Saturday, November 17, 2007

How To - Look Behind You

At some point in your racing career you're going to have to look behind you. An optimist will tell you it's because you'll need to see how far back the field is after you've broken away. A pessimist will tell you it's to see how many guys are behind you - in other words, how close you are to getting dropped. Hopefully you'll be in the former situation; realistically, it's more likely to be the latter.

One can buy equipment to help you look back. I've seen racers with little helmet mirrors and I've seen riders on group rides with inconspicuous little mirror lumps on their bars. Both help see a bit of what's behind you. Ultimately, just like in a car, if you really want to see behind you, you're going to have to turn your head.

A quick and dirty way to look back, effective if you're making a big effort, is to simply look under your arm. You can check your close quarters this way immediately, see who's on your wheel (or at least what kind of fork they have) or see if you have room to move to one side or another. You'll be able to see perhaps 2-5 meters - if you try looking under your arm now, you'll see that the "optimal" range is perhaps 3 meters, about 10 feet.

To look back more than those 3 or 4 meters, lift your arm. Again, try it out. This is usually how attackers check their progress relative to the chasing field. You can probably see 10 meters (30 feet) back, but it'll be hard to make out anything more than the roughest of details. It'll be easy to see if there's someone there, but it might be challenging to tell whether it's a teammate or not.

Both of the above techniques allow the racer to keep both hands on the bars. This means that racers can use the "arm method" even on rough roads or in windy conditions, situations where you want to maintain as much control as possible. You're also in a good position to respond to an attack - if you are looking and spot a guy accelerating up the side, you can immediately respond.

However, if you really need to look back, nothing beats sitting up, turning around, and sweeping your gaze across everyone and everything behind you. I always think of Sean Kelly, resplendent in his KAS kit, sitting up, looking back, surveying the damage he's done behind him. I say that but I can't find a picture, of course.

The problem is doing this without crashing you or everyone around you. The only real requirement is to be able to hold you line when you do that sweeping gaze.

"Holding your line" really means you need to be predictable. Riders around you need to know you're not about to fall over, that you're in control of the situation. It's difficult to define "predictable" but I think that you are predictable when your upper body, and more specifically, your torso, isn't moving a lot.

For example, if you watch someone sprinting out of the saddle, their bike will be swerving left and right a few inches on every pedal stroke - but since their torso is traveling in a relatively straight line, it's predictable. Check out the frontal or helicopter shots of any field sprint - the wheels are everywhere but the bodies go in a reasonably straight line.

Well until someone swerves. But that's a different problem.

If you predicatably drift (very slowly) to one side, that's sort of okay - everyone adjusts. If your wheels suddenly go left or right even a little bit or your body jerks one way or another, it's unpredictable and therefore doesn't feel very safe to those around you.

When you turn around to look over your shoulder, you tend to pull that shoulder down and back a bit. Just look over your left shoulder now, while you're reading these words. Keep your hands on the keyboard like you're typing (or holding the bars) and look back over your left shoulder - your left shoulder moves just a bit.

This slight movement in turn tugs at your arm which then tugs at your bar just a bit - causing you to swerve. Since you should almost never actually "steer" your bike that much (you have to steer a little but generally the feeling is that you steer from your hips, not with the bars), the handlebar jerk/swerve is sudden, somewhat strong, and unpredictable. Imagine if someone went and jerked your bar back half an inch while you're riding along - makes the next 20 or 30 feet very unpredictable!

This is especially true if you're riding in traffic, cars are passing you, and look over your left shoulder. Your natural inclination will to do a shoulder drop and that will make your bike steer to the left - into the flow of cars passing you. Not good.

To prevent this bar movement, simply drop the affected side's hand down. For example, if you're looking over your left shoulder, put your left hand on your left thigh or simply let it dangle. Try looking over your left shoulder again, but this time put your left hand down on the desk or on your leg. Now turn your head to look over your shoulder. Your shoulder still moves back a bit but since your hand isn't on the bars (or the keyboard), your looking isn't affecting your steering.

An important note - if you're looking over your left shoulder, your right hand should hold the bars as close as possible to the stem. This is the most secure spot to ride one handed. The further out you grip the bar, the more any upperbody movement will affect your steering.

Check out the Six Day racers on the track - they essentially do a relay race between two guys (and you can trade off anytime). The rider who is "it" rides under the recovering teammate, they grab hands, and the "it" rider slingshots the recovering rider into the race. When it's intense they slingshot every lap - like every 20 seconds or less, averaging in the high 30 mph range, sometimes 40 mph. The slingshots are enormous upperbody efforts - the riders have to lean away from each other to prevent from going down (and recently some Lampre guy ended up on the deck and there are pics of it in Cyclingnews - he probably got yanked into his slingshotter based on his teammate's hand position).

If you look at any of the Six Day racing pictures, you'll see the guy slingshotting (i.e. the guy who is throwing his teammate into the race) always has his hand right next to the stem. As the slingshotter he does most of the "slingshot work" and therefore needs the most stable on his bike. The other guy doesn't because he's going to be sprinting right after the slingshot and he doesn't do as much arm/torso work during the actual slingshot.

A great shot of the slinger and the slingee from PezCyclingNews - note how much energy the second rider has put into the "slinging" effort

Okay, back to looking over your shoulder. Another way of doing this is to put your hand on the shoulder of the guy next to you - it has the same effect as taking your hand off the bar. Of course this motion opens a lot of other variables like can that guy hold a straight line, does he think you're making a pass at him, etc.

If you practice this "one hand down, look over your shoulder" regularly, you should be able to stay on a road marking line for at least a few seconds while looking back - this is fine.

In a small group looking back "normally", i.e. not bothering to put one hand down, shouldn't be a problem, even if you move a bit to one side or another. You can broadcast your intent to look back fully by first looking under your shoulder. Then peeking back a little further. Then looking back fully. Unless the guy behind you is suffering so much he can't see higher than your cassette, he'll realize you're trying to see what's behind everyone. As long as you don't end up getting gapped, the other riders will probably wait for you to finish your "looking back" business.

It gets a little trickier in a huge group (say 100-200 rider pelotons), especially when you have no idea of the skill level of the riders surrounding you. In such a situation, the "one hand on the thigh" method is most predictable and probably the safest. It also allows you the most time to scan the sea of faces so you can find your teammate or friend or whatever. Remember that predictablity is more important than an actual straight line so your torso should be reasonably still.

Finally, keep in mind that a wobbly looking rider with 10 feet of open space around him is much scarier than a smooth rider who is blasting in and out of tiny gaps in the field.

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