Hitting The Pavement — How To Survive The Crash And Live To Tell About It

If you ride a bike long enough, sooner or later you will fall, dump, crash, eat it, kiss the pavement, auger in, endo, lay it down, hit the dirt.


Accept The Fact That Bicycling is Dangerous

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 500,000 people are treated for injuries from bicycle accidents each year.  And, each year over 700 people die from bicycle-related injuries. Let’s face it: bicycling is an inherently dangerous form of recreation and transportation.  What makes it so dangerous?  Consider these factors:

1. Bicyclists wear very little protective gear — most cyclists only wear a helmet and regular clothes when riding (and some bicyclists don’t even wear a helmet when they ride!).

2. Bicyclists ride in unsafe conditions — many cyclists ride in the early morning or late afternoon/early evening when visibility is low; cyclists will often ride in rain and fog where road surfaces become slick; cyclists are often forced to ride in traffic lanes, sharing roadways with fast-moving cars and large trucks.

3. Bicyclists disobey traffic laws — many cyclists ride through controlled intersections without stopping; many cyclists ride against the flow of traffic.

The sad truth is that even the bicyclist who wears a helmet and body armor, rides in the middle of day in perfect weather, and obeys all traffic laws will eventually come in contact with the ground.  Sucks, don’t it?

Acknowledge That You Can Reduce The Risks

We love cycling so much, that we accept the risks, tuck them away in the back of our minds, and gleefully go about blowing through intersections, bombing steep and narrow trails, drifting over the double yellow line through blind corners, riding without a helmet, and not paying attention to the car behind us, the wheel in front of us, the contents of the street gutter on our right side, and the weaving teammate on our left side.

So, accept the fact that you will crash.  And, if you have already crashed, accept the fact that you will crash again.

Do not despair!  Just as changing a flat tire is part of the cycling experience, so is crashing.  But, there are ways to minimize your crash risk as well as mitigate the effects of a crash.  Here are a few helpful strategies:

Wear a helmet, sunglasses, gloves, and close-toed shoes while riding – while these items will not stop you from crashing, they will help protect important parts of your body when you crash.

Behave like a vehicle — obey all traffic laws and in certain situations ride aggressively/assertively by ‘claiming’ a travel lane, signal before turning, and letting motorists know you know where they are in relation to your position on the road.

Be aware of your surroundings — develop 360-degree awareness of what is around you at all times including vehicles, other cyclists, pedestrians, road debris, shadowed areas, uneven road surfaces, ‘escape’ routes or vectors, animals near the edge of the bike path or roadway and learn to trust your intuition (i.e. “I think that guy in the SUV is going to turn right at that intersection just ahead of me.  I’d better check the lane to my left and slow down a bit just in case…”)

Learn how fall! — This sounds easy, but it’s not.

You Can Survive The Crash

What separates the cyclist from most other athletes is mental and physical toughness.  Bicycling is not an easy sport.  It takes years of fitness gains and technique development to get to the point where you can actually enjoy a long ride.  Just as you learn how steer, brake, and pedal, you must also learn how to crash. Or, more specifically, you must learn how to fall.

In general, there are two types of crashes in cycling.  The first and most common type of crash occurs with the cyclist’s body remaining attached/connected to the bicycle.  We’ll call this type of crash “an unseparated crash.” An unseparated crash usually happens at slower speeds and may even occur while the bike is motionless (yeah, that’s embarrassing). The second type of crash occurs with the cyclist’s body separating from the bicycle.  We’ll call this type of crash “a separated crash.” A separated crash usually happens at higher speeds where the disruptive forces applied to the bicycle and rider are great enough to forceably remove the hands from the handlebars and shoes from the pedals.  In some situations an unseparated crash may turn into a separated crash.  This can happen with purpose or completely by accident (no pun intended here).  However, a separated crash will never turn into an unseparated crash.  Really?  Yeah, really – unless you’re in a video game.

