The Cyclist's Guide to Injury Prevention

Tens of thousands of people are hurt while riding their bikes every year in the United States alone. Follow these 10 basic guidelines to make sure you avoid injury and stay safe.

A cycling injury on the trail.     Photo: varuna/Shutterstock

All it takes is a few steps before you hit the road to ensure that you and your loved ones will have many more rides in the future.

Cyclists are among the most vulnerable of road users because, unlike their four-wheeled counterparts, they provide a buffer between the pavement and their vehicle, instead of the other way around.

According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, there were over 50,000 reported bicyclist injuries in the United States and 618 fatalities in bicycle/motor vehicle crashes in 2010 at a cost of around $4 billion. While details about the nature of the accidents are scarce, most crashes involved male cyclists and those between the ages of 25 and 64.

To stay safe, cyclists need to be aware that the presence of cars, buses, pedestrians and other cyclists, along with weather conditions and time of day, require different approaches to biking.

Unlike when you first learn to ride and the occasional scrape and bruise is part of the deal, most accidents that occur among experienced cyclists are entirely preventable. All it takes is a few precautionary steps before you hit the road to ensure that you and your loved ones will have many more rides in the future.

FOLLOW THE RULES OF THE ROAD
Every state and province has their own bylaws when it comes to what cyclists can and cannot do. But there are a few rules of thumb that everyone should follow.

Illinois-based lawyer Jim Freeman, who represents vulnerable roadway users, said that, in his experience, bicyclist/motor vehicle accidents in urban areas where the speed limit is 30mph or less tend to be minor. "In areas where the automobiles are going faster than 30mph, the injuries tend to get much more severe," he said. "As the speed of the automobile increases, the number of brain traumas and severe closed head injuries starts to rise."

David Hay, a litigation lawyer and partner at Richards Buell Sutton, LLP, in Vancouver, British Columbia, who has a special interest in bike injury law, recommends that cyclists understand and follow these basic rules of the road, including but not limited to: "1. Do not follow another vehicle too closely; 2. Confine your vehicle to the proper lane of travel; 3. Yield the right of way at intersections; 4. Signal your intention to turn; 5. Obey traffic control devices—signs and lights; 6. Remain at the scene of an accident; and 7. Make eye contact whenever possible."

The most common cycling injuries "are broken shoulders, wrists, torn/injured knees and concussions," he said. "To stay safe, cyclists should be seen, reduce speed, anticipate that drivers make mistakes and wear helmets (at least until we have proper infrastructure)."

Your local state/provincial and municipal government websites should list the rules governing cyclists in your area. Public libraries usually have this information on hand as well.

PLAN YOUR ROUTE IN ADVANCE
Accidents are more likely to happen when you’re in a rush. Time your trip so that you’re not in a panic to get to where you’re going. If it’s the first time you’re setting out on that particular journey, give yourself a buffer zone of 15-20 minutes to ensure that you’ll have enough time to securely lock your bike and enjoy a sip of water, and maybe a trip to the change room or washroom to freshen up.

Before setting off, map out your route. Pick roadways or paths with less traffic congestion and avoid highways and main arterial roads where there’s a greater likelihood of having to ride alongside fast-moving cars and trucks. Also try to steer clear of major mass transit thoroughfares to avoid getting stuck behind buses that frequently stop and turn into bikeways.

Maps.google.com/biking allows you to enter your start and end points and then suggests the best way to get there and gives you a time estimate using available cycling information, often provided by local cyclists themselves. Some regions have more detailed mapping options that account for such things as elevation, air pollution, traffic congestion, and more. Check with your local cycling organization or transportation authority to see if there’s another mapping option for you.

WEAR A HELMET
Often mandatory, wearing a bicycle helmet is usually a good idea if you’re concerned about the wellbeing of your noggin.

Although cyclists account for less than two percent of motor vehicle crash deaths, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a non-profit roadway crash prevention organization, head injuries are often involved in the most serious cases. “Helmet use has been estimated to reduce head injury risk by 85 percent,” according to the IIHS website.

Many states and provinces have made it a legal requirement for cyclists of a certain age group—or for all ages, depending on the legislation—to wear a helmet. Your local government website should have information about whether or not there is a mandatory helmet use law for cyclists in your area and what ages fall under that purview. You can also check the IIHS website and select your state from the dropdown menu to find out whether or not there is a law governing helmet use in your state. Canadian residents can visit the ThinkFirst and Safe Kids Canada for information about helmet legislation by province and territory.

DRESS FOR THE RIDE
For longer athletic rides, wear stretchy riding shorts/pants (Lycra/spandex is good in these situations) and a breathable top to avoid getting rashes and sores. Shorts that have a built-in chamois pad help to ease pressure on your perineum (the delicate area of your groin).

If you notice a sore on your rear that won’t go away and seems to be getting infected, see a doctor. Saddle sores are a common occurrence among long-distance riders and can be painful and even debilitating if left untreated.

