The Un­de­ni­able Inevitabil­ity Of The Crash


Bicycling (South Africa) - - INSIDE - BY JONATHAN ANCER

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.


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

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