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Dumb Cycling Injuries That Could've Been Avoided

By Molly Hurford | April 23, 2018 | Rally Cycling

Not all cycling injuries start with a spectacular crash, as when Peter Sagan’s errant elbow took out Mark Cavendish in that disastrous sprint at 2017’s Tour de France, leaving Cavendish sidelined for months and stirring up serious controversy in the process. Nor are they always accompanied by searing pain and a definite “stop riding now” feeling. In fact, many cycling injuries or illnesses start slowly, so time off the bike can be avoided by simply being more aware.

While it’s tempting to ignore a lingering twinge in your knee that happens every time you hit the bike, or to skip checking in with the doctor after a bad crash broke your helmet, the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” maxim really does hold true when it comes to cycling, says Rally Cycling’s team doctor, Kelby Bethards. Not only does he treat some of the country’s top cyclists as a team doctor, he’s an avid cyclist himself and can be found out riding when he’s home in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he specializes in family medicine.

Kelby-cycling.jpg#asset:57791Rally Cycling's Dr. Kelby Bethards confers with new team member Gillian Ellsay.

The pros at Rally CyclingSM also know to take good care of themselves, because staying  healthy means riding stronger for longer. Most of their advice, like Bethards’, boils down to one thing: Identify injuries and illnesses when they start and nip them in the bud, as opposed to letting things fester and get worse.

Not everyone takes that approach, unfortunately. Here are some of the dumber things they see cyclists doing, offered in the hope that you won’t try this at home.

Ignoring Symptoms of Flus, Colds, and Sore Throats

Don’t let a head cold turn into something more sinister. Taking a break from riding, or dialing back the intensity of your ride on a day when you’re not feeling too hot can save you a lot of grief later on. It’s true for pro racers and amateurs alike. For a pro, a cold early in the season that’s left untreated can end up nagging a rider for months, ruining what could have been a banner year. For an amateur, ignoring a cold could mean missing work and a month off the bike to fight a case of strep throat.

“If you start to feel sick, it’s really important to take care of it right away,” says racer Ryan Anderson, who’s in his first year back on the Rally Cycling team after a few years racing in Europe. “Listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Lots of rest, eating more fruits and vegetables, and drinking a ton of tea as soon as you feel something coming on can really help avoid problems.”

Not Paying Attention on the Bike or Going Beyond Your Abilities

“You always hear about the guy who tries to take his jacket off while riding and crashes,” says Bethards. Even top pros have been known to crash at the finish line while trying to put both arms in the air to celebrate a win — so if you’re an amateur, don’t try to show off with no-hands tricks.

Another common issue, especially for riders who go off-road, is hitting sections that are above their ability level. Again, this can even happen to pros.

“I just broke my thumb last fall mountain biking,” says racer Brad Huff, who won National Championships in the Criterium Race in 2016. “I was riding way too fast in a section I shouldn’t have been riding fast. I crashed and it hooked on my shifter and just snapped. It was brutal. You just don’t realize how much that opposable thumb helps you in life.”

Your reaction in a crash can make or break (literally) your bones: Knowing how to fall without sticking a hand or wrist out can help save those small bones. Bethards says broken wrists are common, a result of cyclists’ crashing and sticking an arm out to “catch” themselves on the way down. And there are off-bike injuries too: He’s seen an amateur racer break a thumb getting it caught in a brake while cleaning it.

Poor Bike Fit Leading to Pain and Imbalance

It’s no surprise that all three longtime racers cite poor bike fit as the dumbest cause of injury out there. Any professional cyclist knows that a good bike fit is more important than anything else about the bike, from frame weight to what components are on it. But still, they see riders with bad bike fits all too often.

“Cyclists have little awareness. They develop a problem, like pedaling with their right heel slightly out, and it’s uncomfortable, but they keep riding and eventually, something blows up,” says Danny Pate, who’s been racing for nearly two decades as a pro.

That might mean a knee giving out after one too many hill climbs, resulting in a limp that won’t go away, or it could mean a mid back tension that persists for days after even the gentlest of rides.

"If you have one leg aching and not the other, that’s not normal,” says Anderson. "A good bike fit early on will help avoid those injuries and issues that can turn into chronic problems.”

While cyclists are often willing to spend thousands on new bikes, wheels, clothing and shoes, for some reason, the idea of spending around $200 on a bike fit is a tougher sell. But even if you need to downgrade your bike choice in order to afford the fit, it’s worth the switch: Cheaper components will perform better if your body feels properly aligned on the bike.

“Do your best to make sure your equipment is fit to you,” says Huff. "Not doing that is the dumbest thing. People get a new bike and just get on and go. A simple bike fit goes a long way, it makes a huge difference. A professional bike fit is worth its weight in gold.”

