When you strap on your helmet and hop on your bike, you always hope for an enjoyable, uneventful ride. But potholes are plentiful, hairpin turns sneak up on you and careless drivers (and cyclists) exist. Which means the possibility of crashing is ever present.
If you’ve been involved in a serious accident or have even just seen one watching the Tour de France, you know it can take weeks, months or even longer to recover physically. Less talked about is the mental recovery process that must also occur before you’re ready to get back on the saddle. Because, while your collar bone or stitches might be completely healed, fear and uncertainty can remain. And that’s perfectly natural.
“Your body has primal mechanisms that react to trauma and fear,” says Michael Ceely, a sports performance specialist and the owner of Ceely Sports in the San Francisco Bay area. “Being involved in a crash has obvious physical scars, but it’s important to address the mental scars, too.”
To learn more, we spoke with Ceely about handling a crash, assessing and responding to its severity and working to get back on your bike.
ASSESS YOUR SITUATION
First up, make sure you are OK physically. Ceely notes that your body has a lot of adrenaline coursing through it after a crash, and you could be in shock. So don’t rush the process, even if you’re in a race. The last thing you want is to make things worse.
“If you’re riding with a friend or a team, it’s smart to have a protocol,” he says. “Check for broken bones and deep cuts. And, if you plan on continuing the ride, you need to make sure your bike is OK, too.”
RESPECT THE TRAUMA
Whether it’s because their race day is over, or they’ll be off their bike for a while, professionals and serious riders often go through a natural grieving process after a crash, says Ceely. He mentions that it’s important to acknowledge and respect the psychological process that happens with disappointment. And try not to blame yourself. “When these emotions come up, notice that it’s part of the process,” he says. “You should address it and let it settle in, because the worst thing you can do is start to blame yourself and focus on negativity.”
He notes that if you do blame yourself for the crash, you might overcompensate on your next ride by being hyper-vigilant to make sure it never happens again. One way to keep this from happening, says Ceely, is to talk to your teammates and friends. “Try to process the self-blame, and talk it out. Don’t keep it to yourself.”
Leisurely riders and weekend warriors likely feel less pressure to get back on their bikes. And that’s a good thing, because it’s important to take off as much time as you need to fully recover. “Respect that the body is damaged,” says Ceely. “Going out the very next weekend won’t help you. There are plenty more events down the road. And remember: Even the best pros crash, so you’re in good company.”
RESPOND IN KIND
Regardless of the physical severity of a crash, people react differently. Some are able to hop on their bike right away after a major crash, while others never touch a bike again after a minor crash. So severity, in this case, is personal, and different crashes require different responses.
AFTER A MINOR CRASH
Ceely notes that the after-crash process should begin the same for everyone. Assess your situation before getting back on your bike. Take as much time as you need to check for injuries, and enlist friends or anyone nearby to help. Accept that everyone crashes, even the best riders in the world, so don’t overthink it. And only when you feel physically and mentally able should you hop back on your bike.
AFTER A MODERATE CRASH
Assess your situation as stated above, and try to accept that it happens to everyone. From there, Ceely suggests talking about your crash with friends, riding partners or loved ones. “Don’t isolate yourself, or you might fall into the trap of self-blame,” he says. “Self-blame makes things worse and can turn into anxiety or depression.”
AFTER A SEVERE CRASH
Assess your situation, which in this case will likely require an ambulance and a hospital. Don’t worry about overreacting — it’s important to seek professional help after a serious crash.
From there, know that a long recovery might be necessary, and do your best to accept this fate. Ceely notes that acknowledging the situation is helpful. “Tell yourself, ‘This is my situation. It sucks, but I’m going to get better.’”
In some cases, you may even need to enlist professional help for more than the bruises and broken bones.
“During a long recovery, athletes can fall into a state of depression,” Ceely says. “Talk to a therapist or sports psychologist soon. Don’t sit there and tough it out.” Working with a professional can often speed up the recovery process, help you regain your confidence and guide you back into a positive mindset.
“There’s zero shame in asking for help,” he adds. “Wanting to get better is a sign of strength.”
RETURN TO RIDING, OR NOT …
Regardless of the type of crash you endured, getting back on your bike can cause some stress and hesitation. So once you decide to mount that saddle, ease into it.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy,” says Ceely. “It really just depends on your personality. A pro cyclist might be able to start riding again at the same pace, while others will want to take it easy for a few rides. Don’t force it.”
And if you’re feeling peer pressure to keep up with your riding partners, he says, be honest and upfront. The best thing you can do is ride however you feel most comfortable. That will help you to regain your confidence and keep you riding for years to come.