Cycling Crash Avoidance

I received a suggestion for this topic via a comment last week.  I figure it is a perfect off-season topic because it has some very superstitious implications for racing.  I’ve managed to go three seasons of serious racing with only a broken collar bone that was ‘my own fault’ from a solo crash.

Risk / Benefit

This is one of my foremost principles on the subject of racing in general, and specifically crash avoidance.  I know most of the peloton uses similar thinking, because the higher the stakes, the more dangerous the race will be.  However, you can use this to your own ‘advantage’ when it comes to racing with an eye towards safety.  This can keep you healthy for the races that really matter.

Positioning yourself in the group can impact risk/benefit in a variety of ways, depending on your goals.  In some races, my goal is safety first (minor races, training races, etc).  In these races I may spend more time in the wind to keep myself in a safe position.  Riding at the very front, or very back of the peloton is relatively safe.  The front requires extra skill and effort, and riding at the back carries risk of being caught behind a crash and ruining the chance for a good result.

Make sure to go into every race having carefully considered your risk/benefit plan.  In key races, it may be worth the extra risk of taking a corner faster than you think is possible in a small breakaway, or riding in the middle of the pack to conserve the most energy.

Positioning

Positioning yourself in the peloton is a difficult task.  There are many considerations for positioning, but here I’ll focus on safety.  In most races my #1 goal is to stay out of trouble.  The front of the peloton is likely to be less congested, faster through the corners, and have the most experienced and least tired riders.  “At the front, not on the front” is common advice.  I won’t go into how to stay there in this post, except to say that it takes practice, effort, and constant mindfulness of a good time to move up.

Next is positioning in corners.  Every corner has its own personality, and each course is made up of a set of corners.  I generally don’t ride in the middle of the peloton, and stick to the side when I can.  The sides tend to be moving up and there are more options for escape.  I take all of the corners into consideration and will generally pick one side of the peloton to stay on during a criterium.

The inside of a tough corner is generally perferable.  (Note: It is considered uncool to ‘chop’ riders by riding too far inside.  You’ll need a spot in line with the other riders in the peloton)  On the inside you may have to slow slightly more, but the carnage tends to spread to the outside of the corner when something happens.

Protect Yourself

If there is one take-home point from this post, this should be it: Do not cross wheels!  Most crashes occur when a rider crosses his front wheel with the rear of another rider.  The rider in front doesn’t know the proximity of the rider behind, and if they move the wrong way, the rider behind will crash.  The most important thing to recognize about this common scenario is that it is generally avoidable.  You have to protect your own front wheel.

Example #1

First of all, I’ll bet this guy isn’t exaggerating their speed.  The lead rider looks to be in about his tallest gear at 110 rpm (yes, I counted) – 53×12 would be 35 mph.  Also, this is a good example of why aero bars are considered poor form for group rides.  The rider that crashes has increased reaction time without a brake within reach at all times, and likely crossed wheels because he was incapable of scrubbing the speed required to protect his front wheel.

The second faux pas in this video is how the riders are rotating in the .  Perhaps there is a miscommunication regarding the use of a single or rotating paceline, but either way, riders at the front should pull off rather than having the rider behind have to overtake them.  In this case the lull in the pace from the tiring rider at the front combines with the second rider’s move to overtake him.  The third rider in his aerobars puts his front wheel into the quick release of the guy in front and his wheel disintegrates causing the crash.

Example #2

This video is classic Cat 5.  The pace is moderate with almost nobody changing position in the peloton.  Race numbers are flapping like kites. (I’m surprised they’re all on right side up).

The rider in red and white (#357) on the left side of the pack causes this crash.  He just barely overlaps the wheel in front as they enter the corner.  Perhaps he didn’t have to react by moving to the outside, but either way he takes a few guys with him.  Notice how the rider directly behind on the inside of the corner, the cameraman, and the front few riders come out unscathed.

Example #3

This is another example of what a moment’s inattention can cause.  The rider in red moving up the right side probably wants to conserve as much momentum as possible and not brake as he is coasting and moving up the pack.  He overlaps the rider in front and causes himself and other riders to crash.

Example #4

Even the pros make mistakes.  This great video from of the 2012 Tour Down Under includes a lot of overhead footage from this dead-straight sprint.  The big crash is replayed at 4:07.  The Vacansoleil-DCM rider catches the wheel in front after a slight lull in the pace and causes a huge crash which breaks ‘s femur, and neck.

Also look at the overhead of the sprint finalé at 4:40 when Alessandro Petacchi (hot pink/blue) sprints to the left side of the road to ‘close the door’ on a charging André Greipel (white/navy blue).  When Greipel moves around on the right, Petacchi moves again and pushes Greipel into Hutarovich (white/blue) who has been faithfully sprinting in a straight line just to the right of center the entire time.

