Crashes are part and parcel of riding. It’s a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. However, with the right knowledge and practice, you can drastically reduce the chances of injury. This guide will give you the knowledge you need to make your next crash safer. And who knows, it might end up looking hella cool on video too…
Crashes happen to everyone, so how do you best prepare and protect yourself? Believe it or not, pros actually crash more than any of us ‘regular’ riders as they are constantly pushing their limits, hitting new lines and learning new tricks. So how do they manage to survive enormous bails unscathed time after time? Well, there is an art to crashing safely and learning it will give you a second chance to keep on riding after a nasty high-side, wash out or even the dreaded over-the-bars manoeuvre! In this guide, we tell you everything you need to know about crashing safely, avoiding injuries and overcoming the fear of falling off your bike.
Before you get stuck in, remember that you should always wear appropriate protection whilst riding! We recommended a minimum of a helmet, knee pads and gloves for any off-road ride. Not sure where to start and what to wear?
The golden rules of crashing
Regardless if you’re a seasoned pro, weekend warrior or somewhere in between, there’s a set of golden rules that apply to any crash.
You can always improve your predicament. No matter how hard you are ejected from your bike, or how quickly your rear wheel overtakes the front, you always have a couple split seconds to improve your situation. Remember that to use any bit of control you still have to minimise injuries!
Ditch the bike! Put yourself first. You are more likely to survive a crash unhurt if you get the bike as far away from you as possible before you hit the ground. What good is a healthy bike if you are injured?
Tuck and roll. As you hit the deck, bring your arms up to protect your neck and head. Relax and hit the ground rolling. Rolling on impact allows you to disperse the energy of the crash a lot better than hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes.
Don’t freak out. Crashing is scary. Everyone knows that. However, don’t freak out! Your body’s instinctive reaction to crashing is to stretch out your arms to absorb the impact. This only ends in broken bones. If you remain calm and prevent yourself stiffening up, you will have a much higher chance of coming out the other side unscathed.
Fear makes people go rigid. Putting your arms straight out in front of you will result in broken wrists and collar bones… However, familiarising yourself with the feeling of crashing will encourage you to be looser when you come off for real. – Andy Barlow, Dirt School
The three most common crashes and how to deal with them
Sure, every crash is different, but most of them fit into one of the following three categories. Read on for the three most common types of crashes and how best to deal with them.
How it happens: the classic over-the-bars (OTB) crash is usually caused by a sudden shift in your weight to the front of the bike, due to an unseen root, rock or hole in the trail. It can also come as a consequence of a jump gone wrong or a nose-heavy drop. Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same. You are thrown upwards and forwards, over the bars and spat out onto the trail ahead.
What to do: depending on the speed of the crash, you may be able to escape an OTB scenario without even hitting the deck. With a bit of practice, it is possible to jump off the pedals and over the bars as you crash, pushing the bike down and out of the way. This allows you to land on your feet and literally run away from the crash. However, at higher speeds (and when using clipless pedals), vaulting the bars becomes a lot harder. If there’s no chance of landing on your feet, the second-best thing to do is push the bike out of the way, use your arms to protect your head and neck and do your best to roll as you hit the ground.
How it happens: this one usually happens in a split second. Maybe you’ve just over-corrected a rear-wheel slide, hit a large rock with your back wheel or clipped a tree with your bars. Either way, your bike violently changes direction, slides and then grips again, suddenly sitting upright and pitching you over the high side in a tall arc.
What to do: a high-side crash will violently buck you into the air and throw you off the side of the bike. It doesn’t leave you with a whole lot of time for heroic saves. Your first priority is to distance yourself from the bike by letting go of the bars and unclipping your pedals if necessary. Next, try and spot a ‘landing’ – let’s face it, you’re not going to have time to locate the softest spot in your vicinity. Plus, you’ll likely be spinning as you fall and be a little disorientated. The best thing to do is spot a patch that isn’t in direct line with a tree or rock and hope for the best. If possible, land on your feet and run out of it. If that’s not possible, tuck and roll on impact.
How it happens: low-side crashes are often caused by a sudden loss of grip. As the tires slide out the bike drops to the opposite (low) side, sending you into the dirt. Especially common on flat turns or loose berms, a low-side washout can happen in the blink of an eye.
What to do: sometimes, it’s possible to save a washout by dabbing the ground with your inside foot. However, these crashes often happen so quickly that it is impossible to react in time. Luckily, the nature of the low-side crash means that you are never hitting the ground from much height (unlike a high-side and over-the-bars crash). The best thing to do is take the brunt of the impact on your bar end and keep your knees and elbows tucked in as much as possible.
Can you practise crashing?
Is it possible to practise crashing? The internet plays host to a number of articles and videos actively encouraging people to send themselves over the bars, in an attempt to directly practise crashing. To find out if there is any reason behind this madness, we spoke to renowned mountain bike skills coach Andy Barlow from Dirt School. Andy told us that in his early days of coaching racers and performance athletes, he would teach his clients how to crash. However, he soon stopped doing so, explaining to us that, “You can’t encourage people to get into situations that could result in injury.”
Instead of purposefully crashing (and potentially putting yourself in harm’s way), Andy recommends breaking down the events of a crash and practising individual movements in a controlled and safe way. Rather than claiming to be the definitive answer to surviving a crash, these techniques are all about getting you to grips with staying calm and using any control you have left to improve your situation.
Dirt School’s top tips to safely practice crashing
Absorbing impact with your bar (low-side crash): it’s important to learn how to slam your bar into the ground, taking as much impact out of the crash as possible. Practise this by slowly riding alongside a steep slope and suddenly let yourself fall towards it. The aim is to take the impact on the bar end, whilst keeping your fingers, elbows and knees tucked in.
Stepping off the bike (washouts): the easiest way to practise dealing with a front-wheel washout is to step off the bike. Ride at a comfortable pace with your saddle down. Then, steer to the right and quickly step off on the left side of the bike and vice-versa. By practising this technique you will learn to get your foot on the ground and run out of the crash.
Vaulting the bike (OTB and high-sides): ride along at a gentle pace. While coming to a stop, let the bike start to topple one way and then quickly jump off the pedals with both feet, vaulting the bike and landing with both feet. Alternatively, you can practise vaulting over the bars, landing with both feet in front of the front wheel. Make sure to do this on a soft surface to protect your bike.
Practise crashing in your living room
As unlikely as it may sound, you can even practise crashing in your living room. And we don’t mean sprinting down the hall and sending a massive OTB over your couch… One of the best ways to prevent injury is by preparing your body correctly. Stretching, yoga and strength work all play their part and help your body become stronger, more elastic and ultimately more bulletproof in a crash. There are also a few off-the-bike techniques, such as judo rolls and break falls which you can practise from the comfort of your own home. We recommend trying these on a thick carpet or in your garden. Practising a martial art like judo or kung fu will also do wonders when it comes to flexibility and most importantly learning how to fall.
At the end of the day, we all need to accept that crashing is part of our sport. However, you can easily minimise the risk of injury by improving your strength, flexibility and mindset one step at a time. Prepare yourself, your body and your mind and most importantly, enjoy riding your MTB!
Words: Finlay Anderson Photos: ENDURO team