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To Be Determined Journal

To Be Determined is a journal of cycling, adventure and photography, curated by a NYC-based cycling team known as TBD Racing or Team TBD. From criteriums to cyclocross to product reviews and travel diaries, it is all part of the TBD Journal.

Crashes: A case for self awareness and bike handling

An introduction note/trigger warning: this essay features extensive discussion of crashes and the emotional toll they can take, along with some x-rays from various TBD’ers who have been on the receiving end of various injuries.

As bike racers, we all have fallen off our bike.  Whether it's that very first attempt in clipped in shoes, a novice ride on a wet surface, or simply an unpredictable turn, crashes can have a major impact on how we approach future races.  They determine how we continue to foster motivation to race and how we approach realistic goal-setting. This post is about internalizing those crashes and how they affect our relationship with racing.  I have experienced many crashes over the years and when reflecting back on those injuries, I realize the deep impact they have had on my attitude towards bike racing.

I have been riding and racing since 2007.  I have taken a few extended breaks here and there, but in general, I have been on the bike circuit for over a decade.  However, after all these years, I still get scared while racing. That’s natural, right? We are humans without protective shells who unaided should only be able to move so quickly for so long.  We’re rolling at high speeds, tightly packed together, and we can't predict other riders’ movements. Flying down a hill headfirst on wheels, approaching the speed of gazelle, in clothing with the density of a layer of onion skin is not exactly an innate human ability, but maybe this isn’t just an instinctual fear.  Maybe it’s the compounded effect of injuries that have aggravated my approach and relationship with racing.

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However, after all these years, I still get scared while racing

In 2015, I participated in the Green Mountain Stage Race (GMSR) in Vermont which happens annually over Labor Day weekend.  This is a great race which every racer should attempt at least once in their career. After suffering through the TT, Circuit Race, and App Gap (Queen Stage), I came into the final day’s crit totally gutted but ready to finish my road season on a good note. On the third turn of the first lap of the downtown Burlington crit, a rider next to me took a wide line and squeezed me into another rider. I flipped over the handlebars and my elbow took a big hit. I got up and crawled to the sidewalk thinking I was fine. Stunned, I tried to stand up and suddenly felt very lightheaded. My wife escorted me to the ambulance where I promptly fainted.  My efforts from the previous days left me extremely dehydrated and as a result, my blood pressure had suddenly dropped. Strapped with IVs, the medics shuttled me to the nearest hospital. Once I had regained some lucidness, the doctor reviewed the x-rays and said I had fractured my Olecranon bursitis - that piece of the elbow that sticks out when one bends his or her arm. He said I would need to have surgery soon, and that I should look for a surgeon back in New York. I left Vermont and had to spend the next two weeks back at work, starting a new school year teaching math classes to bright eyed 14 year olds through gritted teeth while looking for a surgeon to repair my broken elbow.

Thankfully, a teammate was able to connect me with a great surgeon.  The injury was repaired by having plates and screws installed to piecemeal the fractured bone back to where it belonged.  My arm was immobilized in a cast for 6-8 weeks as my elbow began it’s healing process. The physical pain is terrible, but the inconvenience of having a broken bone is equally miserable. (I am sure those who can commiserate understand the struggles of commuting through rush hour in New York City.)   After a long couple of months, I was given the clear to start riding outside again.

On my first ride out, rolling down Crescent Street in Astoria, I stupidly pulled out my phone with my left hand to save a song I liked on Spotify.  When I looked up, a car in front of me had suddenly come to a screeching halt. My injury was on my right elbow, so with my “healed elbow” arm, I grabbed the brakes to slow down and avoid the car. As soon as I felt the pressure from the momentum of my body moving forward and the front wheel slowing down, I felt a horrible sensation in my right elbow. The entire plated bone came undone and my elbow crumbled to pieces.  Frankenstein was broken. I pulled to the side of the road and buried my head in my hand. I knew I fucked something up. I sat there for awhile and eventually got back on my bike and dragged myself home with one arm. Once home, I sat on the couch for a couple of hours contemplating what had just happened.

In those moments you kind of just cling on to any shred of optimism. You deny that the swelling is mounting and convince yourself of false statistical hope.  You switch into teacher mode and tell the child in crisis within you opaque lies. It’s not that bad.  Probably just pulled something.  These things always look worse than they are.  As the pain dragged me back into reality, shamefully, I called the surgeon’s office and set up an appointment for the following week where my worst fears were confirmed.

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In those moments you kind of just cling on to any shred of optimism. You deny that the swelling is mounting and convince yourself of false statistical hope

The plate and screws were completely mangled.  He told me that we would have to do another surgery to repair the damaged plate and screws and that one fragment of bone would not not be salvageable.   This meant another painful surgery. This meant several more months of depressing recovery.

Eventually my elbow improved, and I was able to start riding outside again…again. By this time, we already rang in 2016.  I picked up close to where I left off and was having a good season. I even almost got my Category 1 upgrade! However, fucking GMSR came again.

