Living with the Risk of Crashing

The fear of crashing is a basic, normal – but often hidden – fear for cyclists, a fear that has surfaced more prominently in the aftermath of Wouter Weylandt’s tragic death at the Giro d’Italia. The mentally fit cyclist has a variety of healthy ways to cope with the danger inherent in the sport, creating the freedom to experience and enjoy cycling fully.

By Marv Zauderer

In the last installment of this Sport Psychology column, When Things Don’t Go Your Way, we looked at how you can recover quickly from common setbacks in a race or ride: getting dropped, missing the move, puncturing, getting passed, falling short of a goal, and the like. This month, we explore a reality that every cyclist faces – the risk of crashing – and how you can cope effectively with that risk.

Last month, I was out doing tempo intervals on my favorite flat stretch of country road. Go hard for several minutes, recover, look ahead and back, cross the road, turn around, repeat. Recovering after a hard effort, I spun easily past the entrance to a tiny town square, continued for a few hundred meters, checked ahead and behind, turned around, spun for the few hundred meters, and…a cyclist lay in the middle of the road. I slowed to a stop. I took in the people huddled around her, a long line of sports cars stopped behind her, a distraught man speaking urgently on a cellphone, a crowd starting to gather. I asked myself what I could do. I had no answer. I had an urge to see her face, to see if I knew her, to assess for myself how badly she was hurt. Instead, I turned away.

I made my way over to the small group of onlookers, and saw a friend, a cyclist preparing for the SF-to-LA AIDS/Lifecycle ride. She was pale. She explained that just minutes before, the rider had been hit by the lead sports car, which had been making a left turn into the town square. She pointed to the driver: the man on the cellphone.

I talked with her a bit, and then we fell silent. No reason for me to stay here, I thought. I said good-bye and continued on my way, past the stopped sports cars, and started another interval. As I began, I remembered that police officers often sat in their cars a bit further down the road, radar guns trained on possible speeders. Cellphone reception is spotty out here, I thought; perhaps I could send an officer back to the accident. I sped up. Just then, two fire engines, sirens blaring, sped toward and past me on their way to the scene. I slowed. I forgot about the interval.

Suddenly I was aware of something within me: fear. And in that moment, I became fully human again. I thought: What about the driver? What might it mean to him for a cyclist to listen? I turned around and headed back to the scene.

The shocking death of Wouter Weylandt last week at the Giro D’Italia has, for many cyclists, raised fears – of crashing, dying – that few want to discuss. And yet: bringing the fears out of hiding, and focusing on healthy ways to cope, is a path to a better experience in the sport we love.

Coping With the Most Basic of Fears
We human beings walk around with many basic assumptions about life. That a 26-year-old, well-liked pro cyclist with a pregnant wife would die doing the job he loves; that’s not one of them. We assume, as we live moment-to-moment, that we and those we care about – and root for, and even know as acquaintances – will live. Barring anything that brings the possibility of death, the fragility of life, to our consciousness, how could we not? Most of us don’t live with the ongoing awareness that death could come at any moment. It’s too terrifying. And yet, confronting and coping with this fear can help us on (and off) the bike. But how?

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in this column confronting our ageless nemesis, anxiety, and its family of clever siblings: fear, stress, tension, worry, nerves, and pressure. We’ve focused on these foes so frequently because any of them can so easily distort our thoughts, interfere with our performance, and prevent us from discovering more of our potential.

Many prominent psychologists, philosophers, and others who reflect on such things see all anxiety as emanating from the fundamental human fear of death. Sam Keen, in his foreword to Ernest Becker’s landmark work, “The Denial of Death,” summarizes two of the key aspects of Becker’s philosophy:

“The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death…since the terror of death is so overwhelming, we conspire to keep it unconscious.”

This past week, we have been forced – tragically, and for some, traumatically – to emerge from our denial. And in looking at how you can deal most effectively with the reality of crash risks, let’s start there: with denial. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, in her book, “Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma,” explores times when our “fundamental assumptions are seriously challenged” and the injuries that can result to our “inner world” during those times. She writes:

“It is probably an understatement to conclude that psychologically, denial has been underappreciated. [During times of] trauma, denial is far from a maladaptive mechanism suggesting psychopathology. Rather, it is a useful and valuable process that reflects the survivor’s extraordinary predicament…Denial enables the victim to reestablish some equilibrium and confront the threatening experience in smaller, manageable doses.”

Trauma is, of course, a very broad spectrum of human experience, from mild to severe. Yet denial and other strategies for coping can be invoked regardless of the severity. Notice that in the experience I described above, I was literally and figuratively quite a ways down the road before I felt anything beyond concern for the fallen cyclist.

Two years ago, this column addressed how to recover if you crash. In Part 1 we explored the experience and strategies of pro cyclist Steven Cozza after a traumatic crash, from Steven’s, his coach’s, and his doctor’s perspective. In Part 2 we looked at ways for you to recover according to Dr. Judith Herman’s nonlinear model of Establishing Safety, Telling the Story, and Re-engaging in Life.

As we (perhaps briefly) emerge from our normal and protective denial, let’s build on the material in those articles and take a look at what else can help you remain mentally strong in the face of cycling’s inherent dangers.

Establishing Safety
Ask yourself: What makes you feel as safe as you want to feel on the bike? Which of those things are within your control, or at least your influence? Here are some possibilities:

1. Bike Fit and Finish. Plain and simple, if your body feels as solid as possible on your bike, you’ll feel safer. If you haven’t already, consider getting a fit from a well-trained and highly-regarded professional. And make sure you know how to assess the state of your bike before you ride. A quick once-over can catch a piece of glass in a not-yet-blown tire, an out-of-true and thus wobbly wheel, a worn-out brake pad, or a cracked spoke nipple. Knowing your bike is solid is yet another source of safety.

