Triathlon Bicycling Handling – Oxymoron or Naïve Pipe Dream
Mon, 13 Apr 2009 17:00:53 -0800
You can’t ride a bike. I don’t care if it hurts your feelings. Your bicycle handling skills are atrocious and I’m justified in that statement at least a half dozen times a year. I watch at least 10,000 individuals participate in triathlons each year up close and personally and 50% of these folks are scary at best and an accident waiting to happen at worst. That’s a pretty harsh thing to say for someone who is employed by these folks, don’t you think?
Many of you will automatically go on the offense and tell me that I’m not exactly Lance Armstrong. That’s true. My friends will tell you that they’re better on two wheels than I am. I’ll disagree with that one in some cases but I’ll agree on others. We’re not talking about me, though. We’re talking about 50% of most triathlon fields.
Where do I come up with these statistics and such a seemingly offensive generalization? It comes from many hours spent at the side of the road watching triathletes (usually but not always Ironman triathletes) go by and, in most cases, around 90-degree corners.
I know what you’re thinking and, no, this isn’t born out of some prejudice against compression socks and hot pants on men. “Oh boy, here he goes again. The old man is bitter that he’s long past it and is taking his aggression out on us because we’re young, fast, beautiful, and can pull off a man bra.” Not true. You look ridiculous but that’s beside the point.
No, this is born of my fear that people are risking their health and family’s concern for their well being by riding on the road before they’re safely competent to do so. I consider the most basic elements of riding a bicycle when determining competence:
- Safely mounting and starting to pedal in a straight line (with minimal weaving)
- Safely coming to a complete stop – even if done so in an emergency – and putting a foot down
- Safely turning left or right
- Safely taking a bottle out of a cage, drinking, and putting the bottle back in the cage – let alone taking a bottle hand-off from a volunteer
Those are the basics. We could go on and discuss gear selection, climbing, descending, etc. but now you’re talking about performance. I’m just talking about riding to the 7-11 and back without incident caused by said rider.
Have you ever witnessed the mount line at a triathlon? Better yet, have you ever witnessed the mount line of an Ironman triathlon? For some reason the Ironman mount line is more entertaining probably because of the Super Bowl feel of an Ironman event. This in turn creates an extraordinary sense of urgency – even panic – in all but the most experienced participants that is translated into human spasticity on a scale even Monty Python couldn’t imagine.
All I can think is that most Ironman athletes have never had to get on their bicycle by themselves. It’s obvious that they’ve all had at least three assistants to get them on the bike, hold it up while they look down and get their cleats into the pedals and then give them a Tour de France style push down the road.
I know. You think I’m still being too harsh. If that’s the case, you’ve never witnessed the mount line of a triathlon – let alone an Ironman triathlon mount line…and you’ve probably lobbied to allow all athletes to leave their shoes on their bicycles in the transition area. What a great idea. Let’s take a group of people who can’t ride a bicycle to begin with and then have them put their shoes on while riding in a competitive situation with hundreds of their peers doing the same on a 15-foot wide lane. You either work for an ambulance company or have discovered the “entertainment value” of the mount line. Either way it’s not safe for the participants (you’re included) and the argument that you have perfected this skill doesn’t mean that the other 357-people in your age-group have.
Once up and riding, most folks can hold a pretty straight line. This is the one area where I don’t see as much of a problem with my tri-brethren. Maybe it’s all the hours on the stationary trainer or the love of grinding out repetitive motion that we all share but going straight is typically not the skill that scares me. No, it’s usually the act of going from riding in a straight line to safely stopping or going around a corner that terrifies me.
How can stopping be a problem you ask? Well, stopping involves the correct distribution of front and rear brake followed by safely unclipping one foot from the pedal and putting it down to support then now stationary bicycle. If this series of actions needs to be done quickly – like when a dog runs in front of the cyclist or when a car suddenly turns in front of the cyclist – well all bets are off.
Cornering? I’m talking about going around a basic 90-degree right or left turn. I’m not even talking about flying into a corner at 30mph in a criterium, leaning your bike over at a 45-degree angle, keeping your ass way back on the saddle and your body low while looking forward, hanging a knee out with your inside pedal up and moving from outside to the apex of the turn and then back outside again. Well, actually, I’m talking about exactly that but rather doing so at a speed that feels safe (knowing your limits).
The scariest thing I see at turns (right or left) is leaving that inside pedal down. What does that mean? That means leaving the left pedal at the bottom of the stroke when making a left turn or leaving the right pedal down when making a right turn.
If you think about it, you can imagine that leaning to the right when your right pedal is down will decrease the distance from the road to that pedal, right? Well, if you lean far enough and/or there is a change in the height of the pavement, perhaps caused by a low spot for water to run common to many corners, your pedal can actually contact the pavement causing the rear wheel to lift up off the ground, come down and pitch you violently and without prejudice into the pavement. This is sometimes referred to as “high siding” and/or “skipping a pedal.” This is bad and can easily be avoided. When approaching a turn, always do so thinking “inside pedal up”. That means that the pedal closest to the apex of the turn should be up until you straighten out on the other side of the turn and start pedaling again.
I know, I know, you’ve seen professional bicycle racers pedal through turns without a problem. That’s why they’re professionals – they can feel and know the exact degree of lean they can get away with because they’ve spent most of every day riding their bicycles while you’re on your trainer, changing diapers, and driving a desk.
What about 180-degree turns? This is also another very entertaining location on a bike course to watch a triathlon. A u-turn on a bike follows the same principles as a 90-degree right or left but usually at a slower speed. You need to slow to a speed that you can safely maintain all the way around the arc of the turn with that inside pedal up and wait ‘til you straighten out sufficiently to start pedaling again. The most common mistake we see is approaching the apex from the middle or inside of the lane. You should approach the apex from the widest point of your lane of travel and dray an even semi-circle from the widest point from which you’re riding to the widest point on the other side of the apex. Confusing to say but it’s very simple in practice.
Let’s put it this way, if the apex of the turn is a traffic cone on the center double yellow line of a two lane road, you want to approach the apex from the farthest point on the right side of your lane, drawing your turning arc evenly from this side, around the apex the farthest right hand side of opposing lane. You don’t want to ride up to the turn-around point along the left side or right next to the double yellow because now you only have the width of the opposing lane in which to make your turn.
Whether you’re going around a simple 90-degree turn or making a full 180-degree turn-around, for heaven’s sake, HOLD YOUR LINE. What does that mean? That means that if you’re riding two feet from the white line on the right side of the road, stay two feet from the white line on the right side of the road all the way around the turn unless you’re certain you’re the only rider present. Don’t drift wide or turn even tighter to the right. Doing so could cause problems for those who are taking the same turn at the same time.
Let’s put it this way, if you didn’t ride A LOT as a kid and learn the dynamics involved in laying down the longest skid or doing the longest wheelie or take your Schwinn Stingray over sweet jumps – you might benefit from some basic drills in the safety of an empty parking lot. Practice starting and stopping. Practice stopping quickly, unclipping, and putting a foot down. Practice clipping in and out over and over again until it feels like getting in and out of your car. Practice going around left turns and right turns with your inside pedal up. Particularly if you’ve been stuck on a stationary trainer all winter long, make it a point to work on these basic cycling survival skills in a safe setting before setting out on the road. You’ll not only be safer but you won’t be the target of muffled laughter at the mount line.