OH NO! I Crashed my Bike...Now What?

When the arrival of spring means you haven’t ridden your bike outside for several months, which is probably the case for a good portion of the Midwest cycling community, it’s likely that it will take you a few rides to get your handling skills back in order. Little things that you’ve ceased thinking about as you toiled away on the indoor trainer endeavoring to raise your FTP by a few watts need to be relearned. Sure you still remember how to ride a bike, but little things like how grippy your brakes are, how much to lean your bike in a turn or how to hold a straight line in the aerobars may all be a little rusty.

As simple as they seem, these small elements are challenging enough when on your own. Add in group dynamics and you face an entirely different set of concerns. Not to mention that winter has ravaged the roads in most places, creating new seams, potholes, debris of various kinds and other potential hazards.

At Vision Quest, we’ll make use of our first few organized outdoor rides to help our athletes re-acclimate to safe and effective outdoor riding, and we encourage you to keep the first rides with your group low-pressure for the same reason. We all know that awareness and communication go a long way to creating a safe riding experience for all involved.

Unfortunately, crashing is a part of cycling and always will be to some degree. This article is not about how to avoid crashing in the first place, but how to handle the aftermath if or when it catches up to you. Let’s first consider the consequences for the individual who crashes. The circumstances that lead to a crash will have a large impact on the extent of damages. Higher speeds don’t necessarily result in greater injury because the force can be partially dissipated by the fall. Road rash is hard to avoid, and apart from keeping it clean to avoid infection and dealing with some discomfort, time is the best healer. Broken bones are more often associated with “slow motion” falls in which you have time to extend an arm or wrist, transmitting energy to a weak point in the body. If you know or suspect you have broken something, you should get yourself to proper medical care as soon as possible. It’s routine in such cases to check for head trauma as well since any fall with enough force to break a bone likely resulted in a blow to the head as well.

Following a physician’s advice is your first priority. The time-course of repair for bone is relatively constant, which is why you will almost always be told six to eight weeks for healing to take place. Recovery time for damage to tendons and ligaments is harder to predict. These areas don’t receive much blood flow and, as a result, recover much more slowly than bone. They may also require additional physical therapy to strengthen supporting musculature or eliminate compensatory issues.

Depending on your injury, you may be able to cautiously return to some training (treadmill, indoor trainer, etc.) before this recovery period has ended, but keep in mind too that your body is undergoing constant stress trying to repair the damage, and too much additional stress from exercise may slow healing. Getting plenty of sleep and eating well, both for overall health and to avoid weight gain, will help you to recover well and be in a good place when you’re ready to resume full training.

In terms of equipment, it’s common to see cosmetic damage to exposed surfaces such as shifters, bar tap, saddles and potentially pedals and derailleurs. Frame and wheel damage are less common, but both should be checked thoroughly. Shoes and helmets also take the brunt of a fall. Clothing can sometimes be affected, but you might also get through without a single tear. Replacing any damaged parts that are no longer safe or functional is necessary. This is especially important in the case of frame, wheels or helmet, where future failure could result in greater injury to yourself or others. Replacing a helmet after any fall is a very smart idea, even if you don’t see any apparent damage.

Once all the repairs have taken place, both to the body and equipment, it’s time to resume normal training. Some athletes will be chomping at the bit, anxious to make up for lost time. How quickly this happens will depend on the duration of your time off and your activity level during that time. Minor crashes may not require any time off or maybe just a few days. You should be able to start training again right where you left off. Longer interruptions may result in a slight loss of fitness, but if you follow the advice above to eat and sleep well, you should return to training in a rested state, ready to take on new challenges. This doesn’t mean you should jump right into a 20-hour training week, give yourself at least 2-4 weeks to return to full training load.

Regardless of the extent of damage or injuries, any crash has the potential to result in some fearfulness on the part of the rider who crashes. Ability to complete professional obligations, engage in family life or pay for expensive repairs are all legitimate concerns. Often this is the case even more so for older athletes who face longer and more challenging recovery from injuries. Only the individual rider can make the decision on whether the potential risk is worth it for them and then engage at the level where they feel that risk is mitigated. As noted above, crashes are a part of cycling, but hopefully, with proper precautions, they should not be a common part of it.

Getting back on the figurative horse as soon as is reasonable can help prevent such fears from building to an insurmountable level. As we wrap up, let’s consider the effect of a crash on the group, including those who were not directly affected with any kind of injury or equipment damage. It’s human nature to try to make sense of certain events, which leads to rehashing the circumstances leading up to a crash. Particularly in more severe instances, this can happen multiple times over several days following the incident. Personally, I’m not convinced this is a wholly worthwhile endeavor.

Certainly, in cases where there was an obvious breach of safety, something needs to be done to prevent its recurrence. However, the majority of crashes are “accidents” in the truest sense, where there was no deliberate, or even absolutely avoidable, action that led to the crash. It’s important to remember that only a few sets of eyes really had the opportunity to witness exactly what happened. In a traumatic situation, clarity is not always at its peak, which can blur the accuracy of these recollections. Like the child’s game of telephone, each retelling of the story tends to add or omit some detail, until at the end the story that everyone agrees on is an amalgamation of what a few saw and remembered and what others who didn’t see must accept as accurate. Crashes lead to nervousness on the part of individual riders as well as the group. If you’ve ever observed a group of animals, particularly those more likely to be viewed as prey, you’ve likely seen how one individual becoming tense or alert changes the attitude of the entire group. The same thing happens in a group of cyclists. If one rider is tense, the group will subconsciously detect that and become tense as well, which isn’t good for anyone. Take appropriate precautions, but do your best to stay relaxed. Rather than worrying about avoiding a crash, focus on the positive aspects of watching ahead, anticipating and communicating changes and maintaining appropriate spacing both vertically and horizontally within the group.

If everyone is practicing these fundamental elements, regardless of the speed, the group will function as the dynamic entity it should, allowing riders of mixed abilities to train together and enjoy the experience.