Editor’s Note: As mentioned last week, we’ll start the process this week of providing some instruction and ideas on how to prevent crashes by talking in some detail about the crash history of the RBR Crew – along with the Lesson(s) learned from some of those crashes. The idea is to lay out some of what we recognize as our own mistakes or various situations that led to crashes so that RBR readers can avoid those same mistakes or dicey situations.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll key on some of the specific situations, mistakes, etc., that we’ve identified as common to some types of crashes, and we’ll provide some specific articles that discuss skills that might help you avoid a crash, or at leastcome out of a crash better off than you might have otherwise.
For today’s article, I asked RBR Crew members a series of questions about their own crash histories (Ever crashed? Or know someone who has? How did you (or they) crash? What were the circumstances? Anyone (or anything) obviously at fault? What lesson did you learn?). Their responses follow.
As part of this package, today’s Question of the Week asks about how readers have crashed, with a list of selections of types of crash. Again, the idea is to see if there’s a common thread (or threads) running through this topic, so that we can use the information to provide useful follow-up.
Finally, we welcome and encourage readers to share your own crash stories and any “teachable moments” you can draw from them. We are a community of roadies, and any tips we can share with each other to help each other be safer on the road are worthwhile.
My worst crash occurred before we were smart enough to wear helmets. Had I worn one, the injuries I suffered that day wouldn’t have been nearly as bad – and they wouldn’t still be nagging me today. The accident happened from lack of communication between me and the guy I was riding with. We were bombing down a hill at 35 mph. We both knew about the turn we had to make partway down. But he thought we were going right and I thought we were going left – and I ran smack into his rear wheel when we banked in different directions setting up to turn.
The impact stuffed my front wheel between his rear wheel and seatstay and launched me over the bars. A skilled track racer, my friend held his line, dragging my bike behind him down the hill, fighting for control and trying to stop. Meanwhile, my Superman flight ended with my head pinned on the pavement, held there by the full weight of my body because I landed upside down with my feet facing down the hill. I’ll never forget the feeling of my skull bouncing on the blacktop as I slid on my back down the hill to a stop.
The result was momentary paralysis, a pretty serious gash in my head plus neck and back injuries – all because we were too dumb to actually make sure we knew which direction we were turning.
The takeaway for me was to always make sure to know where you’re turning or at least never assume you know. If you don’t, ask, or wait and watch. And never lead if you don’t know which way the ride turns.
My second-worse crash, resulting in a broken hip, was caused by black ice – as the result of another stupid mistake on my part. Again, I was out with a roadie friend, mostly enjoying ourselves though the big thermometer on the bank we passed blinked 22 degrees, frigid for our home base of Santa Cruz, California.
When we stopped to warm up a bit, my friend, also named Jim, suggested that what we needed to do was head over to Eureka Canyon, an 11-mile climb nearby – so that we could warm up from the effort. “Brilliant!” says I, never stopping to think about the consequences of what turned out to be a really dumb idea.
We did the climb and warmed up just fine. But neither of us thought about it being even colder higher up, or about the possibility of black ice on the road. The black ice took me down and broke my hip. Jim was behind, saw me go down and rode off the pavement and onto the dirt to remain upright.
Consider how conditions may be different at different altitudes or geographic locations, or based on already “iffy” conditions where you are. Use weather apps – and your brain – to decide whether a ride might become unsafe because of the weather or specific conditions.
Two less painful crashes that taught Lesson(s) happened while I was actually trying to stay safe. On a weekly group ride, we were riding in a single paceline and slowing to cross railroad tracks straight on, one rider at a time. The 4th rider ahead of me fell on the tracks, then the 3rd, then the 2nd guy. I watched this and was still 100% sure I wasn’t going to crash.
But I fell just as hard as the others. It turned out that the tracks were covered in motor oil and even crossing straight, you couldn’t ride over them.
Even something that is usually safe can, for unforeseen reasons, become unsafe. If you see other riders having the same problem, try your best to avoid the situation – don’t think your incredible skills are so much better than theirs.
The other crash was a strange one. Approaching an abrupt little rise after a sharp right turn, I shifted from my 53 chainring to the 39 and simultaneously stood to prepare for the climb. I didn’t have enough momentum and had to get going a little faster. Unfortunately, the chain refused to find the 39 and the pedals spun beneath me. I lost balance and fell awkwardly. I’m still not sure how, but the large chainring cut my calf pretty badly.
That crash was a reminder to me that I can’t shift anytime I want. I need to anticipate and shift at the appropriate time. But I bet I make that mistake again sometime because shifting is so automatic, and I don’t always think about it.
Coach Rick Schultz
My biggest crash was at the bottom of a hill. I stopped to help out someone that had their quick release on backwards, and their front wheel was loose.
After fixing his issue, I took off again, and to this day I am not sure what happened. Either the back wheel lost traction in some sand or the worn rear cassette skipped a gear. All I know is that when I woke up, I was lying in the gutter with the bike under me, the top tube having cracked several ribs.
