Not a great story, but an important topic—at least to those of us who occasionally scrape ourselves off the road.

There was another crash at the local training crit last week, and I heard Bob was knocked out, broke a collarbone, and Tom and some others got to at least walk away. That’s two I know I’ve heard about since spring, and for some reason I think there have been a few more—I haven’t made it out to the Crit yet, thanks to Paris-Roubaix and work-related dinners and soccer coaching and elementary-school symphonies. The Derby, the Lehigh Valley’s regular unsanctioned open-road Sunday throwdown, has been dangerous lately, too, I hear—guys riding into the back of turning cars, a wheel rub here and there leading to the domino-effect thing, maybe a sketched-out sprint or two.

Competitive bike racing, of course, is risky, and that’s true whether the competition is Tyvek-number-official or is driven by the fastest fifty riders in the Valley dueling for bragging rights on a Sunday morning. Every time we choose to race our bikes, in any context, there is a chance of catastrophe. I’m not only willing to accept that risk, I like it. That’s part of the allure for me. What I’m not willing to accept so easily is that to participate in the two staples of our local training scene it seems we have to show up feeling that a crash is likely. Not just possible. Probable.

A lot of blame is being thrown around here these days, as well as a few theories—from “ban-the-juniors” to “it’s cyclical.” I have my own idea, and though I’m pretty sure it won’t make me popular, I’m more sure that it’s right. So here it is: We’re too friendly.

Largely because of what might be called the Emmaus Influence, the scene here in the Valley is far friendlier than typical in the U.S. and Europe, more welcoming in general, more accepting overall of boobery and more apt to point out mistakes not with a scream or a hook but with a light hand on the shoulder and a few calm sentences. I’ve traveled around enough to know this is accurate. The Emmausians have a reputation as hard riders who have fun and aren’t uptight. The dumb events we put on are attended by regional and national-level pros who know the workout will be good and the atmosphere will be loose. We might crush a hill or do a stupid series of town-line sprints, but most of our rides are also no-drops. There’s always someone willing to fade back and spin in with the stragglers and novices, talking and sharing SportBeans and water and sometimes even, knowing the routes so well, shortcutting back to the group or dragging the enthusiastic back to the pack with a good chase.

When I started showing up for the Derby and the Crit—and it wasn’t so long ago—there was little about either that could be called friendly. It was still that era when we all understood that we had to earn our way in. There were intimidating riders patrolling the front, racers and ex-racers and legends and coaches who would scream at you if you didn’t belong, who would gap you, push you out into the wind—all the stuff that roadies are maligned for.

But all that stuff worked. It weeded out those of us who didn’t belong there, and we didn’t ride there until we belonged.

I’ve always contended that, as reprehensible as roadie elitism is, it is also valuable. A pack of racers needs to be elitist because, when you’re going 37 mph bar-to-bar you want to be there only with the elite. You want to know that the racers in front of you and on either side of you understand what’s going to happen and how to react and what is fair and expected and, even, unfair but expected.

Just a few years ago, my friend Jeremy started coming out to the Derby, doing it right, mostly sitting in the middle or back and watching what happened and trying to do some bridges here and there. After a few months, I rode up beside him one Sunday and said, “We’ll try the front today.” I gave him my wheel and we pedaled up the side and slotted in right in front of the Gatekeeper—steady and confident and sure Dave Gehman, who always sits behind the leaders but in front of the hangers. Upfront, they were doing a rotating double paceline—not the kind where two people side-by-side take a long pull together then swing off to opposite sides, but the one where the windward side is fading backward while the protected side rides at speed and, almost as soon as you reach the front, you swing over into the windward line going backward.

“You see the pattern?” I yelled back to Jeremy. He said he did. We were swinging off left, into the wind. I rotated through. Jeremy did, too. He was going a little too slow in the windward line, so I told him to pedal harder and he did. We had an Olympic medalist there in the line with us, a couple world champions, I think a pro, maybe two, some age-group champs. He and I rotated through again. I was planning on doing one more rotation then falling back. I was getting fatigued, so I knew he had to be somewhere close to blowing, and I guess what happened was also my fault: I should have known his perceptions were getting clouded by oxygen debt.

It was a weird day, and the wind shifted, and the guys at the front began pulling off to the right when they were done. I saw it and maybe I was tired, too, because I didn’t think to point out the change to Jeremy. I did my pull and swung right and he took the front. Then swung left.

We didn’t wreck, but the guy behind him, confused, braked, or twitched hard and the rhythm came apart and I could hear cursing and I bit my cheek and waited and, sure enough, one of the local hotshots unloaded on Jeremy. Screaming and spitting and mofo-ing and maybe even a shoulder shove or two in there.

“Let’s go back,” I said, and without further talking, Jeremy and I faded out of the rear, past the Gatekeeper, then into empty road. When the second pack caught us we slipped into it, and we rode along and we didn’t say anything for awhile, a long while, too long, I think, looking back now. Finally, I said, “Don’t worry about it.”

He was still kind of pale.

“It’s how you learn,” I said. “It’s happened to me. Hell, it happened to that guy at some point.”

“Yeah?” said Jeremy. “I thought I was a lost cause. I was thinking about quitting the sport when the ride ended.”

I laughed. “You can’t quit, man. You just got started—here. Today. Getting yelled at means you’re on the way to being a racer.”

And I meant it. When it comes to cycling, the more people on bikes the better. When it comes to racing, maybe we really are better off if we believe that those who can be driven from the pack never deserved to be there. I haven’t seen anyone humiliated on a Derby in a long time. I used to think that was progress. These days, I don’t know.


Originally published in the April 30, 2010 Sitting In