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If you ride a bike, you’re almost definitely going to crash. Sorry about that.
When the inevitable bike crash occurs, first check and make sure you don’t have any major injuries—before you even get off the ground. If all of your limbs are attached and intact, and you’re not seeing three bikes where there’s only one, move quickly to a safe spot off the road or out of the way of other riders and start assessing.
As a physician for professional cycling teams, Dr. Michael Ross saw all kinds of cycling-related injuries. [Editor’s note: Dr. Ross died in 2019. This article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated.] He also heard cyclists insist that they were fine, only to watch them crumple back to the ground when they tried to stand.
The best thing you can do for yourself after a bike crash, Ross said, is to take your time getting up and moving around. You don’t need to jump back on your bike as fast as possible—slow down and assess the damage to yourself and your bike before pedaling off. “Before you start riding, can you walk around?” he asked. “Can you move your arms in all directions? Can you look up, down, left, and right without any pain?” Take a minute and assess, then decide whether you can pedal off—or need to wait for help.
Basic First Aid
Before anything else—even before you get up—check your body. Can you feel all of your limbs, are all bones still under your skin, and is there a lot of blood? Don’t risk moving too much if you feel seriously injured: instead, call for help and seek medical attention. Ross said that if you can lift your bike without major pain, your upper body is fine, and if you can walk, you can probably pedal out of the woods. “All joints should move and be able to bear weight,” he added.
Checking to see if you bent or cracked your helmet is a quick way to assess whether you hit your head on a ride, Ross said. “If you can remember this article, you’re probably okay!” he said. If you have a concussion, you’ll probably be disoriented and confused; if you don’t know where you are right away, it’s likely you’ve got one. “When you’re riding along, you have all these endorphins and feel really good, so take the time to settle down to check how you’re really feeling,” he added.
If your body is okay—just bruised or slightly banged up—you can move on to assessing your bike. When Scott Kelly, who has been a head mechanic for pro cycling teams, is working the pit at a race and a rider comes running in with a banged-up bike, he looks for a few key things:
Wheels: Typically, the wheels take the brunt of the crash and incur the easiest problems to diagnose. Regardless of how you crashed, Kelly recommends checking that the tires hold air, that the wheels are true, that there are no broken spokes sticking out, and that the brakes—cantilever or disc—haven’t jammed up. Once that’s done, you can give components a once-over.
Components: Kelly always checks the position of the brake levers and shifters on any bike after a crash. He says it’s usually easy to push them back into place, but you don’t want to ride away only to realize your lever is so tilted that it’s hard to grab. He also checks for a bent derailleur hanger before he shifts gears, since it could snap as soon he clicks the shifter. Then, examine the chain: Is it jammed, are there any frozen links, and is it still in one piece? Finally, just do a quick check on your saddle to make sure it’s still firmly attached to your seatpost.
Frame: The last thing Kelly checks is the bike frame, inspecting carefully for cracks or deep scratches. This becomes more important on a carbon frame, since a crack can quickly turn into a serious problem as you pedal away, whereas bends and cracks in aluminum or steel frames tend to be more forgiving.
It’s important to have everything you’ll need in case of a bike crash—especially when you’re planning an adventure to the middle of nowhere. Always carry basic bike tools—a multitool, chain link, spare tube, and mini-pump, at the least—plus a few basic first aid supplies, like a large bandage and some Ace wrap, so you can create a splint or secure gauze (or a wadded-up baselayer) to cover a wound.
Mitigate your risks so that when you do crash, it’s not a cause for blind panic.
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