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Arrive alive: common cycling accidents and how to avoid them

Nick Soldinger
5 Jul 2016

Key causes of cycling accidents, how to avoid them and how, if you have to, you can crash in style.

Nobody knows how soon after the first bicycle was invented that the first cycling accident happened, but you can be pretty sure it was almost immediately. Anybody who rides a bike knows that coming off or colliding with something at some point is almost inevitable. In fact, there are even some loons for whom the intrinsic danger of cycling is precisely what makes it so appealing. Not that anybody actually likes crashing, because crashing hurts. Sometimes a lot. 

So what can you do to minimise your chances of taking a spill? And when you do inevitably take a tumble, what’s the best way of minimising the number of bones you might break? Here’s a rundown of the most common causes of crashing, complete with some solid advice about what you can do to keep yourself as safe as possible…

Calamitous cornering

How it happens 

As long you’re not you’re not drunk, stupid or visually impaired, cycling in a straight line is a fairly safe thing to do. Corners, though, present cyclists with a far higher risk. The reasons are many and range from hitting the corner too fast, to the road surface being too loose or too wet.  

How to swerve it 

It sounds obvious but look where you’re going. Keep your head up and look as far through the turn as you can, finding a focus point and sticking to it. You’ll be surprised how much control this will give you. If it's wet, never brake while you’re in the corner itself. Stop pedalling as you see the corner approaching and feather your brakes while you’re still in a straight line to bring your speed down. As you come through the corner, don’t be afraid to lean the bike inwards, remembering to have your pedal closest to the bend in the 12 o’clock position to avoid striking it on the road. Leaning the bike in like this while shifting your weight back on the saddle will help to give your wheels greater traction. If you’re riding on wet roads, you can also let a little air out of your tyres – so if you normally run on 100psi, try dropping to 90psi. It’ll increase the amount of rubber on the road, resulting in greater traction. 

How to minimise the impact 

If you feel the bike sliding out from under you while taking a corner, resist the temptation to put your hand out to break your fall. Do this, and you’ll more than likely just break your wrist or arm – something which is likely to make your mouth go “Ouch!” Instead, try to roll your back towards the road surface, so that as large a part of your body can absorb the impact as possible. Make sure you tuck your chin into your chest as you do so. Even if you’re wearing a two-hundred quid cycling lid complete with fancy MIPS technology, this tuck will help protect the back of your head, which is as a part of your body that’s especially vulnerable to serious injury in a fall. 

Uptight riding

How it happens

If you’re muscles are overly tense, every movement you make is stiff and exaggerated. Your reactions will be slower as a result, and when you do react, any movement you do make will be amplified, which can create its own dangers, particularly when riding in a pack.

How to swerve it

Getting a proper bike fit will help – being more comfortable will make you more relaxed. Practicing yoga and pilates will also help posture, flexibility and agility. 

How to lessen the impact

If you’re already in the saddle and can feel you’re tense, sit up and squeeze your shoulders upwards, hold for three seconds and then release, breathing out hard as you do so. Then try rolling your neck three times to the left and three times to the right, and shaking out your arms. Make sure you mix up your hand position, too, to avoid staying hunched up in one position for too long.  

Hazard ahead

How it happens 

Roads in developed countries are marvels of the modern age. But they can also be strewn with rubbish, peppered with potholes or rendered ice rinks by poor weather. The result is that even the most alert rider can sometimes find himself desperately grabbing for the brakes in an emergency stop. 

How to swerve it

If you’re riding in a pack, the safest spot to ride is at the front, where you’ll have the best chance of seeing the hazards in the first place. If you’re mid pack, look up regularly, checking the riders three to five places ahead of you. 

If you do feel the need to slam on the anchors, be aware that 70 per cent of your braking power comes from your front brake. Simple physics should tell you that if you hit your front brake too hard, the back of the bike will rise up and you could find yourself flipped over the bars. To avoid this, don’t grab your brakes, squeeze them (ideally about 60 per cent of the work should be done by the front brake, 40 per cent by the rear brake) and shift your weight over your rear wheel by sliding your butt down your saddle. 

How to soften the impact

If you’re in a group and you can see a pile-up unfolding, focus on finding a way out or through the trouble ahead – or even a soft place to land, if it comes to it. If you do find yourself going over the bars, and can't produce a Matrix-style unclip and jump over the bars, avoid the temptation to let go of the bike and stick your hands out in front of you to break your fall. Instead, as with a fall when cornering, you should aim to tuck and roll your way out the other side of the crash, with the top of your shoulders ideally hitting the road surface first. Yes, we know it sounds a bit Jason Bourne but it’ll give you a better chance of dissipating the energy of the accident, avoiding impact on any single part of the body. Plus it will impress the heck out of anyone who sees it!

