The Flinch

I’ve got friends who crash so often it’s a casual occurrence to them. Two of them in particular seem so okay with it that the lost skin, destroyed bikes and even loss of control don’t seem bother them. Somehow, they make it seem routine.

To be able to take skin loss and broken bones in stride is an obviously requisite part of PRO. I was never able to relax in the face of carnage. I always flinched at the sound of scraping metal as if I’d been goosed. It was a big factor in my decision to stop racing.

A few years ago, during the Tour of California, Levi Leipheimer crashed with Tom Boonen right next to him. Leipheimer disappeared from view and Boonen never flinched. He didn’t turn his head, look down, even shudder. The event didn’t even seem to register with him.

I asked him about it the next day. He told me, “It’s natural; it’s something you’ve got. It’s the same in the sprint, and I think a lot of the riders have that kind of concentration…. The moment you panic is the moment you crash.”

He confirmed for me what I’d known for a few years; I never had the PRO’s sense for pack riding. I didn’t panic, but I definitely flinched.

Illnesses achieve routine status long before we ever get on the bike and because they come on so gradually only the worst, most surprising news can shock us.

But I got one such shock this morning. My wife woke me at 1:00 because our little team captain was throwing up with the force of a fire hose. We got him calmed down, cleaned up, the bed changed and him back to sleep. I followed suit.

Just before I was to get up for my group ride my wife woke me again to tell me how she had been throwing up ever since we got the Little Guy back to sleep (that’s what, five hours?) and needed my help. Only three questions were necessary to conclude that they had eaten tainted grapes. The three of us were in the car on the way to the ER before the city woke.

Years ago I was in a race infamous for its 180-degree turn 150 meters from the finish. I’d done the race a few times and had yet to do well, or even enjoy it. After cresting a small rise we accelerated on the down toward the turn and a rider weighing a good 30 lbs. more than me bumped me hard. To keep my tensed body from pinballing back and forth between him and a friend to my right, I reached out my right hand and put it on the small of my buddy’s back to steady myself.

Of course, just as I put my hand on his back the peloton began braking for the turn. I was certain I was about to wear multiple chainrings in my back like some sci-fi cross between a human and a dinosaur. Visions of broken frames, bars and wheels danced around my head like so many cartoon birds.

I did the only thing I could; I pushed away from his back, careful not to push him to the right at all. It slowed me just enough I could take my hand off his back and get it back into the drop even while the rest of the pack was braking hard. By the time I exited the turn I was so relieved not to have crashed I didn’t even care that I was too poorly placed to contest the sprint.

The ER visit was a race of a different sort—one that lasted 10 hours—and I can assure you, this time I didn’t flinch. The surprise came when I realized I hadn’t felt quite that brand of relief since that nearly ill-fated race; that is, not until both my wife and son were belted in and I placed the car in drive to head home.

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  1. Champs

    It’s second nature to PROs who have had that preternatural ability since they were juniors. The legs follow their focus, which is on racing.

    Compare with that character who, in group rides, tends to skid when the group comes to a stop, among other things. It’s an overreaction because their mind and body are in survival mode, just trying to hang on.

  2. josh

    best advice i ever got was never to look at a crash, even if it’s in front of you. look around it, never at it. the second you look at it, you’re in it.

    1. Author

      Thanks much everyone for the kind words.

      Pascal: I hadn’t considered that I might have done something PRO myself. I’m sure if I had video of the move, I’d enjoy watching it, knowing the outcome was benign.

      Champs: I couldn’t agree more.

      Josh and Jeff B: Likewise, that advice served me well, too. As a side note, a friend who used to race cars told me the rule of thumb for them is to aim AT the crash. With cars, you’re moving so fast that the crash won’t be there by the time you arrive as it will have slid somewhere else.

      Sophrosune: You’re one of our toughest, most devoted readers. Thanks.

  3. fausto

    The old wise men told us two things as juniors, stay away from the guy with all the road rash scabs and secondly, don’t be that guy. The flinch turned me into a great time trialist and a terrible crit rider.

  4. David A

    I remember one time in a kermis in Lochristi Belgium not far from Gent, Jerry Cooman who went on to be a PRO kermis god, got his brake cable looped over my brakehood in the middle of the pack going 27 mph. we leaned on each others shoulders to release the tension, while he took his hand off the bars reached over and undid the cable. we straightened up and laughed. Meanwhile Dutchman John Pirad was fistfighting with someone at the head of the pack…Crazy

  5. jorgensen

    Long, long time ago our club had a coach for a few months before his pro racing commitments ended the help. One of the first things was to learn to take a hit, stay loose, not panic and stay up, it was practiced. That and the pre season on how to dress for the weather was very valuable. Oh, and almost forgot, stay near the front of the field, better riders, less whipsaw, and have a plan for the race, don’t expect the race to provide divine guidance.

  6. Big Zin

    Re: Flinch – I found a similar effect during years of playing hockey.
    BTW: Stay away from those table grapes!
    Vive le RKP!!!

    1. Author

      Thanks everyone for the kind words. I’ve been knocked flat with this thing.

      David A: that’s completely PRO. Wish I had that on video.

      Geofferson: thanks much. It goes both ways. Knowing readers are paying attention keeps me on my toes.

      Big Zin: didn’t eat the grapes and yet …

  7. randomactsofcycling

    I can only echo what others have said: RKP is the business.
    Padraig, another quality post, another different topic, another differing perspective. Nothing is ever straight up and down on RKP, but it’s never different just for the sake of being edgy.
    Keep it up, I love it….and I hope the family gets better soon.

    1. Author

      Thanks everyone for the really supportive words. Striking a chord with fellow riders is the only reason we do this. Seeing praise like this, when I and my family feel so crappy, means a lot.

  8. P. Poppenjay

    Add me to the echoes. Often enough, the life you so thoughtfully write about is real life,as seen from the point of view on two wheels.

    Life is what happens while you are looking where you want to go.


  9. Pingback: The Crash – Bicycles & Bicycling

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