Zen and the art of falling off a bicycle

Fucking bikesAmong my cycling friends, I have a bit of a reputation as a crasher. Like most reputations it is largely undeserved, based as it is on a single incident – it was a spectacular incident, I admit, which took the skin off one of my buttocks, broke my hand and left me needing an emergency run to hospital. But it happened just the once.

They think this so funny that one of them sent me this guide to Crashing for dummies the other week. If you can’t be bothered to click, it’s an illustrated guide to falling off a bicycle that features four common types of crash and guidance on how to survive them with minimal damage.

As anyone who has fallen off a bicycle knows, the guide is obviously entirely redundant – unless you are actually planning to crash (unsurprisingly it’s written by a stuntman). Fact is, if you come off a bike at 27mph, you just don’t have time to assess what’s happening and plan how to fall. It happens; you react instinctively. This usually involves sticking an arm out to break your fall and breaking either your arm or your collarbone or, indeed, both. Sticking an arm out is probably the worst thing you can do, but it’s what your body does. So the most common cycling injury (apart from ‘road rash’) is probably a broken collarbone.

In the five or six years I’ve been cycling, I’ve fallen off my bike three times (well four if you count the trackstand gone wrong at a red light on Tooting Broadway last week which led to an intimate encounter with a traffic cone).Twice I’ve been hit by cars doing things they shouldn’t; once I came off in a bunch sprint in one of my occasional races. This was entirely my fault and the source of my (undeserved) reputation as a crasher.

Incredibly, none of the crashes resulted in a serious injury. The first time I simply tumbled over the rear wheel arch of a car that turned left in front of me without indicating, rolled in the road and finished on my feet. The driver didn’t even realise he’d hit me. Apart from a bruised hip, I was fine.

Zombie faceThe second time, same thing. No indication, car turns left into my path, leaving me no time to brake and no room to swerve to avoid an impact. I clearly remember thinking “Oh, not again. Let’s get this over with” and I closed my eyes hoping that would somehow make it all go away. There was an impact, a pause and then my face scraping horribly against the road. I thought I’d broken my neck (and was taken to hospital in a neck brace), but it was only whiplash. To be fair, my face was so cut, bruised and swollen that I looked like an extra from a zombie film; but I wasn’t seriously hurt.

I’m convinced that if I’d tensed or put my arm out – if I’d seen what was coming and reacted to it – I would have broken something and hurt myself much more badly. But resignation to my fate saved the day.

It was a similar story with accident three, which was entirely my fault. It was my first (and so far only) circuit race at Hillingdon and there were around 90 riders squeezed onto the track in a great, tight bunch. As we approached the final corner of the final lap, I started to sprint, from the middle of the bunch.

There’s a reason experienced cyclists don’t do this. Think what it would be like trying to drive a car at speed through Piccadilly Circus in the rush hour. There just isn’t the room. However good your hand/eye co-ordination, you’re going to hit something or lose control. It’s inevitable. And so it was that I ran out of room and bounced off the track. I should have left it there and rolled to a stop on the grass. But the desire to win and all the hormones that accompany that was still there. So I bounced back onto the track – as you would, right? – lost control completely, closed my eyes and performed a spectacular somersault from one side of the track to the other.

The amazing is not that I was, by all accounts, about eight feet in the air at one point, but that I only took down two other cyclists. I crossed the entire track, from one side to the other, in the middle of a bunch sprint and only took down two other riders. I can only conclude that I actually bounced over most of the pack. What else could have happened?

Anyway, I landed on my front on the grass by the side of the track, stood up, felt a bit odd and sat down. At this point it occurred to me that something had happened to my bum. I couldn’t feel it for a start, and there wasn’t a great deal left of my new kit. So I lay on my side and the people who came to check I was ok all looked at my bare backside with one of those “Christ! That’s awful” expressions and sucked air into their mouths. Eventually, it started to hurt. Then it began to really really hurt. Then I almost passed out from the pain and went into shock. Then they called an ambulance. I still had no idea what had actually happened, since I can’t see my own backside. But I assumed it had come off, or something.

In fact, I’d scraped most of the skin off one of my buttocks. It was horrifically painful, but it was not a serious injury.Even the break in my hand was minor and didn’t stop me getting back on my bike within a week.

I’m either very lucky, or I’ve stumbled on something. Call it zen, call it what you like. But forget Crashing for dummies – just close your eyes, accept your fate and let it happen.

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5 thoughts on “Zen and the art of falling off a bicycle

  1. One of the big French ProTour teams makes their riders ride cyclo-cross. Lots of crashes and incidents at relatively low speeds on soft ground while wearing extra clothing for the cold. No real bunches either, so minimal knock on effect. They say it prepares them for the inevitable crashes that occur on the road.

    I will try closing my eyes for the last lap at Hillingdon next week though. It’ll be interesting.

    • Are we inventing ‘faith’ cycling?

      Back in the 80s, when I was a bit of a Guns’n’Roses fan, I remember reading an interview with Axl Rose in which he said his father, a pastor or preacher of some description, would close his eyes while at the wheel of the car and allow God to guide him and his family safely.

      Pop was obviously either a charlatan or a psychopath. Either way, you can begin to see why Axl Rose became such a fucked-up human being. But messed-up kids of hardcore religious types is another blog post entirely…

  2. Oddly, I just crashed today and googled “the art of falling off of your bicycle” and this came up. I was considering a similar post to my blog. Maybe I’ll get around to it in the middle of my beer-pain-killing binge. It may or not show up here: watchgibbsgo.blogspot.com. Since you are a cyclist you may enjoy my vids….feel free to share them at will.
    Now, Im going to go read the rest of your blog…

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