Overlapping

How it happens 

In a group ride, allow your front wheel to overlap with the rear wheel of the rider in front of you and you’ll be creating a potential hazard for both you and the riders behind you. By reducing both the amount of time and space you’ll have to react to any unpredictable movement he or she might make, you run the risk of bumping tires with them. And that will not end well for you. 

How to swerve it 

Three simple words – don’t do it. Get it into your brain that overlapping is one of cycling’s most heinous crimes. If a cyclist in front of you suddenly changes their line when you’re overlapping wheels with them, you’ll more than likely go flying, and there’s a high probability you’ll take out half the guys riding behind you in the process. So if you don’t want to end up at the bottom of a big pile of wheels and angry people, keep a distance behind the rider in front of you either to their left or right but not directly behind them.  

Overlapping often happens through a lack of concentration, so keep an eye on the pack in front of you, and look for signs that it might be slowing down. Even seasoned pros can fall foul of that one – in the 2011 Tour de France, Alberto Contador took a tumble after overlapping wheels with Vladimir Karpets during stage 9 of the race, and he’s pretty good! So keep your wits about you, not least when the pack is approaching a corner and will naturally slow. Look out, too, for other riders ahead of you overlapping. If you see it happening, try moving up the outside of the pack to get ahead of the potential hazard. 

How to minimise the impact

If you do bump tyres, avoid the temptation to grab both your brakes in sheer terror. Instead, feather your rear brake, and stop pedalling. Avoid suddenly swerving, too, as the rider behind you is depending on your line. Instead, focus on holding your line by using your hips rather than your handlebars. If you try to correct your course using your bars, you’ll more than likely swerve off in the direction of the impact. Holding your line with your hips gives you much greater control. 

Second crash syndrome

How it happens  

When a pile-up occurs in a pack – whether it’s due to overlapping, say, or lack of awareness – it’s not unnatural for the riders at the front of the group to look back over their shoulders to see what’s happening. Unfortunately, this can frequently lead to riders who managed to avoid the initial accident then having one of their own.

How to swerve it 

A quick glance over your shoulder is useful before making a manoeuvre, but looking backwards for more than a second or two while riding forwards at speed in a big bunch is never a good idea. So don’t do it, unless you need to.  

As callous as it sounds, if you’re at the head of a pack and hear the sound of metal slamming into tarmac and the shrieks and screams of your fellow riders, the most important thing you need to do is resist the temptation to look back over your shoulder.

How to minimise the impact

In the event of an accident behind you, get the remainder of the group to slow and then stop in an orderly fashion. Only then is it safe to return to the carnage to see if you can help/take ‘hilarious’ smartphone snaps of your friends’ injuries to plaster all over social media. 

Lack of awareness

How it happens 

When you’re grinding out mile after mile in the saddle, it’s easy to become distracted, or to lose concentration. This can leave you vulnerable to a whole host of potential hazards from dozy pedestrians to parked cars. 

How to swerve it 

Keep your eyes peeled, watching out not just for the riders around you, but on what’s ahead of you on the road, too. This is especially true if riding conditions or visibility are poor. Listen and watch for signs from the pack leaders about obstacles in the road or potential hazards ahead – but don’t rely on them. Even if you’re on a route you’ve cycled a thousand times before, keep your head up, and regularly look at riders three, four and five places ahead of you. 

Tiredness can also be deadly on the bike, affecting both your concentration levels and your stability as it can compromise your pedalling. So if you’re feeling groggy, stop for a caffeine break. This is another situation where a proper bike fit can help – finding your optimal riding position means you’ll be less likely to ride with a slumped, energy draining posture. 

How to minimise the impact 

If you see an obstacle in the road in front of you at the last minute, try to lift your front wheel over it. Peter Sagan did just this when presented with a felled Fabian Cancellara at this year’s Paris-Roubaix managing to stay on his bike while those behind him tumbled in droves (watch it here). If, however, you hit something (or something hits you) while you’re not looking, don’t panic. Try to keep control by braking smoothly and keeping the bike in as straight a line as possible using your hips. Slide your weight back in the saddle, too, this will help stabilise the bike and keep it upright. 

Half-wheeling

How it happens 

Another cardinal sin of group riding. This occurs when one of the two riders leading the pack rides slightly ahead of the rider next to them. This is not only considered bad etiquette but it can also be dangerous as the surge and then ebb in speed that often results as the trailing rider pushes the pace to catch up, can result in crashes within the pack.  

How to swerve it  

Again – don’t do it! Make an effort to match both your gearing and cadence to that of the rider next to you to maintain a steady speed.

How to minimise the impact 

Even with the best intentions, you might occasionally find yourself creeping ahead half a wheel’s length. When this happens, don’t grab the brakes. Instead soft-pedal for a stroke or two until you’re even again. If the rider next to you surges ahead, avoid the temptation to speed up to meet him – this will only encourage him and he’ll repeatedly creep ahead every time you come even. Instead, hold the pack’s pace and either wait for him to work out that he’s cycling like a toolbag, or perhaps politely point it out to him if you prefer.  

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