How to Crash Your Bike

This title is misleading in some ways. You already know how to crash your bike, or at the very least, you know that you will sometimes crash, even if, in the aftermath, it’s not all the way clear how it happened. What I’m on about today is actually how to navigate the moments AFTER you crash.

I’m going to weave in two examples from my personal experience, both over the bar (OTB) crashes in the woods. In the first one, I broke my collarbone. In the second (just this morning), I did some damage to my shoulder, but was able to keep riding. In both cases, I was able to communicate effectively with my riding companions and make good choices about next steps. The information I’m about to impart is based on decades of experience. It is very literally hard won, and while it’s important to acknowledge that every crash is different and has different outcomes, these basic things should help in most instances.

Don’t Panic – Seems obvious, but a crash can do funny things to you chemically, so that your control over your response isn’t as intellectual as you’d like it to be. When I’m helping a new rider learn to ride off road, the very first lesson is don’t panic. Don’t panic if things look scary. Don’t panic if you start to fall off. Nothing goes better in a panic. This is also true for crashes, even those that cause injuries.

When I broke my collarbone (going over a log and mistiming the lift of my front wheel), I heard the bone snap. I knew I was broken, and what I did was roll over in the dirt, look up at the trees swaying gently in the breeze and chuckle a little, not because I’m tough, but because I didn’t panic. Taking a moment to laugh, even as the pain set in, put me in a mindspace to deal with the decisions that needed to be made next.

Catch Your Breath – This may also seem obvious, but if you have failed to avoid panic, catching your breath can override whatever nascent chemical spikes are flooding your system. Slower breathing. Slower heart rate. Calmer mind. Even when I’m in pain, focusing on my breath helps me get my mind clear. Just this morning I crashed, the second OTB I mentioned above. I fell off a six-inch skinny at its apex, front wheel dropping three feet straight to ground with my head, ass, then feet all following in short order. I heard a small pop and a crackle in my shoulder as I flailed forward with my left arm. Like the collarbone break, my first thought was, “Ooops. Broken.”

I rolled over on my back and worked on catching my breath. The pain in my shoulder made that challenging. My whole body was tense, in protection mode, and though my arm had gone numb, I did manage to breathe and then to slow that breath, until I was calm and able to speak to my friends, who were, by that time, standing over me wondering if their ride was over.

Communicate – Understand that any time you crash, the people riding with you are suddenly plunged into uncertainty. They’re worried about you. What will they need to do to take care of you? But also, is their fun over? We all have these empathetic/selfish impulses mixed together.

The sooner you can give your people some information about what’s really going on, the better. This morning, as I lay in the dirt and leaves, my friend Koop said, “Is it a thing?” by which I understood, “Are you injured or just in pain?”

I replied, “It might be a thing. I heard sounds come out of my left shoulder, but I’m going to get up off the ground in a second and see where we’re at.”

This is not a detailed diagnosis, but I was able to get across a few important things. First, that I was calm. Second, that I might be injured. Third, that I was already thinking about what might come next for him and our other companion, Lee.

When you can share what you’re feeling, your fellow riders are able to manage their own thoughts and emotions, and that makes the group decision making progress better.

Evaluate – Few of us are medical professionals, and so I have to acknowledge that post-crash evaluations are subjective and sometimes we won’t make the best choices for ourselves, but the first question to answer, in my mind, is who is priority?

Real injuries need to be dealt with. The examples I’m working with here are not catastrophic. I’m assuming that in a situation where you’ve been incapacitated, your friends, or the strangers who find you, are doing a higher level of triage than anything I’m talking about today.

When I ask the question, who is priority? what I’m asking is, is your situation serious enough that it’s ending everyone’s ride, or just your ride? Maybe neither.

This morning, once I was up off the ground, my left arm felt weak. I wasn’t in ongoing pain, but my body was sending some messages that all might not be right. I tested my range of motion. I test my ability to put weight on that arm. Then and only then did I attempt to remount the bike. All the time, I was communicating to my friends what I was doing, feeling, and trying to do next.

Listen to Input – Koop pointed out to me that, post-crash, we are flooded with adrenaline that can mask pain. He once broke his elbow in three places, got up off the asphalt, and rode the rest of the way to work. I did something like that the first time I got hit by a car. It’s a good idea to listen to what your friends are seeing and saying. It can save you from yourself.

