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Crash course in falling

7 November, 2012

Coming off your bike is never a pleasant experience, but there are some basic skills you can practise and use to help minimise damage, finds Margot McGovern and Stephen Huntley

It’s a commonly held view that if you ride a bike often enough for long enough, at some point you’ll have a fall that will leave you with at least a few scrapes and bruises. While you may be the lucky rider who disproves this theory, it is sensible to take precautions. Avoiding the fall in the first place is ideal, but just in case, you should also consider the best ways to react in the brief moments before, during and after an impact.

This tumble is the way judo students are taught to land after being flung, and it’s worthwhile practising the technique regularly on a soft surface.

Roll with it

In a fall, a rider will often have no time to react with instinct taking over, but it may be possible to train those instincts. Road racer Nick Mitchell, who has fallen many times in his career and only once broken a bone, says that having trained his body to fall correctly during footy training as a child means that he now instinctively falls to minimise injury.

“I tend to tuck up tightly and hit with my shoulder then roll,” Nick explained. “I don’t stick my hands out, as many other riders do. It’s a natural reaction that I learned as a youngster playing football. I don’t think about it – it’s just automatic.” According to stunt BMX rider, commuter and skills teacher Scott Hone, “if you’re going to go down, don’t fight it; go with the fall.”

Experience has also taught Scott that good balance gives riders greater control and “when you are in control of the bike, you can control the fall”. Developing simple balance skills, such as riding one-handed, helps you stay upright for longer and either direct the fall, slow it down or prevent it altogether.

If heading for a collision, protecting your head becomes the top priority. Tuck your chin into your chest and hunch your shoulders up to make a ball around your head and neck with your body. Try and twist your upper body to the left side, tuck the shoulder and elbow in hard against your ribs and let the upper arm and shoulder take the brunt of the blow. If possible, try and fall towards the gutter, out of the path of oncoming traffic.

Experts are divided over the best way to handle a sideways spill, but most roadies and track riders are taught to keep hold of the handlebars and go down with the bike, trying to hit their shoulder first, and using the soft flesh of the upper arm and upper thigh to take the brunt of the damage, rather than sticking out a hand to break the fall. Once again, if you can, try and fall to the left.

If you do get flung free of the bike – by going over the handlebars, for instance – it’s a basic instinct to put a hand out to break the fall and avoid landing on your head. Because of the way people instinctively put their hand out – pointing forward, with a straight arm and locked elbow – it is difficult to then roll forward, and the stiff arm and hand get jammed into the ground, taking all the impact. This will often result in a broken collarbone, a common injury among professional riders.

Rather than have your hand, forearm and upper arm in a straight line, try and hit the ground with your hand angled inwards, towards the centre of your body. This will force your arm to subsequently collapse in a staged way under you, distributing the force of the impact. Your elbow will fold underneath, your shoulder will roll forward, and you should be able to continue the forward momentum by tucking your body into a ball and tumbling over your shoulder. Having your head tucked in towards your chest will help create this rolling motion. Further impact is then taken by the side of your back as you continue to roll.

This tumble is the way judo students are taught to land after being flung, and it’s worthwhile practising the technique
regularly on a soft surface. The aim is to distribute the force of the impact over the softer and fleshier parts of your body, while protecting the vulnerable parts.

According to Nick, riders involved in a crash commonly injure elbows, knees and hips, which have a small, bony surface area and, if not tucked in, are often the first points of contact with the ground. No matter how you fall, try as best you can to keep these pointy bits pulled close to your body.

Hit the brakes

The best way to avoid injury is to keep the bike rubber-side down. If an obstacle, such as a car door, suddenly appears in your path, emergency braking can either prevent a collision or significantly reduce the force of the impact. When riding on the road, braking is preferable to swerving, as it won’t put you in the path of the traffic. Follow the steps below to bring the bike to a complete stop in an emergency.

Step 1

Line up your pedals parallel with the ground (nine and three o’clock) to ensure maximum stability and balance.

Step 2

Get a strong grip on the handlebars and rise out of the seat so that your arms and legs are extended but slightly flexed to absorb impact.

Step 3

Throw your weight back off the seat towards the rear of the bike, as close to being over the back wheel as possible, and position your body as low as possible.

