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Wipeout in Turn Four! What Causes a Crash?

By Ian Lurie

Almost 15 years ago now, I was in a club for-fun race. Two or three (maybe four?) of us were off the front, trying to get away from the pack, when suddenly I found myself on the ground, pretzeled around my bicycle.

Dazed, I looked around, trying to remember what was going on. It went like this:

Ian's Brain: Where am I?
Ian's Body: OUCH.
Ian's Brain: Hmmm. There's a bicycle here. I be riding.
Ian's Body: OW OW OW OW.
Ian's Brain: Oh, and look at all those people screaming at me. Maybe this is a race. Did I win?
Ian's Body: Uh-oh.
Ian's Brain: Hey, check that out. Fifty bikes coming towards me at 25 mph. Neat.

The Fifty Bike Crash, as it became known, has lived on in the annals of the bike shop I worked in at the time.

Friends later told me what happened: I was rotating off my turn at the front of the paceline. The next rider in line swerved to avoid a pothole, 'hooking' my front wheel with his back wheel. I crashed, but was too slow to get up, and the hard-chasing pack came around the corner and rode right over me. Most of them fell in the process, too.

Crashes are nasty. Fun for the crowd, maybe, but trust me, they just suck. So, what causes them?

Usually one of four things:

  • Rider error: This is an awfully broad category, and not totally fair. The rider that crashed me didn't have a lot of choice. If he'd ridden through the pothole he likely would have crashed, too, and taken me with him. If he'd been a Lance-like bike handler, maybe he could've hopped over the hole, or swerved to the inside, but we were already a sharp turn. Nevertheless, things happen. Riders will lose focus for a moment, make the wrong choice when faced with a darting dog or broken glass, or spend too much time mugging for the camera.
  • Equipment failure: Some of the most common crashes I saw were caused by sew-up tires rolling right off the rim. Sew-ups are mounted on flat rims and held on partly by glue. Use too much glue (or too little), and the tire is liable to roll off in a sharp turn. The result is a wipe out. Other equipment failures include broken chains, which can make you tip over on a climb, frames falling apart (anyone remember the Vitus Aluminum frameset?), and improperly tightened handlebars. Hey, I'm not making this up.
  • The Crowd: Sometimes someone will stick out an elbow, or step onto the course, or just get a little too enthusiastic with that sign they're waving, and it'll catch a rider off guard, as it did Lance Armstrong.
  • The Weather: Rain, wind, and even snow can show up without warning. That can make conditions suddenly slippery, or blinding, or who-knows-what.

Prevention

So, how do you prevent a crash? It's not easy. A few things that can help you get through a sticky situation, though:

  • Relax. If you ride with your arms and shoulders relaxed, other riders can literally bounce off you and you won't fall. Many riders train on rollers for this very reason.
  • Be alert. Sounds like a no-brainer, but it's easy to lose focus after an hour or two, or three.
  • Be smooth. When riding in a group, don't do anything sudden. Point out potholes, glass and other obstacles. Don't swerve, slam on your brakes or do anything else that might take that rider 2 feet away by surprise.

Mitigation

OK, but crashes are inevitable. If you ride for fun, chances are you'll take a spill. If you race, it's almost guaranteed. Here's what you do to make sure the damage isn't serious, and you can walk away smiling:

  • Wear. A. Helmet. If you don't wear a helmet, you're insane. Sorry. But that's it. Helmets today are comfortable, keep you cool, and are superlight. But they can make the difference between a trivial crash and permanent injury. And don't tell me that you don't need one because you don't race: If you are standing still and fall over, a helmet can save you from brain damage.
  • Get up. If you do take a minor spill, get back on the bike. Trust me. Riding slowly home, or back to the team tent, will reduce the soreness you feel the next day.
  • Clean up. If you got road rash or other scrapes or scratches, clean 'em out as fast as possible. That'll reduce the chance of infection and speed healing.
  • See a doctor. Don't take chances. If you feel at all 'off' after a fall, get checked out. Worst that happens is you were careful. It's your body - you only get one.

The Story's End

I was fine, by the way, even after getting pelted by about 100 wheels. But my friends insisted that I see the paramedic that was there. She asked me the usual questions: Where are you? What are you doing? Who's this?

I was fine until she asked me who I was. That was a stumper.

The doctor at the hospital said I'd suffered a minor concussion. He also showed me my helmet. It was cracked into 4 pieces. He had no doubt I would've had a major skull fracture, or worse, without it.

Avoid crashes where you can. Prepare for them always. And take care of yourself after.

About the Author
Ian Lurie has been a bike messenger, competitive cyclist, bicycle tourist and occasional Phred. He now lives in Seattle, where he serves as a tow truck for his kids.