In an unseparated crash, it is best to try to keep the bicycle between you and the pavement or trail.  An uncontrolled slide on the road or trail is an example of an unseparated crash where you should try to stay on top of the bike.  We will be writing a complete article on how to survive an unseparated crash.  Since this article is focused on general crash prevention and the mitigation of crash-related injuries, we will continue onto the separated crash.  In a separated crash, you cannot use the bicycle to slow your speed, steer you towards the grassy median, or absorb the impact of a fall because you are either flying through the air or rolling on the ground. So, in an unseparated crash, you must rely on your instincts and body position to help reduce the imminent injuries.

Let’s look at an example of a separated crash.  You are riding on the road and car backs out of a driveway into street in front of you.  You attempt to break, but your momentum carries you into the side of the car.  Your bike hits the car and you are launched from the seat of your bicycle.  You are cartwheeling through the air.  The ground is approaching quickly.  No grass in sight, just pavement.  What should you do?  Here’s a quick analysis of the situation:

While you are in the air –

Pull your arms and legs into your body and tuck your chin into your chest.  Your initial reaction will be to try to get your arms in front of you.  Bad move. Fight that instinct and curl yourself into a ball.

Exhale. Get the air out of your lungs before it is forceably expelled by the impact of your body hitting the ground.  With empty lungs you are able to tighten your diaphragm and further protect your ribs from the impending impact.

Close your eyes. You can reduce the psychological trauma of the crash by closing your eyes.

That’s about all you will have time to do before hitting the ground.

When you hit the ground –

Keep your arms and legs pulled into your body and keep your chin tucked into your chest.  Resist the urge to uncurl your body upon impact.

Roll.  Rolling is always better than splatting.  Rolling disburses impact energy, splatting absorbs impact energy.  Disburse = good; absorb = bad. Upon impact, keep your arms and legs pulled into your body and you will roll.  Letting your arms and legs flap and flail guarantees that you will splat.

Keep your eyes closed.  If your sunglasses come off while you are airborne or if the force of your body hitting the ground sends your shades flying, it will be especially important to keep your eyes closed.  Sharp objects and debris are the enemies of our eyesight.

Keep yourself curled into a ball until you stop rolling.  When you come to a stop, begin breathing again.

When you stop rolling –

Open your eyes.  Look around without moving you head or uncurling your body. Attempt to determine where you landed.  If you are somewhere dangerous (in the middle of a street full of moving cars, on the edge of  cliff), prepare to move.

Do a self-check.  Relax your body but do not uncurl.  Breathe in.  Breathe out. What hurts?  Slowly raise your chin from your chest.  Slowly unwrap your arms from around your body.  Slowly extend your legs.  If there is any sharp pain resulting from these movements, stop them immediately.  Await help.  If you perform all these movements with no pain, stay on the ground but determine your position.  If you are in the middle of the road and you are able to move, get to the curbside.  If you are at the curb and you are able to move, get onto the sidewalk or shoulder.

Move.  If you are able to breathe and move with no serious pain, get out of the roadway.  Lay down and do not take off your helmet.  If you have friends with you, ask them to call your husband/wife/significant other.  If you are alone and have a cell phone, call your husband/wife/significant other.  It is important to let someone know where you are and what has happened.

In most cases, an unseparated crash results in road rash, bruises, lacerations, and sprains.  In some cases, concussions and broken bones occur.  Learning how to fall in this way will help prevent serious injuries.  Want to practice how to fall in this way?  Well, that’s kinda hard to do unless you want to repeatedly crash your bike into a parked car.  However, you can practice curling your body into a ball so you know what it feels like when in that contracted position.  Simply lay on the floor, bring your knees up to your chest, wrap your arms around your knees, and tuck your chin into your upper chest.  Then, roll around on the floor pretending to be a kickball.  Isn’t that fun?  No?  Well, it’s better than being in a body cast for two months.  Just sayin’.


About The Author


Aaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita Regional Amateur Team.  A 25-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.

Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work.  He has even won a bike race or two.

Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at:



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