Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Keep the Rubber Side Down on Your Bike

Saturday morning it was nice.  Well, nice enough for a Chicago area "spring" day: 44 F and the sun trying to break through with light rain.  The main roads by me are 50-55 mph and the other ones are 40-45 mph because they have a higher risk of wild life on them.  I like to say, "My neighborhood speed bumps have hooves."  If you hit one of these guys they will probably wreck your car and give you a dirty look as they bound back into the forrest by the river.  We have several extremely large deer that already have antlers.

As I entered the turn lane off of IL-59 (50 mph) onto Miller Road in Lake Barrington - half a cycling team came FLYING through the intersection against the light.  The BMW 750 in front of me skidded sideways as he slammed on the brakes.  The other half of the team (thankfully) slammed on the brakes (and into each other) versus taking their chances agains a BMW 750 at 50+ mph.  I had visions of that crash in Mexico that had bodies strewn all over the road.

This graph is courtesy of

Here are a few other things to consider while on your bike - especially in the spring.

Generally - Stay alert.  Assume nobody sees you.  Assume everyone is drunk, high, updating Facebook and Twitter while they are driving, heavily armed with a huge inferiority complex.  My neighbor judge friend tells me that due to the 24 hour nature of work shifts in the USA and drugs and alcohol use/misuses, 3 of 10 drivers at ANY TIME OF THE DAY are so wasted that they cannot speak their own name.  That number goes up to 7 of 10 after 11 pm (to 4 am) during the week and 10 pm to 5 am on the weekends.  So that mid-summer bike ride that starts at 5:30 am... yeah - some of those drivers coming at you are baked.

Ride straight - relax your upper body and ride a straight line.  Look up the road for potential risks.  Your body will follow where you are looking.  A great way to practice is to try and ride next to (not ON) the road striping on the side of the road.

Look behind you safely - relax the opposite arm of the way you are looking.  Relax your right arm, look over the left.

Corner better - hold the handlebars in the drops for better control.  Move your rear to the back of your saddle and lower your upper body toward the top tube.  Stand on the outside pedal.  Raise your weight slightly off the saddle and shift your weight onto the pedal - this is, of course, AFTER you signaled the turn for vehicles behind you.

Look ahead into the corner - Is there sand, gravel in the road?  Is there a pot hole in the road? Is the corner banked or off-camber?  Are there stains (aka: Like an OIL stain) on the road? Is the road wet?  Are manhole covers in place? Sewer grates? Cattle guards?  Don't brake hard at the last minute to reduce  your speed if you've overcooked the corner.  Braking while the bike is leaned over causes the brake pads to grab and "chatter" thus decreasing your ability to control your bike.

Descend safely - we have a few hills around here that will allow you to hit 50+ mph.  Know your limits. Just because your buddies went down the hill with their hair on fire doesn't mean you have to.  Never go faster than your comfort factor allows.  In Lake Placid in 2003, I was feathering my brakes on the big downhill out of town because I felt 45 mph was "fast enough" in the pouring rain.  I could feel my bike hydroplaning down the mountain.  On the second loop, I would have crashed badly (I only lost control for a little while and skidded through a corner) if I hadn't pealed a bit of speed off.  Keep your crank arms horizontal in general. Scoot back on the saddle and stick your butt in the air so your weight is on your feet and hands.  Anticipate animals and children running out in front of you.  Hold a bit back in practice.  You can take more risk in some races - however, be advised that kids and dogs don't care that you are racing in their neighborhood and will run out in front of you at any time.

Pacelines - be predictable. watch the saddle or rear-end of the person in front of you - NOT their rear wheel or cranks.  Give yourself some space.  Communicate loudly to the other riders.  Know which way the wind is blowing.  Stay OUT of the aerobars.

Music - personally, if someone shows up with an iPod I try to drop them, fall far behind them or go a different direction.  Music on a long ride is asking for death.

Here is some information on bike crashes in Madison, WI.  As many people flock up there to "train on the course"... keep this in mind.

From Jeff Hiles, Wright State University

Madison, Wisconsin (Ross, 1992). Madison is a college town with a significant network of bike lanes and bike paths. As one might expect, the Class D overtaking accidents among this sample of 774 bicyclist-motorist crashes is the lowest of any of the five studies—just 4.1 percent of the entire class.

