Bicycle Network: Skill Up
Crash course in falling
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.
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.
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.
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