Personal Risk Assessment

Do you perform a personal risk assessment before engaging in your favorite sporting activity?

I watch the video above on a regular basis. Partly because I like the setting and story, and partly because my work involves helping healthcare teams identify and manage risk. I think there are a lot of parallels between managing risk in the outdoors and managing risk in a hospital during emergencies. When I watch the video, I also reflect on how I manage my own risk when cycling.

For me, risk on a bike boils down to three things. I can get hurt by the actions of others. I can get hurt because of my own actions (or inactions). I can get hurt by unforeseeable things such as a tree branch falling on me or sinkhole opening in the roadway. I can only control a couple of these potential failure points and I do so by performing a risk assessment before each ride and making good choices during the ride that are consistent with my risk management plan. Here are my assessment points:

  1. Me: I’m the only person I have complete control over out on the road. So I have to be “ready” for the ride. Ready means rested, healthy and in the right state of mind. A fair amount of risk management (making good decisions in critical situations) relies on having a clear head that allows focus and critical decision-making. You cannot do this if you’re exhausted, sick or distracted by other life issues. If you are sick and on a load of cold medicines, for example, you should consider yourself impaired and ask how that will impact your riding and decision-making. I make it a rule to never ride sick because sickness itself is a distraction. As a general rule, if I roll out of bed saying, “I really don’t feel like riding today,” I don’t rush out to ride. I allow myself to wake up and if the mood changes, then I ride. The “Me” category also includes nutrition and hydration; therefore, I assess what I expect to need during the ride and pack accordingly. For a longer ride, I’ll try to anticipate where along the route I can find real food.
  2. The Environment: I assess the weather conditions the day before and morning of a routine ride. I start assessing further out for a major ride that involves a long drive to the start. I look at conditions such as temperature, predicted rainfall, potential for lightning, icing conditions, sunrise & sunset. My first decision point is, “Do I want to ride in this weather?” followed by “What clothing will I need to complete the ride?”  Some of this is about personal comfort. I’m not likely to start a ride in a downpour because I don’t like starting a ride feeling miserable. Ice on the road is almost always a “no go” because of the skidding hazard it adds for automobiles. Remember, I can control my bike, but not the car sliding toward me! Snow on the road, at least in New York, means the shoulders of the road will be missing after the roads are plowed, which means riding in the main traffic lane. If it’s a low traffic weekend, I might still ride but probably not on a commuter weekday. The sunrise/sunset times inform my decision whether to bring lights, reflective vest and ankle straps.
  3. Equipment: I keep my bikes in proper working order, much like the alpinists in the video maintain their ropes and racks of gear. The bikes get a once over each week to make sure the brakes are working, chain lubed, tires at correct pressure, etc. If I’m commuting to work, I lay out all my gear the night before and load what I can onto the bike, double checking tire pressures and making sure any electronics are charged. In all the years I’ve commuted by bike, I’ve had maybe 3 flats and one mechanical (a crank arm snapping off), which is pretty good. Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you. In addition to making sure the equipment works, I  assess whether it’s the appropriate equipment for the task. If it’s raining or snowing, I’m likely to be on the bike with fenders. Equipment also includes my clothing; wearing the correct outfit for the conditions and anticipating what might be needed during the ride. Better to have it and not need it than to be miserable because you left something–like a wind vest–at home.
  4. The Route: Here’s the point I ask, “Where am I going?” I rarely roll without having some idea where I’m going, even if it’s for a one-hour ride around my own neighborhood. For club rides, rando rides or big mass events, I’ll make sure I have the route cue sheet and a GPS file loaded into my Garmin. I’ll inspect the route at home to get an understanding of the course and see if there is anything notable; for example, the route requires a ferry ride and the ferry only runs hourly. If I have a cue sheet and GPS route, I’ll compare the two to make sure they are consistent. I put all my route papers, registration forms, brevet card etc in the same place in my duffle bag so I know where to find them. I recently switched to Open Street Maps (OSM) on my Garmin, which means having to download map segments into the Garmin. This is a failure point for me because I sometimes forget that I don’t have the entire United States on the Garmin anymore. I leave information as to where I’ll be with my family before I leave, in case of emergency. Part of my Route assessment involves thinking about who I’ll be riding with.  Am I riding with a partner, and are we matched in terms of ability? Am I riding with 6,000 strangers trying to kill me?
  5. The Rest of the World: I am mindful that I cannot control other’s behavior. I cannot control the soccer mom texting while driving, or the guy running late for a meeting who is trying to save time by driving on the right shoulder. I try to be aware of and anticipate human behavior and adjust my behavior accordingly. If I’ve done my job with items #1-5, this happens naturally for me because I’m rested, prepared and attentive. Rock drummer Neal Peart has written a lot about traveling by motorcycle across the US and Europe. His mantra is “It mustn’t be my fault,” meaning a mishap caused by another person’s actions is bad enough, but one caused by your own failure is unacceptable.
  6. Contingencies: At this point in my assessment, I’m asking “What If” questions. For example, “What if I have to abandon a ride, how will I get back to the start?” “Where will I eat a big meal after the ride?” “Is there a hospital in the area in case I have to help myself or someone else?”

