Monday, January 14, 2008

"If I can dodge a rock, then I can dodge a possum, too..."

Riding in the early evening on the west side of Burns Park and the Northshore Industrial area, I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the local wildlife over the past two or three months. The deer herd comes out into Gene Pfeifer’s hayfield just about twilight, and the bucks start venturing out around 7 p.m. or so. Other critters keep their own schedule… The squirrels are almost exclusively out in the daytime, the bunny rabbits, raccoons, skunks, and opossums venture out when it gets dark. With the increased bike traffic after dark this season, many of the critters, including some of the deer, have gotten quite bold and stay out in the path as you roll by.

Back the first of last month, I was on one of the ABC Monday night rides where we went over to the east side of North Little Rock’s Burns Park to ride through the annual Christmas lights display. After cruising through, we decided to go over to the Big Dam Bridge and see the lights there, as we had a couple of new riders who had not previously seen the BDB after dark.

Rolling up the RiverTrail past the new S-curve where the wooden low-water bridge used to be, we had a nice paceline rolling along at about 15 mph. I was on the front. Coming out of the second curve, I looked to my right and saw a ‘possum run out from the right edge of the pathway, headed right for where my front wheel was supposed to be. I’d practiced the Bike Ed course’s “rock dodge” for hours, and had even had a couple occasions to use it to dodge the occasional armadillo and one skunk which had apparently gotten mesmerized by my headlights and frozen in the center of the path.

“Okay, Thomas,” I muttered to myself; “if you can dodge a rock, then you can surely dodge a possum.” The problem is, however, that rocks stay still – but possums don’t. I hit that possum squarely behind the shoulder blades and felt my front wheel start to go out from under me. I had about enough time to instinctively tighten my grip on the handlebars, turn into the possum, and then stomped on the right pedal in an effort to roll over him like I would with my mountain bike.

To my surprise, and that of my pals, the maneuver worked. I bowled over the critter and sent him rolling to the side of the path (where he jumped up and ran away into the night) and I stayed upright and headed down the path, still in control of the bike. I had anticipated sampling a good bit of pavement, plus the domino effect of being piled on by the guys behind me, but the trick worked… When you feel your front wheel being pushed out from under you, tighten up on the bars, steer into the obstacle, and apply power like you’re trying to roll over it.

Several of our club rides have seen some nasty crashes this year, nearly all caused by wheel overlap. One of the main things we teach "on the wheels" in Bike Ed is hazard avoidance, like the rock dodge and the quick turn. My first thought was to teach cyclists and ride leaders how to recover from an overlap incident. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew the problem wasn't the actual overlap but rather the conditions that led to the overlap situation. Ride leaders need to know how to teach their groups proper group riding that stresses safe spacing, communication between cyclists, watching out for each other and how to "single up" when someone calls "car back." Our group ride disciplines need a lot of work.

The overlapping and touching of wheels need not spell disaster or a trip to the ER. There are techniques to disengage, such as I used against that pesky ‘possum up above. By practicing these skills, riders become more comfortable with proximity and become better pack riders.

Practice on a smooth grass field. Falling is likely at first, and grass is much nicer (and softer to land on) than asphalt or concrete. I like to use one of the remote soccer fields over at Burns Park when the soccer teams or moms aren’t around. Wear your bike helmet, old cycling or street clothes with long sleeves and legs, and gloves.

Find a partner to practice with, who should be equipped the same way. Take turns, until both of you can master the new skill.

Start with one rider leading and riding straight, at a constant speed, listening to their partner, but not looking back. The lead rider is in minimal danger of crashing.

The rear rider matches the speed of the lead rider, and brings the front wheel up to just the point of overlapping the front rider’s rear wheel. The rear rider must not be as far advanced as the lead rider's hub.

The rear rider positions the bike just an inch or two to the side of the lead rider's rear wheel, then taps or brushes the lead rider's rear wheel, then backs off.

The lead rider must continue to ride straight and steady, not swerve, slow down or speed up. The lead rider may be slowed slightly by the friction of the rear rider's front wheel.

The rear rider, with anything more than instantaneous contact, must momentarily turn into the lead rider's rear wheel to set up the steering and lean of the bicycle to bounce off. This counterintuitive technique is what allows skilled riders to avoid crashing. Practice touching from both the left and the right side until you can lightly touch wheels, maintain control of the bike, and not fall.

Then you should be ready for those road-raged marsupials…

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