Factors Combine for More Broken Bones

Jul 16, 2006
Outside Magazine

It's normal to see dirt and grease on the underside of a bicycle after a long ride or stage in the Tour de France, but after today's stage there was road tar stuck to the paint jobs, a bad sign because it means the roads are melting in the heat. The roads around the town of Gap snapped the bones of two riders today, adding to the carnage we've already seen in the Tour this year.

Though I have no concrete data to back up this statement, it certainly seems like the number of crashes resulting in broken bones has increased over the past ten years. There may be several factors involved, including the increased average speed of races, the amount of "road furniture" on the courses, and even the dietary habits of the riders themselves.

A Bad Combo of Speed and Obstacles
It makes perfect sense that crashing at higher speeds increases the risk of breaking bones and suffering serious injuries, but speed doesn't necessarily cause crashes. Obstacles in the roads, however, do make crashes more likely and provide hard objects with which riders collide.

In their efforts to control automobile speeds through towns and cities, European countries have put more and more traffic islands, roundabouts, speed bumps, and other implements in the roads. This "road furniture," as racing commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin like to call it, forces riders to squeeze into narrow lanes and go through more tight corners. Coupled with higher speeds, there's an increased risk of crashes, and not just the "slide-out-in-a-turn" kind that rarely lead to serious injuries, but the "high-speed-impact-with-an-immovable-object" kind that really put bones and lives at risk.

Lightweight Riders
Scarier than the obstacles put in their path, many riders may be more vulnerable to broken bones because of their own dietary habits. In recent years, riders have realized that being lighter can significantly improve performance, especially in the mountains. A rider's power-to-weight ratio is an indication of his potential to perform well in the mountains, and you can increase this ratio by either increasing your sustainable power output or losing weight, or both.

In the never-ending pursuit of performance, the average professional cyclist now is leaner than the average pro 15 years ago. To get that way, riders train hard and eat less, and that can lead to serious health issues. One consequence of chronically failing to eat enough calories to fully support your activity level is a reduction in the amount of calcium in bones. Some preliminary research has unfortunately found that some elite-level cyclists in their 20s and 30s have diminished bone mineral densities (a measure of the strength of bones) similar to men in their 50s and 60s.

Since it's unlikely that bike races are going to slow down or that the roads are going to become less cluttered with traffic islands, we can only hope that riders, especially young men and women just starting to get involved in the sport, change their dietary and exercise habits in order to keep their bones as healthy and strong as possible. Steps that would help include a higher caloric intake, supplementation with calcium and vitamin D, and the inclusion of weight-bearing exercise in athletes' year-round training programs.

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