Monday, November 2, 2015

Bicycles, wrecks and solutions

This year has been a bad year for cycling accidents. Of our regular riding companions, a dozen or so have had significant mishaps on the road.  Fortunately, none of the wrecks have resulted in life-threatening or permanent injuries though several did end up with broken bones and periods of rehabilitation that extended to several months.  None involved automobiles, thank goodness, and many did not even involve other bicycles.

In sharing these musings, let me be absolutely clear that I am not in any way pointing fingers. Most of us have wrecked at some point in our cycling lives and, sadly, may well do so again. How can we minimize the probability that this will indeed come to pass? How can we, collectively, improve our safety record?

I have struggled to determine whether there are common threads between the incidents. In my career in the petroleum business, we were taught that all accidents are preventable. Is this true? What, if any, are the lessons learned from the incidents that we have experienced?  I suggest that there are arguably three categories of accident that the group has experienced:

First.  Riding in a way that is too aggressive for the prevailing conditions and misjudging hazards such as pavement on poor repair, obstacles in the road, unanticipated corners etc.  Best practices: always ride defensively and assume the worst.

Second. Sub-par bike handling skills. This could manifest itself as unstable or erratic riding and inability to negotiate hazards when they do appear unexpectedly. Best practices: learn good riding techniques, practice whenever you can and be receptive to mentoring by experienced riders. Remember: “to be aware of one's own opportunities for improvement is the first step towards learning” and thus we need to develop a receptive learning environment.

Third. Poor group etiquette: riding too close to others, failing to announce intentions, losing concentration. Sometimes compounded by momentary lapses of attention. These issues are especially critical when conditions are poor such as roads with lots of cracks in the pavement, ultra-steep hills. Best practices: do not ride in tight groups or pace-lines unless both you and your fellow riders are comfortable with that, always stay super-alert, communicate frequently and back-off (safely) from the group whenever necessary.

Resources are available. The League of American Bicyclists and other organizations do offer classes and or exercises in bike-handling skills and group riding skills. Maybe this would be a start?  Remember that ultimately you have responsibility for your own safety but that does not imply that we do not also have accountability for the safety of the group we are riding with.

Note: this summary excludes two other issues: (a) dogs which will be the subject of another blog post sometime soon and (b) the condition of your bike which could also cause accidents in some instances: frequent servicing by a competent mechanic should be treated as an investment, not as an expense. 


  1. Socializing in tandem or in a group on bikes offers lots of opportunities for being sideswiped, tangling or colliding with another cyclist, or getting crowded off-road. I've had it happen to me more than once, and been the problem too! My experience is that single file with at least a bike length in between is safest, especially on high traffic roads like 360. Also the rear-view mirror, helmet or sunglasses mounted, has saved my hide and that of fellow cyclists too on several occasions, at least.

  2. I am up to and support the idea of bicycle training both as an individual rider and for group rides. I also agree with your conclusions including loss of concentration and becoming inattentive. I've unfortunately have direct experience resulting in a crash.

  3. Until Gordon Magill wrote it out, I didn't realize how much I agree with his concerns about riding tandem (side-by-side, i.e. handlebar-to-handlebar) on social rides. I'm far from a perfect rider, but personally I only like to ride side-by-side with another rider to socialize when we're on a low-speed local road with no traffic. That's basically 10-14mph, regardless of the official club pace the ride is advertised at. And *never* side-by-side on a downhill.

    Differing slightly from Gordon, when I'm in a paceline with experienced riders I do expect we all are within about a foot of each other, tire-to-tire. We're drafting to save energy and to go faster as a group than we could go solo. It's absolutely true that it's less safe than staying separated by a full bike length, but one gets a sense pretty quickly whether all the members of a paceline are capable of maintaining a steady speed, with no surges or freewheeling. If someone's squirrely, the paceline should break up into a bunch of solo riders pushing hard.

    In my experience, pacelines (single-file, drafting) on the flats run about 16-19 mph on "C" paced rides, move up to about 19-23 mph at a "B" pace, and "A" pace hit and sustain 23mph+. I know that bears no resemblance to our official Bike-Austin descriptions of overall average speed, but that's what I observe on the rides I join. At those speeds, whether it's C pace or A pace, I'm *only* going to ride singlefile unless I'm the lead rider finishing my pull & floating to the back of the pack. If people are side-by-side over 16mph, I'm either out front or I'm going to hang off the back.

    Re-reading the last couple of paragraphs, it all sounds very rigid and without compromise. So I've lied. I *do* sometimes ride fast side-by-side, and of course echelons and double-pacelines are all valid techniques as the road and wind vary. But every time I disregard the practices I try to follow, I know I'm always one little twitch or miscue away from paying a painful price.

    Stay safe out there, everyone!