Although it looks like a complicated process written out long form, this assessment only takes a few minutes. The more you do it, the quicker you become. The more you do it, the more aware you become about potential failure points and how to mitigate them. What I strive for is seamlessness of thought, that this happens automatically and naturally. I want my mind open and free during the ride, knowing that I did a proper risk assessment before starting the ride. During the ride, I’ll maintain situational awareness about what is happening, constantly checking my assessment against my intuition in an attempt to make good choices for myself and those riding with me. The funny thing about a risk assessment is that you don’t know whether you made the correct choices until after the activity is over.

Allow me to illustrate the interaction between risk assessment and on-bike situational awareness and intuition. Two weeks ago, I attempted a RUSA Permanent Populaire, a sub-200k brevet course. This particular course was in the Hudson Valley, about 2 hours north of my home. I obtained and reviewed the route, noting that it crossed the Hudson twice on bridges, one of which is a dedicated pedestrian walkway that I’ve cycled across in the past. I completed my risk assessment and, on the day of the ride, I was feeling in tip-top shape.  In retrospect, there was one element of the assessment that I might not have assigned enough weight to: I was doing the course on a weekday, starting out at 08:30am.

I was riding strong and making good progress toward finishing ahead of schedule until I came to the first bridge. A tall, tall bridge with cars speeding across it because it was rush hour. The bike route utilized the right shoulder as the bike path. Within a few pedal strokes of passing the toll booth, my brain revolted against forward progress. The combination of high, arching roadway, speeding cars and low side railing triggered a panic attack and vertigo. I tried focusing on the ground in front of me, but my mind kept sending the message “You’re going to fall over the side!”

I dismounted and composed myself. I asked myself why I was feeling that way. I tried to remember that I’d pedaled over this river before without issue (on the pedestrian bridge). I tried to develop a strategy to not look up or down or sideways. But my intuition kept telling me not to continue, that continuing might mean a real problem in the middle of the span far from help.

So I retreated. And I abandoned the route and made my own 55 mile route back to the start. At the start, I rode across the pedestrian bridge, just to prove I could do it.

I was both disappointed and proud. Disappointed because I did not anticipate a problem that perhaps I should have (traffic on a high bridge may have removed a perceived safety margin). Disappointed that my primitive man brain prevented me from achieving a goal. Proud that I listened to my intuition, like the statement by the climbing guide in the video, and backed off thereby preventing a bigger problem from happening. At the end of the ride I knew two things: first, that I made good decisions because I prepared myself to make  good decisions; and second, that I have some work to do on bridge crossings.

Go back and watch the video again. Do you see the parallel between mountain craft and cycling, or mountain craft and other parts of your life?


About robertkerner

Educator, registered nurse, attorney, inquisitive mind
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