So before you toss your bike after an uncomfortable ride, whether it’s because of a sore lower back, aching shoulders, a knocking knee, or an ankle that feels tender to the touch after 90 minutes on the bike, consider getting a bike fit from a professional — it will be the best money you spend on your cycling hobby. Ask your local bike shop if they offer fittings from someone who’s been professionally trained — even if they don’t offer it in-shop, most will be able to recommend someone local.

Coming Back Too Fast From Injury

"Crashing is usually the dumbest injury,” says veteran team member Pate. But the dumbest part comes after the crash itself. When someone breaks or fractures a bone, and then ignores the advice of the doctor or physical therapist and heads back out on the road too soon, it can lead to more time off the bike. This becomes even more important as a cyclist gets older. “You don’t recover as well anymore,” Pate says.

Take your time in your recovery, listen to the medical professionals around you, and gradually get back on the bike. That might mean more riding inside on a stationary trainer, or doing low-intensity instead of harder interval sets for a while, but taking the time to recover fully really will get you back up to speed faster.

Cycling is a low-impact sport, and Bethards is quick to note that, more often, he sees runners ignoring the need for a slow comeback. But if you are cleared to ride, he urges starting easy, and gradually ramping up intensity. Keep “easy recovery riding” actually easy — don’t hit hill repeats on Day One!

Punching Out of Anger

“The dumbest injury in the world is punching something when you’re mad,” says Bethards. This might seem like a surprising one for cycling, but when a race doesn’t play out the way a racer hoped, it’s not uncommon to see tears, a bike throw, or even a punch — and the punch rarely goes well.

“You could fracture or cut your knuckles badly,” he says. “Cyclists aren’t great at punching in the first place, and they’re quick to fracture those small bones.”

Ignoring Concussion Symptoms

While concussions are a regular part of impact sports such as football, and unfortunately, can also happen in cycling crashes, the concussion itself isn’t usually the “dumb” part of the injury. The dumb part comes from ignoring symptoms after the crash, and continuing to ride or race with one.

“We’re really heavy into concussion protocol at Rally Cycling, and everyone should be doing the same,” says Bethards. “Racing or riding with a concussion before you’re recovered is a serious problem. When you hit your head in a crash, there’s a pretty good chance of a concussion, and you don’t even need to realize you’ve hit your head to have a concussion.”

To make sure racers are consistently checking in, the team uses the Sway app to check balance and reaction time, and when a member of the team crashes, he or she has to be cleared by the team doctors before continuing to race.

Finally, don’t assume you’re OK post-crash just because your helmet is.

“Having a scratched helmet after a crash doesn’t mean you have a concussion, and a completely clean helmet doesn’t mean that you don’t have one,” says Bethards. If you suspect you may have a concussion, seek medical attention quickly. You can use a gadget like the ICEDot sensor, a helmet attachment that senses when you crash, measures impact, and can even call emergency services through your phone. There are also concussion symptom-checking apps for individuals like HitCheck, but if you feel that you may have one, Bethards says it’s better to seek medical treatment than to rely on an app.

“Concussions are a dynamic process, and it might not show up right away. You might not know you have one, and hours after a crash, you start feeling nauseated. Don’t ignore that.”

Ignoring Saddle Sores

Saddle sores are bumps that look like pimples and hurt to the touch, small open wounds caused by friction and chafing in your nether regions. They are, unfortunately fairly common among cyclists, from newbies to longtime pro racers. If you’re not training for any specific event, or aren’t in the middle of a stage race, the best thing to do when you get a saddle sore is to give your butt a break.

“Just take a day off!” says Anderson. "Your body will thank you. Unless you have a race and have to ride, it’s a good idea to just let it heal. You’re new to riding, you’ll likely be sore after rides. But it should not be painful.”

Another tip for treating saddle sores: Think clean and dry. Wash gently with a mild soap, and leave the area as exposed as possible (Think boxers rather than briefs, to let the skin breathe and heal.) If it doesn’t clear up within a few days, becomes more painful, or develops a spreading red rash around it, or you start getting a fever, seek medical attention because it may be infected. Pro racers see this happen more often than they’d like to admit.

Some injuries, like a broken bone or an obvious concussion, will obviously stop you in your tracks. But a smart cyclist picks up on the little injuries and symptoms, like a saddle sore or a sore throat, and nips it in the bud before it becomes a crisis situation. Be the smart cyclist and know when to back off — and stay backed off until you’re truly ready to roll again.

Molly Hurford is the author of  “Fuel Your Ride,” “Saddle, Sore,” and the upcoming “Shred Girls” series. She also writes for Bicycling magazine, and co-hosts “The Consummate Athlete” podcast.

Molly Hurford
Rally Cycling