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31-05-2024 | Wouter Fioole

Anatomy of a cycling crash

Falling is, unfortunately, part of cycling. Many believe there are two types of cyclists: those who have fallen and those who will fall. I recently joined the first category. During a fast descent, I completely misjudged a turn, shot straight into the guardrail, and ended up in the woods. While it may not be the most enjoyable topic, discussing falls is crucial for cycling safety. In the movie "Anatomy of a Fall," a man's fall from a window is analyzed from every angle to determine fault. Similarly, let's examine this incident in detail: The anatomy of a cycling crash.

Cyclist fallen by the guardrail in the woods


Falls are an inherent risk in cycling, as evidenced by hospital Emergency Department (ER) statistics. In 2020, approximately 5,300 cyclists visited the ER in The Netherlands, a 44% increase from 2011, according to VeiligheidNL. Mountain bikers experienced an even more significant increase, with a 131% rise in hospital visits that year. In our country, cyclists and mountain bikers rank 4th and 5th among athletes who visit the hospital most frequently. Moreover, injuries sustained by cyclists and mountain bikers tend to be more severe than those in the top three sports. Statistically, for every 1,000 hours cycled, there's a 17% chance of ending up in the ER (37% for mountain bikers). Given that I ride over 600 hours per year, it was almost inevitable that I would experience a serious fall.

The course

It is a beautiful Wednesday morning in the interior of Portugal. I am participating in the third stage of the Ride Across Portugal, a fantastically organized multi-day ride that traverses Portugal from north to south in six stages. Portions of the route are timed and count towards the standings, while other sections are ridden as a group, enjoying the weather and stunning scenery. I'm in a group of eight riders on a non-timed descent over a wide road with an excellent surface and gentle turns. The organization of the Ride Across Portugal ensures we ride on car-free, quiet, and well-maintained roads. Unfortunately, my crash was not due to the course conditions.

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Courses and descent technique

During the descent, I was feeling quite relaxed, enjoying the smooth, wide road with gentle turns, and keeping pace with the group effortlessly. I was eating, drinking, and appreciating the scenery, which caused me to be slightly less focused.

Suddenly, I found myself on the inside of a sharper curve. Analysis of my Strava data revealed that my group had entered the corner at 80-82 kilometers per hour. This corner was tighter than the previous ones, and it took me by surprise. Ideally, you should approach corners from the outside and move inward. In a moment of panic, I swerved outward too abruptly and hit the brakes hard. The proper technique is to brake before the corner, not while in it. By braking too hard and sitting completely upright with pressure on both pedals, I went straight instead of turning. In terms of cornering and downhill technique, I did everything wrong.

Sharp curve on a downhill road

Fall technique

Often, it's not the fall itself but how you fall that causes injury. It's beneficial to work on your falling technique; proper falling can be learned. Without fall training, our natural reflex is to stick our arms out to absorb the impact or remain completely stiff while holding onto the bike, which increases the risk of fractures.

The goal is to distribute the force of the fall across all 206 bones in your body. You should aim to perform a judo roll, landing on your hand and rolling diagonally until your foot touches the ground on the opposite side. With proper execution, you can stand up again, dust yourself off, and assess the damage to your bike.

This is where my years of judo and jiu-jitsu training were beneficial. Although I had managed to brake significantly, the force with which I hit the guardrail is uncertain. However, it was sufficient to execute a nearly perfect judo roll. The scrapes ran neatly from my right hand and arm, diagonally across my back. To the amazement of everyone who saw it, I was able to get up and walk to my bike.

Scrapes from a fall on a cyclist's right hand and arm

The damage

Fortunately, the damage from this fall was not too severe. Interestingly, only my Garmin did not survive the impact. My Garmin, which occasionally sent distress signals to my wife when I braked too hard for a traffic light, was so damaged that it couldn't send a distress signal at all.

What I found truly remarkable was that within five minutes of my fall, the event's doctor was on site and patching me up. Crisis moments reveal the true quality of an event. The Ride Across Portugal was exceptional, which is no surprise since the same organizers handle the professional Tour of Portugal and the Tour of the Alentejo, as well as the Granfondo Serra da Estrella, Etapa de Volta, and the L'Étape du Tour Portugal.

After the doctors had finished and given me the green light to continue, the mechanic was already standing by with my repaired bike. I was able to get back on and continue my ride. If you're considering an event this summer and have already accumulated many hours without falling, know that you'll be in good hands here. Hopefully, even after a hard crash, you'll walk away smiling at the finish line, just as I did.

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