Step 4

Pull hard on both the front and rear brakes.

Mountain bikers often have to adopt an emergency stopping position. Note this rider has his feet level, his body low and off the saddle, with his weight over the back wheel.

Approximately 80% of a bike’s stopping power is in the front brake, and throwing your weight back prevents the rear wheel from rising off the ground and propelling you onto the bitumen.

If you’re riding on a slippery, wet or gravelly surface, braking suddenly may cause you to skid. Keep your front wheel straight and if you feel the tyres starting to slip, release pressure from the brakes, then apply them again, and continue to squeeze them on and off.

According to Scott, it’s essential for riders to know their brakes and how to maintain them in order to understand what
they are capable of and how quickly you can bring the bike to a complete stop. Practising emergency braking will help you maintain control of the bike and prevent you going over the handlebars if you ever have to stop suddenly on the road.

Ride smart

While some collisions are sudden and unavoidable, others are preventable. When riding the same route on a regular basis, it’s easy to become complacent and over-confident. Scott advises that the best way to avoid a collision is to remain alert and aware at all times and to constantly assess what’s going on around you. It’s not enough to just keep an eye out for potential hazards; riders need to know where they sit in traffic, monitor the behaviour of other road users and consider how their immediate environment might affect their fall.

Anticipate and use your instincts in potentially troublesome spots. Best to slow to a walking pace, or even get off your bike, if you feel trouble is imminent. On roads, be particularly wary of buses, trams and trucks. Don’t get caught up alongside them, especially near intersections; anticipate that they may suddenly turn left at any moment and may not be aware of you. On paths, look out for build ups of gravel, other loose material and mud, particularly near bends. Slow down and try to keep as upright as possible, slow down before running through the loose stuff, and push through in the straightest line possible.

“The best way to avoid a collision is to remain alert and aware at all times and to constantly asses what’s going on around you.”

When wet, metal plates on roads, painted surfaces and tram tracks should be avoided whenever possible. When you have to go over them, try to keep the bike upright and moving in a straight line, at a steady pace. Try and cross tram tracks at as close to a 90 degree angle as possible; do a hook turn at intersections to get over the tracks at this angle when turning right, rather than cutting across them. Also be wary of rainbow-coloured patches on wet roads; spilled fuel, such as diesel, can be very slippery.

And, of course, always keep your brakes in good working order. In the wet, regularly squeegee water off your rims by lightly applying your brakes before you have to use them in earnest.

Straight up

Following a crash, firstly look around you and assess your environment. Make sure you’re not lying anywhere where you may be hit by a passing car or bike. Roll to safety if necessary. When you’re ready to stand up, make sure you do so in a vertical straight line; moving your legs out to the side while standing up may place you in a vulnerable position
from passing traffic. The best way to get up is to get your feet beneath you, use your hands as anchors, and stand straight up (see our photos). It is critical that you look around you as you’re doing this. The greatest danger is from oncoming traffic. Looking over your shoulder could prevent you from standing up in the path of another rider or vehicle. This is a skill worth practising in the safety of your living room.

“Your adrenaline will have kicked in after the incident, and you may find you don’t feel injured even when you are.”

If you can, slowly check yourself all over for damage. Also thoroughly check your bike and helmet, and don’t get back on the saddle unless you are completely certain both you and your equipment are fit to go again. Shock may kick in, and you mightn’t be able to ride with proper care after a crash. Better to call someone to pick you up.

 

Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network Victoria. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 November, 2012 4:16 pm

    Good article – there’s a great video I stumbled across covering much of this here –
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHGfzeH6Qg4 – I linked my name to it if you don’t want ot copy and paste :)

  2. 14 November, 2012 5:46 pm

    I’ve come off a few times over the handle bars and to the side. The judo style roll and staying relaxed has saved me from injury on all occasions. Each time I haven’t been wearing a helmet. These days, I’ve been forced to wear a helmet and it makes me nervous for the following reasons:

    – When I drop the chin and raise the shoulder the helmet stops my head from tilting to one side to open up the the opposing shoulder required to complete a roll.

    - The helmet becomes an extension of my head that I have to adjust into the fall. An extra 5 cm to tuck in and adjust for doesn’t seem like much and even at relatively slow speeds it takes an unnatural adjustment to complete.

