Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
Twice, I’ve witnessed scary crashes caused by a common mistake, which is turning your head to look behind you. Here’s what happened to two roadies I saw hit the deck after turning to look. And following the stories are techniques for avoiding crashing.
The first incident took place on a weekly group ride. I’ll rename the victim “Rudy,” a strongman who’d only recently joined the Saturday hammerfest. As we crested the top of the final roller before the downgrade to the sprint, he punched it attempting to get a gap and hold it to the line. I watched this move from about 15th position.
It wasn’t a dumb move. Lots of time trial types had used that tactic to beat the sprinters over the years. But, Rudy unwisely decided to turn and look back to see whether he had opened enough of a gap. And, at that moment – as he was doing his best owl imitation – he either was shocked to see that five riders were already on him, or his front wheel might have found a divot… but whatever caused it, Rudy’s front end jacknifed and he went straight down hitting the road head first. A couple of others also fell, but only Rudy required the ambulance.
The second incident happened to a friend I’ll call “Lucky,” which will ring true after reading his story. It occurred on often busy coastal Highway 1 here in Santa Cruz, California. I was riding south and spotted Lucky riding north. I waved and he did, too. Next thing I knew, he was coming up alongside to ride south with me.
There’s a decent shoulder on that section so we were side by side talking, Lucky on the left, the traffic side. Moments later we saw five riders coming toward us on the other side of the road. Lucky said, “See ya, Jim, I’m going to hop on that group!” He then veered hard left.
I heard what he said, saw him bank left and I tried to yell, “Stop!” But it was too late. I heard the screech of brakes and the impact. I then saw the Toyota that hit Lucky pass me and pull over, the driver swinging the door open and jumping out to run back. I got off my bike and followed. Miraculously, Lucky was sitting cross-legged in the road merely stunned because he had run into the side of the car! Instead of being run over, maybe killed, he was just dumped in the road. There wasn’t even any obvious bike damage. “Lucky” ideed.
Looking Back is Risky
The point of both real life crash stories is to illustrate how dangerous it can be to try to look behind you when riding. It’s dangerous because turning the head and/or body will usually change the bike’s balance and cause one to turn the bars and veer off course. In Rudy’s case that inadvertent turn caused his faceplant. For Lucky, who claimed after being hit that he had looked back, he obviously did not do so very well or he surely would have seen the Toyota.
Tips for Looking Back Safely
Technique one: Turning to look back
If you want to get good at it, turning your head and shoulders to see behind you is a skill that takes practice. Do it somewhere safe, maybe on a smooth grass field. Also, when you do it for real out on the road never forget to check ahead to be sure you don’t run into something when you’re looking the wrong way.
To turn and look you twist your head and torso toward the traffic lane. To reduce the chance of veering, first move the hand furthest from the traffic lane close to the stem. This provides less steering “leverage.” Leave that hand in place and try to hold a steady straight line.
Now to look back, practice removing your other hand which lets you turn your arm, shoulders and head as far as is comfortable to really see what’s behind you. If you’re flexible and have great balance this might be easy. If not, keep practicing… or keep reading for another technique to learn.
Technique two: Looking back while holding on
For Lucky, I think the best technique would have been to use me to look back safely – another skill that takes practice. To do this, he would have told me first. Then, he would have put his right hand on my left shoulder to hold on while he turned back to look.
This sounds easy but because you’re holding onto the handlebars on the same side you’re turning to look, flexible folks will find it easier than tighter riders. Practice will help.
I intentionally left the obvious accessory solution for looking back to last, which is rear view mirrors. I did that because in my experience, “Rudys” and “Luckys” and a myriad of roadies like them are highly unlikely to use mirrors. But a mirror would have saved Rudy.
I have used them a lot and know how well mirrors work. So, if you have a mirror you swear by, would you please leave a comment with the details, the make and model? Also, please tell how it mounts. And feel free to share how you use it or why you feel that mirrors are the safest option. Perhaps we can persuade some Rudys or Luckys to give them a try.
Or if you have another tried and true technique for looking back, please share that, too. Thank you!
10,130 Daily Rides in a Row
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.