How One Biking Injury Could End a Cyclist’s Career (And It’s Not What You Think)
Every cyclist knows that pedaling comes with its fair share of injury risks. Even the most careful riders can end up on the pavement, despite their best efforts to prepare, ride safely and avoid a biking injury.
But one of the dangerous moments in cycling may be one that most cyclists don’t even think of. This common hazard isn’t necessarily that steep downhill or the high-traffic intersection — though those are certainly areas that call for mindful, safe cycling.
No, one of the biggest risks you’ll face as a cyclist isn’t about a type of cycling or a specific moment in the ride. Rather, it’s about how you approach riding when you’ve been off the bike for a while. Whether it was a crash, a non-cycling injury, or just the busyness of life that took you away from pedaling, how you handle biking after a break and returning to the road could make or break your long-term cycling prospects.
If you do it the wrong way, your cycling restart could be short-lived and lead to more lasting injuries than whatever stopped you from riding in the first place. Longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie helped us understand why that is — and how not to handle those first few times back on the bike.
Watch Out for the Slippery Slope
To better understand the unique peril that this moment presents, consider what a cyclist in this situation is likely going through. Put yourself in their shoes.
Imagine you’ve been cycling regularly for a long time. You pound the roads or trails three or four times a week, without fail, other than the occasional vacation or illness. You’ve gotten used to racking up impressive mileage every week at a steady pace, with a good mix of flats and hills, and you can’t imagine life without the challenge of a hard climb and the thrill of a wind-blown race downhill.
Then, suddenly, you injure yourself or have some other problem that keeps you off your bike. Not only are you limited in many of your daily activities, but you can’t do the one thing that brings you the most joy.
After weeks without cycling, the time finally comes to get back on the saddle for an enjoyable ride. How do you think you’d feel? You’d probably be over-the-top excited to start pedaling again, right? You’d be ready to jump right back in and recapture the thrill of those experiences you’ve been missing. While this type of reaction is completely understandable when biking after a break, the mindset is also incredibly dangerous.
“Many cyclists do not realize that this is one of the riskiest times in their cycling career,” says Coach Darryl.
When you’ve been off the bike for months, your body simply isn’t conditioned for the same kind of riding you did before. Even with the best bike and the most ergonomic saddle on the market, the first ride back can inevitably become hazardous. If you try to pedal at the same level of intensity that you were used to or push it for the same distance, you’re very likely to cause a new problem or exacerbate the injury that took you off the bike in the first place — and maybe even make it worse.
That’s why those early rides present a slippery slope of sorts for the cyclist. While you may feel the temptation to do more than you should, the more you push it, the more likely you are to have a significant setback or worse biking injury.
Even Small Pushes Can Lead to Setbacks
So, how much is too much? How do you know where to draw the line in those early rides after an injury or a long time off the bike? There’s no clear way to say.
“Take distance riding, for instance,” says Darryl. “Getting back on the bike, there is probably some distance — and you have no idea what that distance is — that is going to bring the problem back.”
And therein lies the rub: You don’t know exactly where that line is, for either distance or intensity, so you have to be extra cautious not to cross it. If you do, the new injury could be worse than the first. If you don’t hold back on a ride and aim to prevent a cycling injury, your actions could lead to another long stretch out of the saddle. Pushing too hard may even end your cycling days entirely, and that’s not worth the risk.
Darryl was reminded of this recently when even the smallest push led to a bit of a setback in his return from a knee injury. After being off the bike for a month, he had a great first ride back. He took it easy, going well under his normal pace, limiting his climbing, and keeping his heart rate down.
On his second ride, however, he pushed a little harder on one short, 10-second section of the ride. Only three miles in, he had to turn around to avoid risking a biking injury. Even if those 10 seconds weren’t much of a push, the endeavor was more than he could handle. His knee hurt worse than it did the week before.
The Trick: Take Your Time
Because you don’t know exactly where the line is — either in terms of distance or intensity — you need to err on the side of extreme caution during those initial rides. Plan to keep both aspects of your riding well below what you were used to before your time off the bike to prevent any cycling injury or setback.
Aim for a slow, gradual buildup to your old riding ways. Ride alone on the flats for those first few rides, so you don’t have anyone pressuring you and you can keep it light and short. When that feels comfortable, start to add miles to your riding route. Once you’ve gotten used to 25- or 30-mile rides, you can start to add more hills to intensify the rides and bring up your heart rate.
If you’re tempted to speed up this process, consider this: Would you rather get back up to speed faster, even if it means risking aggravating an old biking injury or causing a new one? Or would you prefer to enjoy a lifetime of cycling, even if you have to slow down for a bit to get there?
When you think of it that way, the choice is pretty clear.
For a more detailed look at the process of getting back on the bike, read our post “How to Get Back on the Bike After a Bad Crash.” And, as always, you can look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.