Stay Calm, Stay Safe, Win

The first few criteriums for a new racer are often a humbling or even terrifying experience. I remember speaking with the manager of a national level pro squad about goals for each of his riders in a downtown crit. One team member was a proven European pro who had not ridden American style criteriums before. While the other riders had instructions to control the race or protect the sprinter, the assignment for this experienced European pro was to get through the race without getting hurt and to get used to the pack dynamics. He was anxious. That was in a 1/2/pro event.

A 1/2/pro crit is a walk the park compared to the pandemonium of a beginner race. Riders are yelling and crashing right and left, at least that’s what it can feel like. A new rider, fearing for personal safety, fades to the back of the pack where the accordion effect kicks in, “requiring” repeated sprinting out of corners until the rider has struck the last match and then poof! The race is over, often less than half way through. Some new riders quit in frustration after a race or two. Maybe they keep up fine on club rides, but racing is not for them. Others love the mayhem and manage to do a few races before getting hurt. The lucky ones survive long enough to learn how to ride in the pack and race competitively. One can often make one’s own luck.

Are You Ready to Race?

Usually this question is followed by encouragement to give it a try and not to worry about physical fitness too much. Mental rather than physical readiness is what keeps new riders safe however. One clue to mental race-readiness is how one reacts if a car passes, as one is setting up for a turn or if a dog appears. There are times when slowing is prudent of course, but if there is a reflexive urge to stop pedaling and hit the brakes when danger is perceived, one will be a menace in a race pack.

In our local training criterium series, we see one or more accidents in most of the beginner races, and yet the more experienced racers who ride as mentors rarely if ever end up in those pile-ups. Crashing in beginner races not inevitable for all riders. There is a collection of abilities that makes safe racing possible.

More experienced riders stay out of crashes in part because they know where to focus their attention. They notice the important cues. As one becomes more excited and adrenaline levels rise, focus narrows. A calm person will notice birds chirping or an approach car, while someone who is super-excited will miss them. The “tunnel vision” that elite athletes sometimes develop near the finish of a race is an extreme example of such attentional narrowing. Some elite riders report being able to see the line and nothing else in the final seconds of race, not the spectators, nor the riders around them. Noises disappear as well. These riders are 100% focused on the space between themselves and their goal and how to cross it as quickly as possible. Attention also narrows for riders with less control of their focus, but they don’t always direct it appropriately. Excessive attentional narrowing leads to such entertaining spectacles as newbies being slowly dropped from the pack while egg-beatering the pedals at 150 rpm rather than shifting, or riding past the cones indicating a time-trial turnaround. These are not stupid people, but their attention has narrowed to the point where they don’t pick up on the key cues from their environment, perhaps including the presence of a rider just to either side.

There are three things that will cause attentional narrowing, potentially to the point of making a rider dangerous: fear, physical effort and desire. Anyone who is considering racing should first ponder whether they’d be able to control those variables. They should take race-skills clinics or ride with packs in race-like situations, riding close behind, beside and between other riders until they can do so without fear. They should train up to the point where they can keep up with their competitors for the majority of the time without pushing into the personal red-zone. And they should rid themselves of any confusion about the importance of a beginner bike race in the grand plan of the universe. A rider who can stay calm when going fast close to others in a competitive situation has a good chance of surviving his or her races unscathed.

Hold Your Own D— Line!

Let’s deal with one common and dangerous misunderstanding. You will often hear riders yelling “Hold your line!” They do wish that everyone else would, but they’ll swerve as soon as the next guy when self-preservation requires it. Usually that cry comes from a frightened racer who has noticed that someone is drifting into his or her line or that riders ahead appear ready to tangle. Of course the drifter is not always drifting randomly. He or she may be avoiding some perceived obstacle. Better than holding one’s own line, one can keep safe by staying relaxed and protecting one’s own front wheel. Do your best to minimize swerving and braking, but not to the point of sacrificing your own skin. If each rider protects his or her front wheel, all will be safe.

Another common yell is, “Inside! Inside!” from a rider who is moving up on the inside as the pack approaches a corner. This move may frighten other riders but is an acceptable tactic, provided that the rider leaves enough room to pull into line before the corner, and matches speed with the riders in front and behind before pulling in. (See below about pulling in).

Moving in the Pack

In order to race successfully, one has to be able to move from place to place in the pack. Being aware of the spaces between riders as much as the riders and bikes themselves enables intra-pack movement. It is often much easier to ride in one part of the field than in any other part. Most of the time, the sweet spot will be in roughly 6th-10th positions in the pack. When the leaders are single file and the pack widens out a few rows back, being in the first few wide rows gives one a good draft but also a clear view of the front, allowing one to respond to attacks or join breaks, or at least to count how many riders have gone up the road.

