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Mysterious Road Bike Crash Forensics

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Road Cycling “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” -- Ernest Hemingway

Mysterious Road Bike Crash Forensics

Old 08-18-21, 08:30 PM
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endgrainguy
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Mysterious Road Bike Crash Forensics

I’m hoping the cumulative experience and knowledge of this forum’s members can help solve the mystery of why my wife fell on a road bike ride about three weeks ago. We were descending a gentle grade on a very quiet, decently paved road through mostly wooded western Massachusetts. I was about 100 feet ahead of her, coasting at about 20 MPH when I heard an unusual and alarming splat, and turned around to see her motionless face down in the road. She appeared to be dead.

When I ran to her I could see she was breathing, and blood was pooling beneath her head. She was out cold for about 2 minutes. When she regained consciousness she was confused as to what was happening, with no memory of the fall. Ambulance arrived about 15 minutes after the fall, and after a ten minute ride to the nearest hospital she was airlifted to a major trauma center.

When I finally was able to join her two hours later she was lucid, and aware she had a C1 Vertebra fracture, which she was told was rare, (but not told how potentially dangerous).

She ended up not needing surgery for the neck fracture. She’s recovering nicely, with no nerve damage, and only minor, diminishing concussion fallout.

She’s a very experienced rider in her early 60’s. We’ve toured together for several thousand miles, and she’s probably logged 50,000 miles of recreational road riding. She has no idea why she fell. Two friends riding with us were too far behind to see the fall. There was a minor crack in the road, parallel to the road, for about 15 feet about 50 feet before her landing spot, but not anything one would think twice about simply riding over. She had been having some trouble lately with front derailleur shifting, sometimes looking down at the chain ring as she shifted, so distraction from that has been our prime suspect, but the nature of her fall and the bike’s condition make me doubt that theory.

She landed in a more or less bottom of a push-up position. Her helmet took a good hit on the front brim, as did her nose and chin, as well as her breasts. If it were me (skinny guy) I’d have probably broken ribs from the same fall. But apart from some scrapes on her elbows and the bruises on her face, and of course the terrifying C-1 fracture, she suffered no other injuries.

We picked up the bikes today from the small town police station they’d been stored at. The handlebars were torqued upwards in their clamp from the force taken entirely it seems from the apex of the brake levers. No perceptible twist anywhere, wheels true. Since she has no memory of the fall, It’s as if the bike were lifted and dropped on its nose by a poltergeist. Not knowing why she fell is very disconcerting for her (me too). .

I’d like to know what thoughts people have about the likely cause of this fall. I’m guessing the injuries to bike and rider are pretty distinctive, and might suggest a cause to riders who’ve experienced something similar with an awareness of the cause.

I tried to post photos of her injuries and the bike's but since I'm a new user the forum didn't allow it.....

Last edited by endgrainguy; 08-18-21 at 08:35 PM.
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Old 08-18-21, 08:59 PM
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Yikes. Glad her injuries were no worse. I had a C1-C2 fracture from a car wreck 20 years ago -- full size SUV ran a light at highway speed, approaching diagonally from behind my left blind spot. T-boned my compact car. Cracked six vertebrae, two in each of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions. The T and L cracks healed, no problems, but the cervical injury has literally been a pain in the neck since.

So look after her well, encourage reasonable physical therapy, etc. And be prepared for some psychological stresses. It's very common to experience ups and downs after a concussion and traumatic injury. I eventually got counseling for PTSD in the early 2000s. It made me much more aware of that stuff and more sympathetic toward others.

Regarding reasons for the crash, no idea, and I'm not sure it matters now. I've done many group rides, fast and slow, and seen a few crashes ahead of me. When it's a solo, unforced crash, usually it's a defect in the road surface that the rider didn't see, or overreacted to. A couple of years ago during a casual group ride I saw a fellow ahead of me coasting about 20 mph downhill near a seam in the road -- it was paved with those large blocks of concrete, like a huge sidewalk. I worried what would happen if he nicked a raised ledge on a seam. Sure enough, he did. Went down hard on his right side. Smacked his head hard on the right, then slid several feet headfirst into a curb for a second hit. Fortunately it was one of those gently sloped curbs so maybe the impact was slightly less. He went into shock immediately, repeating himself, asking what happened, etc. Fortunately the local ambulance company was accompanying us so he got attention immediately. I heard he was discharged from the ER that night, but never heard any more about his condition.

