What I Learned From My First Bike Crash

How to get back on the bike and crash better next time

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Bike crash by Adam Meek

I knew that crashing one day was an inevitability. It was a Friday, so a few members of my team and myself set out on our usual Friday Ride. It’s a mostly casual scenic route with four sprint sections to keep things interesting. Before long we came upon the first: a long, deserted stretch of road on a very slight downhill gradient. My legs were feeling great and I wanted to contest this sprint. I sat myself on the wheel of the fastest rider in our group and stayed there as the pace increased.

Suddenly, one of the guys sprang forward, and everyone else reacted just as suddenly. Then all I remember was a touch of wheels, swerving, and then closing my eyes in defeat the moment I knew I was about to hit asphalt at sprint speed. Coincidentally I wasn’t the only one to crash in this event, but I arguably got the worst of it. Luckily the shock held off the pain from the numerous bruises and patches of fresh road rash long enough for me to get home. Still, I was completely rattled. The crash had taken a toll on my body – I was to be sore for days – but I was also mentally and emotionally shaken.

So that you can learn from my experience too, let’s talk about some of the things I later realized I did right (and wrong).

On Helmets and Shirt Sleeves

Bike crash by Adam Meek
by Adam Meek

I had a lot of cycling-related “aha” moments from that crash. For one, the importance of the helmet became all to clear. I never doubted the necessity of wearing a helmet whenever I hit the road, but it never quite strikes you how necessary until your skull meets asphalt for the first time.

It became evident things could have been a lot worse if I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Admittedly, things also could have been a lot better if I was wearing my helmet properly. I didn’t have the chin strap tight enough, and I still clearly remember the terrifying moment I thought it was going to slip off before I came to a stop. Take it from me, keep that thing tight and fitted properly.

Fitting Your Helmet Properly

The Bicycle Highway Safety Institute, which basically looks at everything bike helmet-related, has some great tips for fitting your helmet properly. If you want to make sure your chin strap is tightened better than mine was, check out their site–they recommend a simple test: open your mouth wide and make sure the straps pull the helmet down a bit. You also want to make sure that it sits correctly on your head all together. Check the fit guidelines for your particular helmet, and, remember, helmets are cool. Even that $15 velvet one at Costco.

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Just Wear the Sleeves

Another lesson I learned wasn’t so obvious beforehand: there’s a reason cyclists wear sleeves. I thought it was just a fashion thing, and I couldn’t care less. Up until that crash I almost always wore tank tops over anything that covered my shoulders. I know, I know, it was amateur hour whenever I hit the road. Fortunately, that day was an exception, and that shirt saved my shoulder from much worse. My shoulder and hip (covered by my spandex shorts) were the two primary contact points that slid along the pavement. I still have that shirt and pair of shorts, and fortunately only minor scars where they were covering, as a souvenir. For comparison I have a few gnarly road rash scars on my forearm and lower leg. I’m still guilty of wearing a tank top on the occasional hot, casual ride, but if you’re going anywhere fast, cover your shoulders. Plus, you look way more pro.

Shock & Adrenaline: Nature’s Vicodin

Shock and adrenaline are powerful drugs. The crash gave me road rash all down my left leg and forearm, nasty bruises on my hip and right leg, minor whiplash, and numerous other little bumps and bruises, but I didn’t feel any of it at first. I was also in a weird mental state, somewhere between confusion and hyper-focus. Fortunately the first thing I thought to do was smart – get myself and my bike off the road and then sit my sore behind down.

Even more fortunately, I had teammates to take it from there. But in case you don’t, here’s what they did that I didn’t think to do. First check yourself for injuries. Some might not be obvious at first – I was still finding new bruises and scrapes an hour later, when I stepped into the most painful shower of my life.

Broken bicycle by Sondra Stewart
by Sondra Stewart

Then check your bike. If you have any thought of jumping back on it right away, you need to be 100% sure both you and it are in working order. Some key things to check are your brakes, shifters, and derailleur, as well as the true of the wheels. Most other issues will probably be obvious (ie, the aptly named taco’d rim, or a broken frame), but look over every inch of your bike to check for cracks or any other damage (use the flashlight on your phone to see even better).

Find something wrong? Get help from a qualified mechanic at your Local Bike Shop to make sure it’s safe to ride. If not, you might find yourself spending more quality time with the asphalt.

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Getting Back on the Horse Bike

Unless you are seriously injured, or your bike is unrideable, try to get back in the saddle the next day (okay, and, yes, make sure your doctor is cool with it too). This is especially important if it was your first crash. If you can convince an understanding teammate or friend to come with you, do it. It doesn’t have to be a long ride, even a couple miles around the block will do. What’s important is reminding yourself that you love to ride more than you’re afraid of crashing.

Learn from it, but don’t let it prevent you from continuing to get back on the road.

But now that you’ve gotten over the mental barrier, its time to recover physically. Keep that road rash covered and moist for the first couple of days, and nurse whatever other injuries you may have incurred. Eat some ice cream (or whatever your comfort food is). And whether you do it yourself or send it to your local bike shop, get any necessary repairs done on your bike. Take care of yourself, take care of your bike, and get back on the road, because there are only two types of cyclists: those that crash, and those that don’t ride.

About Ellie 6 Articles

Former varsity rower turned cyclist, Ellie is in her second and last year of collegiate racing before going on to explore new roads. She hopes there are nice views and cute dogs there. Currently, she primarily rides in the farmlands of Pennsylvania and along the beaches of California.

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