The 4 Most Common Causes of Single Bike Crashes

Cycling is a fun and safe way to get around. What danger there is comes overwhelmingly from motor vehicles. However, there are a few common causes of single bike crashes, and knowing the hazards may help you avoid them.

May help you avoid them. Unfortunately, this does not always work. We all know that broken concrete sidewalks are a tripping hazard while walking, but I bet we’ve all still tripped on them. Such is life outside a plastic bubble.

Mr. Dottie demonstrates hazard #2: ICE!

Mr. Dottie demonstrates hazard #2: ICE!

This week Mr. Dottie had a crash caused by one of the common hazards: clipping a pedal on the ground while cornering. A patch of irregularly raised pavement brought the ground too close, and his heavy work pannier made correcting impossible.  He is sore and a bit scraped on his arm and ankle, but otherwise doing well. A quick trip to urgent care (luckily he has health insurance) showed that nothing was fractured.  When someone cycles as much as he does, stuff like this is much more likely.

In light of this event, here is my very unofficial list of the 4 most common causes of single bike crashes:

  1. Train tracks – I am intimately familiar with this.  Danger:  Your tire can get caught in the tracks, or slip off wet or gravely tracks.  Both will result in you getting thrown off the bike and/or the bike falling on you.  Avoid: To keep your tire from getting caught, approach the tracks at a perfect 90 degree angle.  (Unfortunately, I did not have my protractor with me that fateful day.)  Alternatively, you could do what I do now and walk your bike over the tracks like a baby.  Walking will also protect you from slipping off the tracks.  Lovely Bicycle has a great discussion on train tracks here.
  2. Ice – I am also intimately familiar with this.  No big surprise!  Danger: Ice is slippery.  Rutted ice is slippery and bumpy.  Avoid:  Either avoid riding when it is icy or get studded tires.  I got studded tires, Schwalbe Marathon Winters.  Other slippery stuff – wet manhole covers, oil – can be grouped here, although studded tires won’t help.
  3. Cornering – Mr. Dottie’s now intimately familiar with this.  Danger:  Your pedal can hit the ground if you corner too sharply.    Watch out for raised and irregular pavement in the city, where they fix potholes by making potmounds.  Another danger is loose gravel causing your wheel to slip if you corner quickly.  Avoid: Ride slowly and relaxed.  Consider purchasing a Dutch bike ;) And as Evie noted in the comments, try to keep the inside pedal up when cornering.
  4. Drinking – Drinking and cycling is better than driving, but a bad idea nevertheless.  Danger: You are drunk.  Avoid: Walk, take public transit, use a designated driver or take a cab.

Am I missing any common single bike hazards?  Would you like to share any of your experiences with them?  C’mon, we’re all friends here.  I have no standing to point and laugh.  Trisha, on the other hand, has never fallen and I cannot guarantee that she will refrain from pointing and laughing, although she’s usually very nice.  :)

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43 thoughts on “The 4 Most Common Causes of Single Bike Crashes

  1. Michael says:

    Wet paint lines, man hole covers, the metal plates covering repair work, and metal grates wider then your bike tires.

  2. dukiebiddle says:

    Ah yes, Michael, parallel sewer grates. They’re why I stay 5 feet from the curb even on empty streets.

    Also, with fall approaching, watch out for wet leaves, especially on wood planked bike bridges. I learned that one by getting a bruised pelvis and nearly dislocating my shoulder. That was a fun two weeks, having only one fully functioning limb.

    And another from personal experience: Concrete bus platforms, especially when the asphalt around them has been stripped in preparation for fresh asphalt, double especially when you are in the process of merging right in full city traffic and the sides of both wheels hit the 2″ tall lip. Broken hand on that one.

    Man, I used to fall a lot.

    And my personal favorite, asphalted over old streetcar tracks that are poking out of the pavement, usually right underneath the proper lane position for cyclists.

    As for drinking and riding: KILLJOY!. Kidding. I’ve never tried it, but I would suspect that it would be much harder than drunk walking. I do remember some times in the past when walking was a near impossibility.

  3. Sid says:

    Make sure you have a secure rack, basket, pannier, etc to transport your stuff. Riding with one hand or having bags dangling off the front handlebars definitely increases your odds being thrown off-balance and hitting the deck.

  4. Trisha says:

    Madame, I believe you just totally jinxed me. ;) No pointing or laughing from this corner! My ability to remain upright thus far can be partially attributed to learning from others’ experiences, so comment on folks! (For the curious, I believe the rest of the credit goes to riding slooowly.)