I hesitate to say "overreacted" because most of us are just recreational riders and there's no way to prepare for sudden stuff like that. I'm not sure even experienced racers can really prepare and plan for crashes. Who actually rehearses crashing for road riding? It's not like martial arts where we do practice falling. I did race a few crits in my youth, was mostly an amateur boxer and played lots of other sports. Stuff happens so quickly we usually cannot react quickly enough to avoid collisions and injuries, no matter how much we think we can duck and cover or tuck and roll or whatever other mantra we've rehearsed. In my first crit on the final sprint the guy next to me pulled ahead and clipped my front wheel. Even at 30 mph it felt like slow motion and all I could do was go with it and slide. Pretty raw road rash but no breaks. We can get away with a lot when we're young.

Three years ago I was hit by a car that ran the yellow light and turned left into me while I had the green and walk signal. Driver was looking down, presumably at her phone. I'd guess the impact was around 10 mph. At first it seemed to go in slow motion, but I don't remember how I hit, or whether I put out an arm to stop myself, or just stayed tucked and landed on my shoulder. The wind was knocked out of me and I couldn't get up for a couple of minutes. When I did get up I realized my right arm was dangling and I couldn't feel it. Shoulder was broken and dislocated. The ortho surgeon said it looked like a typical football player injury and thought I probably stayed tucked and landed on my shoulder, with my hands still on the handlebar. But I don't remember. Even at relatively slow speed it happened too quickly.
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Old 08-18-21, 09:19 PM
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2 weeks ago I was riding with a small group at fairly low speed when one crashed in front of me, just to the left so I didn't run into him. He was banged up but finished the ride and has no idea why he fell. I saw the whole thing and I have no idea why he fell. I found a small divot in the road but nothing else.

The other riders and I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out but nothing was obvious. I'm sorry to hear that your wife got hurt but you might never know what caused the crash.
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Old 08-18-21, 09:28 PM
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I once had a stick flip up into my spokes and stop my front wheel dead. I was on the ground before I knew anything was happening. It was also a straight-ahead fall where I pretty much landed on my face. I've seen plenty of "endo" videos, and people often flip. I more or less went from riding position into superman position on the ground.

I don't think there's any way to know what happened, but something like that is possible.
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Old 08-18-21, 10:01 PM
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OMG, how scary that must have been, my wife has had some long term medical issues and on occasion, we've had to make emergency trips to the hospital, always makes my heart skip a beat. I am happy she is recovering.

Has your wife ever had low blood pressure or inner ear issues? My wife suffers with vertigo every so often and she has just fallen out of the blue, very scary.

What DownTube42 mentions of about having a stick going into the spokes is also a valid theory and probably something you were not looking for at the time obviously.
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Old 08-18-21, 10:13 PM
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She has retrograde amnesia from injury. So she will not remember. I believe you will never know, and will learn to accept that.

Glad she will be ok and wishing her a speedy recovery.
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Old 08-18-21, 10:46 PM
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Does she have a history of fainting or TIAs/stroke? Any family history?
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Old 08-18-21, 11:17 PM
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Yeah, given she did not cry out, and her odd posture on the ground, I’d strongly consider that she was out before hitting the floor. Why that would have happened, I don’t know, but maybe looking at her tests and scans with that possibility in mind may reveal something.

I’m sorry you and she are in such a scary situation. Best wishes.
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Old 08-19-21, 12:26 AM
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You were blissfully unaware, but a cute puppy pack of rabid dogs was chasing after you and she threw herself off the bike to cuddle attack their bloodthirsty pack leader and save you.

Just go with that, because you'll never know the real reason.
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Old 08-19-21, 05:14 AM
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A squirrel is my WAG. Agree that you'll never know.
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Old 08-19-21, 05:40 AM
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Balancing on two wheels (or two feet, for that matter) is a dynamic situation. There are hundreds of little muscle movements, balance shifts, bike moving under you, variations in road surface, etc. If there is a disruption at the wrong instant, you can go down quickly. So, for example, if your wife's balance was shifting to the left (for whatever reason - dip in the road surface, easing a saddle pressure point, whatever, something we all do thousands of times during a ride), what should happen is she should turn the handlebar to the left to keep the bike under herself - she would do this automatically without even noticing it. However, if her tire hit a crack at the wrong instant, making her unable to turn the handlebar to keep the bike under he, she would fall to the left. There's no way of knowing if that was it, but it's a possibility. Basically, in this situation, she would have just gotten unlucky - she was at the tail end of the distribution, all of the random errors just stacked up the wrong way to take her down.

