The Psychology of Crashing

Dealing with the aftermath of the inevitable…

Julian Alaphillipe creates a new sport fusing cycling with rock climbing at the 2016 Tour De France

When people learn about my passion for road cycling, their next comment often relates to the inherent dangers of my chosen pursuit, telling me how crazy I must be to take part in such a hazardous pasttime. What these people often don’t realise is that despite all the negative press, it has never been safer statistically to ride a bicycle on British roads at is today, even in major cities.

Yes, there is clearly a risk involved in road cycling, like most things, and not just from the worst thing about it: the motor vehicle. You soon learn as a cyclist that most drivers are actually pretty considerate anyway (at least where I live), and there is no point worrying about factors you have no control over. But even without other vehicles, descending at over 40mph on skinny tyres with nothing but lycra to protect you is always going to sting when things go awry.

If you ride a bike, then eventually you will fall off it, and usually it won’t be when you’re concentating hard, but at the most innocuous times when you let your guard down. That’s what happened to me. This is the story of my crashes.

The First Time
Photo 16-07-2016, 17 26 19My first crash eased me in gently. I had owned the bike about a month, Rolling along a quiet rural road, I neglected to take account of the damp surface and mossy covering, so when a rogue squirrel darted out unexpectedly  from the hedgerow and I jammed on the brakes to avoid killing it, I didn’t get the same stopping power I was used to on my disc-brake equipped mountain bike. Untangling myself from my frame, wondering what the hell had happened, a slightly bruised hip was the only damage done. I looked around…No-one had seen. Embarassment spared. No damage to my kit either. A successful crash.

The Big One
Those first few months saw a huge increase in my fitness and skill on the road bike, but I never rode outside my limits. Then one day, feeling strong, I went out for a quick ride before an afternoon shift. You know the kind of ride. Endless energy, effortlessly powering up hills, that inexplicable feeling of being in the zone which you can never replicate when you want to. As I was approaching home, I checked my watch and decided I had just enough time to try and reclaim a local KOM which had been stolen from me a week before by an unknown nemesis. Besides, with this form in my legs, it would be silly not to.

I hit the bottom of the climb, got off the saddle, and rode as hard as I could. I should have taken note of the general condition of the road on the way up, but I was too busy losing myself in the beautiful pain of the climb. My heart rate shot up to the max and I was breathing hard as I went over the summit victorious. I knew I had retaken the crown. I gave a smug nod to myself.

It was then that I made the mistake. As I turned the bike around to descend, I relaxed, the ride over. Or so I thought. My mind turned to work and what I had to do when I got home. Put the bike away. Upload ride. Eat. Shower.

As I began to pick up speed, my mind awash with these thoughts, for the briefest of moments the sunlight dappled through the trees to my right. The only thing I remember after that is the fleeting thought of looking down at my handlebars as I was kicked up over them by forces unknown, and I only had time for one quick word to go through my mind before the blackness enveloped me…..Fuck!

Photo 16-07-2016, 16 04 12 (1)
Note to self: Taking post-crash selfies does not make you more of a badass

The Aftermath
I had crashed about half a mile from home. The next thing I remember is coming around sat in my back garden, not knowing where I was, or who I was. That last part was genuinely scary. I remember wracking my brain to remember my own name, and after a few moments it came back to me. Right, next thing, what had happened and how did I get here? I started to replay the ride in my mind, and eventually the memories of the route returned, right up to the point of going over the bars. After that though, a large black hole of several minutes which has not come back to me even today.

I checked my injuries. My chin was grazed and my right shoulder was stinging, a few layers of skin taken off. My head throbbed and felt fuzzy. Most disappointingly, my replica Trek jersey had been ripped to shreds, and my helmet had a dent in it. Expensive. For some inexplicable reason (perhaps with Rule #5 in mind),  I then drove to work instead of to the hospital, before being ordered home and going to hospital to be diagnosed with concussion. The Doctor understood: He was a cyclist too, and gave me the name of a great guy who did bike fits.

