Braking Bad: Coping with Irish cycling’s early season madness

Posted on: February 27th, 2019

To avoid early season crashes and the general madness of Irish cycling’s first races of 2019, stay alert but don’t panic. And maybe leave the sprinting to more experienced riders.


Before you pin your number on your back for the first time this year and finally let loose on the open roads after the long winter, you need to consider how you can race more safely, writes cycling coach Paddy Doran of Peak Endurance Coaching.


The first races of the season are very nearly upon us and excitement levels are reaching fever pitch throughout the nation.

Riders fine tune their athletic engines and meet the postman at the door every morning to see if he’s brought this year’s licence and back numbers.

Bikes have been thoroughly refitted or, in some cases, replaced altogether with lighter, shinier, more expensive and possibly even faster machines.

The calendar has been scrutinised and maps poured over as the first few months of the season are charted with the precision of military campaigns.

New club jerseys and shorts have been ripped from the plastic and donned at least once for careful inspection in front of full length mirrors; or occasionally modelled in front of slightly horrified loved ones.


We’re good to go. Or are we?

Despite the scheduling insanity of starting the season at the coldest, windiest, wettest and most treacherous time of year after months of inactivity during the balmy days of late Autumn, there’s no doubt that the early races will be the most popular with three-digit field numbers and energy levels to match.

Those early season outings will be some of the most hectic and frantic of the entire season, as not all of that nervous tension stored up over the months of training finds its way to the pedals.

You know the drill. The first attack of the year happens within seconds of the start and the entire bunch, finally unleashed from the shackles of club ride etiquette, chases after the impetuous fool.

What follows almost immediately is the first bunch stall of the season accompanied by a blood curdling screeching of brakes (must put the tub glue on more carefully next time…) and often wildly exaggerated avoiding action in different parts of the swarming mass.

This leads, inevitably and instantly, to a cacophony of bellows and screams from the more vocal – and probably most afraid – members of the group with little nuggets of advice for their fellow travellers such as “keep left!”, “on your left!” “watch the right!”, “don’t brake!”, “car!”.

Most of it, rather than having a calming influence, serves only to escalate the panic.

Sometimes, indeed all too often, the whole six-second symphony ends with the depressingly familiar percussion scrape of metal and carbon fibre.

Some poor unfortunate touches a wheel, hits the bitumen and becomes what everyone else is trying to avoid becoming for as long as they can.

Suddenly the bunch springs back into action in what might be described as ‘fight and flight’ as everyone tries to make the most of the wonderfully stimulating effects of the shot of adrenaline they’ve just been given while putting the fear back in its box for a little while.


Still think you’re fully prepared for the new season?

While crashes and falls are a natural hazard of bike racing and happen to everyone at some point, this is the right time to look at safety in races just now and ask how you can play your part in minimising the number and severity of crashes in 2018.

There are a number of things that riders, clubs, race organisers, coaches and officials can do to improve safety while still maintaining good competitive races.

Much of this may seem very basic to many of the more experienced riders, but a little refresher is never any harm. Indeed, more experienced riders can also play their part in the safety goal as role models and mentors to people new to competition.


Taking personal responsibility

An important kernel of thought on this topic is that everyone must take personal responsibility for their contribution to safety.

This includes behaviour during and after races, following the race rules, maintaining their bicycle in good condition and developing of good technique for bunch riding.


The bicycle

Not everyone is a good mechanic, but learning how to perform basic maintenance tasks with your bike should be considered an important part of race preparation. If the skills aren’t there yet, then at the very least riders should get their local bike shop to give their mount a thorough check on a regular basis.

  • Both brakes should work well and be adjusted close to the rim so that in emergency braking your brake lever does not go right into your handlebars when applied.
  • Install new brake blocks regularly and make sure they’re toed-in correctly and the pad surface is well bedded-in before the start of the race.
  • Learn how to use both your brakes for emergency stops as well as general braking.
  • Gears should be well adjusted so that they are smooth on the sprockets and particularly that the chain does not jump on the sprockets, which can cause a fall.
  • The quick release on the wheels should be firmly adjusted.
  • Brake levers should be adjusted so that you can safely reach and apply them whether you are holding the drops or tops of the bars.
  • Make sure your shoe plates or ‘cleats’ are not excessively worn. It’s all too easy to pull a foot out with worn cleats which can often lead to disastrous consequences and racing will test them more than training.
  • If you ride tubular tyres they should be well stuck on to the rim and regularly checked.

All bicycle parts should be tight and well adjusted. Regular checks should be part of your race preparation. A good tip I heard from former national track champion Mark Kiernan some time ago was to check the bike on Thursday or Friday rather than late on Saturday in case any equipment needs replacing to ensure shops are open.

Example of the brake too loosely adjusted as the lever is nearly touching the bars when applied, this will not stop the bike in an emergency.



