I never thought much about what I do to avoid crashes. I tend to focus more on skills of the rider, less on the environment. This means focusing on things like practicing touching wheels, bumping, cornering properly, braking, and, while on group rides, riding with strangers whose skill levels vary greatly.
One generalization I'll make is that the racers that avoid crits tend to be less adept at pack handling skills. Yes, they're very strong, usually much stronger than an average crit racer. But strength doesn't make a skilled bike racer, skills make a skilled bike racer. Avoiding time to practice this skill means you can't develop it. This is why a high level non-cyclist athlete (like a runner) would have to start as an entry level racer. It's not fitness in question, it's skill.
Criteriums offer the chance to practice the same corner again and again. I can watch different racers take the same turn, and it'll become obvious pretty quickly who's cornering well and who isn't. I'll avoid the ones that make me uncomfortable and follow the ones who demonstrate, if inadvertently, their skill at riding.
At any rate the BF member posted some of the following things he does to avoid crashes. It's a good list of standard things to do, i.e. the foundation for a set of guidelines.
1) I avoid being in the middle of the pack, instead opting to be on the edges. This gives me more of an 'out' if something happens. Sometimes this leaves you in the wind a little more (or a lot in a cross wind).Of interest to me was point 3, staying near the rear. I spent a bit of time working on a yet-unpublished clip of the 2011 Tour of Somerville Cat 2 race, and there's one crash where I was far enough behind where I could safely make a sweeping move to get around the crash. One rider slows me up a bit (he was just getting around the crash himself) but you can clearly see that I pass something like 1/3 of the field in my move.
2) I try to stay to the front of the pack if possible. Not always easy with the way the pack moves.
3) If I can't be near the front, I stay near the rear. Staying in the rear takes a lot more effort, but lets me see things happen well before I usually get to them.
4) Stay to the inside of as many turns as possible. When someone falls in a turn, they slide to the outside. Staying inside means less likelihood of someone taking you out (but increases the accordion effect if you're not near the front).
Once the original post person ("original poster" or OP) put up his question, someone replied with a good but non-specific response.
...experience helps, a lot. Just like car driving experience... you develop a sixth sense that something is not right, and take evasive action before the actual wreck even gets started.That, of course, got me thinking again. "Sixth sense" can be just a well-trained response. For example, blind people have claimed to be able to feel walls from a couple feet away. Their skin tingles and they turn away. Under normal situations the blind people so affected seem to be able to back up this claim. However, when the folks running the experiment put ear protection on the same blind people (ear muffs), the now-deaf people slammed into the walls.
The blind people heard minor differences in the echo of sound of whatever they and others were doing (footsteps, breathing, etc) and instinctively turned away from the wall. The skin tingling was a conditioned response to this stimuli (or rather to this different stimuli).
What was really happening is that the blind people heard different levels of echoes and they developed responses based on this.
Likewise a sixth sense for avoiding crashes is more about being able to read the riders around you, body language, faces, pedaling style, group riding style/skills, etc.
Other than a mechanical (unclipped sprinting out of a turn) and having a guy swerve across my front wheel intentionally, as far as crashing in a race, I haven't crashed since the early 90s. I've gone off course, slowed, stopped, etc, but not crashed.
(And to be totally honest, I've unclipped probably 10 times in that time period without crashing so that one crash was kind of my fault).
I think there are two things that make the nebulous stuff, the sixth sense stuff - reading others' body language and technical practice.
Reading others typically means making a quick judgment on whether I'll trust someone or not. I'll use prior experience in addition ("profiling"), so maybe a rider is smooth but I know that they make abrupt path changes, therefore I'll adjust for that. I've sat 1-2-3" off of a non-racer's wheel, someone I don't know, on a shop group ride, simply because everything about their riding announced to me that it'd be safe.
There are racers who've been in pelotons with me for literally 20 or more years - I trust them implicitly, understanding that even if they make an error they're equipped with the skills to help make it through the incident.
