By John Marsh
It’s an innocuous little hill, one of those where you find an easy gear and just spin up. The hill comes right after a stoplight on a big group ride, so the pack is always bunched up on the hill. On a recent day, the group comprised nearly 150 riders – and things got a little touchy on that little hill.
Before you even see what is happening, shouts of “riders down” and “crash” begin emanating from the middle of the group. Then you see a rider splay onto the sidewalk to your right, and another two or three riders going down just in front, and to the right of you.
You don’t stop, but maintain your momentum and carefully work your way around the fallen riders. Only when you’re clear of the carnage, and the downed riders have picked themselves up, checked their equipment and rejoined the group, do you hear that probably the most experienced rider in the group caused the crash.
“I didn’t expect the pack to slow down so much,” he said. When it did, he touched wheels with the rider in front of him, went down half on the sidewalk, half on the street, and started a chain-reaction crash behind him.
If you ride in groups often enough, big or small, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll touch wheels with another rider. But the conditions under which things “get touchy” (on a hill, riding slowly, on a flat, riding fast, etc.) can play a role in the outcome. As can following proper procedure to extricate yourself from potential danger.
But prevention is the best protection of all to avoid a touchy situation of your own. Let’s take a look at a couple of tips on how to avoid rubbing wheels in the first place. Then we’ll talk about how to handle wheel rub if you find yourself getting touchy-feely with the rider in front of you.
Keep Your Focus
Most crashes happen when a rider momentarily loses focus, as was the case in the crash mentioned above. A moment is all it takes: you glance down at your computer, look up and realize the wheel in front of you has slowed, and you can’t avoid it; you catch the edge of the road when putting away your bottle and overcorrect as you get back on the road – the possibilities are endless. Keeping your focus will help you avoid the little slip-ups that we all have from time to time, but that can quickly bring us to the ground.
Don’t Play the Accordion
When riding in big groups, in tight conditions, and in “strategically important” places on a ride – like short hills – the “traffic affect” of riders slowing ahead of you works its way back through the group, causing the entire group to bunch up and slow down, like an accordion being squeezed. You have to “read the situation,” know where and when this might happen, expect it and be ready for it.
Reduce your speed slowly before the group accordions back toward you. This will give you more time and space to maintain a safe separation from the riders around you.
Don’t Ride on the Cutting Edge
If you’re on a road with two-way traffic, you don’t want to be too far out on either side of the group. Too close to the oncoming traffic lane leaves you no room to maneuver in that direction to avoid potential problems ahead of you. (On this same group ride a few weeks ago, a young rider avoiding a crash in front of him veered left and was struck head-onby an oncoming pickup truck. He was seriously injured but survived and should recuperate fully.) And too close to the curb or edge of the road likewise leaves you no bailout room.
Leave enough room on either side for some yahoo behind you to pass, if they insist on such a move. At least you’ll know then that you have enough room to maneuver should you need it to avoid an issue in front of you.
The Remedy for Rubbing
Some riding skills are straightforward and instinctual. This is not one of them. Our natural inclination when our front tire rubs against another is to turn away from the other tire quickly to escape danger.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the wrong thing to do in case of tire rub. Quickly turning away at best takes you immediately off your line (and in a group will likely cause you to veer into other riders), and at worst leads to an overcorrection that throws you completely out of balance, bringing you down.
The proper, paradoxical, remedy is to turn slightly into the tire yours is rubbing. Doing so allows you to maintain your line and balance, and to slowly ease away from the wheel by slowing down just enough to extricate yourself.
Another paradox about this technique is that it’s actually easier to accomplish the faster you’re riding. So many riders go down touching wheels on slow hills because it is harder to maintain control throughout this process at a slower speed. If you’re already riding slowly, your balance is more easily upset, and it’s harder to slow down enough to “back off” the wheel you’re rubbing.
If you’re cruising along at a good clip, though, you’re in better balance and can more easily scrub a little speed just by easing off the pedals a bit as you pull back and escape danger.
Remember, it’s best to do what it takes to avoid getting yourself in a “touchy situation.” But it’s almost inevitable that it will happen to you at some point. So fight your instincts, turn into the wheel you’re rubbing, ease away, and stay upright to ride another day.