By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
There have been times in my life when I’ve envied athletes and coaches in stick-and-ball sports like baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Even combat sports like boxing and mixed martial arts. There are risks involved in all of them, but they’re also safely ensconced in stadiums, arenas, and gyms. Medical facilities and personnel are on-site, shelter is just steps away, and the field, rink, court, or ring is always the same size and shape. Coaching cyclists isn’t just about physiology, nutrition, and psychology; we also have to teach cyclists to deal with the risks of training and competing ‘in the wild’. Here are the top fears I hear from cyclists working with CTS Coaches, and how you can overcome them.
Top Fear: Cars
Might as well start with the biggest fear of all, getting hit by a car. While many devoted cyclists are incorporating gravel bikes into their arsenals to spend less time on pavement, there’s also been a resurgence of urban and suburban cycling as a consequence of the COVID19 pandemic. As I’ve written about before, it’s going to be a long time before autonomous vehicles provide cyclists with substantial protection. In the meantime, here’s a condensed version of my advice for staying safe in traffic:
- Follow traffic laws: When drivers and riders both act predictably, it avoids the confusion that often results in collisions.
- Ride popular routes: Cars are used to seeing bikes on those roads, and there’s a reason the cycling community has gravitated toward those routes.
- Make eye contact: To increase your chances of predicting what a car will do, look at the driver. Are they looking your way or to the opposite side? Are the visibly irritated or impatient? Are they texting?
- Watch the wheels: Noticing movement from a sidestreet or driveway sooner gives you precious seconds to evaluate whether the car is going to go or stay put.
- Use your voice: You don’t have a horn, but sharp, guttural “HEY!” can be enough to get a driver to look for the source of the noise, which is you. Don’t yell to be aggressive or abusive; the goal is to be noticed.
- Maximize visibility: Bright colors, reflective material, and lights may not offer the level of protection we’d hope for, but they don’t hurt and they’re a good start.
Cyclist Fear: Steep Downhills
I love going downhill. It’s free speed and a reward for doing the work to get to the top of the hill. But steep and/or twisty downhills are intimidating for many riders, and the anxiety leads them to ride the brakes all the way down and an unpleasant experience. There’s no reason to be a daredevil descender, but learning to go downhill more confidently makes rides more fun–and safer. You can read this in-depth tutorial on descending, and remember three key points:
- Look far ahead: You’ll ride a straighter, more stable line and notice obstacles and reasons to brake or adjust your line with enough time to take action safely.
- Brake hard in a straight line: Make the biggest adjustment to your speed in a straight line before entering a turn. You can make minor braking adjustments during the turn, but generally you want to be lightening up and then releasing the brakes as you go through a corner.
- Focus pressure on your outside leg and inside hand when taking sharp corners. This increases traction and lets you lean the bike into the turn more than your body.
Cyclist Fear: Corners/Turns
There’s a long list of handling skills that help cyclists feel confident and comfortable on the road, including drafting, riding in a group, rotating in a pace line, and bumping shoulders with a rider next to you. Whether you’re riding solo, with one or two people, or in a pack (when we get back to that…), you have to be able to ride through corners safely. Read this for a tutorial on cornering with confidence and speed. In addition to guidance mentioned above for downhills, which also works on flat turns, some specific tips that relieve lots of cornering anxiety include:
- In wet conditions or on unstable surfaces (sand on the road, gravel turn), keep the bike more upright and look to extend the arc of the turn so you’re changing direction over a greater distance. Basically, you’re trying to avoid sudden movements like dramatic steering or diving into the apex.
- Corner in the drops or at least lower your shoulders. You want your weight distributed between the wheels, and if you’re riding more upright there’s more weight on the rear wheel, which increases the chances of losing traction on the front wheel. Lowering your shoulders also puts a nice bend in your elbows, which allows you to absorb bumps and adjust your pressure on the bars or position over the bike.
- Back off the wheel in front of you. To minimize the risk of needing to brake sharply in a corner, slightly back off the wheel in front of you before a corner. With practice, you’ll learn to brake less, maintain your momentum and close that distance before exiting the turn.
Cyclist Fear: Getting stuck far from home
I have found that the inability to do even basic mechanical work on a bike keeps a remarkable number of people from venturing out on longer loops or on solo rides. You don’t have to be an expert mechanic, but there are few things you should know how to do:
- Fix a flat tire: Remember to carry a tube (even if you’re riding tubeless tires), tire levers, and an inflation device. While CO2 cartridges are light and convenient, a pump can be used multiple times.
- Repair a chain: Breaking a chain is rare, and thankfully easy to fix. Carry a multitool with a chain breaker on it so you can remove the damaged link, as well as a “Powerlink” you can use to rejoin the ends quickly and without tools.
- Adjust derailleurs: At the very least, learn the basics of how cable-actuated derailleurs work, or how to adjust an electronic system. You don’t need perfect shifting to get home, but you should know enough to keep you from standing on the side of the road.
In addition to carrying the right tools and learning some basic mechanical skills, it’s a good idea to carry a phone and some cash (can be used to boot a tire if necessary, too), and to let someone know where you’re planning on going and roughly when to expect you back (or at what point people should start worrying…).
Cyclist Fear: Bad Weather
Training ‘in the wild’ means there’s no cozy clubhouse nearby if it starts to rain/hail/snow, the wind picks up, or lightning starts crashing. The first step to getting comfortable with riding in bad weather is to make sure you’re carrying the gear for it. There are a lot of clothing options for various types of weather; when in doubt, a rain jacket can serve multiple roles and keep you dry, help you conserve body heat, and protect from wind. When you get caught in bad weather, some things to remember include:
- When cycling on wet roads, stopping distance increases (even with disc brakes, just not as much), traction decreases; and wet road paint, wet steel (rails, grates, manhole covers), and wet leaves are the slipperiest things in the known world.
- Maintaining body temperature is key. When determining whether to stop or continue, consider whether you can ride out of the bad weather reasonably quickly, and whether the exertion of continuing will do more to keep you warm than staying where you are.
- Bicycle tires won’t protect you from lightning. The energy output is just too high and tires are too small. Read this in-depth article with practical tips for cycling in a lightning storm.
Cyclist Fear: Animal Attacks
Getting chased by a dog is the most common problem cyclists encounter with animals, but certainly not the only one. A quick poll of what animals CTS Coaches have encountered (not necessarily been attacked by) on rides included moose, mountain lion, black bear(s), elk, deer, geese, rattlesnakes, and even big horn sheep. It is important to maintain perspective. Animal attacks are very rare and most animals want nothing to do with you if they have the opportunity to avoid you. All the same, it’s good to know the basics of what to do when you encounter animals. A few years ago I wrote an in-depth Endurance Athlete Guide to Wildlife Encounters, and a few brief highlights include:
- Avoid getting between (or anywhere near) any baby animal and an adult (especially but not limited to its mother).
- Mountain lions: make yourself big and loud, back away slowly, don’t run. Fight back if attacked.
- Black bears: make yourself big and loud, stand your ground. Carry bear spray if in area with high risk of encounter. Fight back if attacked, try to hit face and snout.
- Moose/Elk/Deer: Give them a wide berth. If they approach aggressively, get behind cover if possible. If attacked, curl up in a ball and protect head/neck. They’re not predators, so they’re likely to stop once you’re no longer deemed a threat.
Preparation and practice are the greatest tools athlete have for overcoming fears about skills, encounters, and weather. And thankfully, it’s really rare that you’ll have a flat tire on a steep descent in a thunderstorm, with a bear.