19 Jun, 2015

Ride without the fall


So what happens when you fall on a mountain bike ride? Saar Ben-Attar crashed during a social ride and endured plenty of hospital time as a result. This is his story ...

It's a Sunday afternoon and I find myself at Fourways Life Hospital.

Having gone through the laborious admissions procedure and customary visits by interns and nurses alike, I am still in agony, trying hard not to focus on the pain which continues to emanate from my left hip.

An hour later and having endured more X-rays and turning painfully from side to side for closer inspections, the doctor finally confirms what I have been suspecting – it’s fractured. As he continues explaining my predicament, it sounds like it is all downhill from here - you'll need surgery, physio and lots of pain killers in between.

The nurse walks in and says, almost casually, there are four other cyclists in here, with similar injuries.

Wow, hang on! What was that? Five of us all here, on the same day, after tumbling off our bikes? That simply can’t be right. How does a sport which brings such a sense of freedom, childhood-like joy and excitement can have us ending up so easily in hospital?

And so, after surgery and slowly recovering from the trauma, I find myself having lots of time on my hands to explore this ‘not so nice’ side of mountain biking. Here is what I found in making this wonderful outdoor activity safe, and, what I truly hope, of having no more weekends with ‘five of us ending up in the hospital trauma unit’ a reality.

Before I get there, a few words on how I ended up down a mountain path on that Sunday morning. About a year ago, a few friends got together around Fourways for our first ‘Fourways to Harties’ ride. The concept was simple – it has to be the most scenic route to Hartbeespoort – magnificent views of rivers and lakes, fresh air as we ride as far away from the familiar sights of civilisation and travelling lesser-known paths, that was what we were looking for; it should also be a good test of endurance, with just over 100 kilometres planned for the day; and we ride unassisted – you bring with you whatever you need to make it to the finish line.

At the end, a feast awaits you in the park - a scenic picnic spot, more food than you can handle, and the company of family and friends, who join us for the day. Our start and finish line was at Cedar Lakes, a secure residential estate in Fourways.

We chose March as the month to ride, as we head into Autumn and being a good time to clock some serious miles ahead of Sani2C, the Sabie Experience and other multi-day stage races, which we were ‘training for’.

Our first ‘Fourways to Harties’ ride was a low-key event – only four of us attended. This year, we had nearly 30 riders among us and the beginning of an annual tradition. Lots of preparation had gone into organising the event. Weekends mapping the route, finding ways around farm road closures, which are often unannounced, occasionally wandering onto private properties in search of the best single tracks and, of course, the many safety checks, to make sure we all enjoy a great day of riding.

Halfway through the ride, and following one of the most scenic tracks, the dam revealed itself in all its glory. Time, I thought, to let go and roll down the narrow concrete path. On my mind was the delicious breakfast which awaited us at Africa Swiss, our ‘pitstop’ for the morning.

I lost concentration for only a moment and tumbled. I landed hard on my hip and immediately knew I had done some damage. Everyone else, I am happy to report, made it safely back to Fourways. Yours truly, ‘chief instigator’ of the event, somewhat dubious ‘route planner’ and self-appointed ‘safety officer’, headed straight to hospital.

So, back to the question - how do we make mountain-biking safe? I started by having to accept some facts of physics. A cyclist weighing an average 75 kilograms, riding down a mountain path at 20 kilometres per hour (or 5.5 metres per second), produces momentum of 412 kilograms per square metre.

That is more than enough to fracture the hip bone of a healthy adult, or any other major bone structure in the body, if the speed at which we hit the ground is high enough. Add to it an uneven surface, maybe some slippery sand or mud and it seems like we are at risk of serious injury every time we get on a bike.

It’s not as alarming as it might sound, though. As I began to discover, it all depends – how fast was the blow? Did your body hit the ground at right angle or did you ‘roll’ onto the ground? What type of ‘ground’ was it?

This seeming contradiction between the risks we assume as cyclists and the many ways which ultimately decide whether we are injured or not, made me curious and I began to read profusely about the subject, asked advice of more-experienced riders and reflected on my own ‘near misses’ since I have taken onto mountain-biking a few years back. Here is what I have learned:

First, take some lessons – you may not be as skilled as you think: I learned to ride a bike when I was about six years old, but the skills I acquired then are no match to the full-sized, high-tech bikes of today.

I counted on my experience as a rider, but the truth is, my core riding skills were not up to scratch, and no level of fitness, time in the saddle or medals won in MTB events can make up for that. In those few crucial seconds, when you hit trouble on the ride, it’s those skills that can determine whether you fall and how hard you land.

Get a professional riding coach or attend a skills clinic before you start riding, and upgrade your skills regularly by attending intermediate and advanced classes. Similarly, ride with better riders than yourself and learn from them and the lines they take. Ride different places and terrains to gain experience with different surface conditions, and whatever happens, learn from the experience.

What you wear counts: Today’s riding gear puts very little between our body and the surface we may end up riding into. Spandex does not offer much protection, neither does a cycling bib for your upper body. Even riding gloves, as much as they may soften a direct blow to your hands, may not offer sufficient protection to elbows, shoulders or arms (remember, it all depends…).

Luckily, much scientific progress has been made over the past few years and we now have better head protection, offered by a new generation of helmets, as well as body protection with G-form and other impact-absorbing materials.

They may seem an overkill but trust me, the humiliation you may endure by not having a great ‘taste in fashion’ cannot compare to the statement you will make walking on crutches, in a hospital gown.

Find company: MTB is a wonderful social activity and we often ride in the company of others, whether to share the experience or just have safety in numbers. Prepare upfront for emergencies, agree with whoever you ride with what to do if end up in an emergency.

Will emergency services know where to find you? Is your route accessible, should you require a rescue? There is another reason though. Riding with others gives us real-time feedback. You notice when your riding partner begins to lose traction and you adjust your riding style. You watch as they descend a rocky path, you look after each other and keep each other safe. I wish I would have descended that path with a rider near me. I may have picked up that I was in trouble earlier.

Look for those early-warning signs: I wish I could say that my injury was completely out of the blue. Over the last five years, since I have taken to mountain-biking, I have had a few near-misses.

Last year, for example, while riding Sani2C, my hand slipped off the handlebar while riding downhill at high-speed. My bike started to swerve towards the edge of the road, which would have ended really badly. I managed to slowly correct my course, but it was too close for comfort. Each near-miss is an opportunity, not just to count our blessings, but to learn what to do differently – I wish I have heeded these lessons back then.

Remember to roll: finally, if all else fails and you find yourself tumbling towards mother earth at an ill-opportune moment, your best bet is to roll, as you hit the ground. Bones are more likely to fracture or break if the force is applied to them at high-speed and at a right angle.

By rolling with the fall, one can reduce the force of impact significantly. You’re still likely to emerge dirty and bruised, but that’s better, I reckon, than discovering that you cannot get up at all.

Armed with these insights, I will soon be ready to head off the beaten track with my bike once again. I feel more humble, a bit nervous I must admit, and ready to practice safe riding. I will be visiting a riding coach beforehand for much-needed lessons and will go shopping for some safety gear.

As for our new riding tradition, Fourways to Harties will take place once again next March and a new scenic route is being planned for a similar event in Spring, this time from southern Joburg to the lovely town of Parys, on the Vaal.