A part of the Technik™ Series
by David Brinton
As we know, riding on city streets can be dangerous. With car doors flying open, overzealous drivers cutting us off and people swerving all over the road while dialing their cell phones, it's no wonder some of us find ourselves sliding across the pavement or over the hood of a car from time to time. As if it isn't enough that we have so many other hurdles to avoid, such as potholes, rocks, uneven pavement and other riders slamming on their brakes or abruptly swerving without warning.
Today, we have to be more cautious than ever. It seems that people are less tolerant of cyclists and definitely in more of a hurry. Unfortunately, we're the ones who suffer. We can't change the world, but we can change how we deal with it. As we increase our awareness of potential hazards, improve our bike handling skills, and get into the habit of paying a little more attention to our surroundings, we can greatly increase our confidence and minimize the risk.
Knowing what can hurt you is the first step to being a safer rider. Most of us have learned this the hard way. As you read on you will be introduced to a variety of potentially dangerous situations and how to avoid them. Each scenario is clearly outlined, followed by safety suggestions, visualization drills and techniques.
Visualize yourself in each situation. Devote time and thought into each individual drill. It's very easy to read through this information and put it aside saying to yourself, “I already know this stuff.” If you put time into analyzing and practicing each situation, I guarantee you will forever be a more confident and safe rider.
Sharing the road
Contrary to popular belief, we do not own the road, and we must keep in mind how vulnerable we really are. Most vehicles with driver weigh over three thousand pounds, while most cyclists with bike weigh less than two hundred. In addition to increasing your awareness and developing your bike handling skills, putting yourself into the mindset of drivers can also reduce your chance of becoming entangled with a vehicle.
Many things go through the minds of drivers when they see cyclists. Some are intrigued by the speed, others by the high-tech bikes; meanwhile a select few think cyclists are a nuisance and should not be allowed on the road. Regardless of what they're thinking, it is inevitable that we will draw a percentage of their attention away from their driving. The more they become distracted, the more likely they will make mistakes.
When you approach Intersections – Most drivers do not have good depth perception and can not judge the speed of oncoming cyclists. This can be especially dangerous when a driver is preparing to make a left turn as you approach the intersection. When drivers see someone riding a bicycle, a certain speed registers in their mind. This is because most bicyclists ride between 12-15 mph. If you are rolling along at 25-35 mph they are likely to misjudge your speed and attempt to turn directly in front of you. If they do turn in front of you, it may be safest to make an abrupt turn around the corner to avoid hitting the car.
If you continue pedaling (while simultaneously braking) as you approach the intersection, they may be more likely to let you pass before turning. If you are coasting, they may think you are slowing or preparing to stop. Always make eye contact with oncoming drivers. I sometimes place my left fingers over the brake and hold my right hand up politely signaling them to wait. This is especially important if you are riding 25 mph. Remember to glance to the left and right before entering an intersection. A cyclist in the dangerous habit of ignoring red lights and stop signs could be suddenly appearing from the other direction.
Vehicles coming from behind – Drivers are usually cautious about passing riders and are generally aware of how much room they need to safely pass. It is rare to be struck from behind, but drivers have been known to pass a little too close for comfort. Use precaution when the sun is directly in front of you. If you are having trouble seeing, imagine how difficult it must be for drivers who also have glare in their windshields.
Ride as close to the right shoulder as possible. Use extreme caution while in riding traffic, and maintain a consistent position on the road. Do not swerve in and out of cars intermittently parallel parked. Most drivers will not expect you to swerve back into the traffic lane as you pass parked cars. Be predictable. Abrupt movements in traffic can panic drivers.
Vehicles making right turns – Drivers will occasionally pass on your left, then swerve directly in front of you while making a right turn or attempting to parallel park. It's the strangest thing, but once they pass you, they somehow forget you were ever there.
If you are forced over by a car, aggressively apply both brakes with your butt off the back of your saddle (see, panic stops). Yell loudly to let the driver know you are there, but do not cuss them out or you may find yourself in a serious situation—to put it mildly. If you can not avoid contact with the car, turn with it. If you avoid hitting the car head on, but still side swipe it, you will likely stay upright if you remain relaxed.