  5. Sungsu says:

    Last time I fell was on a foggy day with cold ground. Yes, you guessed it — black ice.

  6. ksteinhoff says:

    Wooden bridge decks, particularly if wet and covered in leaves.

    Then there’s the compound mistake.

    I had my first road crayon experience not long after I started riding. Literally within sight of my house, I stood up on the pedals to go over some train tracks. While doing that, I took my right hand off the bars to signal a right turn. Just then, the traffic light turned yellow and I applied the brakes with my left hand.

    Instantly I was flying through the air like Superman. Unfortunately, the law of gravity had not been repealed and, milliseconds later, I was skidding along the ground. (In case you ever wondered, your feet DO come out of clipless pedals in a crash.)

    A driver in a car behind me came up while I was counting limbs, dividing by two and coming up with the correct number.

    “Grabbed that front brake a little hard, didn’t you?” was his comment.

    Insult AND injury all at the same time.

    Lesson learned: do NOT apply front brake while you are riding one-handed and out of the saddle.

  7. Evie says:

    Note on cornering: a good way to avoid clipping the pedals is to make sure that the pedal on the inside of the corner is UP. This can be a challenge if it’s a winding road — you have to constantly be paying attention to which pedal is up — but it sure does decrease one’s chances of falling.

  8. gordon Inkeles says:

    A tricycle protects you from most of these hazards. They are more expensive than bikes but SO much fun.

  9. dukiebiddle says:

    Lesson learned: do NOT apply front brake while you are riding one-handed and out of the saddle.

    This is exactly why I’m such a fundamentalist supporter of traditional hand signals. There is just too much going on in a turn for holding the front brake lever exclusively to be safe.

  10. Melanie says:

    I fell off of my Batavus Old Dutch this week when an interchange of vestigial trolley tracks got the best of me. My shame about the whole ordeal- witnessed by probably twenty pedestrians and a number of cars (and a bus)- is tempered by how lucky I was to emerge unscathed. It was really scary to be sprawled out on the ground in the middle of the lane.

    Mo’ miles, mo’ problems, I suppose.

  11. Dean Peddle says:

    I’m also one for the wet wooden bridges….they always seem to be on downhill stretches with sudden turns when you get on them…..forgot about wetness a couple of times and wiped out.

    Another happened to me this year. While taking a quick turn navigating one of those goofy railings they put at railroad crossing to slow you down I pushed my front fender into my front wheel with my foot and went strait over the handlebars!!!

  12. I think this covers all of these. Going faster than the conditions warrant. Most of my falls happened when I was going fast or in a rush. Going slower makes most hazards easier to deal with.

  13. Sorry to hear about his crash. This is my biggest worry about cycling with an asymmetrical pannier and why I do not do it. I have a pretty poor sense of balance as it is and it seems that a pannier (with my laptop in it at that) would just be asking for trouble.

    I am also pretty apprehensive about ice, since just about everyone I know has fallen off their bike after slipping on it. This will be my first winter cycling, and I haven’t decided yet whether I will go through with it once the snow and ice set in. Your photos cylcing in the Chicago winterland are admirable!

    • cycler says:

      I find that having some weight on the rear wheel actually helps stability.
      I put 40 pounds in (two) panniers on the rear wheel on Saturday and it smoothed everything out. It’s a bit like putting sandbags in a rear-wheel drive car’s trunk.

      Since I’m also biking in Boston, I’ll say that you’ll be surprised how much you can bike through the winter whilst still avoiding ice and snow. Normally I can go through most of December. Often January is all icy, but by February it’s not bad.
      I’m too chicken to ride when it’s icy/ snowy, not so much for fear of falling myself, but for fear that a car will hit some black ice and wham!

      • dottie says:

        I’m much less worried about cars in the winter. With snow and ice, they actually slow down and pay attention to what they’re doing.

        • cycler says:

          They may pay more attention to what they’re doing but that still doesn’t mean they won’t hit black ice and slide into you.
          I was walking to the subway station one day last winter and saw an SUV that was going very slowly to begin with (being careful because of the snow) slide slowly but with a sickening crunch into the car stopped at a light in front of it as it wasn’t able to stop. There was only a bit of damage to the tail light and the bumper, but my bike doesn’t have any bumpers, and I shudder to think if I’d been waiting at that stoplight.

