A crash occurred on Sunday May 30, when the B group got out over their skis on an 87km ride to Delta and back. One rider and her bicycle were injured. All riders present were sobered by the incident, which resulted not from the action of a motorist or any hazard in the road, but instead poor communication and a lapse of attention in the group itself.
There were several factors that added up to the injurious cost of this crash, which are threaded through this report as lessons and specific considerations to improve the safety of future rides. As inherently dangerous as road riding is given the unpredictable dynamics of traffic and road surfaces, each of us has a responsibility to avoid multiplying that risk through our own behavior.
Gastown B Group, following a quick pitstop at Barnside Brewing <30 min pre-crash
Group size - a moving target
While nine seems like a modest number for a group ride, members of this particular group spanned the range - veterans interspersed with riders in their first or second season, extremely fit athletes with weekend warriors, speedsters and those more comfortable with a “social” pace (i.e., compatible with chatting). Since there were two sanctioned ride leaders in the mix, the crew could easily have split in half, along lines that matched their motivations and capacities that day.
One way to draw the line in a bigger, more mixed group is to take a few minutes after discussing the dynamics of the day’s route to ask each individual to answer:
“what do you most want to get out of today’s ride?”
Riders might say:
“I’m looking forward to socializing and seeing some new neighborhoods,” or
“I’m working to build strength and power so I can move up to the A group by July 1,” or
“I’m still wrestling with fatigue following my first COVID vaccination, so I’m just gonna take it easy.”
Any of these is a perfectly acceptable motivation for joining Gastown’s B group rides this season, but ride leaders can do a lot to improve the safety of groups of any size by ensuring riders are aligned in their motivations. Once divided into compatible subgroups, riders can more easily agree on what “fast zone” vs. “ride steady, together,” should mean for them on that particular day.
Communication - Any which way but not
The first third of this particular ride followed a shared pedestrian and bike path from East Vancouver through Burnaby to New Westminster and the Queensborough Bridge. The path crosses many arterials, bisects sidewalks on either side, and is sometimes serpentine - meaning limited visibility - so there are few opportunities to get up to speed. The regular appearance of bollards or posts dividing the path is another element that forced a slower pace and offered limited opportunities to ride two abreast. The net effect for this group was a “social” pace until we reached the south side of the Alex Fraser Bridge and our first high speed opportunity - River Road in North Delta.
We briefed riders on the debris we expected to encounter in the shoulder, as well as on the anticipated high speeds of motorists and large trucks frequenting the route. We also suggested a paceline would enable us to cover ground quickly. We neglected to address with any detail the possible interaction between these different ideas, nor how narrowing the gap from 3 meters to ½ meter - made possible by the PHO’s revised guidance on outdoor group sports, issued the previous week - could change the stakes.
One rider sustained a flat almost immediately, and our forced 20 minute break during its repair was a perfect opportunity to share some observations about how the debris alone was already impacting our use of the otherwise generous shoulder. Had we done this, we might have gleaned enough diversity of responses to a simple question like:
“How safe do you feel riding half a meter apart and rotating through a paceline on 1-minute pulls in this circumstance?”
“What do you notice that is challenging about riding in a paceline on this road?”
… to catch on to how varying were the comfort levels in the group. With that insight revealed, we might have suggested a slower pace, or that we forget about narrowing our wheel gaps to ½ meter, or even made a plan to practice riding at a closer distance in a drill, at a lower speed on the next section of quieter road.
Debriefing the ride subsequently, it became clear that as early as this initial section of speedier roadway, several riders had observations about “hurky jerky” braking and the wide range of speeds at which riders in front would choose to pull when it was their turn as lead wheel. Ride leaders also noted the absence of communication about hazards in the shoulder or on the roadway. These are examples of the absence of flow or synchronicity, which is what a successful group ride experience should aim to achieve.
All nine were silent on these issues when there was opportunity at the next pit stop.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how this silence foretold the crash that occurred when the road narrowed and traffic increased.
Everyone - whether ride leader, veteran, 250 FTPer or sufferer of a vaccination hangover - is responsible to speak up about conditions or behaviors that feel unsafe or even ‘iffy’ on a ride. Riders can even avoid confronting specific individuals by turning an observation about an unhelpful behavior into a question like:
“what’s the best way to slow down quickly and safely in a tighter line-up when riders in front abruptly squeeze their brakes?”
Bring your human - or don’t
Setting a tone of trust at the start of the ride - by getting riders to align on where they’re at, what they’re looking forward to on that day - should enable subgroups to depart with a commission bounded by their humanity. Accordingly, riders in each group are better equipped to look out for each other, given variable feelings/needs/capacities that day.
Theoretically, this also makes it easier for riders who are struggling - with a too fast pace, or uncertainty about riding closely as a group at a fast pace, or simply with the limits of their energies and attention spans - to speak up.
This particular crash occurred when the group continued to ride in a quick, tight paceline on a narrow road with steady car traffic. Doing so raised the stakes of an error enormously, and while several riders noted their discomfort or fatigue after the fact, no one spoke up or raised a white flag at the time. And then, a sudden slowing without verbal warning or visible cause from the front of the line prompted a chain reaction of narrow misses, as each rider squeezed harder to avoid the wheel in front of them.
Unfortunately, the last rider, among those who later admitted to being ‘on the limit’ of his own energies and not paying close attention, missed his split second to brake adequately, piling into the rider in front of him, throwing her from her bike and into traffic. Thankfully, no vehicles were passing the group at the time.
If we don’t ‘bring our human,’ whether s/he is indefatigable and ready to rock it hard all day long, or with a limited number of kilometers and watts in the legs on that given day, we aren’t being honest, caring teammates. Contributing to a safe group ride - and certainly to flow - requires self knowledge, acceptance, and the willingness to communicate about it assertively with ride partners, throughout the ride and whenever we notice our own discomfort, be it physical fatigue, poor communication, a pace that’s not working, or anything else that could contribute to your own safety and enjoyment, and that of the whole group.
“No bonus points for suffering alone,” my mother used to say.
In the context of a club ride, I’d modify this to:
“suffering alone is insufferable for everyone else, too.”