(edit: in skiing, we call this a "snow snake", one instant you're skiing along, the next instant you're down)
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Old 08-19-21, 09:13 AM
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The hardest I ever fell was on a casual ride. There was an expansion gap in the concrete and it swallowed my front wheel, only about an inch down. It stopped my front wheel and threw me into traffic.

I ended up ok, really rashed up and my nethers were quite visible for the ride home through the holes in my bibs. Mostly OK but I narrowly missed getting run over by a car. I attribute my escape from injury to being 22 at the time. Youngsters can take a hit.

I think there is a chance something similar happened to your wife. It sounds kinda like an over the bars type of event. Is that crack ever wide enough to fit a tire into? Doesn’t even need to be the whole thing, just enough to catch it.

I didn’t have the same mechanical damage but all falls are pretty different, even if they’re caused by the same thing.
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Old 08-19-21, 09:58 AM
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See any deer on the side of the road?

They sometimes will jump over a cyclist knocking them off their bikes. And leave little if any physical evidence of their presence. Might have happened to me. But I'll never know for certain since there are no witnesses and I have no memory of the event except for a fleeting image of a fawn or yearling in the brush. Maybe momma deer trying to get to her child?

It happened over two years ago and just today I noticed the skin on my knees that was missing is finally starting to heal to the extent it's not as noticeable. Never could reason out how I skinned both knees to that extent considering the other damage to me and very little damage to the bike.

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Old 08-19-21, 10:21 AM
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I went OTB once, entirely unexpected.
That mystery resolved itself when we noticed that the front wheel wouldn’t turn.
There was a pine cone lodged between tire and fork crown. It was well on the way of splitting. If it had, all the traces of the cause of accident would have been a slight smear of pine resin on fork crown and tire.
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Old 08-19-21, 10:40 AM
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Crack in concrete surface took me down immediately. I was just leaning it in coming down a mountain at 45 mph and never saw it until I walked back and could see it.

Sorry to hear and that must have been very scary to see your wife laying there. Horrible.

If she is not fainting or getting dizzy or falls asleep during the day, I would just write it off to the squirrel theory.
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Old 08-19-21, 10:45 AM
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It does not take much of a crack to capture a front tire and any input after that will take you down.
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Old 08-19-21, 10:55 AM
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My son was riding the other day then suddenly the handlebars turned abruptly to the left and he was on the ground, hands first, followed by face.

I felt terrible because I assumed there was something wrong with the bike that I had built and let him ride. It has an aluminum fork with a few 10s of thousands of kms on it, and his description of the crash made me think a broken fork blade could cause it.
I picked up the bike from his friend's house and inspected - no mechanical fault beyond the crooked bars, almost definitely caused by the crash and not the other way around.

Turns out there was a patch of sand on the edge of the bike path that he did not notice.
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Old 08-19-21, 10:58 AM
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Originally Posted by endgrainguy View Post
There was a minor crack in the road, parallel to the road, for about 15 feet about 50 feet before her landing spot, but not anything one would think twice about simply riding over.
​​​​​​It seems possible that her wheel got caught in the crack. When that happens, you can no longer balance the bike and you fall over. This can happen very quickly. These cracks can be hard to see and easy to miss.
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Old 08-19-21, 11:07 AM
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I'm with those who suspect possibly an animal in the road. It sounds like she probably flipped over the handlebars, no? The only ways this can happen are: 1) front brake is suddenly applied hard enough to lock it, 2) a crack or pothole causes the front wheel to suddenly stop, or 3) front wheel hits some obstacle on the road.

Her concussion could allow something like a deer strike to occur but not register in her memory. I crashed a bike as a teenager and received a moderate concussion, and for days and weeks following, I had no idea how it occurred (for several hours I didn't even know where I was or what was happening). I later began to recall some details, until eventually I gained a pretty good idea of how the crash happened. Maybe your wife will eventually gain some memory of it, but maybe not.

