There are many recurring conversations in road cycling. Leg shaving. Tyre choice. PEDs and TUEs. Gear ratios. Coffee preference. The list goes on. But one of the more common conversations I’ve heard a fair bit over the years goes along the lines of this:
“Yeah, I’d love to race, but it’s way too dangerous. I’d rather just ride with my mates.”
To which I typically reply…bullshit.
Frankly, I’ve never understood the ‘roads are safer than racing’ logic, especially as it often comes from otherwise strong and experienced riders. As a regular club-level racer myself, it strikes me as akin to saying: “I’d love to have a swim, but the pool is too dangerous. I’d rather dive into the local river full of crocodiles.”
Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting you simply must race if you ride a bike. If you don’t want to do it, that’s absolutely fine. It’s a free country. But…if you’ve ever thought about racing, and the thing that’s ultimately stopped you is a nagging concern that it’s too dangerous, well, you may have your wires a little crossed.
No one can guarantee you won’t crash if you take up racing, of course. In fact, the law of averages suggests you almost certainly will if you do it for long enough. I’ve binned it on more than one occasion over the years, and have had my share of road rash and broken bones to prove it. However, to suggest riding on the open road (or even in a gran fondo) is somehow safer than racing on a closed circuit is the stuff of fantasy, especially here in Australia where the general motoring population isn’t exactly known for its high regard of cyclists’ rights and safety.
To test this theory I’ve been doing some spectacularly unscientific research of late – mostly post-ride chats with club-mates over coffee – and also trawled through my own recollections of riding incidents in the past decade or so. Of all the serious cycling-related injuries I’ve been able to recall, the V-A-S-T majority have had absolutely zilch to do with racing, and everything to do with rider error and/or …you guessed it…traffic.
Sadly, even as I write this a good riding mate James T (whom I ironically met through racing) is still lying in a hospital bed seriously banged up after being hit by a McLaren sports car about a month ago now whilst he was riding on a quiet public road north of Sydney. Two years back an even closer mate, Andrew, was struck by an illegally-turning car whilst he was out on a cruisy Saturday morning ride with his training pals, he suffered life-changing injuries and is still recovering. Yet another club-mate, James G, is also currently recovering from his second major crash caused by an errant motorist. The poor bastard can’t take a trick.
As for myself? I’ve had some spectacular crashes during the past decade, including being cleaned up by a car at a roundabout (whilst reviewing a $12,000+ bike for Bicycling Australia magazine, no less!) and a wretched run of four hospital-worthy stacks in the second half of 2015. But by far the most serious of these have all occurred out on the road, not in races.
Yes, when you crash in race you’re likely to be travelling fast and it’s probably going to hurt if you hit the deck. You may even break some bones, or worse. But let’s not kid ourselves. Asphalt doesn’t discriminate. It’ll hurt just as much if you crash on a bunch ride. However unlike a race situation, out on the road you’re likely to be surrounded not by lightweight bicycles all heading at the same speed in the same direction, but by cars, vans, utes, buses and other heavy vehicles who may or may not be paying the slightest bit of attention to your vulnerable plight (or the speed limit).
The other thing I’d add here is how much more focussed and attentive the majority of riders are in a race situation when compared to the road. Racing at high speeds in close quarters is a great way to focus the mind. The risks are obvious, so you’re far more aware of your surroundings, everyone is a lot more careful. Accidents still happen, sure, but they’re far less common than you might think.
Let me end this mini-rant by saying, no, racing isn’t 100% ‘safe’. But nor is walking to the local shops. On the upside, it’s a great hit-out, excellent for your bike-handling skills and, in my reasonably informed opinion, infinitely safer than bunch riding out on the open road. So if that’s all that’s stopping you from pinning on a number, think again, and join the fun!