Editor’s Note: Safety is always a wise thing to consider when cycling. The gravel roads, fire roads, and forgotten ways we like to travel are not without their potential pitfalls. In this piece, our contributor, John Ingham, reviews several areas of concern for gravel travel. We hope that you find this enlightening and helpful in your future adventures.
Safer Riding- by John Ingham
Gravel riding is safer than road cycling, mostly because there are far fewer cars and trucks, and it is much safer than some adventure sports. Yet, there are risks and hazards. To a point, we would not want it any other way. Gravel riding would not be so engaging and satisfying if it were perfectly safe and comfortable. Still, we should want to reduce the sorts of risks that can ruin a day, end a cycling career, or worse. The rewards of gravel riding and other adventure sports lie in managing adversity and danger, not in succumbing to them. Here, I go over issues worth considering, and things we can do to reduce risks to acceptable levels
My close friends and relatives include four cyclists who have suffered concussions, two of them severe. One accident was a high-speed collision with a car, while the other three were slow speed affairs. The worst accident happened on a bike trail, two crashes occurred on paved roads, and one happened in a parking lot. All four riders recovered, although who knows what the outcomes would have been had they not been wearing helmets. You will not convince them that not wearing helmets is anything but foolish.
Some cycling proponents claim that the cost of helmets deters people from getting into cycling and that more cyclists would make cycling safer. The better-rated helmets can be expensive, to be sure, but they are not that expensive relative to the overall costs of cycling. And while cheap helmets may not be all that aesthetically pleasing, they meet impact standards and save lives.
It is also said that fatal crashes have increased along with increases in helmet use. That may be, but comparing what happens to heads in crashes with and without helmets tells gravel riders what they need to know. A multi-national study of 64,000 cyclists based on forty some studies found that helmets reduce the chance of serious head injury by 70% and the chance of death by 65%.
Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) technology is now in many helmets. Much of the damage in brain injuries results from oblique blows that cause the brain to twist inside the skull. MIPS liners absorb such rotational forces. In the recent ranking of helmets by the new Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, all four of the five-star bike helmets have MIPS, 5 of 12 four-star helmets have MIPS, and only one of the 13 three- and two-star helmets are MIPS equipped. The best helmet in the Helmet Lab study is the aerodynamic Bontrager Ballista MIPS
After the tragic death of cyclist John Edgars, fellow cyclist Ben Doom posted on social media that from now on he will be using a mirror and daytime lights. Since Doom’s post, I have been using a RearViz wrist mirror. I have also tried the Safe Zone helmet mirror by Efficient Velo Tools. It is sturdy, highly adjustable, fastens securely to the helmet, and offers a big rear view but I prefer the RearViz. The image is smaller but adequate, and the mirror does not obscure the forward view. The RearVis adjusts on two axes and can be worn on either the wrist or forearm.
Bontrager, Lezyne, and other companies offer highly visible daytime running lights with irregular, eye-catching flash patterns
Unfortunately, the new daytime running lights drain their batteries quickly, a problem for long-distance gravel riders. They are also pricey. And there is a question about whether they are better than less intense lights. A shopper will have to consider the trade-offs.
Extremely intense flashing lights may make it harder for car drivers to judge distance, although this may be more of a problem at night than during the day.
There may be another problem with ultra-intense lights. There is a well-known tendency for pilots and drivers to steer in the direction of a light source—the so-called “moth effect.” Even so, lights are better than no lights. Motorists hit cyclists on the side of roads or at intersections in part because they tend to focus where they expect to see cars. In theory at least, lights can disrupt such expectations and call better attention to cyclists. Daytime running lights on cars and motorcycles have clearly reduced accidents, so it seems likely that they can reduce cycling accidents. For what it is worth, a 2002 Dutch study of 2,000 cyclists found that daytime running lights on bikes reduced bike accidents by 30 to 50%.
Lightning is not a major hazard in gravel riding, but it is concerning enough to deserve caution, especially in the Midwest, where thunderstorms are common during warmer months. If you see lightning or hear thunder, you are in danger. In 1978, a friend of mine was killed by a lightning strike while on the top of a Mayan pyramid. There was clear blue-sky overhead but the bolt came horizontally from a cloud five miles away.
There are things to do and not to do when caught in thunderstorms. If the danger appears immediate, get off the bike and move away from it. Squat down, preferably in a low-lying area amid small trees. Do not take shelter under a large tree, in doorways, or next to large boulders. My friend was in the doorway of the temple hut on the top of the pyramid. His children, further back, were spared. In the Mexican village where I did research, a man and his two sons were killed when they sought shelter in the doorway of an abandoned chapel; lightning hit the steeple and then passed through the doorway and the three men.