Two other classes were unusually high, though: Class C (motorist turn, merge, drive-through, or drive out) and especially Class F (motorist unexpected turn). An on-coming motorist turning lift into the path of a straight-through cyclist made up a whopping 23.3 percent of Madison’s crashes. In the Cross-Fisher study, this type of crash accounted for only 7.6 percent of the sample. In Madison, bicyclists traveling in a contra-flow bike lane on University Avenue made up 36 percent of the victims of this type of crash. A contra-flow lane runs against the direction of traffic. In this case, it runs down the left side of a high-volume, multi-lane, one-way arterial next to the University of Wisconsin. Motorists turning left off University Avenue cross the contra-flow lane. Motorists entering the avenue from side streets turn left across the contra-flow lane; their attention is focused on the motor traffic, which comes from their right, while the bicyclists come at them from the left.
One-eyed folks of either pro-bikeway or anti-bikeway persuasion may be tempted to draw unwarranted conclusions from Madison’s unusual distribution of crash types. Pro-bikeway advocates might point to the fact that classes A, D, and E are all quite low (see Figure 2 on page 22), and that all of these kinds of crashes might be reduced by bike lanes and bike paths. Type A (bicyclist ride-out from driveway, alley and other mid-block location) may be reduced because bicyclists would ride onto a bike path or bike lane instead of into a car lane. Type D, of course, would be reduced because bicyclists would be separated from overtaking motorists. Type E crashes (bicyclist unexpected turn, swerve) would be reduced because bikeways make cyclists ride more predictably, or give cyclists room in which to “swerve” free of threat from overtaking traffic. Pro-bikeway advocates might say that classes C and F appear to be large, but that this is because bike facilities have reduced other classes to relatively small portions of the total. Even if C and F did increase, proponents might add, these two classes are the two least destructive—the fatality percentages are much lower than the non-fatal (see Figure 1). An increase in less destructive crashes may be a fair price to pay for a decrease in the more deadly ones.
                 A     B       C      D     E     F        G

Anti-bikeway advocates might point to Madison’s inordinately large Class C and Class F and charge that these are crashes they would expect to see increase because of the bike paths and lanes. These facilities give motorists and bicyclists a tendency to pay less attention to each other, it might be argued, and “hide” bicyclists from view. Worse yet, they complicate crossing and turning interactions between cyclists and motorists. These critics might argue that bike facilities have made these crashes so inordinately common that other types are dwarfed and therefore make up a smaller than normal percentage of the whole, even though they may not be significantly reduced in number. It is not possible to tell from the Madison study whether the city has an unusually low accident rate for classes A, D, and E, an unusually high accident rate for classes C and F, or some combination of the two.

The one seemingly solid specific problem, the University Avenue contra-flow bike lane, is not so cut and dried either. We might expect bicyclists riding against traffic to have a higher risk of tangling with motorists. Motorists tend to pay most attention to the primary flow of traffic: other motorists. Bicyclists whose movements don’t match the patterns of motorists on a roadway risk eluding motorists’ awareness. Wachtel and Lewiston (1994) found that bicyclists crossing intersections while riding on the wrong side of the street were twice as likely to collide with cars as right-way cyclists. They also found that wrong-way cyclists riding on sidewalk-like bike paths were about four times more likely to clash with cars while crossing intersections than were those riding with traffic.

A contra-flow lane would seem to be a mistake. University Avenue, though, is a major route to the university. Many bicyclists would have to expend extra time and energy if they took an alternative route. As a result, Madison would probably see a lot of wrong-way bicycling on that road, even without the contra-flow lane. Those bicyclists might be at an even higher risk without the bike lane. Moreover, University Avenue has a high volume of both motor and bicycle traffic, so there are more opportunities for car-bike collisions than on most streets, and we would expect higher numbers of crashes there than on less-traveled roads. Once again, we can't tell from Cross-Fisher-style studies whether bicyclists have higher or lower risks per mile in different locations.

The one thing we can say with confidence is that crash types in Madison appear to differ from the typical American city’s. Without more information, we cannot say for sure why there is a difference. It could be from bike facilities (for better or worse), from the city’s unusually large number of adult cyclists, from peculiarities in the street patterns of the city, or from any combination of these or other factors. We can’t even say if the difference we see is for better or for worse. If we saw Madison-like distributions in other towns with similar networks of bike lanes and paths, we might conclude that the facilities were a factor, but even this would not tell us if they were a good factor or bad, only that they had made a change in the relative distribution of crash types.

In another study the conclusion was this; "The two most frequent ways in which bicyclists contributed to causing crashes were “failure to yield” at 20.7 percent and “riding against traffic” at 14.9 percent."

From Chapter five of this document, some interesting data: Most frequent car-bike collisions by age
  1. Motorist turning left
  2. Traffic light changed too quickly
  3. Motorist turning right
  4. Motorist restarting from stop sign
  5. Motorist exiting commercial driveway
  1. Motorist overtaking unseen cyclist
  2. Motorist overtaking too closely
  3. Motorist turning left
  4. Motorist restarting from stop sign
  5. Cyclist swerving around obstruction

Source: Forester, 1993, p. 269.

Signal.  Smile.  Wave with ALL five fingers.  Ride single file.  Drive your bike like you would your car.  No wait.  Drive it better than your car.

Hope this is a sobering amount of data that will keep you alive during your training rides.  After all, studies have shown that if you're dead... you don't race very well at all.


  1. Amen! I can't believe all the crazy shit I see cyclists too - it embarrasses me to be lumped in with them and scares the hell out of me as a driver, all at the same time.

  2. Hi Molly - I actually turned my head away as my car came to a stop. I thought that it was going to be raining body parts.