You have probably seen this all-too-familiar scenario play out during a race or even experienced it yourself: A rider crashes or rides off the track, and the following rider—seemingly mesmerized by the drama unfolding in front—follows the errant rider right off the track. The phenomenon is commonly referred to as target fixation and can be a huge problem for riders on the street just as much as on the racetrack. Target fixation is a panic reflex. When confronted with a dangerous situation or something unusual suddenly appearing in our field of vision, our natural instinct is to look directly at the object posing the threat and exclude everything else. Unable to look away and even consider an escape route, we tend to go where our eyes take us, often directly into the object.
It could be a rider crashing in front of you, a patch of gravel on the road, or a car braking suddenly as you follow directly behind; you can guess how each scenario plays out when target fixation grabs hold. Of course, the objective in the first place should be to not get in a situation where target fixation even becomes an issue, but there are obviously situations out of your control that can’t be avoided. What then?
Avoiding target fixation is a matter of controlling your vision before and as you deal with a crisis and managing the panic that arises. Your vision and where you are looking is a critical part in avoiding panic altogether as well as dealing with it when it does occur. As always, keep your eyes up when riding with your vision far down the road or track. On the track, especially, you should have a steady stream of reference points to determine your exact position, while on the street your gaze should be constantly searching for potential hazards. Coping with panic is a matter of having a plan for whatever situation arises and executing that plan in a calm manner.
To use the earlier examples: If a rider were to crash in front of you at the track, the sliding bike and rider typically take a straight-line trajectory off the track, and your plan would be to keep a tight line and continue inside; on a twisty road, you should always have some reserve so that if you do happen across a patch of gravel suddenly, you can straighten up and ride straight through the debris; and when following cars closely on the street, your plan may be to stay to the very edge of the lane to go around the car if needed. Part of executing your plan effectively is to look, and focus on, where you need to go rather than at the hazard that may be directly in front of you.
Yelling inside your helmet, “Don’t look at the car!” by the very nature of the statement puts emphasis on the car rather than going around it, but—as we explained a few issues back when dealing with bad habits—it’s helpful to take a positive view of the situation rather than a negative. That means focusing on and looking for the path around the car (or around the bike on the track or through the gravel on the road) rather than the hazard itself. And maybe yelling, “Go around!” or, “Look for the apex!” inside your helmet instead.
Your vision continues to play a key role here because while you do have to tear your eyes away from the danger to look where you want to go, you still need to know as much as you can about the hazard itself. Cars and crashing bikes move, and as the situation unfolds your plan may have to adapt accordingly. Here, you’ll have to use your peripheral vision to take in the bulk of your surroundings and absorb as much information as you can—without looking directly at the danger zone. Becoming more adept at vision techniques and constantly planning those escape routes as you ride will go a long way to preventing target fixation from even occurring, as that will help you avoid many hazardous situations in the first place, and it will help you deal with the panic and target fixation that do occur when you find yourself in a tricky situation.