When a race passes a corner or crests a hill, the speed suddenly increases. The lead riders can accelerate out of the corner or down the hill while the ones in back are still entering the corner or climbing the hill. In order not to be gapped, they have to go as fast as the leaders while in a position that makes that difficult or impossible. That makes being in the front tremendously advantageous. There are a few races with minimal changes in speed where there is no disadvantage to riding in the back, but in the vast majority, gaining and holding a forward position is essential.

One often hears about the importance of holding wheels, but moving up is more important. Other riders are moving up all the time so staying on a wheel actually means moving backwards through the pack. Sprinting up the side can get one to the front, but often means arriving so tired that holding position is impossible, so what we really want is tricks that allow one to move up without sprinting. The easiest way to move up is to pass between the two riders in front. That way one has a continuous draft and doesn’t need to work much harder than one would just cruising along with the pack. Unfortunately the riders in front don’t always open a nice space into which to ride, so one needs some other tricks as well. When wind conditions allow, one can ride on the outside of the pack coming into a turn. As the pack slows, one swings wide and passes a large chunk of riders. This trick also allows carrying more speed through the corner so one doesn’t have to sprint out of it. (And by the way, the secret to criterium racing is never to sprint before the finish, except for primes). Taking the outside line works great except in the final few minutes of a race when riders are moving faster and tend to swing wider exiting corners. Crashes also go straight, which means that jumbled riders drift to the outsides of turns.

Holding a wheel seems like it should be easy. Just ride behind the next rider, right? Fortunately for those of us who really like pack racing, it’s actually quite complicated. Understanding pack dynamics requires first understanding personal space. Each rider has a particular amount of space they like to feel around themselves and their bike. Say Joe likes at least a foot between himself and the rider next to him, while Jim, riding next to him, is happy with half that much. In that situation Jim is going to be quite comfortable riding into Joe’s personal space. Joe is going to be tempted to shrink away, perhaps by pulling in his elbows or drifting to the other side. Either of those moves though is an invitation for Jim to pull in closer, causing Joe to shrink more until finally the Jim has taken Joe’s spot in line. One can avoid being eased out in this way by riding with wider elbows. If Joe’s elbows are out a few more inches, Jim is not comfortable coming as close and might not force Joe out. Keep those wide elbows soft and relaxed so that if they do get bumped, it won’t transmit a big shock to the bars. Ultimately, getting comfortable riding very close allows one to make more deliberate decisions about where to ride. Pros riding side-by-side often let the backs of their hands tap as they ride the drops and chat in training.

There is another aspect of personal space besides side-to-side space. The effect of getting “too close” to another rider depends not just on the distance between them, but on the angle of approach and other details. If two riders bump moderately hard hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder they can bounce off each other without damage, but if Barb’s bars hit Holly’s hip, Barb is in a lot more trouble than Holly. If a rear wheel hits a front wheel, the guy in back is in a lot more trouble than the guy in front. Experienced riders use these facts to steal or keep wheels. When a rider pulls up next to an uncertain rider, the uncertain rider will flinch away, giving up a spot, but even when the rider in line is quite experienced and comfortable, a skilled rider can still ease him or her out of line as follows: The attacker places his hip even with the victim’s bars and starts to drift in. If the victim can’t change that relationship so that his bars are no longer threatened by a hip, he or she has to back out and give up the space, or fall down. If the victim moves over a little, the attacker can get a bit of draft off the next rider and can then hang out all day waiting for the victim to crack.

The victim of an ease-out has control over safety, but not always over position. If a rider falls down because someone else drifted a hip into his or her bars, it’s the victim’s fault. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to side-slam anyone, but if you want their place in line, it is okay to drift slowly into their personal space, forcing them to respond by either protecting or giving way.

Riders who understand the threat but not how to protect a wheel often give way to attacker after attacker until they have been shoved all the way to the back of the pack.

Sometimes, it pays to give up a spot in line while other times it is important not to. In a strong headwind, one might want to let a larger rider pull in directly in front in order to gain the benefit of their draft. On the other hand, in the final minutes of a race, one often doesn’t want to give up a place in a lead out train. If one doesn’t want to be eased out, there are two ways to prevent it. If one sees the invader in, one can move forward and towards the encroaching rider. That keeps the invader from catching any draft. Usually the invader will then go bother someone who is less aggressive about protecting a wheel. The victim can also drift away from the attacker and forward, putting the next rider’s back wheel between the victim and attacker front wheels. Then the attacker can’t drift any closer to the victim. The victim is now trapped deeper it the pack, “boxed in”, but is no longer threatened with immediate danger. Both of these protective maneuvers require being comfortable riding close to others and being calm enough to see what is happening and what needs to be done.

Forewarned is Forearmed

There is no question that a lot of people get hurt racing bikes, especially in the beginner categories, nor is there any question that even more people don’t get hurt and that one can keep out of trouble to a large extent by practicing close-quarters riding, staying calm, maintaining an awareness of the presence and movement of surrounding riders and understanding how to deal with them. Riders who do these things can, with a little luck, enjoy many bike races crash-free, allowing them time to learn the tricks that make for competitive success as well.