How do you stop 4th Cat riders crashing?

Interesting article on Cycling Weekly about the issue of crashes in entry-level races which is being put on the British Cycling National Council agenda: Investigation called for into fourth cat. crashes

I’ve been a 4th category rider since 2006 when I started racing. In what amounts to five seasons of racing I have yet to score a point.

I’ve races scores of races in London and the South East, in particular at Hillingdon as well as in the Surrey League at Chertsey. It’s likely I’ve seen more than my fair share of the crashes in question, so I’d say I’ve got a fair perspective on lower category racing and the crashes.

Is it the courses?

The one thing I can say is that not a single crash is attributable to the “technical” nature of the circuits. When people say a course is “technical” what they really mean is “difficult” or requiring skill to navigate. Neither Hillingdon, Chertsey MOD or any of the other courses where these crashes occur is particularly difficult.

Warrick Spence, one of the best bike handlers I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride with, explained to me at Chertsey how it was possible to ride the whole course without touching the brakes at all. He said the same was true of Hillingdon.

With the exception of Hog Hill, most “4th Cat only” races in the South East are run on relatively benign closed road circuits where the terrain doesn’t decide between riders. There’s nothing that could be considered “hilly” about them.

I remember Eastway as being brutal by comparison with a couple of short rises that picked off the weaker riders, forcing a natural selection by the finish.

But less selective courses don’t cause crashes on their own, no matter what anyone tells you. It just means more people are in with a chance come the end.

Hillingdon is safer when run clockwise with the finish on the straight rather than through the snaking S, but that hasn’t stopped crashes entirely. Riders still try to cut the apex of corners and make inexperienced decisions on their riding line.

Chertsey MOD is notorious for crashes on the deceptively long finish straight as riders run out of steam in the headwind.. The worst I’ve witnessed involved something like three separate crashes inside the last kilometre.

Is it the number of riders?

Nor are the crashes directly attributable to the rider numbers. I’ve been in fields of 60 without a single crash and in fields of 30 where there were more riders on the deck than upright.

A fast, strung out field of 60 is less likely to see a crash than a slow, bunched field of 30.

Is it down to a lack of experience gained in club rides?

I’m not convinced it is. As often as not, it’s club riders who are involved in crashes and my experience is that club rides bear little relation to racing.

Club rides frequently involve riding in pairs, learning to follow a wheel. On occasion that involves riding through and off rotations but it’s always in small groups of less than ten.

I just don’t see the correlation between that and coming down in a corner with five abreast or the horrific wheel touches in sprints when someone moves dangerously across the road.

The frequency with which you experience physical contact in club rides is negligible. Do clubs offer specific skills sessions on how to ride shoulder-to-shoulder or what to do on contact with another rider?

If anything, I’d argue that a lot of what you get told about racing by club riders is the sort of thing that leads to the current situation. How many times have you heard people interested in racing being told any of the following:

  • Just sit in
  • Save your energy for the sprint
  • Stay near the front but don’t do any work if you can
  • Let other people chase down the breaks
  • There’s no point wasting your energy attacking

I don’t see how anyone’s race skills are improved by being pack fodder. It’s rare to hear more experienced club riders telling those new to the sport to go out, enjoy themselves, attack and see how it goes.

You trundle around for an hour way below your limit then don’t know what to when for ten seconds you hit the red line on the last lap. How does that improve your ability to handle your bike when fatigued or to find out your limitations as a rider?

Is it fair to blame “triathletes”?

For all this talk of triathletes with little experience in bunch riding causing the problems, they do seem prepared to ignore this perceived wisdom and at least try to make a race of things. Be it towing the bunch along for long periods or trying to get involved in breaks, they do contribute.

I’ve watched plenty of “club riders” ride entirely negatively: chasing down breaks rather than starting them; trying to bunch on the front to control the pace; doing nothing for the entire race then trying to do a lead out train as if they’re HTC-Columbia.

I’ve been cut up, nerfed, verbally abuse and everything bar knocked off by as many riders in club kits as triathletes.

The reason triathletes have a tendency to do well in 4th Cat races is that they are fitter, fresher and stronger than the opposition. Those are all skills that in my opinion make you less likely to cause a crash because you are less likely to be fatigued and in the wrong place when accidents occur.

So let’s think about what can be done to improve the situation…

Beginners’ Series Racing

Every Region should have at least one clearly signposted series of races, which are aimed at those just starting out in the sport. They should be a mixture of coaching and racing, exploring the basic skills needed to ride in a road race.

Higher category racers should encouraged to support these and get involved in making sure that the first experience of racing is as positive as possible. Their knowledge is invaluable to riders starting out.

London Dynamo used to run some of these at MOD Chertsey as part of the Surrey League and got pretty big fields for them. They were a great learning experience and really well supported all round. I hope they make a reappearance soon.

Even the simple things like how to follow a wheel and familiarising riders with the course can help reduce the risk of crashes. More experienced riders showing the best line to take through corners and how to position yourself behind another rider really help and are easy wins.

Riding commissaires

The biggest problem in 4th cat races in terms of pack discipline is that there is no hierachy. Everyone is effectively a novice.

So when a 4th cat rider with several seasons under their belt (for want of ability or whatever reason) tells a rider in their first race not to brake hard on the entrance to a corner, they feel no obligation to listen.

I’ve ridden in a couple of races where we’ve had commissaires ride in the field and my view is that more of this would be a good thing in races where there’s a big field and course likely to end in a sprint.

