When you ride bikes, crashing is inevitable. It is common for the athletes I coach to want to crash less (or not at all) but if you ride bikes and, especially if you race, I propose a different goal: Our goal should be to reduce the worst-case scenario or downside. You want to become more skilled at falling and do your best to make sure your body is healthy and ready to absorb the impact when it does happen.
Here are seven ways to minimize the downside of crashing:
EMBRACE FALLING AS A MINDSET
Rather than fighting and resisting the potential of a crash, you can make certain decisions such as wearing safety pads to minimize the downside. You can get elbow pads, knee pads or even shorts with built-in pads. Gloves are another item many riders, especially road cyclists, don’t often wear but which can really help reduce the damage to your hands in a crash, even if it is just falling over at a traffic light.
For any cyclist worried about crashing, I recommend taking a downhill mountain bike lesson. This might sound scary, but with a downhill bike lesson, you’ll be wearing full-body armor and a full-face helmet. A good coach helps you walk away with more confidence and tolerance for speed after only a few sessions — and those lessons can be applied to all other cycling disciplines.
RIDE YOUR OWN RACE
If you are racing — officially or with buddies on a group ride — practice and get used to riding on your limit, physically and mentally. Most crashes happen because someone is at their physical limit, which makes technical elements and mental processes much harder. You need to ride in your goal terrain while tired, and gradually get used to executing your race when you are tired. Visualizing the race course and different situations, as well as knowing the course, can go a long way toward improving your ability to react in the moment. Working with a sports psychologist or a cycling coach to overcome any fears you have can also be effective.
You can certainly get better at falling. Generally, those athletes who did gymnastics, martial arts or played team sports are familiar with tumbling and falling on the ground. As adults, we play on the ground and fall less in general. You could spend your offseason or a few sessions’ worth of private instruction on martial arts, pickup field sports or simply playing sports with your family. Some cycling coaches will also help you understand crashing using grassy fields, flat pedals and specific areas like foam-pits.
WORK ON MOBILITY AND RANGE OF MOTION
This is related to practicing falling, but it deserves its own section because cyclists tend to be very good at pedaling but not so good at letting their joints move through the full range of motion. Many cyclists end up with torn rotator cuffs because when they crash and their arms come out to brace their falls, and they’re jerking their bodies into positions that are completely foreign. If you have trouble getting your arms overhead or know you have tight hips or tight hamstrings, it’s likely working on mobility by including yoga or full-body strength training will be beneficial. Doing mobility work helps ensure that when you find yourself tumbling off your bike, it won’t be into positions your body hasn’t been in since you were a kid.
WORK ON SLOW-SPEED SKILLS
Practicing those technical skills that happen at slow speeds sounds minor, but it can make a big difference in your riding. Things like getting a foot out (called an ‘outrigger’ or a ‘tri-pod’) to counter-balance when riding or putting a foot down (‘dabbing’) are skills elite riders do often and well. It may not even be apparent, but the best riders will put a foot down, sometimes multiple times during a ride or race, but they do it so smoothly it seems flawless. They may not even stop moving — what would be a dead-stop or a complete fall to the side might be just a small pause for a skilled rider. Master your slow-speed skills, like the track-stand, and use flat pedals several times a week to get comfortable riding in control and putting a foot down to maintain that control when you need some help. More often than not, keeping your hands on the handlebars and using your feet is the skill that would prevent many injuries for beginner and intermediate riders.
In collision sports like football, athletes strength train and fuel to build lots of muscle to arm themselves against the repeated collisions they endure. Cyclists tend to have lower bone and muscle mass, which makes us prone to injuries, like broken bones, when we fall. Beyond bone and muscle mass, it is possible that if you are a very good endurance cyclist, adding more strength training and/or high-intensity intervals and hill climbing to your routine could greatly enhance your fitness and perhaps help reduce the downside of your future crashes simply by being stronger, more athletic and, perhaps, more armored.