We worry about getting hit by cars and trucks, but sun exposure may pose a greater threat. Basal cell and squamous cell cancers rarely spread and are rarely fatal if treated early. Melanoma , however, is often deadly. The lifetime risk in whites is 2.6 percent or 1 in 38. About 30% of patients do not survive for longer than five years.
UVB rays cause sunburn and skin cancers. UVA rays, which penetrate more deeply, cause premature aging of the skin, and can also cause skin cancers. Avobenzone, the ingredient in most formulas that can block UVA, breaks down in sunlight. Some newer formulas contain Helioplex, a stabilized form of avobenzone, instead of plain avobenzone. Sunscreens with oxide and titanium dioxide are arguably better. They offer broadband protection without questionable chemicals. Gravel riders might also consider sun sleeves. Several companies offer sleeves with respectable UPF and skin cooling fabrics. My Pearl Izumi sun sleeves have a cooling effect even when riding for hours in full sun and high heat.
We should be more concerned about dust. Gravel road dust contains silica particles, heavy metals, and farm chemicals, stuff you do not want to be putting into your lungs.
Covering mouth and nose with a buff or scarf can reduce dust exposure by about 30%. Masks especially designed for cycling ranging from $10 to $70 can reduce dust inhalation by 80 to 90%, although they can be uncomfortable and will have you looking like Darth Vader. 3M N95 masks are lightweight, more effective, and inexpensive.
SQUIRRELS, DOGS, AND DEER
I have come close to hitting furry creatures any number of times, and this last year I may have run over a chipmunk or squirrel—it happened so fast I am not sure. I would rather not think about the consequences of catching a squirrel in my spokes. I once had a big buck bound across a trail right in front of me as I was descending at high speed. I know of one instance where a helmet prevented a head injury in a deer-bike collision.
And then there is the dreaded dog. Most dogs max out at about 20 mph, so outracing them is worth a try if you are not long in the tooth, or even if you are—if nothing else you will get a good read on your maximum heart rate.
Alternatively, an authoritative, “No!” or “Go Home!” is worth a try. It worked for me during this year’s Dirty Lemming. It also worked a few years ago during a training ride. Well, partially. After a firm “No,” the bigger dog turned around. The smaller dog was having nothing to do with it. Terrifying John was too much fun.
Once as wife Mary and I were having a nice ride in the countryside, a big dog came after us. Mary sped away as said dog focused on me and as the bemused farmer watched and did nothing. I dismounted and used my bike as a shield (a recommended tactic). I also tried spraying the dog with my water bottle (another recommended tactic). The water just pissed the dog off all the more. In such situations, the dog might get bored or the farmer might finally intervene after a bit (Trenton Raygor assures me that the farmer in question is actually a nice guy). Or consider kindness. Rather than threatening the dog with stones, water, pepper spray, or foghorn, you might try talking to the dog in a friendly voice. Such conversations take time, but they can have happy endings (thanks to Guitar Ted for this tip).
RIDING SKILLS AND STRENGTH
With experience we become more adept at avoiding hazards and keeping the rubber side down. It is not necessarily a matter of choosing between competitiveness and safety. I learned this following Lucien Gonzalez in my first gravel race. He was moving at ass-kicking speed but what caught my attention were his caution at crossroads and his methodical use of hand signals. I saw the same smart style recently while drafting him during the Dirty Lemming.
As noted, people tend to turn in the direction they are looking. Trying to look over one’s shoulder at cars coming up from behind can inadvertently steer one into the traffic (looking over one’s shoulder while holding one’s course is worth practicing). One encounters this phenomenon on bike trails when one calls out “passing” or “coming by” before passing. Occasionally, riders will steer into your line as they turn to look over their left shoulders. Children often do this. The prudent thing is to slow way down for children. A few years back I witnessed a crash involving the tendency to steer in the direction one is looking. Thirty or forty yards ahead, two cyclists were approaching me. The guy, checking out who knows what to his left, suddenly veered off the bike trail and crashed into the bushes and trees. His girlfriend, right behind him and no doubt focused on his rear tire, followed him and crashed too. To make matters more odd, two policemen had been following along on bikes not far behind them.
On grassy or muddy trails one cannot always see what is under the grass, mud, or puddles. Riders can come to sudden stops and go down sideways or over the handlebars as front tires stick in muck or hit hidden rocks or slimy branches. I once saw a rider go down and bang her knee on a submerged rock in a deep puddle. She was riding a fat bike and no doubt thought she could trust her big tires—she had just cruised down a steep rocky incline that I had walked. I had dropped her after riding with her for several miles but she had closed the gap on the downhill and had caught up with me as I was walking around the puddle. I heard her say from behind, “I am going for it.” She went down before I could suggest that she might want to reconsider. Assumptions can be dangerous.
