Early in my cycling career I was informed that there are only two types of (road) cyclists: those who have crashed and those who will crash. Fear of crashing is likely one of the biggest things that hold back people from starting to cycle and likely remains the single largest fear once you begin.
I have owned a bike for four years and have had my fair share of crashes in that time. I recently experienced probably the worst crash of my cycling career in a triathlon (of all things) in Austria in May. I am really disappointed that it happened, as I was in a good position to win enough prize money to pay for my whole trip, earn lots of points towards the Ironman 70.3 points ranking, and determine how well I was able to handle back-to-back half Ironmans for the first time (I had raced in Spain the week before). But the easiest way I can rationalize it to myself is: “it’s part of the sport.” There is a risk that you will crash each time you get on a bike. And you know what? I cannot wait to get back on the bike after every time I crash.
The experience in Austria made me start thinking about when I first started cycling. I come from a running background, so when I first started I was not used to, or comfortable, with the high speeds at which I would travel over the pavement on my bike. I was constantly thinking about crashing and how horrible it would be to hit the pavement while going that fast. I had heard stories of “road rash” and even the name itself invoked some really painful images in my head. In my first two seasons of owning a bike and racing triathlons I would literally brake while going downhill simply because I was afraid of going too fast due to my fear of crashing.
Eventually I became more comfortable and started getting a lot faster on the bike. After moving to Vancouver, I even joined a cycling club, started riding in large groups and made plans to do some road races. My first crash happened about two years after I started cycling during a group ride with my club. One minute I was having a conversation with the person beside me in the paceline, the next I was bleeding on the pavement. Initially I didn’t feel much pain due to the rush of adrenaline that comes with crashing.
I ended up being fine, but had lost a lot of skin. Even after the adrenaline wore off, the road rash wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. It stings when it happens and the first couple times you shower, but it mostly makes you feel like a real cyclist. I actually felt relieved that I had finally crashed so I could stop fearing it. After that I no longer felt like I was “waiting to crash for the first time” and realized that it wasn’t really as scary as I had built it up to be in my mind.
That’s not to say that crashes can’t cause serious injury – because they do sometimes. Anyone who follows coverage of the pro races has heard lots of horror stories. The reality is that those guys have a lot more on the line and therefore take more risks, and are travelling at much faster speeds on much more technical and often dangerous courses (hello Giro d’Italia stages???). For every pro that does crash, there are hundreds more racing safely on a daily basis – and usually they get back up and keep racing.
Like I said there is always a risk that you could crash, but in my opinion, the benefits of cycling and doing triathlons far outweighs that risk! So my advice is to not live in fear of the “eventual crash” – just embrace it! Chances are, when it does happen, you will just come out of it with some badass looking road rash and the same feeling I had that “it wasn’t as bad as you thought.”
In the meantime, make sure you know how to ride safely around other riders and ESPECIALLY around cars. Luckily none of my altercations have involved cars, and I lived in downtown Vancouver for two and a half years and have ridden in a lot in traffic. My best advice if you are not confident about riding in traffic or riding in a group, don’t do it (yet anyways). There are courses you can take for both. CyclingBC offers learn to race courses and Bike Sense offers cycling traffic skills or commuting courses and workshops. And lastly, never EVER leave home without a helmet – it can save your life.
Here are some tips to help avoid crashing:
- Avoid making a turn on white paint or manhole covers in the rain (especially cross walks).
- Cross railway or streetcar tracks at a right angle.
- Be on the lookout for someone opening their door when riding past parked cars.
- Use hand signals to indicate your intentions, both when riding in a group and in traffic.
- When riding in a pack, generally be aware of what others are doing around you and how moving your bike will impact others.
- Never put your front wheel beside someone else’s rear wheel – you will be the one to go down if your wheels touch.
- Ensure that your bike is mechanically sound, and replace your brake pads regularly (i.e. when you can no longer see the grooves in the pads). Riding in Vancouver weather will wear them down very quickly!