Whether you’re a road cyclist, mountain biker, or triathlete, if you spend time on two wheels you will inevitably crash. Experience helps make bicycle crashes less frequent, but even the most experienced riders sometimes fall. I was reminded of this recently when longtime CTS Coach and “Time-Crunched Cyclist” co-author, Jim Rutberg, crashed onto his face, narrowly avoiding serious injuries.
The big lesson we can all learn from Jim’s bicycle crash is that while many of use sport as a way to relieve stress and maybe give our minds a break, we always have to stay engaged on the bike. He was riding third position in a line of riders, at 17mph on a flat, straight bike path. Something he’s done thousands of times. In a shady spot on the path he hit a rock and went over the handlebars. It’s a scenario many athletes can relate to: being tired or preoccupied and making mistakes you don’t typically make.
For crashing on his face, Jim was very lucky. He followed the steps below and came out of it with some stitches and broken toe, and thankfully, no concussion symptoms. When you find yourself on the ground, here are a few practical tips to remember:
Check yourself and your helmet
Did you hit your head? If you’re not sure, check your helmet for damage. Can you remember your name and the date? If you’re with someone who crashes, these are important questions to ask. If you’re alone and you did hit your head, your mental state may not be apparent to you. You may think you’re fine when you’re not. (Remember Toms Skujins’ crash from the Tour of California?) If you fall and have damage to your helmet, the safest thing to do is call for someone to pick you up. Replace your helmet before going on another ride, and consider a MIPS-equipped helmet (CTS Coaches use the Aether Spherical model from Giro)
See if you can stand up
I know this is not the case 100% of the time, but in my experience when a person can’t stand up there’s a good chance they’re truly injured and not just merely scraped up. Obviously, some people who are significantly injured manage to stand up, but then the next limiting factor is the ability to support yourself on the bars. With a broken hip, you’re not going to be able to stand up. With a broken collarbone you might get up (painfully), but you’ll have a harder time supporting yourself on the bars.
Get out of the road or to the edge of the trail
This is especially true if you’re riding alone. In the most recent case with one of my coaches, he could get up and had other riders with him. When Coach Jim Lehman crashed a few years ago he couldn’t stand up because he broke his hip, but he pulled himself to the edge of the road to minimize the chances of being hit by a car. Cars don’t notice cyclists when we’re upright; so don’t expect them to see you when you’re on the ground.
Take your time
Fans of bicycle racing are accustomed to seeing riders crash and then get back on the bike quickly. That’s a different situation and not a behavior you should emulate. You want to be deliberate about checking yourself out, assessing whether you can continue riding or need to call for help, and examining your gear. But don’t rush. You may also feel nauseated or lightheaded after a few minutes as ‘fight or flight’ response starts to dissipate. It is better to wait for the nausea and dizziness to pass before continuing. If it doesn’t pass, it’s another potential sign of concussion.
Call for help
Whether you need to call your spouse, a buddy, or an ambulance; it’s important to have a cell phone with you. If you know you’re going to be in an area without cell coverage tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return. Also consider using technologies like Strava’s Beacon or a crash sensor, which will contact your emergency contacts even if you are unconscious. A Road ID or similar band with emergency contact information on it is a good idea, as is programming an ICE (in case of emergency) phone number in your cell phone. On long ride days give someone a time range so they know when to expect you. If you don’t check in by a certain time then there’s likely something wrong.
Stay calm, even when a helpful stranger isn’t
I’ve stopped and helped strangers, and I appreciate anyone who stops what they’re doing to help me or someone else. But bicycle crashes often look worse than they are, and when people aren’t used to seeing someone scraped up and bleeding, they sometimes over-react. If you’re the person who crashed, you may end up needing to help your rescuer calm down. And if you’re coming to the aid of someone who crashed, stay calm and do your best to keep them calm.
Road rash may be a good sign
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but in my experience road rash is a sign that sliding over the pavement dispersed the energy of the crash. I’ve generally seen worse injuries from crashes that leave little to no road rash. In Jim Lehman’s case, there was virtually no road rash and only a small tear in his shorts. Instead of sliding, he fell straight down and his hip absorbed the majority of the impact. Low-speed slips and tip-overs break bones. High-speed slides shred clothing and remove skin but often spare bones. Of course this isn’t always true.
Take care of your wounds and take time your time coming back
If you have any concerns about your wounds, seek medical attention sooner rather than later. If you’re having headaches or any symptoms of concussion, see a doctor.
I suffered a concussion in a crash a few years ago and it was an eye-opening experience. Though I recovered completely within a matter of weeks, one piece of information I was missing during my treatment was a pre-concussion baseline test, like the imPACT test. While we often focus on pre-concussion testing in youth team sports, they are very important for older athletes, especially considering that for many cyclists your next concussion probably won’t be your first.
Infection is a real risk, so take care of road rash with soap and water, use bandages, and change your bandages regularly. When it comes to training, remember that healing takes energy and people tend to have lower quality of sleep while injured. Pros sometimes have to race or train through pain. However, for the majority of athletes it’s better to prioritize healing over training.
For some pro advice on recovering from a bicycle crash, check out this article from Olympian Mara Abbott.
And when you’re back on the bike, here is advice for regaining your confidence after a cycling crash.
And here’s an article on how to avoid crashes when riding in a group.
Stay safe out there!
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer