7 Ways Experienced Cyclists Prevent Crashes

Riding in a peloton can be intimidating and, at times, dangerous, but there are tried-and-true strategies you can use to keep yourself safe and in good pack position. Great handling skills, heads up racing, and years of experience prevent most dangerous situations from escalating into calamities, and you can use the same techniques pros use to stay safe in the pack. Whether you’re racing in a large Masters field, participating in a Century or Gran Fondo, or just out on the local group ride, use these tips to stay safe.

#1: Keep Your Head Up!

I don’t care how tired you are or how hard you’re going, dropping your head while you’re in the middle of the pack is a recipe for disaster. A moment of inattention can destroy months of preparation and training, so you have to keep your head up and on a swivel. Use your peripheral vision to stay aware of movement to your sides and keep your vision focused around 10 riders ahead of you, at least. There’s very little time to react to problems, even less if you’re not paying attention.

#2: Have an Exit Strategy

In addition to looking for opportunities to move up in the group or put yourself in a better competitive position, you also have to have a loose plan for where you’re going to go if the riders ahead of you suddenly fall down. Is there a deep ditch on the right side of the road? Then that’s not your first choice. If you’re entering an area that looks like it’s a likely place for a crash, like a sudden narrowing of the road, can you leave a little room between you and the riders ahead of you to give yourself a bit of a buffer? Is there a space between the riders next to you that you could steer into if need be? No amount of planning will prevent all falls, but with experience, you’ll learn to evaluate escape routes without consciously thinking about it.

#3: Stay Off the Brakes

Seems counterintuitive, I know, but braking causes sudden slowdowns and makes it more likely that someone will run into your back wheel. Grabbing a handful of brakes can also cause the wheel to lock up, and once your wheel is sliding you have very little control of your bike. Using the wind and the draft to control your speed can be a lot smoother. You move out of the draft a little, catch some more air resistance to slow down gradually, and then tuck back into the draft.

#4: Get Comfortable With Contact

Competitive cycling is a contact sport, and even non-competitive cyclists benefit from getting comfortable with rubbing shoulders, elbows, and handlebars. Keep a light but firm grasp on the bars and a comfortable bend in your elbows so you can absorb contact from the sides without it affecting your steering.

Practice during group rides or even just when riding with one of your friends. Ride side by side and lean on each other, use your elbow to protect your space and move the rider away from you. Resist the urge to take your hands off the bars to move someone over. It’s tempting to do that, and we see pros do it all the time, but the risk factor is high. If you make contact with another rider when you have only one hand on the bars it’s harder to control your own steering, and if you hit a pothole you’re less likely to be able to maintain control of your bike.

#5: Don’t Overlap Wheels

Many crashes are the result of one rider’s front wheel overlapping the rear wheel of the rider ahead of them. If you’re drifting left (or the rider ahead of you is drifting right) and your wheels make contact, your momentum and weight are going left but you can’t follow because your wheel is hung up. This is a very difficult position to recover from. It’s possible, but difficult. To recover you can try steering into the rider’s wheel while you shift your weight the opposite direction, so that you can then pull off the wheel and stay upright. It rarely works, though, so the best option is not to get into that situation in the first place.

#6: Learn Who Is Safe and Who Is not

Even at the pro level, there are riders who are known for being safe wheels to follow and others who are known to be more accident prone. The same is true for your local group ride or local criterium. You won’t always know everyone you’re riding with, but observe how people are riding and the decisions they’re making and you’ll quickly recognize riders who continually put themselves and the riders around them at heightened risk.

In a race, avoid those people. In a group ride, try to help them develop their pack-riding skills rather than shunning them or discouraging them from riding with the group. Riding with a group is a learned skill and as a community it’s our responsibility to teach newcomers good habits.

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#7: Take the Inside Line

When you have a choice taking the inside line in a corner is generally less risky than cornering on the outside, at least in terms of the riders around you. If someone hits the deck in a corner they slide toward the outside and take out riders like bowling pins. If you’re on the inside you have more control over your own fate; you still have to be skilled enough to stay upright yourself, but with no one or fewer riders inside of you there’s less risk of someone taking you out.

