Just last week the cycling world received very bad news, as two Spanish professionals were hit by a car during a training ride. Javier Oxtoa, the winner of the 10th stage of last year's Tour De France, is currently in a coma with severe injuries to his head and neck. His twin brother, Ricardo, age 26, did not survive the incident.
Three days ago, the autoracing world lost one of its heroes when Dale Earnhardt died as a result of injuries sustained in a crash during the final lap of the Daytona 500. He was 49.
These athletes are people just like you and I. They had dreams and goals. They have families. There are people in this world who love them. Hopefully Javier Oxtoa gets well. Ricardo Oxtoa and Dale Earnhardt will be missed terribly by friends, family, and fans alike. But they are both gone from this world.
It is very easy to get caught up in the spirit of athletics and forget about the dangers involved. Bad news is generally discussed in hushed tones among those we know and trust. No one really wants to hear about the athlete who was out on a run or ride and got run over by a semi-tractor trailer. We especially don't want to hear how he or she left a weeping spouse and two young children at home. It's not a pleasant thought. And the truth is, it could be you, any day of the week.
Every year the triathlon community gets more bad news. Cars hit athletes during training rides. Racers take a turn too fast and spill. Confused drivers wander onto the bike or run course during the race. There is even the remote possibility of having a heart attack during the swim, or (and the chances are better that you will be struck by lightning) getting attacked by a shark while open water training.
Triathlon, while a lot of fun, is also an inherently risky sport. Nobody likes to dwell on the dangers involved. However, it's a good idea to come to terms with them as the season approaches and more and more people start hitting the streets again. If you haven't been on your bike in a while, let me give you a quick reminder - cars are not your friends.
And what are the biggest dangers?
Frankly, YOU are. Every time you stop paying attention you become a danger to yourself and those around you. Every time you run a red light on your bike, you are that much closer to being in an accident. Every time you run into the street without checking the traffic, you are one step closer to your grave. At every group ride, when you fail to point out glass, potholes, or oncoming traffic, you become a lethal threat to your fellow cyclists. At every swim practice, when you play around and dive headfirst into the shallow end, you are asking for a broken neck.
I'm not writing this stuff to scare you. I'm writing it because it's true, and I don't want to see anyone become another statistic. So what follows is a quick safety guide for triathlon training. And if you can only remember one thing, remember this simple concept:
Pay attention to your surroundings!
Does that seem simple enough? Can you do that? I see a lot of you nodding your heads. But how is it, then, that every season someone winds up hurt and thinks: "If only I'd been paying more attention?"
Jeff has already covered a lot of the issues regarding running on roads you share with cars (see Caution is King in the running section), so I'm going to talk mostly about cycling, which is where many training related accidents takes place. I'll also discuss a few swimming related safety issues.
So you've made the decision to get on your bike and train. Excellent, congratulations. How prepared are you? Let's discuss the basics first.
Is your bike properly maintained? Is the chain lubed up? Do your brakes work? Are the treads adequate? Do you have enough air in the tires? Do your derailleurs work? Are your shoe clips adequate? If you can answer YES to all these questions, then you are almost ready to go out the door. If you answer NO to any of these, then you should not be riding.
Do you own a helmet? Are you wearing it? A helmet is not going to do you much good if it's sitting in your garage while you fly through the air with your head aimed at the pavement. You may think you look cool riding around without one. Frankly, I think you look stupid.
Can you change a flat tire? If not, are you riding with someone who can? Do you have extra tubes? A tire lever? Do you have a CO2 cartridge, or an air pump? While you're at it, why don't you learn to change a tire? It's not that hard.
Do you have a safe course picked out? Near my house there are several very busy streets that I will not ride on, no matter what. The traffic is simply too heavy, and there are no shoulders to ride on. The ideal bike course should have a bike lane, but the reality is that most of the time we are lucky to find quiet roads. If you live in a heavily trafficked area, I would suggest you get in your car and drive to a more remote location to do your cycling.
I would also recommend that you don't ride through dangerous parts of town. We may like to believe that we live in a world no one gets hurt and everyone helps everyone else, but that's not the case by a long shot. There are people in this world who are willing and able to rob, maim, and/or kill you for your bike. They may do it just because they don't like the color of your jersey. They may do it for the five dollars they hope you have in your pocket. Don't give them the chance.
Once you're on the road, are you watching out for red lights, stop signs, and using your arm signals? It's a good idea to obey the traffic signals the same as if you were in a car while riding your bike. Legally, you are supposed to, but from a safety standpoint, it's also a good idea. Why risk your life for an extra minute or two of ride time?