  14. Sarah says:

    Both times I’ve fallen were on ice. And both times the ice was covered by a thin layer of snow so it was hard to tell which parts were icy/how icy it was. One of them was when I simply took a turn too sharply. It was just as I was arriving somewhere and turning into the bike racks and was embarrassingly in front of people I was about to be in an all-day workshop with. The other time was in a bike lane on a busy street and that really shook me up because I fell into the car lane and I was lucky there were no cars coming right then.

    Lessons learned: be very wary of potential ice under snow, and do not try to turn at all sharply if you might be on ice!

  15. Catherine says:

    Eeps! Now I’m scared to ride in inclement weather (confession: I’ve been using Metro on rainy days because I don’t have my desired rain cape yet) and I’ve been back and forth on what I’m going to do in winter.

    I’m a total weenie when it comes to personal injury (I’ve had enough broken bones for one lifetime, thank you), and the phrase “the bigger they are the harder they fall” makes me (one sturdily built human indeed) veeery nervous!

    • dottie says:

      Studded tires are the solution to any ice worries. I fell on ice before I bought studded tires. Never again.

      [I tried to post a pic of my studded tire here, but I guess we don't allow that :) I'll do a full post on them soon.]

      • dukiebiddle says:

        For better or for worse, the climate in the lower Mid-Atlantic makes it difficult to justify the cost of studded tires. They would definitely have to be special ordered. They would only be practical a maximum of 10 days over the entire winter. Unlike Chicago, in D.C./Balt/Philly it’s far more practical to keep slicks year round and accept our winter weather ineptitude and just take public transport.

        You should see how the retards in this part of the country drive in 2 inches of snow. They too are on bald tires.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          Oops. Half thought up there meant “just take public transport…” … on those few days you have freezing conditions.

  16. E A says:

    Potholes! I wiped out on one years ago (luckily no cars were on the road with me) and I’ve been scared of them ever since. It was dusk and the pothole was much larger/deeper than I expected. Couldn’t brake or swerve in time. Even with my lights, sometimes these obstacles are hidden.

    • Brian says:

      My solution is to carry a spray can of Da-Glo pavement marking paint in my handlebar pannier. Every big one I hit during my commute, I stop and circle in paint. That way I won’t hit it again nor will other cyclists. This really helps at night since every rise or fall in the pavement looks like a foot deep chasm.

  17. Sean says:

    I think there are two more hazards to consider. If you live in an urban area, large metal sheets of about 6 feet by 8 feet are often used to cover holes in the ground caused by utility or road work. These can be slippery when dry and really slippery when wet. Approach with caution. Or, better yet, avoid them entirely if you can.

    The other hazard to mention are cobblestones. Where I live, in New York City, one of our main bike paths has short patches of cobblestones occasionally. I don’t know if they were installed for drainage, appearance, or traffic calming, but they can be scary, especially when the soil between them begins to sink. Hit the space between stones and your wheel can give a frightening wobble. Approach them slowly.

    • Jedierica says:

      Yes we have those big hunks of metal on our streets here. They make a clunking sound as you ride over them. The same rule for train tracks applies take them straight on and not at an angle. The drop off is high enough to catch a tire at an angle. I am also finding that riding at night means that I cannot see the potholes in the road that I would see during the day. My bike can take them but my knees and other parts seem to be sore after going over some of them near corners when taking a turn.

  18. bikeworm says:

    Dottie, I’ve been riding all summer, and I was planning on continuing on through the New York fall. I figured snow and ice would stop me. But, studded tires! I’m so excited. Can’t wait to see the full post.

    And about falls–I’ve been lucky on my bike. My worst fall ever was off a scooter. Pretty terrifying. Kids are brave.

  19. Doug D says:

    A friend of mine destroyed his car by turning to look at a pretty girl and driving into a truck in front of him. The following week, he destroyed his bicycle doing the same thing.
    Not looking where one is intending to go must be in the top 4 somewhere…

  20. Zweiradler says:

    I have never had a bike crash and I always keep the inside pedal up automatically. But I won’t point and laugh. :)

    Nico

  21. pomocomo says:

    This is such a great discussion about crashing. It seems the more you ride, the more exposure to time, miles, and conditions you accumulate, and at some point you’re going to have a crash or two. But, you also gain experience in avoidance or correction or smart tactics. Other than on the road training, I think one of the best things I’ve done to learn about crashing and avoiding or correcting, or at least, if you’re crashing, learning to crash to minimize injury, is by mountain biking. Mountain biking puts you on slower, softer spaces, where falling hurts less, but also presents you with more obstacles, and balance challenges. Mtb teaches you about keeping momentum to stay up, choosing good lines through obstacles, and shifting you weight and position on the bike in a split second to avoid crashing and keep moving forward.