They ensure discipline on closed circuits when being lapped by other races and are in a good position to have a word with any rider who is presenting a danger to those around them. Think of it as a mobile patron.

Commissaires and organisers take responsibility

Too often when there is bad riding or a clear cause of a crash, nothing happens. It’s up to organisers and commissaires to make sure that riders are made aware of what is acceptable and that it’s not “just one of those things”.

Yes, it’s hard to read someone the riot act when they’re on the deck and in pain but if there’s a complaint against a rider, make sure they are made aware.

Riders take responsibility

You are not Mark Cavendish. Keep your eyes on what is happening in front of you and your hands on the bars.

When the commissaire encourages you to sprint on the drops, it’s because it is safer. Follow their advice.

Don’t pay your ten quid and then contribute nothing for the entire race. It’s a waste of your time and money.

Accept that it’s a learning curve and that sometimes it’s better to attack and get dropped than to sit in and come 20th.

I really want to hear what other riders think are the reasons for crashes and what can be done to reduce their frequency. Is it particular to London and the South East or is it a wider problem?

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  • It’s a lack of aggression that causes the problems. No one’s willing to risk losing buy attacking 100 times or more to try and get away, as they’ve seen that when others try, the group chases them down en masse. So you get a dawdling group, enlivened only occasionally when some muppet does get so bored of riding at 17mph and attacks, creating a swirl of excitement amongst the equally bored bunch.

    What I think could work would is a system of having “jokers” in the pack — E/1/2 riders with experience who could just serve to enliven the racing, with no view to getting a result. I’d be quite happy to race in with the 4ths for training, and start some daft moves and help get breaks to stick. Equally, giving people someone to chase and keep the speed up.

    The problem with riding around at 17mph is even if you’re pretty unfit, you don’t really have to concentrate that hard. Get some jokers in there to keep the speed up towards that which is averaged in 3rd cat races and above, and everyone will naturally concentrate a lot more, and the race will be a lot more strung out by the finish.

  • Dan Whiley

    Hi Alex,
    not sure if you look thus fat back in your blog, but I just came across it in a Google search and read with great interest.

    I raced a small number of times in the UK (luckily keeping all my skin in the process) and moved over to California last year. I started racing late summer as a “Cat 5” (novice) racer and saw similar situations. Also exacerbated by a large disparity in fitness between riders.

    HOWEVER, this January I took part in the NorCal “Early bird training series” which comprises of a 5 week series with a 1 hour clinic followed by a 40 minute race. No prizes, no points, just experience. Under USA cycling rules, you have to have completed 10 mass start races in order to be upgraded to Cat 4, so that you have a degree of experience in close racing.

    Have a dig around online for the Early Bird series (in Fremont, CA) – might raise a few ideas for back in Blighty too…


    • I think the notion of a qualifying series (like getting your coffee loyalty card stamped) is a good idea, but I can see why British Cycling haven’t as it’s a hurdle to clear. Then again, you can’t race track in the UK without completing several hours of training and accreditation.

  • Dan

    Hi there! Interesting article as I am one of those riders looking to progress into racing. I’ve been riding for 3 years now and unfortunately only found cycling at the age of 32, when initially it was for weight loss, I now take it reasonably serious and am committed to cycling towards personal goals. Whilst I have enjoyed riding sportives and going on local rides I found that I didn’t have an ultimate goal each year other than clocking up miles so the thought of racing does interest me. Our local track circuit provides a mini league and the first race in April is open to 4th CAT riders only. My initial concern was the pace and the question keeps popping into my head as to whether I’m ‘good enough’. But the more articles I read the pace doesn’t concern me, its the amount of articles describing the 4th CAT races and inevitable crashes that seem to be common place. There are a lot of forums that seem to criticise 4th CAT racers based on their lack of experience and bike handling skills….but surely everyone starts out in the same position and how else should we learn. Some of the lads I ride with have and still do compete to a high level, one of which is a coach and to be honest, when I asked if I should just sit in the main pack for the first race and see how it goes his response was “its a race isn’t it… race”. Make as many breaks as I am comfortable doing over an hour race and see how it pans out was his advice.
    Having never raced before I’m not sure if I would feel comfortable doing this in my first race but maybe this enthusiasm is what should be encouraged.
    Also I agree that having more experienced riders (marshals) riding in the races would be a massive benefit. They could be identified as being such and if you had more than one then one could encourage breaks and the other(s) could then encourage the group to chase them down. This I feel would keep things interesting and everyone hopefully would be less eager to make silly mistakes and as they would be riding within the group they are constantly on hand to encourage and oversee the goings on.
    I’m sure everyone will agree that entering a race is a daunting experience; am I good enough, am I fit enough, will I get dropped, will I come last, will I crash….are all questions that have gone through my mind. But to keep people racing surely people should be encouraging the novices and not knocking them before they’ve even started.

    • If you find yourself in clean air in your first race, go for it. You’re only going to learn what sort of racer you are by trying things. I spent years making fruitless attacks and trying to enjoy races by simply having fun and seeing what happened. But it was fun and when I had mastered measuring my effort in attacks, I knew how to work in breaks and what my strengths were. You’ll be a better racer for not worrying about the points or whether you finish last as a Cat 4.

      • Dan

        I do like that philosophy to be honest, it’s all about pushing yourself at the end of the day and gaining experience. I think also, as I understand it you don’t need many points to then qualify as a 3rd cat but it simply means a strong recreational rider could find themselves getting promoted quite quickly but they may have next to no racing experience. Surely making people race a minimum number of races before being able to rank up points would make sense.