Are you watching the cross traffic cars? When you approach an intersection, or see a car about to make a right hand turn into your lane, treat them like they don't see you. Drivers typically underestimate a cyclist's speed and often make bad decisions based on that. Wave your arms at them. Hold up a hand for them to stop. If you have to, slow down and let them go. In a duel between you and a 3,000 pound SUV, my money is on the SUV.
When a car passes you, assume that they never saw you in the first place. Be prepared for them to brake and make a right hand turn directly in front of you. Chances are they are listening to the radio, talking on their cell phone, and forgot about you as soon as you were out of sight. Stay alert and be ready to brake if you sense them slowing down.
When you ride in a group, point out sharp objects, potholes, and rocks in the road. When cyclists ride closely behind one another, it's impossible for the rider in the second or third position to see obstacles in the road. If you don't give them a warning beforehand, then you are effectively throwing a stick between their spokes. They won't appreciate it, and next time you may be on the receiving end.
If you have to stop, pull well off the road. I'm talking about walking fifteen feet into the grass. You never know who or what is coming.
Is it raining outside? Is their lightning? You can ride in rain if you are a confident and experienced cyclist, but if you ride when there is lightning outside you are being stupid. Florida has more lightning related deaths than any other state in the union. Stay home and ride your trainer. If you get caught in a lightning storm while already on your ride, seek safe shelter and call someone to pick you up.
DO NOT antagonize car drivers. If you've been riding for any amount of time, then you have certainly had someone come too close to you, cut you off, yell at you, throw something at you, reach out and push you, or any other combination of cruelty and stupidity. Remember, you don't know who that person is, what kind of a day they're having, or what they're capable of. I know you're a rough and tough triathlete, but the fellow in the blue minivan may be a professional fighter with an attitude. Don't take that chance.
Albert Einstein said something to this effect:
"There are only two things in the Universe that are infinite: Space and human stupidity. And I'm not certain about the former."
What this means to you as a cyclist is that you cannot underestimate how dumb someone in a car may be. There is every possibility that they may think it's funny to bump you. And for you older generation, don't forget what happens at the end of Easy Rider. Whenever you're on the road, be cautious, and use your head.
Swimming may seem like a pretty tough sport to get hurt in. Let me straighten you out. Swimming can kill you. Literally. All it takes is one misstep, one ill thought out jump into the pool, and it's over. You can knock yourself unconscious and drown. You might snap your neck on the bottom of the pool. In ocean swimming, waves can knock you to the bottom and break a collarbone, an arm, or your neck. A rip current can drag you out to sea. Jellyfish can sting you into paralysis. And while it is highly unlikely that it will happen, you could be bitten by a shark.
How do you avoid swimming related accidents?
In the pool:
- Don't play around on the pool deck. Pushing someone into the pool may seem pretty funny, but when they come up screaming, you may rethink that.
- Don't dive straight down in the shallow end, or the deep end, for that matter. The bottom is concrete. You shouldn't jump in with stiff legs, either. You can break a leg doing that.
- Swim with a lifeguard or coach on duty. I know plenty of you are very experienced swimmers, but the time may come when you need assistance. If no one is there to offer it, you are out of luck.
- Keep your head up and stay awake. I know plenty of people that have broken their wrists and noses by swimming directly into the wall.
In the ocean:
- Swim with a partner.
- Swim parallel to the beach rather than out and back. If you go too far out, you have to worry about boats and jet skis. If you are far out and cramp, you are in trouble.
- Don't swim at dawn or dusk. I know this may be the only time you can get a good ocean swim in, but it's also the time that 'big fish,' as we called them in my lifeguarding days, are the most active.
- If you have trouble with jellyfish, coat yourself in petroleum jelly (Vaseline) before you start the swim. The jelly will stop many of the stingers from penetrating your skin.
- Practice your dolphin diving and body surfing. The best way to do this is to start small and work your way up. If the conditions are too rough for you, don't take the chance. Go home. Even some of the most experienced ocean swimmers and surfers have called it a day on the sand.
- Whatever you do, don't panic. If you find yourself in a tough situation, be it in the wash of a big wave, or the pull of a strong rip, stay calm and use your head. If you are caught in a wash, hold your breath and ride it out. If you get caught in a rip, swim parallel to the shore.
To sum it up
The secret to safe training is preparation. Don't be surprised when things go wrong. Stay alert. Be aware of your environment, and be prepared to respond to it. Training for and racing in triathlons is a lot of fun, but there is also an element of danger involved. The more prepared you are, the safer you are. And the safer you are, the happier everyone else is.
And happy people are much nicer to be around, don't you think?
Marty Gaal - February 2001