The Undeniable Inevitability Of The Crash
IF YOU MOUNTAIN BIKE , YOU WILL CRASH. EMBRACE IT.
There is only one certainty in life: if you mountain-bike, You Will Crash. You can’t deny this MTB rite of passage, so you might as well embrace it. From those of us who have experienced the worst, find out how to minimise the chance of it happening to you – and how to handle yourself once, inevitably, it does.
“There are two types of mountain bikers,” orthopaedic surgeon Dr Sirk Loots told Pete Tyler, moments before he was wheeled into the operating theatre. “Those who have broken a collarbone, and those who are going to break a collarbone…”
Tyler laughed. So did anaesthetist Rouan van der Leek; between them, the three have notched up four fractured collarbones while mountain biking. Dr Loots has broken his twice; Van der Leek and Tyler once apiece. Tyler was having a plate inserted.
I was there when he became a member of the broken collarbone club. We were taking part in an MTB race in Simonsvlei, last year, and were cruising down a long, gravelly descent, when – badabing-badaboom-badabump – Tyler went flying over the handlebars. He hit the dirt hard – so hard that he made a sickening, Tom- and-Jerry-like ‘ thud!’ as he connected with the ground. He sat up, dazed – and clutching his left arm.
As we waited for the ambulance to arrive I had a flashback to my own brush with pain a few years earlier.
When I started mountain biking, I crashed a lot. I was full of bumps and roasties. And I bruised a couple of ribs a couple of times, which made sleeping unbearable ( laughing and just breathing weren’t that lekker either).
Despite my tumbles, my confidence grew; I was riding increasingly faster, and with more freedom. I’d never felt more confident on a bike: everything was clicking, I was one with my machine.
But one day, after nailing three dropoffs, I followed a mate down some steep rocky singletrack. I wasn’t expecting to crash. That was until I hit a sharp switchback, and skidded. My heart lodged in my throat. Time froze. In that flash, I knew for certain I was about to lose it – that hundredth of a second seemed to last an eternity.
I somersaulted over the handlebars, into a tree stump. That stump not only had bark – it also had bite. I was lying face down in the dirt, and when I managed to get up, I was quite shaky. My body hurt like hell, and my left hand tingled. I took a few deep but sharp breaths, got back on my bike, and rolled gingerly back to the parking lot.
I iced my hand when I got home, but when I tried to wiggle my fingers, lightning bolts of pain shot up them and into my arm. A trip to Casualty and an X-ray confirmed I had broken my hand.
I was booked off the bike for six weeks. The doctor could see what I was thinking, because he barked: “You get on a bike before then, and I’ll break your other hand.” I don’t think he was joking.
Like a teenage boy dumped by his first love, I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. I scrutinised, analysed and overanalysed every move, but my pileup remained a mystery. Was I riding too fast for my skill? Did I hit a rock? Grab a handful of front brake? All of the above?
I replayed the crash over and over in my head, from different angles and in slow motion, trying to figure out where I’d stuffed it up.
To no avail. For mountain bikers, crashing is as inescapable as breathing, or a Trump Twitter tantrum. If the philosopher Descartes had been a mountain biker, he would have proposed: I ride, therefore I am… going to crash.
My mate Moose says the thrill of mountain biking is knowing that every single time he throws his leg over the saddle, he might buy the farm – or at least lease it for a few months.
“It’s all about risk for reward,” he says. Moose says it’s not that he rides even though he will crash; he rides because he will crash.
CASHING IN ON CRASHING
A spin- off industry has grown around crashes – from doctors who specialise in patching riders back together, to sports rehab therapists, to indoor bike studios helping recovering riders maintain their fitness.
A weekend at a hospital emergency room is a revolving door of mountain bikers coming in with concussions, broken bones, punctured lungs and a variety of other injuries. A medical facility in Blaauwberg has named its X-ray machine ‘ The Hoogekraal’, as a tip of the hat to the scores of Western Cape mountain bikers who have broken bones at the MTB destination nearby.
I didn’t have to look far to find people to interview for a story on MTB crashes. There’s enough material right here in the Bicycling office: Mike, editor (two collarbones); Oli, gear editor ( back, collarbone); Myles, sales manager and downhill world champ (collarbone); Aaron, online editor (wrist, collarbone and arm); and me, deputy editor ( hand. And, of course, ego).
If crashing is inevitable – and it is – then breaking a bone is a rite of mountain-bike passage. And the bone of contention is the collarbone.
That’s according to academic research published in the British Medical Journal
(BMJ) in 2015, and the Cape Shoulder Institute, which reveals that clavicle breaks make up 45% of all recorded cycling-related fractures.
It’s also the most common injury Dr Loots sees. His practice is populated almost exclusively by injured cyclists – many of whom are repeat offenders, though there’s no ‘crash discount’.
The reason collarbone breaks are so common, he says, is because a crash happens so quickly, riders don’t have time to take their hands off the handlebars, so they land on their shoulders. Riders who manage to extend their arms – an instinctive attempt to protect the face – are likely to break their fingers or hands, because the outstretched arm takes the full force of the fall.
So, why do you crash? Because you’re middle- aged(ish) and male, claims a study published in the BMJ. The most commonly injured group is men between 30 and 39. Loots agrees; 90% of his patients are male, he says, because women don’t ride as aggressively or take the chances that men take. And younger people tend not to break bones as often, according to Loots, because when they fall, they roll like a ball and absorb the impact. Older riders are stiffer; their spines are rigid, and they fall like cubes.
Research conducted a decade ago noted a large number of abdominal injuries (spleen and liver), which were caused by MTBers going tummyfirst into their bar- ends when they crashed. Consequently, these handlebar extensions are a thing of the past; if you mention ‘ bar- ends’ to a young rider today, he thinks you mean the moment a pub runs out of beer.
Dr Loots, who has been operating since 2001 and riding since 1993 (and yes, he rides a Scalpel – I asked), says crashes happen when you least expect them. “Riders fall when they’re not concentrating. If you expect to crash,
you won’t – so always expect to crash!”
That’s how he earned his own battle scars. In addition to breaking his collarbone twice, he’s broken both wrists and two fingers. The fingers went going over the bars on the first day of a three- day stage race. That night he fashioned a splint out of wooden takeaway- coffee stir sticks, and rode the remaining stages – though to continue with broken bones is not the advice he’d give his patients.
What advice would the good doctor give? “If you’ve caught the biking bug, then you’d better learn to fall – and you learn by practising falling, and you practise falling by riding. Because if you ride a lot, you’ll fall a lot,” he says. “Roll, to soften the impact, and try not to break any bones – it’s just a nuisance, and a setback.”
According to Loots, the main reason people crash is almost always pilot error. We run out of skill, which causes us to panic and squeeze the front brakes. The bike stops – we don’t.
“Mountain biking has become so popular. More and more people are taking part in the sport, and a lot of them are older riders who never picked up the skills as laaities. Also, events have become very crowded, with people riding at different speeds, and trying to gun down singletracks and outrace and outdo each other – there are a lot more crashes than before.”
Loots knows that after an MTB event he will have patients to superglue together; but he also sees a lot of people who have injured themselves clowning around in parking lots, trying to bunnyhop over chains ( guilty, m’lud), or doing something reckless and impulsive because they’ve suffered a momentary lapse of reason ( I’m looking at you,
contributor Dave Moseley). Loots adds that bikes have improved – they’re lighter, with better suspension – which allows riders to go faster; but our skills haven’t kept up with the