    Helmets are known to catch and if I’m slightly off and even at slow speeds my head could stop suddenly leading to a diffuse axonal injury. Evidence says helmets protect against penetrative impacts by an object normally from the result of speed where a strategic fall is of little use. But at a slow speed, where a fall is useful, I believe they increase the difficulty of applying a fall resulting in a greater chance of a severe injury.

    Do you think a helmet negates the benefits of a successful role and in fact increases the chance of serious injury?

    • John Harland permalink
      15 November, 2012 7:11 am

      An excellent question, Cameron, but difficult to get straight answers on it.

      An alternate question is whether helmets are designed the right way to cope with how falls actually happen. (Generally not in the absolutely perpendicular fall assumed in the tests, for instance).

      Helmets do help people who do not know how to fall. That is, most people, so the overall data shows a general protective value for helmets. However 20 years of digging has not clarified whether helmets help the minority who do know how to fall. How do you filter them from the general data?

      Data on casualties in professional racing since helmets were mandated may give some guide.

    • Paul permalink
      15 November, 2012 7:55 am

      I had a car turn in front of me and I had no option but to slam straight into it. I only had time to turn slightly so I didnt hit it face first. I believe the helmet saved me from serious head trauma, although I still broke a few bones.

      I also hear on the news people who (while not necessarily riding a bike) fall and hit their head (usually on a gutter or pavement) and die because of it. – I raise this, because it illustrates how easy it is to suffer a head injury from a simple fall and this is without any speed (while on a bike) involved.

      Doing a roll is fine if you have the capability to do so, but sometimes you won’t get a choice or be able to do so (such as being hit from behind, or hitting an object unexpectedly). This is the reason I wear a helmet, everytime.

      I think your argument of a ‘diffuse axonal injury’, while possible, is probably less likely than an injury due to a headstrike while not wearing a helmet. If you bring potential death into the equation, wearing a helmet wins everytime for me. Just my two cents…

    • Dave permalink
      15 November, 2012 8:09 am

      i guess it all depends whether you want to wind up with a broken collar bone… or as a vegetable with a broken collar bone.

  3. Peter permalink
    14 November, 2012 8:02 pm

    I have been involved in 2 and witnessed 5 recent accidents where the helmet has been seriously crushed and cracked. Many of these accidents were on the road where the head hit the bitumen at speed and force. If the helmet didn’t absorb this impact, then the skull would have fractured and the brain injured.

    Most of these experiences caused concussion and post concussion syndrome. The helmet saved me and my rider friends from brain injury. If you think your so called well drilled reflexes are sufficient to prevent head trauma your living a lottery and fooling yourself. A helmet is critical if you value your neurons.

    Don’t believe the mis-information that helmets are a risk to your safety. It is rubbish and if you really value your grey matter make sure you use a good one, do it up correctly and use those brain cells to keep out of trouble. Peter the Physio ( neurons intact)

  4. Peter Read permalink
    14 November, 2012 10:55 pm

    Very useful article. Can I add: Always, always wear a helmet (made for cycling). I’ve broken a helmet, instead of my head. Never use your mobile phone when you’re moving. That’s how I broke the helmet. If you use cleats on your shoes, slip one shoe out in traffic. I have pedals that have one flat side so that makes it easier. Then you’re prepared for a sudden unexpected stop. Riding past parked cars, scan to see if anyone is sitting in them- they might jump out. Assume every driver is a total idiot who is distracted by their phone, passengers, radio because it’s true!

    • Dave permalink
      15 November, 2012 8:12 am

      “Assume every driver is a total idiot…”

      unfortunately, that is too true.

      i assume the old adage:

      “Assume everyone is a total idiot…”

      yep. gotta include the pedestrians… and even some fellow cyclists!

  5. Sal permalink
    15 November, 2012 9:58 pm

    A good article indeed – I often try to imagine how i should fall when the time inevitably comes and this has confirmed my thoughts. I would appreciate more of these defensive riding articles.