Keeping the rubber side down requires eyes on the road. More particularly, you want to focus on the middle distance where you can spot potholes, fallen branches, rocks, and critters in time.
As in skiing powder or junk snow, there can be a fine line between too little speed and too much—with too little speed deep gravel grabs the tires whereas with too much speed one can lose traction. Using the whole road to carry speed on winding down hills is not a good idea however tempting. It has killed more than a few cyclists. Better to stay to the right even if it requires feathering the brakes. By the same token, one should stay to the right when climbing hills even if it means dealing with thicker gravel—better to fall over than to get hit by an oncoming car or truck. Do not run stop signs! Cross-traffic on paved country roads is often approaching MUCH faster than you might think.
One cannot control a bike very well when tires are not making good contact with the road or if one is bouncing off the saddle or losing grip on the bars. Bigger tires can help. So too can vibration dampening forks, handlebar stems, and seat posts. See Guitar Ted’s posts on these topics and my post on vibration.
What keeps us safe perhaps as much as anything is being well conditioned and well rested. One wants to maintain a comfort zone of strength, endurance, and resilience. Exhaustion, dehydration, hypothermia, and heat stroke are dangerous in themselves but they also make nasty crashes more likely. During ultra-long, skill-demanding gravel rides and races, safety depends on not only strength and stamina but also on hydration, fueling, temperature regulation and having a good sense about when to rest, take shelter, or call it a day. There is no shame in quitting a gravel race. It happens a lot.
HOSTILE AND DISTRACTED DRIVERS
I once saw a pickup truck driver lean on his horn in rage when the driver in front of him stopped for a group of cyclists and walkers at a designated cross walk with flashing yellow lights! Recently in California, a truck driver intentionally drove into four road cyclists. He is doing jail time, but not nearly enough for what was in effect attempted homicide. In the last couple of years, I have been buzzed several times. Another form of such aggression is speeding up when gravel roads are dry and dusty. Still another is the “coal roller,” a device used in the culture wars to spew black smoke on hybrids, electric cars, and cyclists.
I suspect such hostile drivers are often the same aggressive drivers who are prone to road rage and getting into accidents. Several studies show that drivers of expensive foreign cars are more likely to speed, tailgate, and run red lights, apparently because they feel entitled. Whatever is going on in their heads, these same drivers are accident-prone. Some pickup truck drivers fit this mold, although many do not (on the whole, pickup trucks are less likely than cars to be involved in accidents). Then there are drivers who text or make cell phone calls while driving. I have often seen drivers in expensive cars with cell phones plastered to their ears. Being important people, I suppose they imagine they have important business or that they are too competent to kill somebody.
On the other hand, many drivers, including many drivers in expensive cars and many truck drivers, are caring and thoughtful, and judging from bike racks, some of them ride bikes. Unfortunately, we cannot always tell which sort of driver we are dealing with. Better to be cautious. I wait for eye contact and some signal from drivers before I venture in front of cars at crosswalks. When in doubt, I wave them through. Often I do that anyway, hoping for good will in return.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SURVIVING
Avoiding accidents and dealing with dangerous situations requires thoughtfulness and steady nerves as well as safe practices and the right gear. Indeed, having one’s head in the game can be just as important for safety as endurance and good habits and equipment. Learning from accidents and tragedies; planning ahead; checking and re-checking equipment; staying alert, curious, and focused; and questioning assumptions, expectations, and habits can go a long way toward avoiding problems.
For a great read on the psychology of staying safe in adventure sports—and in life in general for that matter, see Deep Survival: Who Lives and Who Dies and Why by Laurence Gonzales (W.W. Norton, 2017). Gonzales is not suggesting we forego adventure—he is himself an adventure junkie and inveterate risk taker. He is saying, though, that we can be smarter and wiser about avoiding accidents and bad situations. To this end, we should not assume we are safe just because accidents seem unlikely. Statistics will not help us if our number comes up. Actually, as Gonzales shows, many accidents are not really accidents. Rather, they are inevitable consequences of cumulative missteps, inattention, wishful thinking, and too little preparation, caution, and forethought. Unlikely or not, accidents will happen if we are not careful. Similarly, bad situations are likely to get worse if we do not stay calm and use our heads.
About The Author: John Ingham is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He rode a hybrid bike on trails for years. When he retired in 2011, he renewed his earlier passions for rock climbing, mountaineering, and back packing and began doing longer rides. He has been gravel racing for three years and has completed various races, including the Heck of the North, the Almanzo 100, and the Dirty Lemming 100. Now 77, he appears to be the oldest rider in Minnesota completing major gravel races.