You’re Going to Fall – Here’s How

Note: The series of guest posts on The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned About Cycling will reappear later this week. I must resume contributing to my own blog!

You might have noticed in the Twitter box on the right of this blog last week that I had a minor crash on my bike. I missed a shift on a hill, dropped my chain, was unable to clip out, and I went over.

Just a bruise on my hip and a sore hand, but that was enough to trigger this reprimand:

“Hands on the bars at all times,” commented Mike Weiland, who should know, because he’s had his share of hard falls.

But that’s the problem. When you find yourself going down, what’s the most natural reaction? To put out a hand to brace yourself when you hit the ground.

“You brace, you break a hand or a collarbone,” said Mike. Or an arm, or dislocate your shoulder…

Even experienced riders brace for falls. It’s a natural reaction.

Okay, so I’m going to resist the temptation to brace next time (yeah, right). What can I do instead?

It depends on the type of fall. If you find yourself going over the handlebars, you can plan to roll on your shoulder. I did this in the first bad fall I had on my road bike, and although I was sore, I wasn’t hurt badly.

The guy in this crash looks like he might be able to drop his right shoulder, and roll on it.

Ted Rogers, who runs the blog, Biking in L.A., urges cyclists to do two things: stay clipped in, and hold the handlebars tightly. He tucks his elbows into his body. “At the same time,” he says, “I tuck my head down between my shoulders, and round my shoulders to shape my upper body into a ball. My momentum will continue to move my body forward, rolling me over the handlebars, still attached to my bike, which helps me maintain my curved position.” With luck, you’ll be able to roll on your shoulder rather than fall on your face. If he finds himself going down sideways, instead of over the bars, he does pretty much the same thing. When I went down last week, I stayed clipped in (not intentionally). That may have prevented me from being hurt worse than I was.

The roll might work for low-speed crashes, says Mike Weiland, but at higher speeds, all you can do is just skid. “Of course the one a few months ago at 24 mph I ended up hurting my hand/wrist not from bracing, but more or less punching the ground as my hand was still in the drops when the bars made contact with the pavement,” he told me.

It appears the best place to land in a crash is on your side. Hitting your chest or back on the ground could mean worse injuries. “As you hit the ground,” said one commenter on a biking forum, “try to stay as loose as possible. If you’re tense or stiff, it’s easier to get hurt.”

In practice, none of this might be possible. One cyclist posted to a forum that he’d been in two bad road crashes. “In neither case, do I remember having any time to react,” he said. “I was aware that I was in trouble, and then on the ground bleeding.”

What’s the old saying? “There are two kinds of cyclists: Those who have crashed, and those who are going to.”

Keep the rubber side down.

During the coming week, Bike Noob will feature two more posts in the series, What’s the Most Important Thing You’ve Learned About Cycling? If you’d like to submit your thing, check here.

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23 thoughts on “You’re Going to Fall – Here’s How

  1. On a group ride a few years ago, I was eating a clif bar at the end of a paceline, moving at about 20 mph, when the cyclist in front of me touched wheels with the cyclist in front of him, and went down hard. With one hand on the bars, I just rode straight over him, was launched over the handlebars, and landed on my back. I still had the clif bar in my hand when it was all over. Other than road rash, I was okay. 3 weeks ago, I fell on my hybrid at about 0.5 mph (really), put my hand out to brace, and now I have a right arm radial neck fracture. Mike Weiland is right.

  2. What a coincidence! I wrecked last Wednesday.
    I was making a left turn on my way home from class, as I leaned into the turn going ~15mph, I noticed a gutter on the opposite side of the street that my wheels were headed for. At first my bike just flattened out and we started to skid across the pavement, but since all our momentum was moving forward, my front wheel gave the wall at the end of the gutter a nice hard smack, causing me to do a full on face plant on only one side of my face.

    I got hella road rash on my elbow, face, and neck, as well as a tooth broken clean across horizontally. No big deal, I was back on my bike by Saturday.

    Frankly, in a crash, taking your feet out of the clips or your hands off the handlebars is unreasonable. The only reason I can think of for doing that is to protect the bike from damage, otherwise it’s just asking for injury.

  3. Having fractured my wrist three times (none cycling), I think I’ve finally figured out this falling thing. In most of my recent falls, I’ve been fantastic about keeping my arms in. You will be happy to do the same.

  4. I have fallen hard twice in low speed crashes. Both times my hands never left the bars and both times I fractured my left wrist. The second time I also broke my left arm. Maybe keeping your hands on the bars in a high speed crash works. But I don’t know if there really is a good way to fall in a low speed crash.

  5. I wrestled in high school…to this day I’m pretty sure that’s why I don’t get hurt when ever I fall. One thing sports like that teach you is how to fall down and not get injured. Of course the number one rule was to never put your arm out!