  6. Chris permalink
    16 November, 2012 8:34 pm

    Thanks for the tips. I was riding to Monash Caulfield (in Melbourne) (work) about 20 years ago. I crossed Glenhuntly road and followed the railway. After exiting Glenhuntly road, my back wheel came off from the pedal force applied to the chain (I had not tightened the quick release mechanism sufficiently). I’d pedalled hard as there was a car right behind me. I wound up over the handlebars with a gear lever (the old style down low on the frame) in my left knee. I don’t know if I tucked and rolled or not, but luckily the car stopped before running me over. The female driver came to assist and wanted to take me to hospital, but being young and brave with a big adrenalin shot, I declined the offer, thanked her, refitted the wheel and sprinted (on the bike) the rest of the way to work. Once at work I realised I couldn’t walk and my knee was swollen and very stiff. I think I went to medical on campus and iced it. I think I was very lucky not to be involved in any further incident and I certaily would take her offer of assistance these days. Decission making immediately after a prang is likely impared! Beware!

  7. Marty permalink
    17 November, 2012 11:48 am

    I have fallen heavily sideways twice now (only been riding seriously for less than a year) there are technical skills I am still learning that have been the cause of each incident (obvious things like avoiding tram tacks and not over leaning into corners when there is wet mud on the sharp corner of a trail), I am hopeful that I will master the basics soon and stop these rookie mistakes

    I like the idea of learning to roll when falling but I am struggling to see how this would work when clipped into the pedals with cleats

    Any advice on on the best way to fall when clipped into the pedals ?

    • Kev permalink
      19 November, 2012 10:31 pm

      Like the ski-bindings that they were derived from, cleats are designed to release in a crash situation. From practical experience going over the bars, the Shimano SPD ones do. I had some trouble releasing my foot from an SPD-SL cleat after a crash on a 1-day old bike – but I think that was primarily because I’d not tightened to cleat-to-shoe bolts fully.

      Don’t get preoccupied about what your feet will be doing – its much more important what your upper body is doing as that’s where your weight is. So focus on tucking in and rolling, your arms and shoulders – the feet will take care of themselves.

      In both of my falls, neither of which were my fault, my helmet was trashed – and saved me from very serious head injury. In the second, the at-fault rider struck her head on a ute tray, and was saved from very dire consequences by the helmet.

      Nobody thinks they are going to have a crash where a helmet might save them, but all it takes is a momentary lapse of concentration either by the rider or someone around them in a vehicle, on foot, or on another bike.

      • Marty permalink
        23 November, 2012 10:52 pm

        Kev

        Thanks for the reply – I had not realized the relationship between ski bindings and cycling cleats – as a skier myself that is definitely food for thought, although I seem to be falling more regularly on my bike than my skis…

        A friend at work who is into jiu jitsu in a big way also suggested I practice falling on a mat clipped into my bike ! Basically similar advice as per the start of this is article (ie Judo Rolls) with the added dynamic of having the bike attached. It seems a bit extreme but what ever will help build the right reactions and confidence is worth considering I guess

  8. Rob permalink
    21 November, 2012 12:33 am

    It’s a little disturbing that I’m one of the majority on this topic with first hand experience of the absolute beauty of a good helmet and the astonishing negligence of some drivers. Cameron I dunno what you’ve got in your noggin mate but, for your Mum’s sake, it’s probably worth preserving. Wear a decent skid lid. My prang last week was similar to Paul’s… a parked car on the LHS of the road executed an unannounced u-turn directly in front of me. I hit the drivers door at about 30 clicks. 8 hours later I left A&E with a sling, a stack of pain killers and an appointment with an orthopaedic surgeon for my ruined shoulder. Lucky it wasn’t worse, I’d say the fact that most of the impact was with the middle of the door panel instead of one of the structural members of the car, saved me from much worse injuries. Im paranoid about safety, the only thing I could’ve done to avoid that was to stay home.

  9. seanrua permalink
    20 March, 2013 9:47 am

    I have fallen many a time. Usually wet roadmarkings, polished manhole cover etc. Just left sitting in the road looking like an eejit. But was knocked once. Pedesterian stepped out in front of me and kicked the front wheel at the bottom of a hill in my local city. Over I went strapped into the bike (I was keeping up with traffic) tryed the roll but hit the kerb, if I hadent it would have been worse. Stillaffects me 18 months later.

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