When I broke my collarbone, I evaluated my situation and got back on the bike, only to discover I couldn’t bear any weight on that side of my body. I rode home (not that far) one-handed, took a quick, painful shower and went straight to the doctor.

Back on my bike this morning, I found my arm firming up as I soft-pedaled up the trail. At the next junction, Koop suggested we all just head out, but by that point I knew I didn’t need to be top priority. I said that Koop and Lee should ride the next section without me, that I’d meet them at their next intersection, bypassing the technical terrain in favor of a fire road, on which I could further assess my condition. We all agreed to this plan. That’s important.

Don’t Be a Quitter – When you’ve fallen off and experienced some pain, it’s tempting to believe that you are done. There’s an intensity to the crash and the aftermath, but in my experience, pain isn’t always disqualifying. This morning I was able to dial back my effort a little and continue riding with my friends (we hooked up at the next intersection as agreed). Discretion is the better part of valor, as they say, but you don’t have to give the crash more importance than it deserves either. Recognize that one of the side effects of a crash may be frustration. Frustration isn’t an actual injury.

Don’t Be a Hero – The flipside of not being a quitter is not being a hero. If you’re not fit to ride, don’t. Part of the social contract of riding with people is that you’ll take care of each other. You don’t have suffer through pain and do yourself further damage to save someone else’s ride. See above, re: communication and listening.

I have been lucky. I’ve never taken an ambulance away from a ride. As I said, for serious injuries that demand emergency attention, the protocol above is only partially useful. For everything else, from minor cuts to some broken bones or soft-tissue tears, this approach has worked for me.

I ought not to have crashed this morning. It was unnecessary, but every time I injure myself, I’m reminded that it’s implicit in the activity (or at least the way I like to practice it). Regret doesn’t enter into it. Like a big rock roll, a drop, or a jump, it’s the sort of thing you get better at with practice.

Join the conversation
  1. dr sweets says

    Spot on advice Robot. I add in at least a few choice expletives. Additionally, I will add in another point to consider because of course I will. The long, low, slackening of every bike does more than just make rad getting more fun and create bro-heims. It is also much safer and will minimize unplanned OTB’s. Gary Fisher made this claim years ago with his “Genesis” geo. He was on the right track, but we’re way beyond his modest changes now. For example, my current rigs have head angles b/t 63.5 and 64.5 degrees. I haven’t ran a stem longer than 40mm in years. This is firmly in DH bike territory, yet they are basically trail bikes; a full suspension and a hardtail respectively. I’ve listened to naysayers forever with all the clichés: “Is that a DH bike?” “I don’t ride anything that having something that slack would be necessary.” “Can you climb with that?” Et cetera and so forth. So I say to anyone looking getting a new bike to look with an open mind considering not only what/where/how you currently ride, but what/where/how you’d like to ride. Finally some noisy gnar to ponder:

  2. khal spencer says

    Hope your shoulder is OK. The pop worries me.

    I was doing a running start on a cross bike I used as a daily commuter back in 2016 and hit a patch of slick stuff from the guys doing flagstone work on our house, did a half cartwheel, and landed hard on my shoulder and heard a pop. Hurt like hell, but everything still worked, so I got up and rode to work. Spent the day with my right arm in pain and hard to lift, but it slowly got better so I figured I probably didn’t do anything that bad.

    A few months later at my work physical, the physician’s assistant said I had lost body mass on my right side and asked me if I knew why. I had no idea except for that fall. I still had range of motion and strength but increasingly, I was getting sharp radiating pains from that arm. My personal physician looked at it and said I should see a sports medicine doctor to find out what happened. So with the obligatory MRI, they found I had torn my rotator cuff and partially tore my biceps tendon during that fall when it hurt like hell all day. The radiating pain was from when my now poorly attached arm was pinching nerves.

    The surgery, done by a group up in Taos that does sports medicine for our Olympic folks, went well and everything works now, but I never knew the extent of the damage until they did the medical evaluation. Your body doesn’t want to let you down, and tries really hard even when you f*** it up.

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      @khal – The pop worries me too.

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