Monday, April 8, 2013

On Crashing

We all risk crashing when we ride and race our bikes, which means that each of us given long enough will find herself on the tarmac. Luckily, most crashes are not serious. Yet despite this fact, crashes induce a vivid fear in many casual riders and racers alike. Why? I can think of several reasons.

First, crashes bluntly remind us of our own limits. The bicycle normally extends our physical possibilities. It allows us to float about the world on a cushion of air a tire-width above the obdurate surface of the earth. Crashing attacks the invincibility that a well-tuned bicycle naturally inspires in its rider.

Second, a cyclist experiences riding as a harmonious equilibrium under normal circumstances. The feeling of an effortless, unsolicited companionship between a rider and her instrument constitutes one of the peculiar joys of riding a bike. Crashing not only disrupts that companionship, but it also threatens the possibility of a harmonious interaction with one’s bicycle in the first place. Who hasn’t crashed in a race and taken some time to regain the confidence to take corners at speed?

Both these fears, while natural and understandable, rest on a mistaken notion of risk. It conceives of crashing as a fixed and unchanging feature of cycling, when in fact we can exercise far more control over how and whether we crash at all. As cyclists, we take certain fixed constants of the world as our starting point, and then we push back against those constants where we can. We can choose out aggressive or modest we wish to be. Often we claw out a little more ground for ourselves, and sometimes the world claws it back. Nonetheless, we have substantial control over when, how quickly, and where we try to conform the world to our will. And when we think about the risks we take in this subjective, agent-centered manner, crashing becomes a feature internal to an activity we influence rather than a malevolent force beyond our control.

Thinking of risk as a choice rather than an imposition requires us to take responsibility for our riding. Taking responsibility becomes particularly important in group situations where your risks impose dangers not only upon yourself but others as well. At the same time, taking responsibility warrants us to take pride in the risks we choose. 

More practically, most crashes are preventable. As the occasion for this post, I had the misfortune this weekend of clipping a pedal on a turn, which resulted from a misjudgment of my lean angle. Another frequent source of crashes is a touch of wheels with a fellow rider. Keep your wheels from overlapping with others, and stay out of riders’ “blind spots” whenever possible. A final, general cause is panic. Stay on your machine. Anticipate the actions of other riders. Breathe.

There are better and worse ways to crash on your bike, which you can practice on sand or grass. Keep your hands on your bars and try to roll out of the fall as much as possible. Let your body take the blow of the impact rather than your limbs. You still might suffer some road rash or torn lycra, but you’ll walk away with out more serious injury.

Crashing is a feature but not a fixed constant of cycling. By changing our attitudes toward crashing, we can better respond when they present themselves and prevent them from happening at all. 

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