That next week was horrible. Not just because it involved sitting in a darkened room, my brain hurting if I tried to watch TV or read anything, but because all I could think about was wanting to ride my bike again. This feeling was strange even to me at the time. Surely I should be calling it a day? I also realised in that week why (in my opinion) cyclists shave their legs. Picking matted hair out my wounds every day as I dressed them was not a pleasant experience, I must say. A tip: hydrocolloid dressings are great for healing road rash quickly without scarring.

After a few days I had the strength to check my Garmin and see where it had all gone wrong. The graph showed my speed ramping up to 30mph before the sudden flatline.The cluster of static GPS points showed I had been on the deck in the same spot for about 4 minutes. Sobering. It took another 2 weeks for me to get the courage to actually walk up the hill and find the disguised pothole I had obviously not seen on my way down. Bad luck? Yes, no doubt not helped by the sun dazzle, however I knew deep down that I had let my guard down, and made a mental note to never let it happen again.

Back In The Saddle
After 3 weeks I went out for my first ride since the crash. I felt vulnerable just being on the bike at first. I wanted to reach over and put a seatbelt on. Everything felt loud. The wind passing my face. The sound of a vehicle coming up behind me was deafening. Cars seemed to pass closer than they ever had before. I was naturally more cautious descending, and more aware of my speed. After that first ride though I found my mojo soon came back. I rationalised to myself that such crashes are rare and that I would make a conscious effort to be more aware of hazards when on the bike.

Lessons Learned
One thing that did play on my mind afterwards was the thought of someone coming across me lying in the road and not knowing who I was or notifying my family. I looked at various options and ended up buying a RoadID. This is a laser engraved bracelet with emergency details on. You can customise the text and even add your own motivational phrase. I like mine. It’s become a bit of a good luck charm and I never ride without it now (I once cycled back to my house 5 miles out after I forgot it).

Road ID: A great idea

I’ve crashed a mountain bike several times, and usually you just dust yourself off and carry on. The road bike is a different beast. Yes, you may slide gracefully over the tarmac as if it were a sheet of ice,just taking off a layer of skin and ruining your jersey in the process, but the higher speeds can mean concussions, and they’re no fun. Ultimately though, my love of cycling outweighs the risks, which is why I will continue to ride despite those rare times the wheel comes off (not literally, hopefully!).

Crashing sucks, but there are a few things you can do to minimise the risks and deal with the aftermath of a crash. Here’s my personal tips:

  • Ride with a positive mindset – believe in your own ability
  • Know your limits and ride within them
  • Always remain alert to changes in the road condition and watch out for dark patches on the road
  • Analyse the reasons for the crash: Is there anything you can learn from it?
  • Recover at your own pace…but don’t leave it too long to get back in the saddle
  • Accept that crashing is a part of cycling and most of the time you will pick yourself up and carry on

I wish you many happy miles of crash free riding.

Do you fear crashing? Does it affect the way you ride? Tell me about it below…

3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Crashing

  1. My first fall was when going from toe cages to cycling shoes. In slow motion, in front of a car at a stop sign. I laughed it off. I had a ‘fall count’ which went to 6, all in slow motion at lights or stop signs. That is, until I was training for my first triathlon. I was going 27mph on a good stretch of road, heard a horn sound to my left as a car overtook me, only to make a right turn directly in front of me. All I remember was saying ‘shit’ as I knew I was going to hit the rear quarter panel of the Volkswagon Passat. The next thing I remember was being in the rear of the ambulance, the medics cutting off my favorite Fat Cyclist jersey. Apparently I had asked them to cut along the seams so I could sew it back together. I didn’t do the tri and from then on, I can’t ride on the road alone.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It was in 2009 and I only have some road rash on my ankle to show for it. Driver wasn’t prosecuted because there was no damage to her vehicle and no witnesses except myself and the driver, although lots of people stopped after the fact.


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