Also, keep in mind that a crash in a corner almost always creates a space to the inside of the crash where following riders can make it through safely. So, going back to the idea of having an exit strategy, if you see a crash developing in front of you, look to the inside as your most probable escape route.

I wish I could say that the peloton is a safer place than it was 30 years ago, but I don’t think it is. There are more cars and motorbikes in the caravan, more obstructions in the roadway, and the average fitness level of the riders is greater. In my day, I believe there was a greater difference between the top riders and the domestiques, and that led to a kind of hierarchy. Now everyone is so incredibly strong that all riders have the ability to fight for position at the front, despite the fact that there’s no more room at the front than there was back then, and in some places there’s far less. The greater strength across the whole of the peloton means higher speeds as well, all day long. With more aggressive racing, higher speeds, more vehicles, and more “traffic furniture,” I don’t think it’s a surprise that there are so many crashes in modern pro cycling.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 24

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  6. Awesome tips, Chris! I’m spreading this on FB and Meetup, and any other place my cycling colleagues frequent. Too often ride leaders say “ride safe” and leave it at that. In contrast, these are actionable, proactive habits.

    To this list, I would add, “Ride in the Drops” — for many reasons (lower center of gravity, protect the bars, wind resistance, leverage, etc.). Notably, in the recent Sagan / Cavendish kerfuffle, both riders had their hands on their drops when they made contact. If Sagan had been riding on the hoods, like your average Fred, he too would surely have hit the deck.

  7. Thanks Chris. Im taking particular interest in your advise as I continue to recover from my first significant crash about 3 weeks ago. Riding with a group of about 30, on a descent as we appoached a turn. I didnt know most of the riders. Someone stopped short without warning, 2 bikes ahead of me. I didnt stop in time hit the wheel in front of me and down I went, hard into the pavment. I’ll start riding again soon. I plan to ride with more awareness and more defensively. Maybe avoid big groups all together.

  8. Picture yourself coming home after the ride/race with a smile on your face vs telling yourself “don’t crash”.

    Thanks Chris!

  9. Great advice and may I add a #8 – something Arnie Baker used to teach to riders with the San Diego Cyclo-Vets, learn how to fall. That’s right – practice your falling technique. We used to take old bikes, road, mtn it doesn’t really matter, and practice getting up to speed (not racing pace) and take a deliberate tumble with a tuck-and-roll technique to avoid the dreaded clavicle and/or scapula break all to common when riders stick there hands and arms out in a fall.

    That practice has saved me far more times than I can count. Especially when I was tagged by a car while riding at 30MPH. rolled a few times, lots of scrapes, no broken bones!

  10. Good stuff Chris, even for those of us who race off-road! However, I do spend most of my time training on the road and do do club rides and century events. Looking forward to the 1st CTS Fig Mtn Gran Fondo in November in Santa Ynez!

    1. I agree with learning to bunny hop. Riding in a pack, I was on right when a dog jumped in front of me. I could not go left to avoid dog and shoulder was loose gravel. I bunny hopped, front tire cleared the dog, back tire went on dog. It ran away yelping, but I did not fall and rider around me were not affected.

  11. A very timely article for me. Thanks a ton. This Saturday I’ll be racing Tour of Catskills. Your words will be in my head.

  12. Another way to avoid the crit crash is to stay towards the front. I try to stay at about fifth in a race unless i can break with a group or by my self. It seems to me that the faster riders are the more accomplished riders and they tend to be at the front of the pack. The inside line comment in this article is oh so true. All turn crashes go out so don’t be out unless you feel the need to take the risk.

    1. Also, the front speed is more stable. There is a yo-yo effect in larger crits that turns that position into an interval session. Great workout, lousy race strategy.

  13. The problem I see is the ride leader not giving direction at the start or during the ride. I’ve been in groups where it’s a gaggle; riders moving side to side not keeping their line and not only one but many.

  14. Great article. I would add, not only are all the riders stronger, but the bikes are much better – lighter, stronger, more sophisticated, easier to ride fast.

  15. Great article. Many concepts here are intuitive if you have ridden enough, but is very helpful to be thinking about the patterns such as inside of the corner. Thank you.

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