Car door dilemma – Car doors flying open are one of the leading causes of crashes involving vehicles. Drivers rarely look to see if it's safe before opening their door. The only drivers likely to look first are those who have opened their door and crashed a cyclist some time in the recent past.
When approaching cars that are parallel parked always look through their rear windows to see if there is someone inside. If there is a driver inside the car, assume that he or she will open their door directly in front of you. If you cannot see through the rear window assume there is a driver inside the vehicle who is about to open their door in front of you. If a door does open in front of you, loudly yell “close door” and drift to the left enough to safely pass. If you swerve too far to the left you may risk getting clipped by a passing car.
Vehicles wanting to pass on canyon roads – People who drive through canyon roads get very anxious when they are forced to slow down for cyclists. Many times they make dangerous decisions, such as crossing the centerline on blind corners without knowing if there is a car coming from the other direction. When you hear a car coming up from behind, drift far to the right. If it is safe and you know it's clear, wave your arm signaling them to pass. If it is an unsafe place to pass remain far to the right, and aggressively signal them to wait.
When descending a steep, road with sharp turns that you know are unsafe for a car to pass, you can either: 1) Pull off to the shoulder, slow down and signal the car to pass. This may be the best option, especially if the road ahead has fewer turns and the car will be going faster than you; 2) At times, experienced riders may choose to ride toward the center of the lane to prevent the car from passing in a blind turn. Some riders choose to do this if they know the road has sharp turns ahead and they will be descending faster than the car.
Keeping the rubber side down
It seems there are some riders who are destined to crash, and others who fall once every couple years. What separates the two? Is it experience, luck, or simply destiny? I do know one thing for sure—the greater your awareness, and the better your bike handling skills, the less likely you'll go down. If you keep saying to yourself, “I always crash,” you will likely continue to crash. Fear is the biggest culprit. When fear is present, your body and mind become tense. The safest riders are the most relaxed riders.
Panic stops – Maximizing the stopping power of your front brake can literally save your life. If you ride a bike on public roads you will come across an occasion where you will be forced to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting a car, pedestrian, dog or another cyclist. The faster and more aggressively you ride, the more likely someone or something will jump out on front of you.
Under normal braking your front wheel accounts for nearly 60% of your total braking power. Under extreme braking your front wheel will provide up to 95% of your total braking power. Even under the most extreme braking, if you lock your arms and slide your butt off the back of your saddle, it is virtually impossible to flip over the bars.
Find a quiet street or parking lot to practice panic stops. Make sure the location is dry and free of loose gravel. First practice sliding your butt completely off the back of your saddle with your arms straight and your hands in the drops of the bars. When you are capable of resting your lower stomach on the top of your saddle and can easily get your butt back onto your saddle without getting your shorts caught, you have mastered this step.
Once you become comfortable with sliding your butt back off your saddle, practice applying the front brake with greater and greater power. Maintain a straight line, and do not allow your weight to shift forward or you could give yourself a pretty good headache if you flip over the bars. The harder you apply the front brake, the greater effort it will take to keep your body from creeping forward. The more aggressively you apply the front brake, the less you will need to apply the rear brake.
Riders who have mastered this technique can apply the front brake with so much confidence and control that their front wheel will intermittently skid while their rear wheel barely touches the ground. To develop your mastery and timing, roll along at about 10 mph, push yourself off the back of the saddle, lock your arms, apply the brakes with maximum stopping power, and practice coming to a stop at a predetermined mark.
Focal point – Keep your eyes focused ahead while riding. This is especially important to remember while time trialing, sprinting and drafting other riders in a peleton. I have heard many stories of experienced racers who have received serious or fatal injuries caused by running head-on into cars or other objects. On occasion, professional stage racers have been known to slam into the back of team support vehicles while trying to re-establish contact with the peleton after a mishap or mechanical problem.
