Too Close for Comfort

Safety Corner logo by John Allen

October 2015

As the fall riding season approaches, let’s see how we might avoid crashes which send cyclists to the emergency room.

One type of crash has dominated our rides in recent months: A group of cyclists is riding close together. They may be in a pace line, or an informal group. The first cyclist avoids a pothole or other road hazard by swerving or braking. The second cyclist collides either with the hazard or with the first cyclist and goes down hard. Following riders may also crash.

These crashes are more common on the larger rides, just because there are more participants. But these crashes can happen on any ride.

On the Spring Century this year, there were three such crashes, one serious: a cyclist was riding close behind another and ran into a pothole, also resulting in an emergency-room visit.

On the East European Ride in June, which I led, a leading cyclist braked or swerved, and the one behind him touched wheels with him and face planted. She was out cold for 10 minutes. A following cyclist had to ride over her to avoid crashing. A fourth swerved off the road into a patch of poison ivy and got scrapes from a tree. It is a real sinking feeling for a ride leader to hear of such an incident. There was a similar crash on the 2015 Climb to the Clouds.

How can crashes like these be avoided? Riding in fast groups requires discipline, concentration and awareness of road hazards. Sudden changes in pace, tight passing and swerving are not needed to go fast. Large groups are setups for erratic behavior, and especially on some of our roads which are inappropriate for close riding. The simplest answer is to avoid riding close behind another cyclist, so you can see the road hazards for yourself, and can avoid a sudden swerve or deceleration.

But OK, yes, there’s companionship when riding close to other cyclists, and drafting. Then, pace line etiquette matters, whether or not in a formal pace line.

In an informal group, or if you don’t have complete trust in the cyclist ahead of you, stay far enough to the side or behind to avoid possible sudden moves. This may mean waiting for a car or another cyclist to pass, before you pass. Please check for traffic, and wait if necessary.

Racers in a peloton draft in close proximity, and squeeze past each other elbow to elbow, but they have all agreed to accept the risks. CRW rides are not races, and most of the other cyclists have not made that agreement with you.

When you are coming up behind another cyclist, announce yourself: when overtaking, as is well-known, “on your left.”—and if asking permission to draft, “on your wheel.”

An orderly group—pace-line tight or not—can interact more consistently with other road users than a ragged group. By maintaining enough following distance, it is possible for a double line of cyclists quickly and smoothly to single up, as needed.

The leading cyclist in a group assumes responsibility to point out hazards and to avoid swerving and abrupt braking, but also has the right to refuse a request to draft, for whatever reason.

The rearmost cyclist in a group has the task of hand-signaling to overtaking drivers, and leading out in lane changes, as described in a previous Safety Corner article, http://crw.org/safety/14safetyPgs/14july-changingLanes.php.

Here’s a good writeup about pacelining, and much of the advice also applies in a more relaxed and informal group: http://swbcc.org/files/Download/paceline%20etiquette_1.pdf.

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