2. Physical Skills. Increasing your confidence in your riding – cornering, descending, riding in a pack, conducting yourself in a sprint – can help you feel safer. Getting a coach, participating in skills clinics, finding a mentor in your local club or group ride, and reading about cycling skills are all ways to improve. And of course, getting out there and riding. But as you work to improve your physical skills, challenging yourself may bring on some anxiety. For some of you, the “I’ll just jump off the high dive anyway” types, going for it completely is the best way to get through the fear. For others, a progressive, stair-step approach to the challenges is the best way to go.

3. Mental Skills. Sometimes these are not too separable from your physical skills on the bike. For example, when you decide you need to look behind you while riding, how do you judge when, how, and how long to look back? How is your decision affected by your speed, the road quality, the straightness or curvature of the road, and whether there are riders in front of or behind you? When you take one hand off the bars to eat or drink, is the other hand close to the stem for stability? When you talk to other riders in a group, do you look at them? How do you take blind corners? What steps, if any, do you take to keep yourself safe when you’re passing other riders? How do you assess who’s safe to ride with? All of these things are about your judgment on the bike; feeling solid in your choices is a source of safety.

Also, your skills in building and sustaining your self-confidence, managing anxiety, handling pressure, and responding to adversity on the bike all can help you feel safer as well.

Finally, recovery – after, and sometimes during, rides and races – is critically important to your safety on the bike. Fatigue, and of course exhaustion, can decrease your ability to attend, focus, judge, decide, and act. Champion triathlete and coach Sage Rountree, in her new book, “The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery,” writes,

“Your successful approach to recovery will depend on two traits: patience and faith. You need patience so that you can give your body the time it needs to heal itself. Your body is an amazing, complicated, and powerful system, and given time, it will adapt in incredible ways to the stresses you put on it. But you have to give it time. Faith is also critical. You need to trust that time off, even though it might be hard to take, will have a direct, positive effect on your training. In time, you’ll see that it does, and your faith will become tested and proven belief.”

Telling the Story
Usually, most cyclists don’t want to discuss the topic of crashing. Why? Some possibilities:

• It raises a basic fear. Our brain can be highly skilled at shutting down an anxiety-raising step, or potential step, even before the anxiety reaches our consciousness. How welcome or unwelcome is fear, for you? Why?

• It would be embarrassing. If revealing thoughts and feelings about crashing raises the fear that you’ll be judged negatively by someone, your brain may again shut things down. But why does someone else’s (incorrect) opinion of you have such power?

• It increases the possibility of a crash. For those of you who are superstitious, this feels true. But what’s superstition? Could this conclusion be driven by a belief that you can’t manage the basic fear that will arise if you talk about crashing, and if you’re scared you’re more likely to crash? If so, could your skill in managing your fear change?

• It doesn’t seem “worth it.” Given all the possible downsides, why bother? What’s the point?

The point is that, as stressful as it may be, revealing yourself – particularly to those you trust, and sometimes even to those you don’t – works. Telling the story, your story, gives voice to what’s within you. It keeps those thoughts and feelings from endlessly throwing themselves against the bars of a cage in your mind, a racket that you may be tuned into or may have learned to tune out. It can relieve some of that pressure. It can create an opportunity for a basic, normal fear to be transformed into something else – because, with it now outside of you, with someone else hearing it, your relationship to it has changed. And it gives someone the opportunity to share their empathy for you. The eminent psychiatrist Irv Yalom, in his book, “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death,” writes, “One can offer no greater service to someone facing [the fear of] death than to offer him or her your sheer presence.” Give someone the chance to offer that to you.

It could start with you saying where you were when you heard about a crash. It could start with you talking about the thoughts and feelings that are running through you about your own riding. Or your friend’s. Or your child’s. It could start with you talking about how you cope. It could even start with a be-careful-that-it’s not-insensitive joke. (Woody Allen famously said, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”) Just start where you are. It may feel like a tough climb, but just try to get to that next 12% grade sign, and then the next one. And the next.

(Re-)Engaging Fully With Your Riding
Living with the risk of crashing has much to do with the meaning you make of that risk. If, in response to being confronted with the risk and the feelings associated with it, you allow yourself to move in the direction of “there’s nothing I can do about it,” you may fall toward a state of what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness,” a state of little or no motivation and a potential precursor to depression. Yalom quotes the psychiatrist Otto Rank, who said, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.”

On the other hand, after any needed period of mourning or other emotional processing, you can use seeing, hearing about, or remembering the possibility of a crash as what Yalom calls an “awakening experience” and “existential shock therapy.” Any confrontation with death, or our fear of death, can enrich life – if we make that choice. What might that mean, for you? It might mean going for it in your riding, atop a secure base, built from solid physical and mental skills and a good ride. It might mean what Yalom calls “rippling,” which he has found “singularly powerful” to counter our distress at the transience of life:

“Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates – often without our conscious intent or knowledge – concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations….[it] does not necessarily mean leaving behind your image or your name…attempts to preserve personal identity are always futile….Rippling, as I use it, refers instead to leaving behind something from your life experience; some trait; some piece of wisdom, guidance, virtue, comfort that passes on to others, known or unknown.”

And, it might mean one more thing. Ted King, pro cyclist for the Liquigas-Cannondale team competing in the Tour of California this week, tweeted this after Weylandt’s crash: “Prayers going where they need to go. Go tell someone you love them and mean it.” Connecting more deeply with those with whom you are close may be the best move of all.

Be safe, be well, be alive!


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