Never look down at your front wheel and the rear wheel of the rider in front of you when drafting other riders. The lowest point you should look down when following another rider is their rear brake caliber. It is best to look around the hip of the rider in front of you or stagger yourself slightly to the side of the rider in front of you. Being able to look ahead will give you forewarning of any potential hazards, such as potholes, slowing riders and parked cars.
There is no aerodynamic advantage to time trialing or sprinting with your head down. The safest and most aerodynamic time trial position is to ride with your head nestled as low as possible with your eyes forward. Think of yourself as a turtle tucking your head inside your shell. Always remember to focus your eyes where you want to go, not where you don't want to go. If you stare at a rock in the middle of a turn you are more likely to run into it.
Looking behind without swerving – Looking behind, then forward again while maintaining a straight line is a necessary cycling skill. On almost every one of your rides you will have to look behind to see if it is clear move into the left turn lane. The last thing you want to do is look back and find yourself drifting right in the path of a car. I strongly advise against the use of handlebar or helmet-mounted rear view mirrors. They can increase your likelihood of injury and offer a very limited range of view.
Regardless of how well you can handle your bike or how much experience you have, take a few minutes to test your skills. Locate a safe, lightly traveled road with a white line separating the shoulder and traffic lane. Ride along the line while focusing up the road. Slowly turn your head to look behind and then forward again. If you drift more than a few inches to either side of the line, you need more practice. Whichever side you drift to, compensate by slightly leaning your bike the opposite direction. Keep practicing looking back in both directions until you can consistently maintain a straight line. Being able to reach for your water bottle while looking forward, continuing to pedal and maintaining a straight line is also a great skill to have. Practice this same drill while reaching into your jersey pocket.
Avoiding/crossing parallel cracks – Parallel cracks in the road are one of the most common causes of crashes. When you encounter a stretch of road that has a crack running along the side of your wheels, be aware. If your front wheel gets caught in or slides across a crack when riding parallel to it, rounding a corner or entering a driveway you will likely crash—no matter how good of a bike handler you are. If your front wheel makes it across and your rear wheel slides, you will likely stay upright as long as you don't panic.
The more perpendicular your wheels are in relation to the crack or elevated stretch of pavement, the less likely your front wheel will slide, causing you to crash. Swinging out too wide can create a bigger problem, especially if you get squished by a car or knock down your training partner. Being able to pop your front wheel up and pull it sideways over the crack is a great way to avoid that problem. Once the front wheel is over the crack the rear wheel will generally follow without incident. If your front wheel gets caught into a crack your only defense is to immediately, and aggressively pop your front wheel out of it.
To practice popping your front wheel over cracks, locate a painted line in a safe, isolated parking lot. If you can already pop up your front wheel, practice your timing and accuracy by popping it over a painted line. To pop your front wheel over a parallel line, ride a couple inches from the line and then lean your bike in the direction of the line. Once your bike is leaning toward the line, pop your front wheel up, pulling primarily with your arm closest to the line. Your front wheel should automatically drift to the side. Practice in both directions until you can do it consistently. Then practice popping your front wheel to the side while pedaling. The final step would be to practice popping your rear wheel over the line immediately after popping up your front. Getting the rear wheel off the ground is a bit more difficult and may take practice.
Getting over potholes – Potholes can be a nuisance, especially if they cause you to get a “pinch” flat or even worse, bend your rim. The slightest lapse in concentration on one of your rides can ruin your day. They are especially easy to hit while riding in a group. You will usually hear, “hole” or see someone pointing, but rarely be able to see it until it's under your front wheel.
Your best defense is avoidance, which is not always possible. Your next best defense is to hop over it, but this takes practice. Start by holding your bars on the hoods or drops with your pedals in the 3:00 and 9:00 o'clock position. Pull upward with your hands and feet lifting both wheels off the ground. Have a friend or training partner watch to see if you are evenly and consistently lifting both wheels off the ground. Next, practice your timing by hopping over small cracks and painted lines.
