One minute I was cruising along on my brand new tri bike, getting used to riding in the aero position, and the next thing I knew I was being loaded into an ambulance. Five years after my worst bike crash, I still don’t know what happened—I probably never will—but I have learned a lot about myself in the last half-decade. Finding joy on a bike again has been a surprisingly difficult journey, but I am in good company.
Crashes happen, quite literally, to the best of us: Matt Russell’s career and life were nearly ended by a driver at Kona in 2017 and just this summer, four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome wound up in the hospital after he momentarily took his hands off the handlebars. These are just two examples.
So what can you do if you experience a fall or crash? Others who have experienced a bike crash share how they got back in the saddle and learned to love riding again.
Embrace the Fear and Celebrate Small Victories
There is no shame in experiencing fear after a bike crash. Things that never fazed you before may suddenly seem insurmountably scary. Respect that fear and do what you need to make yourself feel safer. Maybe you need to ride indoors for a while. Maybe you don’t want to clip in for a bit. If there are steps you can take, even if they make you feel like a remedial cyclist, take them, because any time spent on the bike will help in your journey. (And this should go without saying, but always wear a helmet!)
Robin Caruso was a competitive age grouper out for her normal morning ride when she was struck by a delivery van in 2007. She suffered a serious injury to her cervical spine, permanently losing regular use of her right arm. She endured a long recovery, which necessitated significant time spent riding indoors. Those trainer rides helped to prepare her physically for when she was able to ride outside again. Caruso says though that she didn’t let herself think too much about her first ride outside because that would have been crippling.
Because I crashed during my third ride on my tri bike I developed a phobia of aerobars. When I was able to train again I was terrified to ride low or to reach out to the end of the bars to shift. My first few races back I let the fact that I was participating at all be the victory. Later, any time I was able to coax myself onto the aerobars became the win. I barely thought about speed or podiums for a full year. Celebrating each seemingly small bit of progress was a reminder that I was indeed progressing.
Set New Goals
Virginia age grouper Robert Garnier was having the best, fastest season of his life when he went down 15 miles into an Olympic distance race in July of 2018. It took months to even account for every injury he’d sustained so he had to let go of his 2018 goals and adjust his plans for 2019. He had mostly focused on 70.3s, but in 2019 he decided to focus more on sprints. He realizes his goal of a sub-seven-minute 5K average may take longer to reach now, but he’s also not giving up just because his timeline or the goalposts have shifted.
When Caruso’s life was changed by that delivery van, she didn’t quit either. She became a paratriathlete and had the opportunity to represent the USA around the world. She’s proud now that her early involvement in paratriathlon helped get the sport into the Olympics. Her racing goals evolved as her circumstances did, but her perseverance cleared a path for future paratriathletes.
Multiple-time Kona finisher Ellen Wexler woke up in the hospital after a serious crash during Ironman Arizona. She had been chasing her first KQ, but suddenly found herself facing months of recovery. She considered leaving the sport, but ultimately she says the accident elevated her game. Kona was still a goal—which she attained several times since—but the greater goal was to enjoy herself and her sport. She took time during her recovery to examine her true motivations and make sure they were pure.
Like these amazing athletes, I myself also had to delay my Ironman dreams but they were that much sweeter when I finally heard Mike Reilly call my name two years later than planned.
Assemble Your Team and Lean on Them
A perhaps unexpected side effect of having a serious bike accident is that it can polarize the people around you. Some people might question your desire or ability to get back in the saddle. Others will cheer you on. Everyone I spoke to had loved ones in both categories—and had loved ones move from one category to the other.
Being deliberate about choosing your team when returning to triathlon after a bike crash can make or break your reentry. Caruso was very picky about who she would bike with, assembling a group of close friends who became her stalwart training partners. They made her feel safe and supported on their morning rides.
A good coach who can balance pushing you with respecting your boundaries can also make a difference. We all know those type-A athletes and coaches who think you have to go hard all the time and think the sport is just about speed and numbers. In reality, there is a lot of space between going big and going home, so find the people who live in that middle ground and ignore the rest.
Keep Perspective and Respect the Bike
After her crash, Wexler’s mind kept coming back to one simple thought: Triathlon is not my life, my life is my life. She had always respected the bike and been aware of the potential dangers posed, but in the wake of the accident she developed a deeper understanding of the risks. She weighed the risks and the rewards and ultimately returned to the sport, but she did so with more clarity.
Garnier was struck after his crash that there had been no signs an accident was imminent and says he still thinks when he rides about how he could crash any moment. He’s more aware now of the dangers, but he also reminds himself of the fact that he was in an accident doesn’t make him more or less likely to have another.
Caruso had to learn how to do life, not just triathlon, with the use of only one arm. She had severe physical and mental challenges to overcome, but she also credits triathlon with saving her life. Staying active and focused helped her stave off depression and find purpose. “The very thing that almost killed me saved me. That feeling it gave me was better than the fear.” If you love triathlon you’ll find a way to get back out there!