Other traffic

Always remember that the roads are open to other traffic. And even though most race organisers and the Gardai do a very good job warning and controlling oncoming traffic this is the biggest danger to your safety when racing.

No matter how good the race traffic control system there is always the possibility of a car straying accidentally into the race. For example, a car coming out of a house after the marshals and race police has passed. The driver might not even be aware that there is a race on the road.

Or the scenario that has happened with serious consequences for riders on a number of major races in Ireland, and other countries; a driver being impatient or stupid, or a combination of both, and ignoring race marshals only to drive into the race.

Keep to the correct side of the road – particularly on bends. This is where you are at your most vulnerable. You should take personal responsibility here and under no circumstances ride around blind bends on the wrong side of the road.


Anticipate and communicate

Because we generally race on open roads, riders should really be anticipating what’s happening further up the road at all times to allow for time to react to situations. This should save a lot of jamming on of brakes.


Obstructions – potholes

When riding in a group, anticipation and early (gradual) evasive action is essential to avoid sudden unexpected changes in direction which are often the cause of accidents.

Signal or call out warnings about potholes, parked cars and any obstacles.

Take evasive action with plenty of time to spare. This saves riders flicking around obstacles and riders behind them making contact with the pothole or car.

However, don’t scream or shout out the warning in an over-excited voice. Your call can often have the opposite effect by elevating the tension in the bunch. Clear signalling and communication between riders is essential during events.



Diagram ‘A’

A good example of anticipation as the riders check behind to see if it is safe to move out. They then gradually move out to avoid the parked car. This is a smooth action which, if clearly signalled, is very safe.


Diagram ‘B’

This is a very dangerous manoeuvre as the riders are too close to the car before they move out to pass it. As a result, they must turn very sharply which can cause chaos in the group. This manoeuvre also puts the cyclist into danger from other cars which may be approaching or overtaking theme.

When following wheels ride slightly to the side of the rear wheel that you are following to avoid hitting it if the rider in front of you freewheels or brakes.



When you want to move up in the bunch, wait until it’s safe to do so. There is usually opportunity to do this when the road widens out etc.

Have a quick glance behind to see that it’s safe to change direction and signal to other riders before you do change direction when riding in a group.

Ride in a straight line. This is particularly important in sprints where it’s dangerous enough without people switching; that is, changing direction sharply.

Look where you are going at all times. At the speed you travel when racing even taking your eyes off the road for a second can mean the difference between you missing a car door opening, a dog running out on to the road or someone stepping off a footpath.

Be generous with other riders when it comes to safety issues. Give way to let other riders move in or out when there are obstacles, other traffic etc.


Holding the handlebars

Always have an appropriate grip on the bars or brake hoods. Fingers and thumbs should form a circle that is secure on the bars or brake levers.

When cycling in the group, experienced riders usually hold the brake hoods so that they can always respond quickly when required to.

It is usually okay to hold the top of the bars when cycling at the front of a group.

Note in the picture above from the Dublin Crit which Daniel Martin Pictured centre won.

Riders differ in whether they hold the hoods or drops but they can all reach their brakes to corner well.

If the hands are just resting on the bars as in the ‘how not to’ photo, all it will take is a bump in the road for your hands to slip off the bars and you end up meeting the tarmac.

Below, How not to hold the bars


The sprint finish

This is often the point where highest speeds are achieved and where riders are at their most focussed and aggressive.

First of all, if you haven’t ridden club races already or are not sure of your fitness or skill level it’s best to leave alone getting involved in the sprints until you have some experience.

Leave the more experienced riders to it and it will be safer.

Get experience at club level through training sessions or club races before getting stuck in to the big bunch sprints in open races. This will be best for your own and everyone else’s safety.

Beware of the limbo dancers in the bunch sprints, keep it safe as possible.


When the race is finished

Be aware that there is race traffic and other cyclists may be finishing seconds or minutes behind you so be careful before you stop too close to the finishing line.

Avoid doing a U-turn to go back to the judges to find out where you might have finished in the race.

Cooperate with the race organisers and help them to clear the finish area.

They usually have enough to be doing at the finish without being distracted by riders who have finished.

This is especially dangerous when a group of riders stop just beyond the finishing line and block following race cars, which then become a serious hazard to other riders sprinting in to the finishing line.


What race organisers can do

For cat 4 and 3 races; try to finish them on slightly uphill sections of road. This will slow the finishing speeds and minimise the injuries if riders do fall.


What coaches can do

Encourage riders to ride safely, especially to ride a straight line in sprints and always to look where they are going.


Commissaires-Cycling Ireland

Ban head down cycling and riding with forearms resting on the handlebars. Penalise riders who are caught doing either.

Have a safety check before every race especially at the finish and run into the finish.

Bear in mind that riders in 3 and 4 category bunches will have more riders who are less experienced.

So the run in to the finish and the finish itself need to be extra safe and not too technical and preferably uphill.