If she simply passed out prior to the crash, that might square with what you know from the post-crash analysis. But this seems unlikely, unless she's had fainting spells or something of that nature ever before, even once.

There could be some merit to the theory of distraction from the derailler's function, but given her extensive riding experience this seems unlikely. You'd expect this more from a new rider.
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Old 08-19-21, 11:10 AM
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I dumped a motorcycle once when I rode over a flat 2'x4' fluorescent light "lens" - slightest turn angle and the front wheel went out from under me in a split second. Perhaps there was something "not obvious" on the road. Glad the prognosis is not worse. Best of luck, and lots of patience, on that recovery.
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Old 08-19-21, 11:48 AM
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Originally Posted by downtube42 View Post
I once had a stick flip up into my spokes and stop my front wheel dead. I was on the ground before I knew anything was happening.
That happened to me 9 years ago. Woman in front of me spit out a stick from her rear wheel. (lots of debris on the road from a recent storm.) Hit my front bladed spokes, spun up and lodged horizontally between my rim and the inside of my right brake caliper. I was probably doing about 16-17 mph about to power up a short, steep hill. I went flying. As I was in the air, I yelled "Oh man!" Fortunately, I was able to turn toward my side. My right shoulder hit first into the inclining road surface. Split the end of my collar bone. My head barely grazed the pavement, but I replaced the helmet anyway out of an abundance of caution. I take blood thinners, so I avoided what could have been a serious head injury.

One of the guys in our group was in his 60s and had raced during his life. He said it was the oddest crash he had ever seen. He took a photo of the stick still suck in my bike. It looked like someone had placed it there. Unfortunately, I no longer have the photo.
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Old 08-19-21, 12:18 PM
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A couple of years ago I was on an out and back group ride when a friend passed me, going the opposite direction. He looked back over his left shoulder and then dropped like a rock; no reaction, no trying to catch his fall with his hands, nothing. It turned out that when he turned his head, the movement pinched off the blood flow in an artery to his brain and made him lose consciousness. He has some kind of condition - I can't remember the details - but he had to have surgery on the artery in his neck to correct it. During his fall he also fractured his hip and pelvis. He was out cold when we got to him and when he came to, he kept wanting to stand up. Thankfully we had a couple of nurses and an ER doc with us who wouldn't let him move while we waited for the ambulance.
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Old 08-19-21, 04:47 PM
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My uncle had been healthy his whole life. A few years ago, in his late 60s, he had a few instances of coming to on the floor or ground after mild exertion and not knowing what happened. Turned out to be a heart valve that went bad. After some surgery he's been doing much better.
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Old 08-19-21, 04:57 PM
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Originally Posted by endgrainguy View Post
. There was a minor crack in the road, parallel to the road, for about 15 feet about 50 feet before her landing spot, but not anything one would think twice about simply riding over. She had been having some trouble lately with front derailleur shifting, sometimes looking down at the chain ring as she shifted, so distraction from that has been our prime suspect.
First, I am glad that your wife's injuries are not more substantial and that she is recovering nicely.

Second, I suspect this is a one-off event, unlikely to happen again; figuring out the cause would be satisfying, but won't really help her to ride more safely in the future. I mention this because you may never figure it out.

Third, I wonder if that crack, running parallel to the road, was the issue. If her front wheel went into the crack, it could easily stop turning instantly and pitch her over the bars, with the bike rotating on its front wheel. If the sun was behind her, her shadow would have fallen over the crack and obscured it; alternatively, if she was looking at her front derailleur, she might have not seen it. (I mention this because it happened to me about 17 years ago: I was just riding along and all of a sudden did an endo and landed on my head. A riding buddy went to the spot a few days later, found the crack, and figured out that the sun was behind me. When I returned to the spot, I found that my front wheel fit perfectly INTO the crack and would have locked up.)

By the way, it sure sounds like your wife went right over the handlebar - the bike flipped and landed on its handlebar. This might lead you to discount any explanations that run counter to that, such as suggestions that she blacked out. I think they should be discounted.

Best wishes for your wife's speedy recovery, and welcome to the forum!

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Old 08-19-21, 05:12 PM
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OP: “There was a minor crack in the road…but not anything one would think twice about simply riding over.”

98% of BF respondents, without accounting for the bike or her condition at all, and of course not seeing the crack: “It was probably the crack.”

Pffft. *SMH*
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