By Chris Carmichael
Founder/Head Coach of CTS
If you ride a bicycle long enough, you eventually end up on the ground. Sometimes it’s from your own mistake, and sometimes it’s the result of mistakes riders make near you. Other times – hopefully more rarely – it can be from a collision with a vehicle. Whether you’re able to get back on the bike the next day or it takes longer to recover and get back on the bike, regaining your confidence on the road or trail sometimes depends on how you fell off of it.
Note: All of the advice below assumes you are physically and cognitively healthy enough to return to outdoor cycling. While I believe it is good to get back on the bike soon, I also encourage athletes to follow doctors’ orders and be conservative when coming back from injuries.
Have a Plan
The culture of cycling glorifies jumping right back into the race after a fall. We routinely see pros crash hard and then jump back on their bikes and soldier on, despite shredded shorts and blood running down their leg. With amateurs I often see riders get back on the bike the day or a few days after a crash, and try to put it behind them, only to realize later than they’ve developed a fear of repeating that crash. Without having a plan to address the anxieties that stem from a fall, you just tend to become a more fearful cyclist. A crash can take your confidence down a notch, but by proactively addressing skills, habits, and anxieties, you can get back to descending, cornering, group riding, or riding in traffic with the confidence you had before – or perhaps with even more.
Crash Cause: Lack of Traction
This is probably the most common type of fall. You go into a corner and your wheel slides out from under you. Sometimes it happens in perfectly dry weather, other times you slide out in the rain, riding over wet metal or crosswalks, or through gravel or leaves.
Regain cornering confidence
You have successfully negotiated thousands upon thousands of corners, in all conditions. But if a crash from sliding out leaves you timid in turns, try these steps:
- Examine your setup: Did you have too much or too little air in your tires? Are your brakes set up properly or need to be adjusted?
- Consider your position: Have you recently changed your cycling position and inadvertently changed your weight distribution between the wheels? If changes to equipment or position changed the bike’s handling characteristics, you may need some focused practice to adjust your riding style (or you could adjust the position).
- Go do skills practice: An empty parking lot or quiet neighborhood can work well. Like mountain bikers sessioning a technically challenging bit of trail, practice cornering. Start slowly, focus on technique, and be deliberate. Add speed as you get more confident.
- Talk yourself through the steps of cornering when you’re out on the road or trail. Be deliberate about braking before the turn, weighting your outside foot, leaning the bike into the turn by applying pressure to the inside hand, and looking through the corner to the exit. When the corner is wet or has gravel or leaves, relax, slow down, keep the bike more upright, and look to where you want to go rather than at the debris.
Crash Cause: Someone else’s mistake
You don’t have to be in a big, fast-moving peloton to be taken down by another rider’s mistake. Sometimes it’s your buddy who hits a pothole and goes down in front of you. These crashes can make riders anxious to return to group settings, and there are many riders who choose to train alone because crashes with other riders have eroded their confidence for riding in a group. Or, in some cases, they’ve lost confidence that the other riders in the group have the skills to keep the ride safe.
Regain group ride confidence
This is sometimes a bigger fear or anxiety to overcome than the fear of crashing due to your own mistake. When you crash because of something you did, you can minimize the risk of falling again through practice or addressing your own skills or riding style. When someone else takes you out, you feel powerless to prevent it from happening again. But if a group ride crash makes you hesitant to ride in a pack, try these steps:
- Go smaller: Go for a ride with a smaller group, even just a few friends. Get comfortable riding in close proximity, knowing there are easy “escape routes” to the sides or by backing off the wheel without causing a ripple effect in a pack.
- Get physical: Go back to basics and practice bumping elbows and shoulders, leaning on a rider next to you, recovering from an overlapped wheel, etc. Do all of these things on grass and at low speed.
- Ride with the chill group: If you normally ride with the aggressive group ride, or you crashed in a race, go to a more social-pace, no drop group. The speed will be lower, people won’t be fighting for wheels or diving underneath in turns. It’s a low-key ride to get comfortable in the middle of a larger pack.
- Get back into the fray: When it’s time to get back into the faster group ride or races, sometimes it’s helpful to go with friends and fellow riders who you have confidence in. Ride with them, stay near them in the pack, and let their untarnished confidence rub off on you.
Crash Cause: Vehicle collision
Getting back on the road after being hit by or running into a car can be a tough experience. You become hyper vigilant, tensing every time you hear an engine behind you or see a car peak out into an intersection. For many people, that tension gradually fades as they ride more miles, but the vigilance often remains.
Regain confidence on the road
If a collision with a vehicle is making you anxious to ride on the road, consider these steps:
- Front and rear flashing lights: You may say distracted driving is the problem and not whether or not you have lights on your bike. You have a point, but I still think new blinky lights are small, light, unobtrusive, and noticeable.
- Ride where there are wider shoulders and bike lanes: Again, you shouldn’t have to change where you ride because of bad drivers, but we’re talking about regaining confidence. Being able to ride where you feel less hemmed in to the white line on the edge of the road can give you the breathing room to feel comfortable with traffic again.
- Ride with a group: Yes, cars collide with groups sometimes, too, but far more often, a driver has to take a more proactive approach to passing a group. A group takes up enough room on the road that it’s noticeable. If you’re nervous, ride on the shoulder side of the group (as opposed to the lane side) so passing cars aren’t right next to you.
Some people stop feeling comfortable on the road altogether, and switch to gravel or mountain biking to minimize or avoid interaction with cars. In my mind, if they’ve found a way to feel comfortable and enjoy time on two wheels, that’s a good decision for them. Perhaps in the future, improvements in infrastructure or advances in driverless car technology will help them feel safe on the roads again.
The biggest takeaway is that it is natural and okay for a crash to shake your confidence. It’s not a sign of weakness or a character flaw to feel anxious about returning to the road or trail shortly after you’ve fallen. Those “fearless” pros have to overcome anxieties about fast descents or narrow roads or riding in a pack in a heavy crosswind following a hairy crash. The key is to be proactive and take steps that rebuild your trust in your skills, judgment, and equipment.