Thursday, June 03, 2010

I never used to worry, I just dodged the dangers. Now I see danger all around me. The fears of the paranoid cyclist

I could cut this short and write "don't do interval training on roads with intersections, driveways or other potential hazards" but it's more complex than that.

At the bitter core of the road cycling training apple is a big, hairy, dangerous risk. If you are on a bike and ride like you 'need to' in order to train "properly" then you exacerbate that risk. You probably ride fast, sometimes as fast as (or faster than) the traffic (there's good and bad in that, I know). Sometimes you do intervals or sprints, both of which increase the difficulty drivers (and pedestrians and in my area dogs for that matter) have in judging closing distances. Sometimes - heaven forbid - you get with other riders and on rare-ish occasions perform small-scale impromptu "faux races" on public roads. Not real races, mind, 'cause that would be illegal. We all know the feeling though - that competitive streak comes out and suddenly you must win that KOM or sprint, even if it means increasing your "road risk". I understand all that, it's human - even car drivers do it at times (which must be worse, surely?).

I also understand that many drivers make it all so much worse by not being aware of a wide range of possibilities and in turn making incautious and uninformed decisions. Thus they overtake bike riders when they really needn't and shouldn't (like across double lines, around fast downhill corners or just before some other hazard) and pull out in front of them at intersections. In a perfect world both drivers and riders would see all hazards, understand each other's needs and make optimum decisions. But it isn't and they don't.  

And whilst I don't want to pick on one incident, particularly one I don't have the full facts about - the accident linked to below is one I 'just' manage to avoid almost every day and feel I need to comment upon. Whilst I have an understanding of the hows and whys of these things and take due care, I suspect there's an inevitability about bikes and cars clashing on shared roads. If I want to continue training on public roads, I run that added risk. I accept it and simply continue to minimise the risk by prudent training risk management (I'll explain that concept in a momemt). When I was 25 and riding about 5 or more times further per week than now I didn't have exactly this level of fear and expectation but I did take similar precautions. I was also fitter, faster and had better reflexes. I'm more than double that age now and have to take that age into account.

The basic problem is that in order to train properly I have to:
  • ride faster than many drivers expect (exposing myself to 'intersection hazard')
  • ride even faster in short bursts I feebly call 'intervals' (increasing my unpredictability in 'intersection hazard' situations)
  • sprint up hills (again increasing my unpredictablity as many drivers just can't imagine the possibility)
  • do all this on public roads.
Ideally we'd have safer closed roads available just for training (and yes there are some places like that but they are usually small, offer inadequate terrain and are hard to find - and in any case involve a ride or drive just to get there). And often otherwise ideal training grounds are increasingly flawed compromises - look at Centennial Park in Sydney, once a haven for cycling but so emasculated by speedbumps and car-friendly regulations as to make it almost unusable (but we use it anyway as otherwise..?). OK, we have to share public facilities but sometimes sharing doesn't work very well. I don't see much "sharing" going on with other 'dedicated' sporting facilities, so why is road cycling subjected to this restriction? Golf courses are for ruined walks, rugby fields for mudwrestling and so on. If I dared to take my bike onto a hallowed field I'd be removed - permanently, I suspect. I also accept that sometimes car and bike racing facilities are shared but there aren't too many of those around and training is usually not permitted. At least track cyclists have a few velodromes to use.

None of this is going to change overnight. A set of reserved training roads in public parks doesn't just happen (although such tracks at Maroubra, Hurstville, Sutherland and Lansdowne in Sydney are good examples of what could be done) and improved driver awareness of cyclists' needs takes time. In the meantime we cyclists must endure and adapt...      

So what are my methods of 'prudent training risk management'?
  • Use a dedicated car-free area if available - but not a narrow public cycleway or shared-use footpath unless visibility is excellent (a couple of tracks in parks I know are suitable)
  • Avoid peak hour unless travelling in the opposite direction
  • Avoid competitve bunch rides where taking risks has become endemic
  • Choose safer roads with fewer or no intersections or driveways, blind spots and other hazards
  • Be aware and cautious where risk is likely and always have a 'safety margin'
  • Back off if you see are driver about to make a decision - assume the worst
  • If in doubt use an indoor trainer instead. 
And here's the incident that started me writing...

Romoli Seriously Injured In Training Accident |
Romoli was doing an interval ahead of her two training partners near Airuno in Lecco when a driver turned in front of her. The rider from Treviso crashed into the side window and suffered deep lacerations to her face and fractured vertebrae.