Wednesday, May 26, 2010

falling off the bike

There was a recent thread on the Velo Girls email group that prompted this post. In that thread, a rider commented that a specific local century ride was dangerous because the roads were in poor condition and that these roads caused at least three crashes during the event. With no disrespect to the original poster, I feel obliged to share some thoughts about these assertions.

Roads do not cause crashes. Unskilled riders cause crashes.

I've had the opportunity to ride and race my bike all over the world. I've ridden my road bike on baby-butt smooth pavement, on cracked and pot-holed farm roads, and on dirt roads (including an epic 1/2 mile dirt climb on Happy Canyon just this past weekend). You can ride your road bike on sand, gravel, grass, and ice. If you limit yourself to riding on perfect pavement, you might as well just ride loops in a business park (there are plenty of them in northern CA). Some of my most memorable rides are those that took place on less than perfect roads -- these are the challenges we remember long after the ride is over.

When I first began riding a bike again as an adult, I was scared of everything. Instead of riding intuitively, I tried to manage every obstacle and bump on the road. I tried to control the bike instead of working with the physics of the bike to allow it to do what it's supposed to do. I was nervous and I didn't understand how my bike worked. And somehow, I never crashed (although I probably should have given the way I rode).

So, how do riders not crash when riding on variable terrain?

#1 -- always look where you want to go. this means looking at the horizon view and using your peripheral vision to see what's directly around you. by looking ahead, you have time to change course or respond to any obstacles on the road ahead of you. there is almost never a reason for you to look down at your bike or to look down at the road directly in front of your wheel.

#2 -- learn to evaluate what is an obstacle and what is an inconvenience. your bike, at speed, will roll over just about anything you might encounter on the road. while a bump, rock or hole might be inconvenient, most of the time it won't cause you to crash. true obstacles would be tracks or cracks that are running parallel to your line of travel or deep holes that are bigger than your front wheel (and even then you might be able to roll it).

#3 -- maintain the appropriate speed for the riding conditions. momentum is your friend. speed is what keeps the bike upright. it's basic physics. if you reduce your speed too much, it will be more difficult to roll through those bumps and holes.

#4 -- steer your bike with your hips, core, and mind, not your hands and handlebar. do not use your bar to try to steer around an obstacle. the bicycle is a rear-driven vehicle. you steer the bike from the saddle, using your hips and your core. subtle changes in direction (ie riding around an obstacle) require a subtle motion. I tell riders that you can just "think" about making a directional change and it will happen. directional changes are initiated with your body -- your hands (and bar) will follow. we only steer with the bar at very low speeds.

#5 -- learn to modulate your speed without using your brakes. brakes are designed to stop the bike. braking disrupts the physics of propulsion. so practice using other methods to modulate your speed: stop pedaling, put less torque/pressure on the pedals (aka soft pedaling), sit up a bit to create more drag. these are all very effective methods of slowing yourself down and don't use the brakes.

#6 -- if you do need to brake, focus on smooth, steady brake pressure.
do not brake during a turn, in gravel or loose pavement, or directly on an obstacle. if you need to to reduce your speed quickly over a short distance, learn proper emergency stopping techniques.

#7 -- stay alert but relaxed. maintain your focus, but keep your upper body relaxed and soft. your arms and legs serve as shock absorbers on the bike -- they're your suspension. drop your shoulders, bend your elbows, and keep a firm but relaxed grip on the bar.

I've spent the better part of the past decade studying the bike, how it works, how the rider interacts with it, and developing methods to teach riders all of this. If you haven't participated in one of our skills clinics, I highly recommend the experience. Past participants will tell you that our clinics have literally changed their lives and made riding a safer, more enjoyable experience. Riding a bike doesn't have to be hard. It doesn't have to be a painful experience (physically or mentally). Whether you've been riding for 2 months or 20 years, I can guarantee you'll learn specific skills that will make you a better rider -- and help prevent you from falling off the bike.

Details on all our clinics here:


bernzpeed said...

Great tips, Lorri. In my case, I always manage to fall when I am going slow but when I am ripping it downhill, the risk of falling is less likely. Why is that?

velogirl said...

Bernzpeed, as I mention in the post, speed is your friend. momentum is what keeps your bike upright. imagine hitting a biggish rock or hole while climbing at low speed -- it will definitely cause you to bobble (and maybe fall). now imagine hitting that same obstacle while descending at high speed -- it will simply be deflected from the wheel.

the other piece of the puzzle is that our steering mechanism is somewhat different at low speed than at high speed. at high speed, we steer with our hips/core/saddle. it's very smooth and linear. at low speed, we utilize the bar to steer. this can cause us to over-steer and then correct, which can cause you to crash.

Chris said...

Great info. I crashed recently on a rough road (at an organized ride) and it was no ones fault but my own. I'm relatively new to the road bike and riding in a group and while I was paying attention to what the person right in front of me was doing, I wasn't paying attention to the road and I crashed. I was lucky to walk away with a little road rash and a separated shoulder. What it taught me was I have a lot to learn to become a better rider. Your post gave me some great tips to work on. Thanks

velogirl said...

Chris, you're very welcome. There's so much to learn as a new rider, but the first lesson is to always stay focused and in the moment. Sounds like you learned that one.

I hope your recovery is swift and that you're able to get back on the bike again soon!