Falling off the bike

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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.