Crashing on the bike isn’t something people like to talk about, but it happens to the most skilled riders. From experienced pros, like Catharine Pendrel of the Clif Pro Team, to new riders learning the sport, there is a learning curve. My opinion, after many crashes of my own, is that while we can’t avoid the occasional crash, we can reduce the frequency by following a few rules and best practices.
1. PRACTICE DRILLS ON GRASSY FIELDS
When coaching elite riders, we start and often return to the grassy field to practice the skills and movement patterns the rider is working on. A two-time world champion, Pendrel found mountain biking later in life and has worked relentlessly on her technique as the sport has become more technical and extreme. She suggests we, “work on fundamental skills like cornering and body position on each ride.”
Pro Ryan Leech has a website with progressive skills courses to help you learn to do a wheelie, bunny-hop and other technical skills. Leech comes from a trials background where you’re always working to progress skills toward more advanced combinations.
2. PERFECT YOUR ATHLETIC POSITION
Establishing a balanced, athletic position is a must for cyclists. You might have heard this called the “ready,” “attack” or “aggressive” position, but I use “athletic-position” as a cue because most of us have done sports other than cycling, and the idea of getting ready for a rugby scrum, skiing downhill, playing shortstop in baseball or guarding a basketball net resonates and often leads to breakthroughs on the bike.
Pendrel adds, “Lean your bike, not your body. When traction is marginal, that bike-body separation through corners enables you to get the bike upright when tires slip. Be a driver, not a passenger. A relaxed, centered position allows you to absorb and adapt to the terrain under you.” Without a doubt, the ability to stay centered on the bike without needing to squeeze the seat with our thighs or sit down on rough terrain or when we should be standing to sprint or attack or climb is a common limitation to performance and a reason for frequent crashes, especially awkward slow-speed ones. This position is best established by working first on your slow-speed skills in a grassy field.
3. AVOID RISKY SITUATIONS ON EASY DAYS
“Stay engaged in the moment,” says Pendrel. “Have cue words to help you bring your focus back when it wanders.” This is an important point for cycling, in general, but an especially important note for riding in challenging conditions. I have crashed doing ‘fun’ rides down technical trails on a day after races or hard workouts. On days with extra mental and physical fatigue, it’s hard to focus, and your reaction time is reduced. If you are not engaged, the training is going to be sub-par, if not dangerous. Take an easy day and come back to challenge your skills and high intensity another day. This might mean spinning on the road on your mountain bike, skipping crit-practice or taking a less hilly route. Over time these choices lead to less crashing, better workouts and higher fitness.
4. DETERMINE YOUR LEVEL OF CONFIDENCE
I like to use a simple binary or yes/no approach to risk taking. Ask: Are you confident or not? If the answer isn’t “hell yes,” then go back to something slightly smaller — that grassy field, gradual-curb, sticks in a parking lot or a smaller obstacle. Too often I see athletes throw themselves off a big jump, drop or go way too fast down a mountain descent on their road bike before they have established the fundamental movements. The chances of success are low and the possible benefit is small. The downside risk, however, is huge with injury, equipment damage and lost riding time at stake.
READ MORE > 7 MUST-DOS AFTER A BIKE CRASH
5. BUILD YOUR SKILL RESERVE
Many sports have benchmarks for strength or other fitness qualities. Cyclists understand that having a fitness reserve, or wattage reserve, is a good thing. If you can ride faster at threshold than another rider, you will be fresher to sprint or attack near the end of a race.
Skill reserve is an idea I use to describe how much better your skills are than the demands of your goal trails and races. If you are very skilled, you can ride most trails and race courses without much of a pre-ride or practice and you can react to changes on the road or trail during the race. For road riders, being able to bunny hop potholes, curbs and even other riders’ bikes can save a crash or two a year, or at least minimize a crash. Cornering better helps all cyclists but especially mountain bikers and criterium riders. On the track, the speed-skill of pedaling faster than you will need in a race, holding a better position or being confident in your track-stand are things that will make race day less stressful. Aim to raise your skill threshold above the demands of your sport.