Since I’m still not sure how or why I crashed, I’m left with the thought that maybe I simply had lost concentration after helping the other roadie. Maybe I was fixated on thinking about his situation and wasn’t focused on the descent like I should have been.
I have two hard-and-fast rules. One, never take a wheel of someone I don’t know or trust. Two, if there’s a squirrelly rider in a group, stay far away or do my best to drop them.
With that said, in all my years of road riding I’ve only crashed once (hope this doesn’t jinx me), but unfortunately have seen my fair share of crashes.
My particular crash was only at about 15-16 mph. There were only three of us on a quiet side road, a very familiar route we did weekly. I was riding two abreast, chatting with a rider on my left. We took a left-hand turn, because going straight led to a dead end. As we were turning the rider on my left decided this wasn’t the correct route and quickly turned back to the right, t-boning me. It felt like it was in slow motion as I tried to regain my balance in the middle of a turn. I almost had it but ended up going down hard. I walked away with road rash on my hand, elbow and knee, as well as two badly bruised ribs. But the bike was OK!
Communicate your intentions before doing anything in close proximity to another rider that might put your fellow rider in danger. That could include turning, standing, slowing abruptly, etc. If the rider who turned into me had voiced his concerns first, I maybe could have gotten out of his way.
The crashes I’ve witnessed in my group rides have common threads. It’s either someone overlapping wheels or riding beyond their ability. We all know not to overlap wheels, but even the most experienced riders sometimes do it.
But I constantly see riders try to hang with the “A” group. They push themselves above the max of their ability, gasping for breath just to hang on. Exhausted, their head drops so they aren’t fully paying attention, plus their reaction time is decreased. That’s when silly mistakes are made and riders crash.
Obviously, avoid overlapping wheels. But learn what to do if, and when, you do happen to overlap. [That will be the topic of one of our upcoming “teachable moments” articles.] And, sure, try to push yourself if you want, but keep it within the realm of reason. If there’s no possible way you can hang with a group, accept it and find a group that’s a better fit for your abilities. Wearing yourself to the nub can be hazardous to both you and your fellow riders.
Coach John Hughes
My worst crash was about 8 p.m. on June 30, 1989. I was 3 hours into a 24-hour training ride for the Race Across America. I was riding alone – my crew chief was to meet me in about 30 minutes and drive behind me all night. I’d just ridden over Altamont pass east of Oakland, California, and was cruising eastward on my aerobars with a great tailwind.
I regained just a little consciousness in the ER in Stockton, California, where I had multiple transfusions. I was rescued by paramedics in a helicopter and nearly died from blood loss on my way to the ER. They stabilized me and wanted to do surgery to repair my crushed left leg in a couple of days. I insisted that I was an athlete and didn’t want a local doc to do it – I wanted the best orthopedic surgeons available. I was transferred to the UC hospital in Sacramento, where my left leg was rebuilt with 3 plates and 11 screws. (Fortunately they’re titanium, so they don’t alert metal detectors at airports.) The surgeon said it was one of the few orthopedic emergencies he’d ever seen.
I learned a truck entering the highway from my left had hit me and knocked me 80 feet. The driver told the California Highway Patrol he had stopped at the stop sign but didn’t see me with the sun setting behind me. He was cited by the highway patrol. No way he knocked me 80 feet if he was starting from a dead stop! The water company for which he was working at the time settled with me out of court. The truck destroyed my custom Richard Sachs ultra bike.
Never assume that another vehicle is going to obey the law. Ride defensively and never lose focus. I should have sat up with my hands near the brakes instead of staying on the aerobars. This still might not have saved me….
My second worst crash had a similar lesson. I was descending a hill going probably 30 mph. A road T-ed in from the right. A car stopped at the stop sign and then started forward and hit me. Just a collapsed lung and broken ribs this time. The driver said he didn’t realize how fast I was going.
Same lesson as before. Ride defensively and always be ready to bail. Watch a vehicle’s tires – that’s the first indicator of motion.
My first skin-to-asphalt encounter occurred when making a left turn at a stop light on my commute home from work. The left turn arrow changed to yellow before I entered the intersection and there was just enough time to stop, but instead I accelerated hard to make the light. It was summer and had just rained enough to wet the roads, but not wash away all the oil/gas from the road surface.
At speed I leaned into the turn and immediately both wheels lost traction and I went down on my left side, sliding across the intersection for what seemed like forever. I quickly got out of the middle of the intersection and assessed the damage. A little scrape on the side of my calf. Not a scratch on my shorts. Scuffed up bar tape. I was lucky.
Don’t make poor decisions because you are in a hurry. And pay attention to road conditions. That time right when it starts raining is often the slickest. I compounded the bad decision of trying to speed through the light with the equally poor recognition of that fact.
My second crash was a sweeping left turn at the bottom of a hill on a solo ride. I was riding on the generous shoulder and didn’t notice the sand and gravel on the pavement. In the middle of the turn my rear wheel started sliding out and I was able to correct and gain control but by then I was at the edge of the pavement and both wheels dropped off 4 inches (10 cm) and I was slammed to the pavement on my left side. Bloody hand and shredded hip, butt hanging out of a gaping hole in my bibs. Had to extricate my fender from my rear wheel and slowly ride home.