About Russell

I have been racing bicycles for a decade. This blog will chronicle my efforts as a Category 1 road racer lining up with the pros.
This entry was posted in Race Strategy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Cycling Crash Avoidance

  1. Sean says:

    I just wanted to commend you on your excellent blog. I’m relatively new to racing (started last June, then raced a full season of cyclocross) and I’ve really enjoyed your insight on a number of issues from training and testing, to your most recent pieces about the “struggling Cat 4″. Anyways, I don’t usually comment on these things, but just wanted to voice my appreciation for your writing. Thanks.

  2. CAT4Fodder says:

    In terms of crashing and the frequency with which they occur at the lower levels in the amateur ranks, my initial experience (as compared for example to watching the TdU video above), is that in a CAT 4 race, almost every entrant into the race seemingly comes into the race with one goal: Take First. Only a few teams in the CAT 4 here in Colorado I have seen put together an actual strategy, whereby each rider has a designated plan in the race.

    I can see this resulting in a higher % of racers in a CAT 4 race taking more chances (and add to that the fact that CAT 4 riders are inexperienced as to when to back off as well as general pack riding skills). If you watch the Tour Down Under, the # of guys who have a designated role other than winning means that once they take their final pull, they are backing off. You can see the guys dropping back, and are deferential to the other racers in terms of position. Their day is done.

    Contrast that with a bunch of “every man for themselves” mentality of the CAT 4 race (even teammates).

  3. Dave Z says:

    Criteriums are one of the rare races that someone can actually win and NOT be extremely fit. One hour, draft, and have a good sprint. Therefore, these people are in the race much longer than normal, and more likely for sudden fatigue to cause an accident. I remember a span of 4 races in a row had ambulances; luckily I avoided them all. I’m not a Cat4, but my advice is to do more stage races, hill climbs, and time trials before upgrading. Or, if you are stuck with some clowns, take some fliers off the side and really break up the pack. Worst case, call it an expensive work-out.

  4. Mat S. says:

    Russell,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my question. I’ve been involved in a couple crashes. I’ve had lots of time to think about this subject as the last one derailed an entire season (no pun intended). You’ve given me more to think about in terms of positioning. As your videos illustrate, people who are riding in the middle of the pack sometimes get caught up on crashes that are no fault of their own except that they happen to be in the middle of the pack. Just to add to what other people have said, I’ve noticed a startling difference in the pack mentality of masters races versus Cat 4 races. As a result, I feel much more tense in general in Cat 4 races. Thanks again and good luck with next season!

  5. says:

    Great observations Russell–I second the kudos above. If even one person takes something away from this then you might have just saved some skin, bones and bikes this coming season.

    If I might throw in my $1 or so, having ridden my share of Cat 4/5 crits, I would say some of the main causes of crashes I’ve witnessed are:

    1. Riders overreacting to other rider’s mistakes. One rider’s initial move is a little sketchy but the panicked overreaction to the move by another rider causes a cataclysmic domino effect.
    2. Rider doing what I call a “Formula 1″ turn (see example #2) where instead of taking a straight line through a corner, they make an abrupt move to outside just prior to the turn, thus causing #1.
    3. Rider chopping the corners, as you mention. Rider doesn’t have the fitness or finesse to move up cleanly through the pack so they jam up the inside, get closed down on as the pack rounds the corner and either take someone out if they hold their position, or more commonly, run up against the curb with obvious consequences.
    4. Lastly, riders not riding crits in the drops. Alarming how many people I see riding crits with their hands on the hoods, or worse, on the top of the bars. Drops are the best place to be for quick handling and braking (as a last resort) and to keep someone from overlapping your front wheel or your handlebars (learned that lesson the hard way) by use of your elbows and head.

    Shame we don’t have more of a track culture around here as the velodrome is a great place to develop these skills.

  6. Ryan says:

    You see me getting crashed out in example #2 (I was number 329) there were 50 racers so you were seeing the front 15% in that video. Ended up with a broken helmet and trashed wheel.

    I talked to the guy who caused the wreck several days later and he didn’t even know he caused it until I showed him the video.

    I think an important thing to add to all this is not to get too upset about it happening. Crashes are going to happen and they hurt and sometimes take weeks to heal, but its just a risk of racing.

    And also to learn when you can and can’t pedal going through a corner.

    • says:

      I’m not surprised he didn’t know he caused it.

      From the look of the video he seems to be distracted and is adjusting his hand position a moment before the crash. He may have slightly caught the wheel in front of him, or I was also thinking he may have simply not turned into the corner.

      Through my work I’ve spoken to many people involved in car accidents. Usually the person that caused the crash has ‘no idea’ what happened (as they wouldn’t have caused a crash if they were paying attention, and they didn’t notice the cause, because they were the cause). The others involved in the crash usually can describe exactly what happened.

  7. Chris says:

    Fascinating thread, as is the blog. Like 329′s comment about keeping your cool with less experienced riders. Learn a lot from your shared knowledge. Am a better rider and driver (I feel) for all of the detail you put into your writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s