RAGBRAI LI July 20 -27, 2024

RAGBRAI Training: Some Thoughts on Safety

  • 14 June, 2024
  • Andrea Parrott

I was on a group ride last night and someone crashed and got injured. It made me think that an article on safety as we head into RAGBRAI is in order. Riding a bicycle has inherent dangers. Even when riding alone, things can happen, for example, we can come to a stop and tip over all on our own, if we don’t clip out in time. Then there are the cars. We can’t control what they do but we can ride defensively and always be on the lookout for them and what they are doing. But add in other cyclists around you and that compounds the danger and need to be vigilant. So here are some tips to keep in mind not only as you are riding RAGBRAI but as you do the training leading up to it.

Keep your eyes on the road  It’s important to pay attention while riding to the road ahead of you as well as keep alert to cars approaching from behind. It seems obvious to say keep your eyes on the road but there can be a lot of distractions, especially riding with others. But always be on the lookout for any objects in the road that could cut a tire or cause you to crash. We can hit something in the road (bump, pothole, gravel, stick, cracks) and go down. We can ride off the road or hit a lip in the pavement. So stay vigilant and be on the lookout. I’ve seen where an innocuous speed bump can land someone in the hospital. And I hope it goes without saying (but I bet some of you have done this), please don’t text and ride! And I know a lot of you like to take selfies while riding but that’s not a good idea in a crowd of riders.

Keep your ears on the road too  Listening is an important skill while riding. If you listen carefully you can hear vehicles approaching from a long way away. As others pass you they will (or should) yell ‘on your left’, although on RAGBRAI with so many riders you won’t often hear that being yelled. You will also hear people saying ‘Bike off’ when leaving the road or ‘Bike on’ when coming back on. One of my pet peeves when riding on the trails around Des Moines is the prevalence of ear buds now. It seems everyone is listening to music or blasting it if they don’t have ear buds. So if I pass someone immersed in their music and yell ‘on your left’, often they don’t hear me and then are surprised and/or mad at me for scaring them. Not to spoil your fun, but if you must listen to music don’t play it so loudly that you can’t hear other bikes or vehicles around you. This is especially important on RAGBRAI where you are surrounded by thousands of fellow cyclists.

Tips for riding with thousands of other cyclists  Riding with a couple of friends is different from riding alone. You need to be aware of where they are in relation to you. You need to pay attention to where they are so you don’t overlap wheels if you are behind them, and be careful not to stop suddenly if you are ahead of them. If you must brake and someone’s behind you can be nice and yell ‘slowing’ or ‘stopping’. But try to do this gradually if at all possible so you don’t get a front wheel up your rear. It’s also a good habit to use hand signals while calling. Put your hand out if slowing and point out objects in the road as you yell ‘hole’, ‘rock’, ‘dead racoon’, etc. When pulling off the road make sure you are to the very right side of the road as you slow down so you don’t cut someone off as you are pulling off, and point to the right as you say ‘bike off’. And once you do stop, please do not stop in the road. Slow down and ride onto the shoulder before stopping if at all possible (unless it’s very loose gravel or a drop off). If you do have to stop on the pavement, move yourself and your bike off the pavement as quickly as possible. Avoid stopping in the road as there will be another rider coming behind you very shortly.

As with interstates, slower riders should ride closer to the right side of the road to allow faster riders to pass on your left. Be courteous and don’t ride more than two abreast so as to give others a chance to pass you without having to go into the other lane where there may be oncoming traffic. And speaking of traffic, these roads on RAGBRAI are open to vehicles. While no one in their right mind would try to drive down a road filled with thousands of cyclists, some apparently aren’t in their right mind and do try to drive down the RAGBRAI route. And there will be cars coming in the opposite direction as well, so please for your own sake, Ride Right of the line in the middle of the road. And if you are one of the faster riders trying to pass on the left, please don’t cross the middle line in the road. Either wait for riders to move over or yell ‘on your left’ to help remind them not to hog the road. Large speed differentials can also cause crashes. If one rider is going 20 mph and another is going 10 mph, things can happen fast and there may not be time to avoid a slower rider moving unexpectedly. And speaking of that, whether you are riding fast or slow, please ride in a straight line (except when going around a curve obviously). This makes your riding more predictable to those around you and makes it safer for people to pass one another. Likewise try to ride at a constant, predictable speed. Going fast then slow makes it challenging for those behind you.

Downhills provide their own challenges  Lots of people are worried about all the hills on RAGBRAI this year. I think they are concerned about the going-up part, which is a valid concern, but realize for every uphill there is a downhill and downhills provide their own challenges and safety concerns. First of all, on downhills, everyone is going faster and everything happens faster. When you have a road full of bikes rolling down a hill fast, there is less time for error. Therefore, on downhills, leave more space between you and the riders around you, in case they swerve or slow. This also gives you time to see and avoid obstacles in the road. You will then have time to brake and avoid them. Ask yourself if that person in front of you stops or falls, will you have time to slow down and avoid them? Again, avoid slamming on your brake unless it’s an emergency and you just have to stop fast. Stopping on downhills should be avoided at all costs. Wait until you get to the bottom and slow down before attempting to pull over. If you are uncomfortable going downhill, control your speed with your brakes and stay to the far right of the road. And remember, use your rear brake at the same time as your front brake to avoid doing the endo, as in end over end.

Make sure not only you but your bike is in shape  We focus a lot on this blog on your personal preparation and fitness but it’s important from a safety point of view that your bike is ready for the ride as well. Make sure everything from the brakes to the gears to the tires are in good working order. It’s obvious about brakes, but a poorly shifting bike can cause you to skip a gear and potentially fall when going uphill if your gears slip. Make sure your tires are in good condition and have a good tread but don’t have cracks or cuts. A flat while riding can put you in a dangerous position especially if riding fast in a group. And another tip – use plastic water bottles – the kind designed to go in your bike water bottle cage that you get at bike shops, not the flimsy ones you get at convenience stores which don’t fit well in your cages. And avoid using aluminum bottles as they can cause a real hazard if they pop out of your cage. And while you are at it, make sure everything else attached to your bike is securely attached.

I know there are many more tips I could give you but these are enough to get you thinking about being aware as you ride and riding safely.

Have a great and safe ride!

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and individual cyclists through the Peaks Coaching Group. He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com. He can be contacted at cyclecoach@hotmail.com.


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