How do you stop 4th Cat riders crashing?

Interesting article on Cycling Weekly about the issue of crashes in entry-level races which is being put on the British Cycling National Council agenda: Investigation called for into fourth cat. crashes

I’ve been a 4th category rider since 2006 when I started racing. In what amounts to five seasons of racing I have yet to score a point.

I’ve races scores of races in London and the South East, in particular at Hillingdon as well as in the Surrey League at Chertsey. It’s likely I’ve seen more than my fair share of the crashes in question, so I’d say I’ve got a fair perspective on lower category racing and the crashes.

Is it the courses?

The one thing I can say is that not a single crash is attributable to the “technical” nature of the circuits. When people say a course is “technical” what they really mean is “difficult” or requiring skill to navigate. Neither Hillingdon, Chertsey MOD or any of the other courses where these crashes occur is particularly difficult.

Warrick Spence, one of the best bike handlers I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride with, explained to me at Chertsey how it was possible to ride the whole course without touching the brakes at all. He said the same was true of Hillingdon.

With the exception of Hog Hill, most “4th Cat only” races in the South East are run on relatively benign closed road circuits where the terrain doesn’t decide between riders. There’s nothing that could be considered “hilly” about them.

I remember Eastway as being brutal by comparison with a couple of short rises that picked off the weaker riders, forcing a natural selection by the finish.

But less selective courses don’t cause crashes on their own, no matter what anyone tells you. It just means more people are in with a chance come the end.

Hillingdon is safer when run clockwise with the finish on the straight rather than through the snaking S, but that hasn’t stopped crashes entirely. Riders still try to cut the apex of corners and make inexperienced decisions on their riding line.

Chertsey MOD is notorious for crashes on the deceptively long finish straight as riders run out of steam in the headwind.. The worst I’ve witnessed involved something like three separate crashes inside the last kilometre.

Is it the number of riders?

Nor are the crashes directly attributable to the rider numbers. I’ve been in fields of 60 without a single crash and in fields of 30 where there were more riders on the deck than upright.

A fast, strung out field of 60 is less likely to see a crash than a slow, bunched field of 30.

Is it down to a lack of experience gained in club rides?

I’m not convinced it is. As often as not, it’s club riders who are involved in crashes and my experience is that club rides bear little relation to racing.

Club rides frequently involve riding in pairs, learning to follow a wheel. On occasion that involves riding through and off rotations but it’s always in small groups of less than ten.

I just don’t see the correlation between that and coming down in a corner with five abreast or the horrific wheel touches in sprints when someone moves dangerously across the road.

The frequency with which you experience physical contact in club rides is negligible. Do clubs offer specific skills sessions on how to ride shoulder-to-shoulder or what to do on contact with another rider?

If anything, I’d argue that a lot of what you get told about racing by club riders is the sort of thing that leads to the current situation. How many times have you heard people interested in racing being told any of the following:

  • Just sit in
  • Save your energy for the sprint
  • Stay near the front but don’t do any work if you can
  • Let other people chase down the breaks
  • There’s no point wasting your energy attacking

I don’t see how anyone’s race skills are improved by being pack fodder. It’s rare to hear more experienced club riders telling those new to the sport to go out, enjoy themselves, attack and see how it goes.

You trundle around for an hour way below your limit then don’t know what to when for ten seconds you hit the red line on the last lap. How does that improve your ability to handle your bike when fatigued or to find out your limitations as a rider?

Is it fair to blame “triathletes”?

For all this talk of triathletes with little experience in bunch riding causing the problems, they do seem prepared to ignore this perceived wisdom and at least try to make a race of things. Be it towing the bunch along for long periods or trying to get involved in breaks, they do contribute.

I’ve watched plenty of “club riders” ride entirely negatively: chasing down breaks rather than starting them; trying to bunch on the front to control the pace; doing nothing for the entire race then trying to do a lead out train as if they’re HTC-Columbia.

I’ve been cut up, nerfed, verbally abuse and everything bar knocked off by as many riders in club kits as triathletes.

The reason triathletes have a tendency to do well in 4th Cat races is that they are fitter, fresher and stronger than the opposition. Those are all skills that in my opinion make you less likely to cause a crash because you are less likely to be fatigued and in the wrong place when accidents occur.

So let’s think about what can be done to improve the situation…

Beginners’ Series Racing

Every Region should have at least one clearly signposted series of races, which are aimed at those just starting out in the sport. They should be a mixture of coaching and racing, exploring the basic skills needed to ride in a road race.

Higher category racers should encouraged to support these and get involved in making sure that the first experience of racing is as positive as possible. Their knowledge is invaluable to riders starting out.

London Dynamo used to run some of these at MOD Chertsey as part of the Surrey League and got pretty big fields for them. They were a great learning experience and really well supported all round. I hope they make a reappearance soon.

Even the simple things like how to follow a wheel and familiarising riders with the course can help reduce the risk of crashes. More experienced riders showing the best line to take through corners and how to position yourself behind another rider really help and are easy wins.

Riding commissaires

The biggest problem in 4th cat races in terms of pack discipline is that there is no hierachy. Everyone is effectively a novice.

So when a 4th cat rider with several seasons under their belt (for want of ability or whatever reason) tells a rider in their first race not to brake hard on the entrance to a corner, they feel no obligation to listen.

I’ve ridden in a couple of races where we’ve had commissaires ride in the field and my view is that more of this would be a good thing in races where there’s a big field and course likely to end in a sprint.

They ensure discipline on closed circuits when being lapped by other races and are in a good position to have a word with any rider who is presenting a danger to those around them. Think of it as a mobile patron.

Commissaires and organisers take responsibility

Too often when there is bad riding or a clear cause of a crash, nothing happens. It’s up to organisers and commissaires to make sure that riders are made aware of what is acceptable and that it’s not “just one of those things”.

Yes, it’s hard to read someone the riot act when they’re on the deck and in pain but if there’s a complaint against a rider, make sure they are made aware.

Riders take responsibility

You are not Mark Cavendish. Keep your eyes on what is happening in front of you and your hands on the bars.

When the commissaire encourages you to sprint on the drops, it’s because it is safer. Follow their advice.

Don’t pay your ten quid and then contribute nothing for the entire race. It’s a waste of your time and money.

Accept that it’s a learning curve and that sometimes it’s better to attack and get dropped than to sit in and come 20th.

I really want to hear what other riders think are the reasons for crashes and what can be done to reduce their frequency. Is it particular to London and the South East or is it a wider problem?

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