Anyone who saw Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten’s cringe-worthy head-first crash in the Summer Olympics women’s road race on Sunday in Rio, Brazil, was probably glad to see that she was healthy enough to tweet the following with a social media selfie:
— Annemiek van Vleuten (@AvVleuten) August 9, 2016
Here’s a video of the crash, in case you want to cringe:
Here’s the crash from another angle:
She went from being in first place to landing in the intensive care with a concussion and three fractures to her spine. This wasn’t her first major injury. While she was cycling in Italy last August, a car hit her, resulting in a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Fortunately, she seems to be recovering, as the hospital released van Vleuten on Tuesday.
Van Vleuten showed that even the world’s best can suffer a bicycle accident. While cycling can bring many health benefits, it is not without its risks. After all, you can move over 40 kilometers per hour, or 25 miles per hour, with no doors, roof or trunk protecting you. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2013 in the U.S., bicycle-related injuries resulted in over 900 deaths and an estimated 494,000 emergency department visits. However, these numbers may substantially underestimate the number of injuries caused by bike accidents because many probably go unreported. Interestingly, as Niall McCarthy reported for FORBES last year, even though other countries have far more cyclists per capita than the U.S., many have fewer deaths from cycling per billion kilometers traveled. This suggests that other countries may have more bike-friendly infrastructures and cultures such as safer bike lanes, better road surfaces, clearer road signs and signals, and more respectful drivers. So how do you survive a bicycle crash?
Wear a helmet. Maybe it doesn’t look cool. Maybe it is hot (not in the attractive but the temperature way). Maybe you don’t want to mess with your ‘do (as in hair rather than doggy). But a helmet will protect your head if you go down.
Wear closed-toed shoes. No, you do not necessarily have to look like the Michelin Man while riding a bicycle, but try to protect your body with clothing as much as you can and still be able to move and not be ridiculed at the local coffee shop.
Wear something practical. More clothes is not necessarily good. A full lobster suit has too many claws and legs that could get caught in the bicycle wheels, crank and gears.
Let go of whatever you are carrying. No, that iPhone is not worth it. Unless you are carrying 200 pillows that are strategically wrapped around you to cushion your impact, let it go. Holding onto something may prevent you from doing the following.
Try to use your bicycle to shield impact. The more you can keep your bike between you and the pavement or the car or the wall or the grizzly bear or whatever you are about to hit, the lesser the impact.
Steer towards something soft. If someone has placed a deep pile of feathers next to the road, great. If not, a grassy area may do.
Be a ball. Keep you arms and legs and chin tucked into your torso. Balls roll. That’s why they don’t put arms and legs on a soccer ball or basketball. Stay like a ball even after hitting the ground. Remain balled until you stop moving and are able to check for injuries.
Empty your lungs. Think of your lungs as balloons. By exhaling you are reducing the size of your lungs and thus the pressure on your ribs, which commonly get fractured in bike injuries.
Stay still after you stop moving. Additional injury can occur by moving your body without checking. The exception is if you are in the middle of traffic or a buffalo stampede or a Justin Bieber concert stampede or anything that leaves you in harms way. If you must move, stay as a ball and roll.
Check yourself before getting up or, better, have someone check you. Again, if you have injured your neck or other key locations, movement can result in more severe injury such as paralysis.
Remember, no crash is minor. Err on the side of seeking medical attention. Some injuries such as head injuries could cause hidden damage such as bleeding.
Of course, the best way to survive an accident is to not have one. Therefore, ride defensively, avoid dangerous terrain and traffic, and make sure you are alert and in shape when riding. That van Vleuten was able walk out of the hospital was a testament to her preparation, skill, training and physical fitness. After all, falling like an Olympian can be as important as rising like one.