By Chris Carmichael
I’ve talked to thousands of cyclists before they’ve embarked on challenging journeys, and in addition to questions about training, nutrition, and pacing, the subject of safety always comes up. And it should, because with thousands of cyclists on the roads together, riding safely is everyone’s responsibility. Despite the importance of rider safety, most of the resources I’ve seen and read cover only the very basic ideas of complying with traffic laws, wearing a helmet, and making sure your bike is in good working order. That’s a good start, but riding safely also has a great deal to do with your skills, habits, and attitude on the bike.
To have a great time during your ride and arrive at the finish line safely, keep the following tips in mind:
- Keep your head up: It is easy to get in the habit of looking directly at the back wheel of the person in front of you, but you need to look further forward so you can anticipate turns or slowing riders. This is especially important toward the end of a long ride, as you’ll tend to drop your gaze or lock in on the wheel in front of you as you get more tired.
- Look before you move left or right: Just like in a car, it’s important to look left or right before you “change lanes”. A quick glance over your shoulder or even down under your arm will let you know if you have room to move, and a flick of the arm is a good idea to communicate your intention to riders behind you.
- Use both brakes at the same time: Using both brakes at the same time spreads the force of braking across both wheels, which reduces the chances that either one will lock up and skid. It also means you have more power to stop more quickly. And if you have to stop abruptly, shift your weight back as you hit the brakes to put more weight over the rear wheel.
- Keep your bike upright through sand, dirt, or water: If you encounter sand, dirt, or water, the safest route through it is a straight line. If you encounter these conditions in a turn, slow down before you reach the corner and keep your bike more upright instead of leaning into it like you would on dry, clean pavement.
- Keep your upper body relaxed: The more rigid your upper body (shoulders, elbows, wrists), the less stable you are on the bike. You’ll find the steering skittish and harder to control, which typically makes you tighten up even more, and leads to even more problems. Bend your elbows, drop your shoulders, and maintain a firm but gentle grip on the handlebars. The bike will ride more smoothly and you’re steering will be less effected by small bumps in the road or from a rider next to you.
- Communicate: Speak up when you’re overtaking riders. You don’t have to yell at them; a simple “How’s it going?” or “On your left.” will let them know you’re coming by. And try not to startle the person you’re passing, or they’re likely to swerve and may move into your path. If you’re the one being passed, stay on your line and ride predictably.
- Don’t overlap wheels: Riding behind another cyclist is a great way to reduce wind resistance and save energy, but be careful to leave enough space so your front wheel doesn’t overlap the rear wheel of the person in front of you. If the rider ahead of you moves left or right, you don’t want them to rub your front wheel.
- Keep eating and drinking: Most people think of eating and drinking in terms of performance on the bike, but it’s even more important for safety. When your blood sugar is low and/or you’re dehydrated, your reaction times are much slower and your ability to make decisions is diminished. Drink at least one bottle of fluid per hour and consume 100-200 calories of carbohydrate (1 Gu Gel or a serving of GU Chomps, or a bottle of sports drink for example) each hour in order to keep your energy levels up and stay alert.
- Keep your hands near the brakes on downhills: Never mind the super-aerodynamic tucks you see Tour de France riders use on downhills. With a lot of riders on the roads with you, it’s important to keep your hands near your brakes when you’re going faster down a hill. Keep your eyes looking forward, too, because it takes more time to slow down from higher speeds if you have to hit the brakes.
- Adjust your helmet correctly: Your helmet can save your life, but it has to be worn properly to do so. It should be snug to your head, but not uncomfortably tight. The straps should be adjusted so you can’t lift the helmet off your head when buckled, but again not overly tight. And the front of the helmet needs to protect your forehead, so the bottom edge of the front of the helmet should be about 1-2 inches above your eyebrows, not rotated back toward the top of your head. If you’re uncertain about the fit of your helmet, visit your local bike shop before your next ride.
Chris Carmichael is the Founder and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. To find out about CTS coaching, camps, and performance testing services, visit www.trainright.com or come see us at our new training facility in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.