On the App Gap stage, we just had gone over the first big climb of the stage and made it down in a select group through the fast and winding descent. On the flat section, I was following the wheel in front of me and hit a massive pothole that others had just missed. My hands slipped off the bars and I hit the pavement hard, instantly fracturing my collar bone.  With no cell service in rural Vermont, it was really hard to get in contact with my wife. In my daze, I couldn’t remember her phone number, so I called my brother and asked him to reach out to her and to let her know where I was and what had happened.

An ambulance ride, a hospital visit, and 3 hours of waiting I had not heard from my wife or my brother.  I called my brother again. Dude was playing Zelda. He never called her. (Ocarina of Time is a great game, but I need a better brother.)  I had my mother try calling my wife over and over again, but just let it be known that there is almost no cell service at the finish line on the top of the mountain where she was futilely waiting for me.  My mother finally got a hold of her and she came and picked me up. We vowed never ever to do that fucking race again. (By the way - it is a great race. Really, it is.)

While this injury was much less severe than the one I experienced the previous year, it had a stinging affect.  I wasn’t the same after that injury. I had the off-season to recover, but my motivation changed. I was not sure about exactly what it was, but over time I cared less about results and about racing in general.  The next year, I rode to the opening race of the season, Grant’s Tomb, with the intention of racing, but I allowed the cold weather conditions to dampen my motivation. I took my bike and rode the train home. Weeks later, I finally did race, and I opened up my season with a 5th place at Brinkerhoff.  I was pleased with the result, but I still lacked that desire to get out there and race. I was terrified that I would get into some sort of wreck and have a repeat of what transpired the previous two seasons. I cared mostly about just finishing in one piece. I raced less and when I did race, my results were always mid-pack finishes.  Safety in numbers, right? Isn’t that another philosophy that stems from what we feel is human instinct? I began questioning why I even race. If my goal is just finishing without getting in wrecks, then what is the point of entering at all? Just to call myself a bike racer? While that's something I find value in, it is not very motivating, nor very healthy.

Think about it.  We all ride our bikes with friends, we do group rides, we train obsessively, but the only time we practice moving around in a pack - bumping, cornering - is in races. Having had a few substantial injuries, I realize that this one area that has a strong impact on how I mentally prepare to race again.  So an example of how this impacts me: I'll be in a race and someone gets a little too close for my level of comfort, which subjectively is determined by my past experiences, and as a result, I tap the brakes and drift further back. I then — in an effort to stay relevant in the race — move up along the side of the peloton, wasting valuable energy. I'll repeat this pattern time and time again. My power numbers are better than they were back in 2016, when I had a season that I felt proud about. The issue isn't watts, it is that my confidence in my bike handling skills are shaken. I’m spending so much energy just to stay in the race and towards the front that when the decisive move happens, I’m either too far back or don’t have the power left to follow.  Or I am just plain scared of having to sustain another injury?

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I wasn’t the same after that injury. I had the off-season to recover, but my motivation changed. I was not sure about exactly what it was, but over time I cared less about results and about racing in general.

We spend so much effort focusing numbers:  watts, KOMs,TSS, but maybe we should dedicate some time on developing better bike handling skills.  I might be alone on this one, but if my confidence in moving around the bunch improved, I would probably race more and enjoy the sport more too.  I feel that this is such a neglected aspect in cycling, and maybe it is having a real impact on racer participation.

On April 27th, 2019, I was waiting at the start line for the Tour de Gretna Road Race, an awesome event and fun course.  While waiting for my category of the race to start, I overheard two junior racers talking. One asked the other rider, “Which crash caused the scratches on your face this time?”  The questioner was implying that his peer had been in numerous wrecks just this season. The questionee just shook his head and kept his face low. It makes you wonder about the longevity that this athlete will have in this sport.  An intervention considering how he can improve his racing skills including his bike handling skills might increase his tenure (and his enjoyment) in cycling.

In our own team chatter, it is well known that Harlem Crit has the potential to be a crash fest.  It draws large fields, has those dangerous Y-shaped metal barricades, and the course while wide, is unnecessarily narrowed due to loose gravel sections and potholes. As a result you have 100+ men all somewhat fresh, jockeying for position and trying to get mixed in the sprint.  It is complete chaos. In a pro race you can have a more organized finish, simply because there are more bodies representing a team leading out for the designated sprinter. There is predictable control as teams work to chase down breakaways or line up to set up for their sprinter.  Amateur races often lack a full squad needed to assert control at the front and organize a train, and well, we are amateurs. Because of my past experiences, I avoid a lot of these races where there exists a statistical stigma of injuries. I am a father, a teacher, and have brunch plans with my 3 year old nephew and 5 year old niece tomorrow morning that trump sprinting for a 9th place finish at a local 2/3 crit.  So I avoid races where there will be 100 racers tightly packed with no team having a full representation. To me this is ripe for chaos. I like to avoid chaos if I have the option of doing so, and no, I don’t really have the option of avoiding toddler brunch.