  6. Ray, missed seeing you at the MS150. And I agree with the others, Weiland is right. I mimic his routes once he finds ’em and was riding the dam loop Coming down Bee Cave Pkwy behind the Hill Country Galleria in a light rain, I slowed to make the right onto 620. Light turned yellow. Car behind me gunned it to make the yellow behind me, I turned my head slightly in surprise when I heard the engine, then … down… first the hip hit, then upper arm, then shoulder, but I stiffened before helmet impact. Slid into the intersection, but I kept the hands on the bars the whole way down and nothing broke. But I do have persistent neck pain from stiffening before my letting my noggin impact the ground.

  7. Posts like this scare the bejeebers out of me because I know deep down they’re right. Almost every dedicated cyclist I have met has had an accident that can be referred to as, “The Big One.” It appears to be an immutable law of nature that this must occur to each and every cyclist. The only variables are the degree of pain experienced and the amount of damage to the bike. I’m still waiting for mine.

  8. As a mountain biker I fall fairly often, and I can tell you that you’ve got the title exactly right. It’s not “if” but “when”. You are going to fall. Go ahead and pretend like it will never happen (kind of the same way I hear people say things like, “I don’t get flats”) but it will happen. Eventually.
    As a “wannabe” roadie I’ve ran this scenario through my head many times. I had (in all my blissful ignorance) predetermined that should I go down, I was going to stay clipped in and that I was going to tuck my knees and elbows inward as much as possible; the theory being that my pedals and handlebars would form some kind of protective triangle around me. Although I’m not quite sure what the 3rd point of that triangle may be: saddle? hips? shoulder?
    Anyway, it’s good to see that my instincts were at least along the right lines. However, should you find yourself mountain biking you will want to do the exact opposite. If you go down while off-roading you need to think “ejector seat”. Get off and away from your bike as quickly as possible. I’ve seen riders (literally) jump off their bikes and land on their feet running, while the pilotless bike goes tumbling down the trail. Really.
    Thanks for the article Ray, and after I gain a bit more confidence on the road bike, I hope you can take me out and teach me a thing or two.

  9. Having had a fall I cannot remember having any time to think about how I was going down. I was up, and then I was down!! (via Facebook)

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  12. I can say from my experience 2 hours ago, when I was left crossed by an SUV as i was doing 24 mph, that staying clipped in with hands on the top bars is the way to go at high speed. A left cross is when an on coming car makes a left turn in front of you, probably without a turn signal, forcing you to either veer left into more oncoming traffic (don’t do this) or lock up the brakes. When I lost my rear wheel traction it slide to the left and I fell over on my right side, right pedal down, and skidded up to and underneath the SUV on my right bar, pedal, and thigh. It felt like I should have had time to react but the way I fell came naturally. Hardly any damage was done to my hip or bike since my forward momentum kept the sliding contact with the road on the the right bar end and my pedal. If you can mentally replay and prepare to go down this way I highly advise it.

    Once the driver got out her vehicle realizing I was alright she began to cry claiming she was so distracted because she had just learned from her doctor that her cancer was recurring. Funny part is she was making a left turn into a medical marijuana dispensary.

  13. I have recently started cycling a road bike and love it but today had a bad fall turning on wet path/pavement traveling very slowly, Quite embarrassing as i have been cycling for years.

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  15. I love reading this kind of stuff. Not to laugh at anyone, totally not. I’m pretty new to road cycling (about a month and a half now) and I’ve taken a few spills. By a few I mean 4 but really 3 of them were really stupid ones right after getting my clipless pedals. I would get so fixated on getting my left foot clipped in I’d lose all momentum and tip over. **blush** Saturday I was riding and I got to a bumpy patch and then I saw big ruts in the road. Wanting to avoid them I swerved but ran straight into them. I fell on my left (derailleur safe!) but someone my right side is what looks the worst. I have major bruised confidence every time this happens, but reading these posts makes me feel better. Falling is part of the sport, not just me being a total klutz. And yeah, I was up and the split second I knew I was in trouble and I was down.

  16. I ejected from my horse and broke my left radius, ulna and wrist for a total of nine breaks in the same area. Funny the advice here is similar to horseback riding, you never get hurt on the horse..aka stay clipped in. I am reading this forum because in my bad accident I had time to contemplate the landing and I guessed wrong…put my hand out. The ER said it looked like a cycling accident. I worry now because I now have a plate in the left arm that moves any next breaks up the arm towards the shoulder because the plate won’t break in an accident. So stay clipped in, legs and arms in tuck your head? Ugh this has spinal injury written all over it. Ironically I stopped horseback riding because I have kids and having your head 10 feet up with forward motion on an animal that has a brain is too dangerous. Yesterday I hit 34 mph on my 23mm tires, which is worse now??

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  18. I wish I had read your article before setting out to ride yesterday. I just broke my fifth metacarpal in a freak accident. I have shared your tips on my blog so that other readers can avoid the same fate. You rightly note though that one rarely has the time to react consciously when involved in a crash. That’s why it’s important to ingrain these techniques into our subconscious minds and make rolling the instinctive reaction instead of sticking out a hand. I can’t wait to get back on the bike and become one of those cyclists who is “going to” crash again.

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