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Bike Shorts: Memory Loss After a Cycling Accident

No matter how many times they happen, falls and accidents are always unsettling for a cyclist. That’s especially true if you can’t remember what happened when you crashed.

Whether you’ve come to your senses in a hospital bed or on the pavement with just a few bumps and bruises, it’s unnerving if you’re not sure how you got there. Memory loss after an accident could be enough to make you uneasy about getting back on the bike.

“You look at things from the point of view of, ‘Is this going to happen again? Could I endanger myself or others?’” says longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie. 

It’s a common concern — one Coach Darryl has addressed with many cyclists over the years — which is why he’s here to put your mind at ease.

Memory Loss After an Accident Is Normal

The first thing to know is that this isn’t some mental aberration. It’s normal.

“Don’t take this personally,” Darryl explains. "Don’t think of it as a personal failure. This happens in almost all cases when there is a significant crash like this.”

In his experience, if the crash is serious, over 90% of cyclists will remember few if any details about the cause of the crash, and they’ll almost always remember nothing during and immediately after the crash. They may not have any recollection at all, or they may only recall fragments. And, although it’s common, most of them are surprised by their mental lapse.

That’s why Darryl makes a habit of checking in with riders after they’ve had an accident that induces memory loss. He’ll ask them questions about the accident — How are you? What’s the damage to your bike? What happened? Quite often, that last question only draws a blank answer. That’s his chance to explain what’s going on and calm their nerves.

Why Your Brain Is Foggy After an Accident

When you’re confronted with a life-threatening situation, your brain zeroes in on one thing: survival. Everything else takes a back seat, including recording what’s happening.

Scientists have noticed this phenomenon in a wide variety of accident situations. They attribute it to your body switching into fight-or-flight mode to focus all its mental faculties on safely averting danger. Adrenaline floods your body, quickening and strengthening physical responsiveness — and blocking out your conscious awareness of all but the most important information.

Even when cycling accidents happen in a fraction of a second, your brain can quickly shift into this mode. When you come around, you might not remember any of it or you may only see flashes. Either way, it’s normal.

You Can Get Back on the Bike

“If you’re in an accident, don’t be surprised if you can’t figure out what happened,” Darryl emphasizes.

This is what he focuses on when he talks people through their accidents and how they can recover from them. Half the battle — if not more — is understanding that memory loss after an accident is a result of the brain's normal physiological processes. Rather than a reason to distrust yourself, it’s an affirmation that your brain was functioning as it should in a moment of crisis.

Over time, you may begin to remember more fragments of the accident and the surrounding moments. That, too, is normal, and Coach Darryl encourages recovering cyclists to engage in the recall process. As you focus on those memories, you may gradually be able to piece together what happened and learn from your experience.

But, even if you can’t, this forgetfulness is no reason for you to stay off the bike. You should, of course, take the time to physically recover before you ride again. But don’t let anxiety over your missing memories keep you out of the saddle. The consequences of avoiding the bike are significant, and a good ride may be just what you need to clear your head and complete your recovery.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Image by Alex Fox from Pixabay