Monday, January 02, 2012

Racing - Judgment and Skills

Off the cuff thing I wrote in response to teaching judgment.

One of the things about judgment is that although one can teach a particular reaction to a situation (interpreted as "teach judgment") it's very difficult to teach how to arrive at the decision to react in such a manner (actually teaching judgment). It's possible to memorize a lot of different situations (i.e. become a chess computer where the computer can map a matrix of moves to the nth degree) but it's virtually impossible to map out every situation possible.

It's why some people are good trouble shooters and some are not - it requires a particular skill to troubleshoot. One can learn and become experienced at it (by experiencing the same situations repeatedly) but it's hard to teach the actual process of troubleshooting, at least for me. It seems logical and straightforward but to many people it seems mysterious and mystical.

Yes, there are basics in cycling, and I think it's possible to teach some of that. For example, although it usually isn't ideal for shelter (here's where that "every situation" comes into play - is shelter the most important thing in your world at this second), it's usually a bit easier to find a way out of a crashing field when your front wheel is overlapped (fore/aft, not necessarily next to) to the outside of the rider in front of you.

In other words, if you're on the right side of the group, your front wheel should follow a path just to the right of the wheel in front of you. It might be half an inch to the right, maybe a few inches, maybe a foot (that's where judgement or a slew of mapped situations comes into play). Fore/aft your tire may be a few inches behind the tire in front of you, maybe a few feet, maybe 20 or 30 feet, maybe even a few inches in front of it (i.e. overlapped).

I've played on group rides (with riders I only vaguely know but who I judge to be good riders) where I try and get my front tire between the derailleur cable and spokes of the rider in front of me. Go to your bike and look at where that is - it's directly behind the cassette of your bike. It's a very narrow spot with very little "out" (escape route).

I've scared myself, yes, but never fallen doing this. And, no, I don't tell the rider in front what I'm doing.

I have fallen when my front wheel meets another object - twice in the last decade when I ran into someone (he braked hard just after sprinting) and once when someone intentionally swerved across my wheel at 30 mph (the resulting crash took out much of the 20 riders in the race).

I've also (while intentionally sitting too close to a wheel) hit rear axles and cassettes so hard that once the impact lifted my rear tire off the road (I had greasy tooth marks on my front tire) and once I rubbed the left bit of my teammates rear axle shiny clear of finish with my front tire.

I also drilled incessantly for a school year on touching wheels, refreshing my skills inadvertently several times since then.

Of course if you want shelter and you are willing to take a risk, you can follow a line slightly to the left of the rider in front of you (if you're on the right side of the field). Assuming that the wind is head on or from the right, that there's no one in that spot, etc etc etc. Again, more judgment or a lot of memorization of situational reaction tables.

I'm not a very good mapper, a very good rote reaction kind of person, not very good with "situational reaction tables". When I find myself in a new situation (and I find myself in new situations all the time, even after riding competitively as a hobby for 2/3 of my life), I rapidly cycle through possible scenarios before I select one.

Yes, I have default outs.

Yes I make wrong choices.

But I don't go around with a play by play book in my head for more than a few scenarios - I adjust for each situation based on a myriad of basic rules. That's judgment and that's hard to teach.

One thing that works well is to think critically all the time, not just on the bike.

I find it great mental exercise to think as a cyclist while driving. That doesn't mean drafting trucks and such (judgment!) but it means I figure out that the wind's from the right (or left), that I don't "overlap wheels" (don't sit in a blind spot of another vehicle), that I hold my line (stay in my lane), take good cornering lines (generally speaking a late apex - cornering lines is always a judgment thing based on situation), when to ease off the gas or brake to drive most efficiently (kind of like sitting in a pack of riders - don't brake hard, don't nail the gas while in the pack).

I watch other riders drive and I'm shocked at how poorly they drive. They apex early, cutting over the yellow line in curves and on left turns. They brake harder than necessary from too high a speed, then can't accelerate early because they took the wrong line. They sit in another car's blind spot. They sit on the windward side of traffic when it's very gusty. They block their own sight lines. They follow too closely. They don't look far enough up the road. They focus on what's just in front of the car, not what's ahead of it. They don't see or react to red lights until they're too close to react smoothly. Etc etc etc.

Drive like you want to ride, and ride like you want others to drive. For driving the most basic thing is to be legal (judgmentally speaking, else everyone going 56 in a 55 zone would get a ticket) and safe (to you and others). After that comes "practice".

When you ride do you consider what would happen if a car came around the corner behind you a bit fast and eased off the gas to slow down? In slippery conditions, with a car with worn or lower traction rear tires (like they have snow tires in front but not in the back and it's cold out) or a lighter rear end (front wheel drive car), a car can start to spin in this situation. It's possible that they'll inadvertently strike you.

This is one scenario. A limited one. One that doesn't deserve a mention in a book about riding in general.

But it's a scenario, it's possible, and the potential for disaster, although minor, exists.

So, along those lines, have you ever yelled at the group in low visibility and damp but not raining conditions to keep further right because you're in the middle of a long sweeping right bend in a place where traffic habitually drives 45-50 mph?

I have.

The group consisted of mainly very good friends, we were on a training ride, and I felt extrmely worried that a car would come barreling around the bend, ease up hard, lose traction in the rear, and spin into us, knocking us over like bowling pins.

I yelled at everyone to move over more, to hug the curb.

They looked at me, a bit irritated, and moved over a bit.

The next car around the bend was a Saturn sedan driving a bit fast but it went wide instead of slowing - we were lucky there was no oncoming traffic.

That was in 1997 and I remember it like it was yesterday.

As far as crashes, yes, they happen. Yes racers crash. Yes pros crash, a frightening amount actually. I've raced up to 50-55 times a year for the last 25 years or so, usually 30-40 races, and since the early 90s I've only crashed 3 times.

I hate crashing.

I'm extremely risk averse.

I drive like an old man sometimes because I'm risk averse.

I drive a bit faster sometimes because I consider all the factors (legal judgment, safety of others, etc) and decide that there is very little risk if I do so. I ride like I drive. I'm very risk averse. I hate contact of any kind, just abhor it, except in some very limited situations (judgment again). I don't push, shove, anything. I can if I had to, and I have when others have slammed into me, but I'm strictly defensive there.

It's important to have good judgment.

You can watch helmet cam clips and decide if someone on the screen made a good move or bad move, and what you'd have done in the same situation. You can watch pro races and watch where people get into trouble (crash) and where they don't ("wow look at that move!"). You can talk to cyclists, listen for good stories, look for those riders that seem to be quietly fluent at riding.

It's important to have good riding skills.

You can learn this by devouring everything written about cycling, by taking clinics offered by teams/clubs/etc, and by practicing what you can practice when you can practice.

Combined you'll be set for a long period of safe yet exciting riding.


1 comment:

Stuart Lynne said...

Crashing in races does seem to be very situational... like you I race almost weekly year in and out on road and track. One bad crash (track) and two minor crashes (road) since 2005. I also try and be crash averse keeping myself in safe positions.

On the other hand I know lots of people that crash repeatedly. And typically they are also much more aggressive about staying in middle and following closer.