    The worst crash I ever had was when I was a kid, and I had towel wrapped around my handlebars on my way to a beach at the lake – inevitably it came unwrapped into my front wheel, stopping the wheel and throwing me over the handlebars.

  22. miss sarah says:

    For me, danger when riding in traffic is due to cars turning (generally making right turns) without shoulder checking. Beware! Also, 4-way stops.

    I’ve only wiped out on my bike twice in the last several years. Once was when it was raining and I was on a newly paved road. There was a little gap in the pavement between the road and the sidewalk concrete that had not be filled so my tire got stuck. The slippery wet combined with darkness (it was night so I couldn’t see the gap) and I had a spill. It was one of those sliding wipe-outs so it didn’t hurt. I was more surprised than anything!

    I hear the street car tracks in Toronto are awful for getting tires stuck in!

    S*

  23. Doug says:

    I ride all year in northern Minnesota. It wasn’t the ice or snow that got me. It was a grated metal bridge deck. It was mostly dry with light snow coming down. There was just enough moisture in the snow flakes to make the grated metal as slippery as ice. I went down as soon as I hit it. I was off the bike for four and a half months rehabbing my broken arm. My surgeon says it as the worst break he’d ever seen.

  24. jOdy says:

    potholes in puddles. It’s fun to ride though puddles but it’s hard to know what’s at the bottom of them.

    Black walnuts in the road during the fall. It’s like riding through a field of golf balls. These have actually taken me down before.

    I’ve also read that cracked pavement running parallel with the road is bad. I ride past it like I’d ride past a rattlesnake but I’ve never actually crashed on it.

  25. jOdy,

    Cracks in the pavement will certainly take you down. My riding partner and I used to enjoy riding on an abandoned stretch of U.S. 27 just outside South Bay, FL.

    The roadway is slowly being reclaimed by nature and has lots of cracks and heaves.

    One day Mary was more interested in watching a gator in the canal next to us than keeping her eye on the road. Her tire slipped into a crack and she went down.

    No injuries, except to her pride.

  26. Jerry Smith says:

    I’ve fallen three times, all because I was drunk. Drunk riding tips: 1. Wear your helmet because your head will hit the pavement before you can react to falling 2. Keep your eyes up and pointing ahead because you have no innate sense of balance — you need to keep your eyes on the horizon

  27. Max says:

    Being young and stupid tops my list. Sub-list: Opting not to take my epilepsy meds… and thus having a seizure while going 25mph downhill on the way home from work. Dislocated shoulder and a fancy set of road rash. Twenty years ago. It’s just about healed now.

    So to summarize: Staying conscious is good for biking proficiency.

  28. Max says:

    Dottie, do you have a link to where those plastic bubbles are sold?

  29. Jo says:

    This was a fun one: slush concealing a deep pothole. No matter how careful you are, there’s not much you can do about that one. I flew over the handlebars and really screwed up my left knee. I’ve held off on riding my dutch bike in snow/ice since I was worried that the weight and the vertical riding stance would be liabilities in a skid. Since my winter bike has been out of commission since the above-mentioned crash, I think I’ll give it a try this year. Thanks for the inspiration, Dottie.

    • Scott says:

      Jo, I worry about this problem all the time whenever I’m riding through a puddle. I always think of these photos of a cyclist on a flying pigeon in Beijing: http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_1399668.html.

      Whenever I can’t see the road I just take it really slowly. FWIW, I have had no problems with my oma and non-winter tires on my daily commute in the winter.

  30. Molly says:

    Hi, Dottie, a first-time poster here. Is it difficult to switch the tires on your oma? How did you learn to do it? I’m thinking of doing that on my city bike too, but it seems more complicated than on your average sport bike.

  31. Hi Dottie, another first-timer here, I know it’s an old post but I thought I’d add something else to watch out for. A lot of entrances & exits to parking areas are no longer at the same level as the street itself, due to erosion and roadwork over time, and it leaves a small “lip” where the two meet. My wife took a spill off her Haro cruiser because of one of those one time, caught the front tire at just the right angle.

    I always make sure that I stop on the street and then walk it up onto a parking area/sidewalk/etc. because of those lips.

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