almost never the actual cause of a crash. Even when my bottom bracket axle snapped in two I had ample warning which I thought was unimportant (my cranks creaked for a while - I figured I'd overhaul the bottom bracket "next week"). I've seen horrific accidents caused by poorly installed chains and tires, guys doing faceplants in sprints when their chain breaks. On the many occasions I examined the chain afterwards it was obvious that they chain was installed incorrectly - the crash was no accident, it was an incident directly related to the chain's installation.

A few crashes are helped by course conditions. Weather is an obvious condition - pros are notorious for going down on wet pavement, probably because they are so strong they can ride fast enough so even in semi-sketchy conditions they're already pushing the limits. I, on the other hand, have no reason to go so fast in the wet so I slow and tip toe around the turns. Course conditions count too - a huge descent with a foot deep pothole in the middle of a blind corner is a recipe for disaster. So too is a hairpin turn where the pavement suddenly drops down, or is covered in sand. The first few riders in the group will probably be fine but the riders following close behind will be tested to their individual riding skills' maximum.

Finally there's the race situation. The third turn on a criterium course normally doesn't change too much during a race (except for weather or a spilled bottle), but that turn will be very, very different on the first lap of the race versus the last lap. Usually the first few laps are not super critical so racers will be a bit more spread out, a bit more forgiving, and much more willing to let a spot go. On the last lap? Everyone will be fighting viciously for their spot, lead out riders will explode and go flying backwards, and people will fly into turns very, very hot. The slightest error or misjudgment and racers will start toppling like dominoes.

I think a lot of Cat 5 crashes are caused by riders who do not take into consideration those around them. It's driving vs operating your bike or a car. You might be able to drive a car and turn left and right and stop while in a "driving course" like a parking lot.

Now can you do the same thing on a public road without bumping into things - other cars, the curb, telephone poles, buildings? It's much more difficult - in fact, if you check the news, you'll see just how difficult it is for some people - and because of that there are a lot of laws designed to help you. For example, a basic law is that we drive forward on one side of the road (in the US, the right side). Another is that if you're driving on a multi-lane road, you're supposed to stay in your lane, marked by stripes on the road. A red light means you stop. A green light means you go. Etc.

Now take it to a race track (but no racing for now). You have no lane stripes, no signals, no stop signs. Just a wide expanse of pavement. On straights it's pretty simple, just don't steer into another car. But corners? It becomes very, very different when you're driving a car and there is no line separating you from another car in a corner. Now it's up to both of you to keep your tires out of each others' cars. Who gets the inside line? Can you even drive on the outside? How fast can you go?

One more step though, because you still need to race. Get back on that race track but reward those who finish first. It's a whole different ballgame now. Not only do you have to think about your individual skills (how fast to corner, when to brake), you also have to think about your group skills (if a car is to my left, how should I drive to keep both of us from colliding), your tactics (if that car to the left wants to pass me, how can I prevent him from doing so), and finally your judgment (I could just turn left and ram him, or I could brake a bit later than he brakes).

Sounds intimidating, right? It really isn't.

Your individual riding skills, those you work on every time you ride. Easy days are the best - you can concentrate on holding a straight line, taking drinks without looking down, looking back without swerving, riding one handed, riding no handed, even practicing victory salutes (optimists) or bike throws (slightly less optimistic racers).

Group riding skills require riding in a group (of course). Focus on not making waves while being in the draft. Pedal a bit more softly than normal, make gradual changes in pace, get comfortable riding side by side with someone, things like that. Drills are required for practicing some more intricate stuff - touching wheels, bumping shoulders/elbows - because practicing those things will eventually cause you to fall and you want to fall in controlled circumstances. I'd recommend a grassy field, lots of layers of clothing, and low speeds.