This is a great technique for advanced bike handlers. Imagine being able to “float” over potholes while pedaling and remaining seated. The secret to this technique is to lighten the weight of the front wheel, immediately followed by lightening the weight of the rear. I say lighten because you will likely not have enough lead time to jump the entire pothole or be able to get your wheels more than an inch or so off the ground. The technique used to float over potholes is the same technique used to cross parallel cracks.
Practice popping the front over a horizontal running line, immediately followed by the rear. When mastered, you will be able to lift each wheel off the ground, one immediately following the other, regardless of your pedal position, rpm or speed. The biggest problem about applying this technique is that you may get over the pothole, but the poor soul following you will likely smash right into it.
Descending – After a long climb, most riders look forward to the descent. Meanwhile, some are literally terrified. If you fear descending, the best way to overcome your fear is to increase your bike handling skills. With greater skill, comes greater confidence. Simply practicing the techniques previously discussed will help you become a much safer and faster descender. The most productive way to improve your descending skills is to master a particular road. Familiarity is critical when trying to increase your speed and confidence.
On your next winding descent try the following techniques. Keep your eyes focused up the road and into the next turn. As you enter the turn, focus on the exit. Your braking should be done before you enter a turn. It is OK to remain on the brakes to maintain, but not to reduce your speed. Enter each turn from the outside line. Maintain your position toward the outside until you are about 1/3 of the way into the turn. Maintaining an outside line longer will enable you to exit the turn closer toward the inside, which in turn will enable you to start pedaling sooner and have more room to safely drift outward if the turn gets tighter than expected.
Riders have been know to come up with some strange and very dangerous aerodynamic tucks—all in search of greater downhill speeds at the expense of their own safety. The safest way to descend is to keep your butt on your saddle, knees clamped against your top tube (also prevents speed wobbles), hands on the tops of your bars as close to the stem as possible, elbows in tight, shoulders scrunched and head nestled down with eyes forward. The key to a fast tuck is to reduce your frontal area and block the wind from hitting your chest and upper legs. Tucking on a descent is an advanced technique. Begin practicing on flat ground, and never forget that it takes extra time to get your hands onto the brakes.
Hand positions – Resting your hands on the tops of your bars is usually the preferred position while riding on flat ground or while climbing. Your thumbs can either be wrapped around the bars or resting on top. Thumbs on top can be more comfortable, but your hand is more likely to slip off if you hit a rock or pothole. Never stand up with your hands on the tops. If you ever try it you will see how little control you have. Avoid climbing with your hands in the drops, whether you are standing or seated. It puts too much stress on your lower back and can restrict your breathing.
When accelerating from stop lights or attacking (aggressive acceleration) your hands should be wrapped around the brake hoods. Riders with larger hands generally feel more comfortable wrapping their index finger around the front of the brake lever. When sprinting on flat ground, whether you are in or out of the saddle, your hands should be in the drops near the bend of the bar. During uphill sprints many riders prefer to wrap their hands around their brake hoods. Avoid holding the bars with your hands on the outside of the top bend (a few inches behind your brake hoods). This is a dangerous position, and your hands can easily slide off the bars if you have a lapse in concentration, hit a rock or pothole.
Miscellaneous drills – The following techniques are fun to practice and will greatly improve your bike handling skills. Before I describe these techniques, I must give you forewarning that you may fall a couple times when practicing some of this stuff: 1) Ride very slowly turning tight circles around lines in a deserted parking lot while in and out of the saddle; 2) On your normal rides pedal through corners while riding in and out of the saddle; 3) When accelerating from lights remain standing for much longer than necessary and shift to bigger gears as your speed increases; 4) While riding slowly, practice locking-up the rear wheel in loose gravel and sliding it to the side; 5) Practice doing “track stands” by balancing your bike in a stopped or near stopped position without putting your foot down.
The best advice I can give, especially to new riders, is to put thought and time into developing your riding techniques—especially when it comes to your safety and the safety of those around you. Even experienced riders can benefit greatly from sharpening their skills. Becoming a good bike handler takes time, but it's worth the effort. If you have any questions on what you've read or would like information on private coaching, I can be reached at: (818) 763-6166.