Chamois and anti-chafe cream, available at many bike shops, will help reduce the effects of rubbing around the areas of your saddle and seams of your shorts. It’s a good idea to apply some of this when going on longer rides to prevent painful rashes later on. Biking gloves reduce the occurrence of blisters on your palms and can help with breaking in slick weather conditions.

Cars and trucks, along with fast-moving bike tires, can toss up rocks and sand. Protect your eyes from flying debris and bugs by wearing sunglasses or bike-specific riding glasses.

BE VISIBLE
Ensuring that you’re visible to nearby motorists, cyclists and pedestrians is always a good idea. During the daytime that means avoiding motorists’ blind spots (the rear right-hand-side of a vehicle), using your bell to indicate your presence to other cyclists and pedestrians, and making eye contact with road users when crossing intersections.

Visibility at night requires some additional gear. You’ll want at least one front white light and one rear red light—along with the mandatory white front reflector and red rear reflector—so that motorists can see you and know whether or not you’re heading toward or away from them.

There are few cool companies out there that make highly visible and funky lights, such as MonkeyLectric. Reflective tape and clothing can also help to increase your visibility when riding at night. The idea is to make sure that people can see you from all sides all the time.

Lights that have a flashing or blinking mode are a good idea, as that setting tends to draw more attention to you than steady-beam lights. You’ll also want something with enough range and power to be seen from a distance and in varying weather conditions.

“To be seen in the worst of conditions, look for bike lights with 220 degrees of visibility for up to one mile,” said Heath Fossen, who regularly tests lights as Planet Bike's director of product development. “We recommend two front lights (handlebar and helmet-mounted) and multiple rear lights (bike, rear rack and helmet). Side lights and wheel reflectors are another great way to be seen by cars traveling perpendicular to you in an intersection.”

The brighter the light, the better, in most cases. Bike lights are more often designed to help you be seen than to help you see details in the road in front of you, although some lights are powerful enough to act as headlights for your bike. Fossen suggests choosing lights with a brightness of 100 lumens or more.

HAVE A PROPER BIKE FIT
Before setting out on a new set of wheels, have your bike fitted by a professional to make sure you’re not going to do any damage to your joints. Your body position on your bike affects how efficiently or inefficiently you ride.

Riding a bike that’s too big, too small or not properly adjusted to your size and riding position/style can result in injury. Make sure to have your bike properly fitted when purchasing a new ride and take it back to the shop for adjustments if you feel any pain or soreness, particularly in your knees, neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists.

A good saddle can go a long way, too. Make sure that your saddle doesn’t place a lot of pressure on your perineum or tailbone. Saddles should have a gentle dip or cutout in the middle and be higher at the front and rear. Ideally, you should be sitting more on your sit bones (the bony part of your rear), than on your soft parts or tailbone. Pain isn’t OK. If you feel it, talk to someone at your local bike shop and get fitted for a saddle that will make you want to ride.

STRETCH BEFORE AND AFTER A RIDE
Injuries can sometimes be the result of tight muscles. Stretching before you head out and after you arrive can go a long way toward preventing muscle cramps and soreness, along with more severe injuries to muscles, ligaments and tendons.

It’s important to stretch your quadriceps and hamstrings, as these muscles get the most use when cycling and are more likely to cramp up after a ride.

CROSS-TRAIN
Because of the riding position and repetitive nature of cycling, you’ll want to do other exercises between rides to ensure your muscles, bones and joints stay healthy and strong. Consider doing higher impact and strength-training activities, such as playing sports, taking aerobics classes, running, doing abdominal exercises and lifting weights, as these will help to prevent bone loss and will keep your stabilizer muscles (the muscles that support your joints) strong.

LOSE THE HEADPHONES
“Cyclists need to hear approaching vehicles—particularly at traffic circles—and need to hear other cyclists sounding bells from behind,” says litigation lawyer David Hay.

While it’s tempting to put in the ear buds and zone out for the ride, do us all a favor please and stay tuned in to your surroundings when rubbing shoulders with fast-moving masses of metal, other cyclists and pedestrians. We all want to get home safe.

REFUEL
Doing any kind of physical activity requires energy in the form of calories. The more you work out, the more calories you will need to consume to maintain your body weight. Proper nutrition before, during and after a ride will help to reduce muscle fatigue and soreness. Eating a balanced diet with plenty of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals will keep your body happy and healthy.

Take a water bottle with you on rides to prevent dehydration. Drink whenever you feel thirsty during and after the ride. Adequate hydration will help to stave off cramping and delayed onset muscle soreness (muscle soreness that happens a day or two after you exercise).

For rides over 90 minutes, it’s a good idea to consume a beverage containing electrolytes. Many sports drinks have electrolytes among their ingredients. Check with your local sports store or bike shop for recommendations on the best products on the market for cyclists.

A former senior editor for Momentum Magazine, Sarah Ripplinger is a freelance writer and editor living in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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