Riding judgment is difficult to teach, but it's pretty easy to remember a few "rules". A good one is that if someone in front of you stands, you should stand too. Standing carelessly will throw the bike back about six inches. If you're behind a careless stander, you'll need to avoid this bike shooting backwards at you. You can swerve (not ideal), brake hard (less ideal), or imitate the rider and stand also (probably the best choice). This is why you'll see a field of riders suddenly stand (and maybe some swearing around those that swerve or brake instead) - one guy stands and everyone follows.

Generally speaking, when dealing with a slightly slower rider in front of you, it's better to coast than to swerve, swerve than to brake, and brake than to crash. When dealing with a rider who is slowing significantly (i.e. he crashed onto the pavement or he sat up) then your choices are different. You'll have to exercise judgment and figure out what's best. Ultimately, if no racer or bicycle gets hurt, you probably chose right, no matter you hear out of the other riders' mouths.

Finally you have to think about tactics. If someone does do a faceplant in front of you in the sprint (you'll probably think "bad chain install" if you've read everything to this point), what should you do? Swerve? Brake? You have to accommodate all the factors above - your own riding skills, group riding skills, and judgment - to decide.

Can you brake at all? Meaning are your hands near the brake levers? If not, you already screwed up on judgment. Do you know how to initiate a hard swerve? If not, you need to work on individual skills. Do you know if it is safe to swerve, i.e. if there is a rider next to you? If not, then you need to work on group riding skills.

I should note that contact is an absolute last resort. You should never choose contact over less aggressive moves. If you're trying to barge into a line of riders just before the finish, you should not push, shove, tap, poke, etc. anyone. Contact is almost always a result of lack of group riding skills, lack of judgment, and/or lack of tactical astuteness.

One guy (got second in the P123 race one week) passed me so closely his elbow ended up inside my arm-chest-thigh triangle of space. But no contact, not one iota. He knows how to ride extremely smoothly, he knows how to ride in a group and he also judged exactly how comfortable I'd be in that situation, that I wouldn't freak out. Tactically his move was somewhat necessary - we were at the back of the field, the pace was hotting up, and I kept getting gapped. An excellent move, completely appropriate, nothing to fault there.

In a different race, many years ago, in the 3-4 race (of course), a guy wanted to attack the field going up a short hill. He shifted up, put his head down, and launched a sharp attack. Problem was that he was in the middle of the field. He slammed into the guy in front of him, bounced off of him, ran the guy to his left off the road, and, with a clear path (all the other racers were rapidly moving right to avoid the carnage), he launched his attack. It came to naught as everyone chased down this lunatic who just barged into a bunch of guys. Strung out in single file, they caught him right away. Instead gently merging with the group he slammed into a guy in the single file line of racers.

Now, although you may laugh at the ridiculousness of the incident, it illustrates a few things. First off, the barging rider knew how to ride a bike, individually. I'm a decent bike handler and I'd be hard pressed to ram into someone so hard they crash. But the barging rider lacked group riding skills, judgment, and tactical astuteness.

I know a lot of Cat 4s and 3s can't answer affirmative to all those questions above but that doesn't change how I feel about them. They are group riding skills mixed in with some judgment. I think everyone who races should know and feel comfortable with all of them. If you do not feel comfortable with them, you should work on them. For exercises involving more than one or two riders (bumping and touching wheels come to mind right away), ask your team to organize something. Judgment and tactics you can practice on group rides, and, eventually, in races.

I guess that ultimately, if you are worried about crashing, work on answering all those questions above to the affirmative. If you can, you've significantly reduced the chances of taking a fall. Although that's no guarantee of not crashing, you can stop thinking as much about crashing and a little more about racing.


Bryan said...

Great article.

Sung said...

Aki, thanks for recommending Tagaderm. I've got my road rash covered with the that stuff and it's been the best since. Perhaps a post crash wound care is due? I wonder if anyone has made an insurance claim via USCF.

a.d.j. said...

Wow, a domestic pro level player? I'm flattered. :) I think you played a lot of harder stuff that I never did though b/c I have a bunch of violin music that I never played.

Unknown said...

Thanks this was extremely helpful and reinforced some things I learned at today's clinic.