I'll also not-trust a rider and back off another rider for any number of reasons. I avoid squirrely riders, even working hard to get ahead of them. Ironically I usually think that seeing someone follow someone else too closely is a red flag - if I see someone too close and they don't look super savvy, I avoid the cone area behind them where the mayhem will occur when they crash.
"Super savvy" - ever seen a master at something? Musician, martial arts, car driver, bike rider? They have a quiet, steady confidence, very fluent, automatically do things that others have to concentrate on doing. Those are the riders you want to follow.
Rough pedaling style is a big sign. Not necessarily a particular cadence either, although more high cadence riders scare me than low cadence ones because it's harder to control a bucking bike at high cadence. Solo type riders seem to focus on cadence quite a bit, and they're also typically less comfortable in a field.
Poor form means the rider will be tired, i.e. they either normally have good form and are now exhausted (I fall in that category often) or they have poor form overall (some may claim that also applies to me).
Tired riders make mistakes, that's all there is to it.
I take my own experience into account. When I'm totally on the limit I get dizzy if I look around too quickly. I don't think it's just me - I just watched a Het Volk where a tired rider looks back in the final sprint, brushes someone, and falls over. Julian Dean once led out Hushovd for a Tour stage sprint, turned back, and fell over. It happens. So when I see a rider who looks like they're on the limit, ragged pedaling, eyes kind of glazed over, not looking around much, I figure they're at that dizzy stage.
Guys who turn in too early are scared of turns. That's a huge warning flag and it runs across all levels of the sport. To wit - watch any Tour mountain stage and you'll see some very strong racers who can't corner well. I totally avoid the early turners, or stay inside of them on the exit because they'll go wide. When things are moving right along in single or double file, cornering well usually means turning in later than earlier.
Those that turn in early by themselves, not following the field, they're especially dangerous. They're turning in early because they're scared - they don't trust the field to stay upright. But by turning in early they're setting themselves up to exit wide, right into the field, not the best way to make friends in the pack.
Of course, after they take out a bunch of the field, they'll probably pick themselves up and say, "Yeah, man, no one knows how to corner. The whole field ran into me."
It reminds me of the joke where an elderly wife calls her elderly husband.
"Honey, you should watch out. The radio is saying that there's a guy driving the wrong way on the Interstate."
"One guy? What do they mean one guy?! Everyone is driving the wrong way on the Interstate!"
Don't be that guy.
In SoCal one year, on some winding descent I'd never been on before (Lilac? near the Lawrence Welk place), I started it near the back of about a 20 or 30 rider group. I only stopped blasting by riders because I got to the lead rider of the group. Since I didn't know where we were going I just followed him. Later my friend overheard some comment like "That guy from Connecticut knows how to descend." No, I wanted to say, that's not right.
I know how to corner, therefore I can descend.
I've said this before and I'll say it again: I'm extremely risk averse.
That's why I do criteriums.
It seems illogical but it really isn't.
(Of course the fact that I can't climb or time trial helps in making this decision. If I could just drop everyone I'd do road races all the time.)
Based on some of that nebulous stuff, I feel much more comfortable in a criterium than a road race. I see more poor riding in road races than in crits, probably because a lot of guys who don't like crits don't like them because they don't handle their bikes well/properly in a group.
Road races also hit much higher speeds, regularly hitting 55-60-65 mph on descents in my personal experience. Crashing at that speed could be life changing; even a minor problem could be beyond a good bike handler's capabilities.
Therefore it makes sense that I stay with the slow crits, where we rarely exceed 40 mph and normally ride 25-35 mph on the straights. It's easier to read people when they take the same turn a few times; within a few laps I'm comfortable with who I'm comfortable with, and I already have flags on the riders I don't want to be near.
It's an interesting question, asked by someone who's consciously made moves to try and reduce risk. Ultimately the rider needs experience and knowledge to reduce the chances of crashing - experience as far as reading riders, groups, and making judgment calls, and knowledge in skills, tactics, and applying them both appropriately.