Of all of the “advice” based posts I’ve written about cycling, and there have been hundreds, I don’t think I’ve ever touched on the most dangerous two seconds of cycling, next to riding alongside a row of cars parked on a city street: Train tracks.
I’ve rubbed wheels, had a wheel taco’ed at a rest stop, gone into ditches (and ridden out the other side), ridden through ditches for a laugh, had to use a hip or shoulder to keep people from leaning into me in a group – even used my noggin once… All with the rubber facing down. I’ve used clip-in pedals since my fourth week of cycling. I have only fallen off of a road bike one time (we’re excluding mountain biking because I have a tendency to go faster than my abilities warrant). Once. On a railroad track.
What the budding noob cyclist needs to know about tracks.
Railroad tracks that cross a road in a perpendicular fashion are not a problem – you simply zip across with a smile on your face, picking a decent line that has the fewest bumps. Where we get into trouble is the tracks that cross at an odd angle to the road.
Tracks must be crossed as close to a 90 degree angle as possible, so if the track is intersecting the road at a 45, you have to go from one lane to the other as you cross the tracks. The tracks I fell on come into the road at so steep an angle, we have to swing out four lanes of traffic, our two and the oncoming two lanes of traffic, to have enough road to cross the tracks safely – and we’re still not at a true 90 to the tracks (more like 70).
There are two problems with tracks. First, with a tire only 23 mm wide, it’s very easy to catch the edge of the rail and get a wheel stuck between the road and track (or the wood and track as the case sometimes is). This is the simplest of the two problems to get around.
The next occurs when the tracks are damp or wet. Rolling across them at a 90 degree angle shouldn’t be a problem, as long as you don’t do anything crazy, like trying to change direction while you’re going across. See, here’s the problem in a nutshell. The rails and the wood (as the case may be) become… how shall we say… Slicker than snot on a doorknob when wet. It doesn’t matter if it’s from frost, rain or dew, if the tracks are wet, they’re slick. One little deviation leaning the bike or turning the wheel and you could be getting a lot more familiar with the nooks and crannies of the asphalt than you’d like – and it’ll happen instantly. You’ll be riding, and bam. You’re down, that fast.
On the tracks that I mentioned above when I went down, they’re four wide (maybe five). It was wet out, or damp would be a better description, and chilly (not near freezing, just cold so the moisture stuck around). Several of us crossed over at the same time, two-abreast. My wife slid first and went down. Her wheel slid out and pushed my rear wheel out and I was down. It was bam, bam. That fast. Friends of ours, on a tandem, went down next and I think one more in the group. It was comical, but only because none of us got hurt, how fast everyone went down.
Between the five who went down, there were at least 300,000 cycled miles between us, likely more than that. The guy captaining the tandem actually owned a bike shop years earlier. In other words, there were no Frankie (or Frannie) First-years on the road that day and we still took a tumble.
My friends, as the cycling season gets going, please watch the train tracks.