These chaotic finishes are only exacerbated when a course doesn’t have enough safety precautions set up to accommodate for the number of amateurs participating.  Several years ago, I wrecked at Somerville, not because of handling skills, but because a family let their two-year old walk out onto the course while we were sprinting to the line. The rider in front of me hit the unfortunate child, and I slammed into the rider that hit him.  Thankfully the child was okay in the long run, but the rider in front of me had a serious back injury that left him crippled for 6 months. (To Somerville's credit, when I wrecked there were no barriers preventing spectators from being on course that close to the finish. Since, this has changed and they have flat bottomed barriers encompassing the entirety of the final straight away.)  

A similar incident happened at the Danbury Crit, before it disappeared.  A spectator had walked onto the course and caused a serious collision between her and the rider. These are preventable incidents, if proper care and consideration is taken into account when organizing and planning a race. Instead these horrific incidents happen and they do tremendous damage to the sport for which we all hold love and passion.

So we have seen a downward trend in road races, but what I am also concerned about is that ticking time bomb of the demise of amateur crit racing. I cannot recall a single crit that I have been in where I have not heard that eerily familiar sound of carbon smashing pavement.  What does that do to the rider involved? Will the rider internalize and approach these races differently? Will the rider look at his or her family and think, maybe I need to prioritize my life differently? I do not think that these are a means to an end. Rather, I think we need to do something to make safety paramount in these events, and in turn provide an outlet/support system for riders who have been in serious accidents to come to terms with the hows and whys.  We need to alleviate the fears - freshly developed and continuously compounded - and build back bike handling confidence.

I think most of us are familiar with watching some of the chaotic WorldTour finishes and even YouTube videos of aggressive bike handling while vying for positions going into sprints at big US crits. The image that comes across as a viewer is that bike racing is all about aggression: bumping, elbowing, and fighting for position. Certainly, this is an aspect of racing, but these are seasoned professionals. They are comfortable with being in these stressful and potentially dangerous conditions because their bike handling skills have afforded them the confidence to handle and deal with these situations. It is a fear that a novice or any level of amateur racer for this matter will potentially think it is common and acceptable to use these tactics in a local race. Maybe the racer performing the action feels comfortable elbowing in for a gap, but does the racer who is getting elbowed out feel comfortable? These techniques are being used in big P12 races, where most participants are comfortable with the bumping and grinding. When these happen at a Rockleigh crit or a CRCA race, where most of us have outside obligations that take precedence, they sometimes feel out of place.  Sprinting and using overtly aggressive behavior for a 10th place finish at a CRCA race is much different than a USA Crits race, where a 10th place finish may net you some good cash.

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I am a father, a teacher, and have brunch plans with my 3 year old nephew and 5 year old niece tomorrow morning that trump sprinting for a 9th place finish at a local 2/3 crit

I am not saying that these aggressive tactics which may include physical contact with other racers are necessarily bad, but I am pointing out that one should be aware that as the sport currently stands others might not be as comfortable with or prepared for this physical contact - most riders have probably never practiced bumping in a race. In my mind we need to alleviate this discomfort and improve rider confidence and ability to handle an elbow or bump. A few words or can teach one how to more safely fall to the side, learn how to handle a brush of the front wheel, or even how to safely lean on others when needed. There are so many aspects of cycling that we could all improve upon that are often overlooked.

As a racer I now register for a crit with a certain degree of apprehension. I will analyze the course, the racers, the promoters, and reflect back on past experiences.  Upon reflection, I have realized that it is not necessarily the course, the other racers, or the promoters that are at fault. It is me. My experiences in these environments have narrowed the amount and type of races that I am comfortable with. I need an intervention, something to push me outside my comfort zone, but in a safe environment where I will not worry about the ramifications if shit goes south. I need drills, I need to be better about pre-riding courses, and I need to take a more analytical approach when I register for a race. I want to look forward to a race with confidence in my fitness and ability to handle uncomfortable situations.  

I think some may read this article and just think “#critlyfe Bro, gotta take the risk for the reward.” To be honest, I felt that same way when I first started riding too. I was younger and had fewer responsibilities outside of racing. However the experience of my various injuries, combined with more ‘real life’ responsibilities has caused a shift in mindset, something that I fear many racers go through - and a significant number of them probably leave the sport altogether as a result. But in my mind it doesn’t need to be this way - fear of wrecks can be improved with confidence in bike handling skills, egregious and malicious acts in a races getting penalized, and courses that are created to ensure the racers safety. Simple acts like practicing bumping and other physical contact via drills is a great idea that would likely make the sport safer.

I hope that no one can take offense with these ideas, and in the long run, they’re meant to protect the safety of the individual racers and preservation of our sport.  Too many racers approach each race without complete confidence, whether it’s fitness or bike handling, and from my perspective bike handling is far too often overlooked.