QUESTION: I recently ended up in a bike crash, and fell pretty hard. I fortunately wasn’t hurt too badly, but now I’m nervous about riding again. How can I get over that? —J.J.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: What you are feeling is not uncommon. But many riders find that in cases where they can see in retrospect that the accident was caused by operator error, figuring out what they did wrong and deciding how they will avoid that mistake in the future is a big help toward getting back on the bike.
One of my more spectacular crashes happened because I jammed on my brakes while descending at high speed. That led me to learn more about braking and panic stopping. Admittedly, on my first steep descent days after healing from that crash, I tensed up and felt uneasy, but my better understanding of braking helped to mitigate that nervousness, and after maintaining better control over several descents, the uneasiness left me.
Of course, not every crash is the cyclist’s mistake, particularly those precipitated by another rider doing something dangerous in front of you or a driver behaving badly. And even in cases where no one else was involved, you can’t always find some behavior to correct. I was riding on a cold winter day when, while turning a corner, I hit a patch of black ice and flopped over, cracking a rib. Since black ice on asphalt is nearly impossible to see, and since I came upon it suddenly, I couldn’t, while mentally debriefing the mishap, at first think of a way I could have avoided it — short of not riding when the temperature is below freezing.
But it did finally occur to me that there was something I could do. The flop was so sudden that I didn’t have time to twist my feet out of my clipless pedals, but I thought that if I hadn’t been clicked in, I might have been able to get a foot down to stop the fall. I was already riding an older bike I reserved for cold and sloppy weather, so I put flat pedals on that bike. I never hit black ice again, but the pedal switch gave me some confidence that I at least had a chance if I did.
But whether the crash was self-caused or the fault of something or someone else, take the time necessary off the bike to recover physically. Use that time not only to heal yourself, but also to examine your bike. After any accident, you should give your bike a full checkup to ensure that it was not damaged — the failure to do that can leave you open to another mishap if the bike malfunctions. If you’re not comfortable working on your bike yourself, you can have it inspected at a bike shop, but dealing with the bike’s “injuries,” whether yourself directly or by hauling it to a shop, can broaden your focus so that you are not dwelling only on your newfound fear.
When you are ready to attempt riding again — even if nervously so — do it on your own terms. Start by temporarily limiting your riding to a safer environment — perhaps a paved flat trail — or keeping your speed down or by practicing the maneuver that went awry but at a slower speed. For example, if you came off the bike while cornering, read or watch some online information about safe cornering and then practice it on a low traffic road until you start to feel confident again.
Naturally, it’s important to remain upright on your bike as much as possible, and most cyclists do so most of the time. But we who live to ride and ride to live know it’s also important not to let fear of the occasional (and perhaps inevitable) fall keep us out of the saddle. Bicycling contributes much to what is good in life, and nothing good comes without at least minimal risk.
Be smart about it, of course. Wear a helmet, obey traffic laws, think like a driver (and assume the drivers around you aren’t thinking about their driving), develop your bike handling skills and ride at speeds suitable for the road conditions.
Make whatever reasonable concessions you must to staying upright, but don’t let concern about a possible crash rob you of the much more certain joy of cycling.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.