A Bike Crash

Friends and family of athletes who competed at Ironman Tremblant returned to training sessions this week and shared stories from the weekend. Unfortunately, one story didn’t end as desired… the athlete who was attempting to complete their second iron distance triathlon crashed out on the bike course sustaining numerous injuries to their head and torso. It goes without mention that friends of the athlete returned distraught.

Well… what is the normal course of conversation when we hear that someone had an accident?

We start to ask questions: how did it happen, what were the conditions, were there any circumstances that added to the risks in the moment, and so forth.

At the end of our training practice, after most of the athletes had already made their way to the changerooms I was on deck with one athlete. After all the discussion about the bike crash, the trauma and the extensive recovery process that will be required for this athlete to return to life let alone any form of training, the athlete seemed stuck on all the questions asked and answered but more so on the questions that went without answer.

They came over to me and shared the following…

Isn’t interesting how we want to ask questions and get answers after someone has an accident.

They went on…

Its like we want an out for ourselves, a way to say… oh, well… they hit a pothole and that was the reason they fell… but, I would never hit a pothole, I would never be that careless, in short what we want to say is I would not have crashed. In that exact same scenario… I would have been fine, nothing would have happened to me, I would have completed the triathlon and it would have been an amazing weekend.

The athlete then went on to reflect that…

This accident doesn’t offer the comfort of being able to sweep the reality that if we were in that exact same scenario, that we would have had a different end to the story, because… the athlete who fell, fell without anyone else around, they weren’t hit, nor did they hit, nor was there any evidence of conditions either weather or road that would have predisposed a cyclist to a crash, and worst of all, the athlete has no recollection of the fall, none whatsoever.

So that leaves us how?

It leaves us with the uncomfortable position of not having a point on which to revel in superiority that would preclude us from having a bike crash in this scenario or any scenario.  It leaves us with the discomfort of having to reconcile that we too could crash, we too could DNF from a triathlon, we too could have significant injuries requiring hospitalization, weeks of recovery, weeks of rehab, weeks of being unable to return to the routine of our lives.

It leaves us with the uncomfortable reality that… it could just as easily happen to us.

Let’s stop and think… isn’t the reality that anything can easily happen to us, any time, any day?

If so, then what’s the issue when there aren’t answers to all the questions around an accident?

Let’s stop and think…

This one athlete was concerned, but other athlete’s weren’t as concerned, why?

My wife, my son, my daughter also heard about this athlete’s bike crash, but they didn’t get overly concerned with the lack of explanations, with the lack of available excuses allowing one to suggest that this couldn’t possibly happen to them.

What’s the difference?

Well, all of us in our family have had crashes, in fact if you add up all of our falls we would have a pile up of falls to discuss. Falls while mountain biking, falls while on paved roads while on our mountain bikes, while on our road bikes, falls while riding alone, one I can distinctly remember was in the rain on a slick hairpin, others while riding together, and so on. As I write this post, I still have 3 scabs on my left elbow, shoulder and hip, remnants of my most recent fall… while riding in a pace line, I 1/2 wheeled the rider in the lead and when they ended their pull, their wheel caught my wheel and down I went.

The other athletes that seemed distraught and uncomfortable with the lack of answers were all athletes who were either novices to cycling, or athletes who may have had miles in the saddle but I do not believe have ever had or experienced a fall, at least a fall that left its mark.

While thinking this through out loud, my wife reflected on the divergence in responses as well by reminding me that at a local bike shop, one of the sales guys recently broke his collar bone, as his brother described, because “he was acting like he was 16 again and doing crazy stuff in Christie Conservation Area”. Everyone in the store laughed at the story, especially when it was revealed that the injured athlete now has matching scars (he previously broke his opposite collar bone). My wife shared that no one in the store upon hearing the story of this bike crash was overly concerned with what the cyclist was doing, how big was the berm, the jump, the log, the drop off or whatever… no one was seeking or in search of answers. Surgery was performed to repair the fractured collar bone… and its on with life.

So what’s the difference?

The difference in responses is directly correlated to the level of experience of the athlete.

Athletes with little riding experience – they may have logged endless miles on Zwift, or even on the road but never actually having ‘felt’ the road – will be terrified of the thought of falling.

Athletes with little experience in a sport are going to want to believe that… they can avoid getting water up their nose, swallowing a wave of water, being underwater and needing to breathe yet they want to swim, they can avoid falling off their bike yet they want to be a cyclist, they can avoid having to run outside, avoid ever tripping and falling yet want to call themselves a runner.

Moral of the story…

To all novice athletes,

Instead of wasting energy, emotion, and the time attempting to build narratives that paint an idealistic picture that you will never [let’s stick to cycling] have a fall, never experience a fall, never cause a fall, never be caused to fall… how bout this: take all that energy, emotion and time and develop the skills, the technique and the capacity to do the sport.

If you want to do the sport, then do the sport and stop trying to figure out how to do the sport without doing the sport.

There is not one single performance level athlete in any sport that hasn’t fallen, tripped, strained, sprained, etc.. themselves as a result of training in the sport. Obviously, crash mats, helmets, protective clothing, foam pits, etc… should be used but even with all the optimal safety equipment in place, stuff happens… even to the pros.

I propose the following… embrace it [as in reality].

Stop pretending that it cannot and will not happen to you, stop bracing in preparation or anticipation of the risks just in case you may be wrong, and train instead [for reality].

That’s what it means to be an athlete… it means to train and by default training will inevitably lead you to having your own set of scabs, scars, and setbacks; but there is a difference.  Injuries sustained by pros are rarely fatal, terminal, career ending, yet interestingly enough similar injuries sustained by novice athletes who fail to acquire, develop, and train fundamental abilities are often disastrous. WorldTour team leader Richie Porte of Team BMC last year in the Tour de France fractured vertebrae in his neck as a result of a high speed crash. This year he was back in the Tour, where he again fell breaking a collar bone, but is scheduled to race in a few weeks in the Vuelta dEspana. Any novice involved in a similar crash to the one that fractured vertebrae in Porte would have likely ended up dead. That’s the difference. Having small controlled crashes in training prepares pro athletes for when major crashes happen.

Novice athletes, instead of running away from reality I propose that you embrace reality and start to train for it. It will make you a better athlete, it will make you a more confident athlete, and as a result I guarantee that you will perform far better. On top, your longevity in the sport will be at least double if not triple all those who do not train properly allowing you to out-last, thus out-train, thus out-podium others in your age category.

Most importantly, you will actually enjoy the sport because every time out on your bike you won’t be pissed scared about the risk of falling. Having embraced the risk of falling, having trained agility, balance, and coordination you know that your chances of jumping off or getting off your bike and avoiding a crash is more likely than ending up sliding down the road like cheese over a grater. And even if you do end up as cheese, by training and experiencing falls on a quasi regular basis you will know how to tuck and roll, how to slide, how to glide, how to fall, reducing the severity of falls, reducing the severity of injuries, reducing the chances that any one fall will be the end of you in the sport, or worse, the end of you period.