Once again, pay attention to road conditions. The more general lesson, perhaps, is to maintain focus.
I’ve also had two car interactions and both were on my bike commutes. Both in daylight, with bright front-facing flasher.
The first time was a morning commute, just at sunrise with the sun directly behind me. A guy made a quick left turn in front of me, but saw me at the last minute and braked, but too late, as I bounced off his front end. I was scraped up but otherwise OK. He said he was basically blind looking into the sun, so he just went for it.
Not a crash but similar sun situation . . . I was riding into the setting sun and a car passed me really close and then he slowed down and waited for me to catch up. As I caught up with him and braced for the yelling, he nicely informed me that I was invisible due to the sun. I thanked him and immediately turned onto a side road.
Pay attention to light conditions when riding at dawn or dusk, especially, but also when it gets dark because of rain or storms.
The final run-in with a car was a car pulling out in front of me from a side street. I was in a bike lane going about the same speed as rush hour traffic. A couple blocks ahead the light turned red and traffic started to slow. I was watching the car on the side street and he looked my way, waved with a friendly smile – and then pulled out right in front of me.
I barely had time to touch the brakes before I slammed into his driver side door and cleanly removed his driver side mirror. My bike was fine, but my shoulder was sore for weeks. Turns out he was not waving at me, but thanking the driver who stopped short and waved him into traffic. He never bothered to look up the street for bikes because the other driver gave him the “go ahead” wave.
Slow-moving traffic and fast-moving bikes requires extra caution.
In both the above car collisions, I called the police so the crashes could be officially reported, and both drivers stopped and were very nice/helpful. Both drivers were issued citations.
As I mentioned in the article that got this series started, I’ve had two significant crashes over my years of riding. And I’ve appreciated the chance to revisit both from the perspective of the factors that may have helped cause them – especially after reading about the various crashes among the RBR Crew. The entire process has actually helped me gain insight into my own crashes. (I hope it does the same for you!)
The first crash happened several years ago, on my annual birthday ride. I was riding on a dedicated bike path at Stone Mountain Park. My birthday that year, as it often does, coincided with spring break week for much of the Atlanta area. That always means big crowds of adults and kids at Stone Mountain, and lots of extra cars.
Despite the crowds, I was having a nice, normal ride and was finishing a lap around the Mountain on the bike path, which is right next to a pedestrian path (together, they were carved out of one lane of the 5-mile road that circles Stone Mountain.) Right next to the bike-pedestrian path is a wide sidewalk. The pedestrian path is between the bike path and the sidewalk.
As I was coming up a rise just after a short downhill, a 10-year-old boy walking a dog darted off the sidewalk, across the pedestrian path and directly into the bike path. Before darting off the sidewalk, the boy had glanced to his right to see if any cars were coming in the vehicle lane, but he never looked left before making the leap. I managed to avoid both the boy and the dog, but the leash between them snagged my head tube, and I hit the pavement all along my right side. I ended up with a deep thigh bruise, a scraped-up knee, elbow and top of the shoulder, and a separated shoulder.
I should not have been riding “normally.” I knew the park was full of people and cars, and I should have dialed it back, and doubled down on my focus. Instead, I let my birthday exuberance and desire to have a good, hard ride on my big day cloud my judgment. As others have previously mentioned re: the weather, traffic, etc., we all must ride appropriately according to the conditions at hand. And if those conditions warrant it, we need to be even more focused on potential hazards. I failed on both counts.
My second bad crash happened almost exactly a year ago, when I rolled over a wide white stripe in a fast curve just starting a short descent. Even though it was a dry day, my tires washed out instantly, sending me sprawling backward and to the left, hard into the pavement. I slammed directly onto the point of my left shoulder and fractured my clavicle into five pieces, and smashed up my helmet – but not my head. (A riding buddy who was close behind me and watched it unfold told me he saw my head bounce on the pavement – that’s what worried him most. But it was fine.)
I’ve puzzled over exactly what happened that day, coming to the conclusion that even though it was a warm, dry day, perhaps a car’s air conditioner had dripped condensation on the white stripe, making it wet. But there may be a simpler explanation, according to a comment from Premium Member Kerry Irons to my original article a couple weeks ago. He wrote: “While that pavement stripe might have had water from a car’s AC, it also might have just had a different coefficient of friction compared to the pavement. While most likely it was slipperier than the pavement, just the change in traction might have triggered the fall.”
So my take-away is this: I was feeling great that day and pushing it pretty hard (once again, within a week of my birthday; I need to be super careful around that time!). So hard that I carved that curve sharper than normal, rolling over that white stripe that I normally would not get near. In hindsight, I should have slowed down and not gone so hard into that curve. And, more importantly, I learned the corollary to “avoid all painted stripes on the road when wet.” Actually, they can also be dangerous when dry if you hit them while in a curve.
We look forward to hearing your lessons learned in the Comments below.
John Marsh is the former editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of "less than podium" talent, he brought our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That's what we're all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John's full bio.