Spring is here - so let's avoid the fall!

Vol. 15, Issue 1 of American Randonneur, the quarterly newsletter of Randonneurs USA. Copyright © 2012, Randonneurs USA, used with permission
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The following article originally appeared in Vol. 15, Issue 1 of American Randonneur, the quarterly newsletter of Randonneurs USA. For more information on RUSA, please visit them at www.rusa.org.

rusa_logoIf you’re a randonneur, pat yourself on the back. You can count yourself among the finest cyclists on the road, with bike-handling skills sharply honed from hours upon hours in the saddle. You’re able to log thousands of incident-free kilometers each year. 

That said, accidents happen, and bike-on-bike collisions are what you’re most likely to see. Thankfully, most crashes are not too serious. Cyclists are usually able to brush themselves off, check the roundness of their wheels, and roll on to a successful completion. 

The majority of falls I’ve seen have occurred during group riding, when riders tuck in, one behind the other, to take advantage of the draft.  Mishaps often unfold in predictable scenarios.  

The biggest misstep of group riding is the wheel touch. We all know to avoid overlapping wheels. If you’ve done any extended riding, you know why. When two cyclists touch wheels, the following cyclist almost invariably goes down, often collecting any riders that have the misfortune of being on his or her wheel.

The simple solution is to avoid overlapping wheels, even momentarily. Here’s where miscues are likely to occur:

On the uphill slope after a short descent. You’re more likely to run up quickly on the front rider because of the advantage the draft offers following a rapid downhill. As the front rider begins to slow on the ascent, you’ll quickly run up on him or her. 

When the front rider drops a chain. We’ve all seen this – a rider heading uphill shifts into a smaller chainring and drops a chain. That quickly scrubs off much of their speed, creating the potential for a rear-end collision. 

When riding into a headwind. The problem with riding into a headwind is that any slowdown in pedaling by the front rider is amplified. If the front rider momentarily coasts or unexpectedly drops his or her output, their speed will come down more rapidly than normal, and they’ll be back to you before you know it. 

When a front rider stands. When a front rider stands, he or she may move their bike back toward you. Some riders have the bad habit of thrusting their bike backwards by several inches when they stand. If you’re not paying attention, that move can take you down. 

In the interest of keeping our rides crash-free, I offer a few pointers for avoiding the trouble spots.

Be predictable. If you’re on the front, avoid sudden accelerations, hold a straight line and call out holes and other road obstacles so that other riders can react and adjust in an orderly fashion. Signal any movements that might catch other riders by surprise. For instance, let following riders know when you are rotating off the front.

Anticipate. John Hughes, the author of the book Distance Cycling, says anticipating what is about to unfold in front of you is one key to avoiding wheel overlap. “Staring at the rider's back is very dangerous—I always position myself to look around the rider,” he says.

Know your fellow rider. You’ve likely ridden with your buddies for thousands of miles. Over time you’ve learned each rider’s habits – for instance, he or she slows appreciably on the uphill. That knowledge should allow you to anticipate known quirks and avoid the situations where you’ll unexpectedly close the gap. When you’re riding with new faces, it’s advisable to allow a bit more distance and watch for any idiosyncrasies in riding style. 

Add distance. Sometimes it makes sense to leave a buffer. For instance, it’s tempting to tuck in more tightly when drafting into a headwind.  But if you’re unsure about the front rider’s habits, leave extra room or ride slightly off center of the front rider. That allows you to alter your speed or line if necessary.

Watch for mechanicals. When riding solo, a flat tire or a broken spoke may be a minor nuisance. In group or paceline riding, they have the potential to escalate into something more serious as the rider with the mechanical slows quickly or makes an erratic move. Be alert when you hear the telltale sound of a flat tire and get ready for any sudden movement or quick stop. The metallic scraping of a dropped chain, especially on a climb, is an immediate red flag. You should be ready to swing wide of the problem bike and alert other riders.

I’ve developed my own strategies for dealing with the inevitable. In those instances when I overlap the lead rider’s rear wheel, I maneuver wide, just outside the heart of the draft. That allows me to avoid contact should the front rider suddenly shift position. It also scrubs off any excess speed. I then fall back in line as my speed begins to match that of the front rider. 

In downhill situations I take off speed by a feathering my brakes. I avoid sudden braking in a paceline.  It can be dangerous and cause a domino effect behind me.

Observant readers will note I did not mention the particular hazard created by dogs. Our canine pursuers are worthy of an entire article, so I’ll save that subject for another day. 

Here’s to the new season, and the safe and successful navigation of all your brevets in 2012. 

Mike Dayton, RUSA 1609, is a prolific randonneur based in Raleigh, NC.

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