Bike Safety

Bike Injuries Are Common

Take this dream for a spin: The sun is shining, there's not a cloud in the sky, and your crush just called to ask if you want to go on a bike ride. You dust off your brother's old bike and picture yourself on a hillside adrenaline rush, riding into the sunset with your sweetie.

OK, hit "pause" for a second and get practical. Want to enjoy the ride without ending up in a humiliating pretzel-shaped pile on the side of the trail? (Or making your crush call 911 because of some heavy bloodshed?)

Bike injuries are common. So follow the tips below to really enjoy your ride.

Pick the Right Bike

Can you make your brother's sleek racer pass for a mountain mule? Nope. If you're headed on a hillside trek and don't want to pull out a patch kit after 5 minutes, you'll need to choose a mountain bike for its rugged, chunky tires, and trail-grabbing capabilities. The reverse is true, too — when you're going for speed on a paved surface, all those high-tech shocks and other mountain-climbing gadgets will do nothing to help you catch up with the distant speck on the horizon that's your cycling partner.

So what do you do? If you're not into buying a new bike, check out bike shops in your area for rentals. Not all stores rent bikes, but some do — like renting snowboards or skis, they think it gives their customers a chance to try before they buy.

There's more to the bike than just what kind of trails you'll be riding. Fit is just as important. Here are some ways to tell you if yours is right:

  • When sitting on the bike, you should be able to just about fully extend your legs to reach the pedals when they are in the lowest position.
  • When standing astride the bar with your feet flat on either side, there should be about 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) of space between your crotch and the crossbar for a road bike and 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 centimeters) for a mountain bike. Guys especially will be thankful for that space if there's ever a need to unexpectedly jump off the seat.
  • If you're still growing, make sure that your bike's seat post and handlebars can be raised a bit to adjust to your new height.

Helmet Head, Anyone?

OK, there's helmet head (temporary) and then there's nonhelmet head (definitely ugly and quite often permanent — as in "dead"). Wearing a bike helmet is a must if you value your life. That's why in many states, wearing a helmet is the law. Many bike accidents involve an injury to the head, and a crash could mean permanent brain damage or death for a person who doesn't wear one while riding.

Today's helmets are very lightweight and comfortable. Look for a helmet that is well ventilated and fits snugly on your head without moving around (see the fit tips below).

Prices for helmets range from about $20 to $150. When buying a helmet, turn it over, and look inside for either a CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) or Snell sticker. Only buy helmets that are approved by either of these two safety organizations.

Even the best, most expensive helmet won't protect you if it doesn't fit. Any bike store can help you adjust your helmet so it fits.

A helmet should:

  • sit level and firmly, but comfortably, on your head and not be tilted forward, backward, or sideways
  • have strong, wide straps that form a "Y" just under the ear and fasten snugly under the chin — when you open your mouth, the helmet should pull down a bit
  • be tight enough (with straps fastened) that sudden pulling or twisting does not cause the helmet to move around on your head
  • always be fastened while you are riding
  • never be worn over a bandana, baseball cap, or anything else that could cause it to shift in a crash

After taking a serious hit, helmets lose their capacity to absorb shock. If you ever have a fall and hit any surface hard with the helmet, immediately replace the helmet.

What to Wear

You don't have to wear special clothing to enjoy the sport of biking. But the right clothing can increase your comfort and fun (not to mention your cool factor). It can also improve your performance if you really get into spending time with road or off-road biking.

More important, clothing can also protect you. Here's how:

  • Fluorescent or bright-colored clothes help people to see you — even in the daytime. Avoid wearing dark colors like black, brown, or navy while bike riding, especially if it is getting dark outside.
  • Wear lightweight clothes to avoid becoming overheated, especially in the summer. Drink plenty of water and keep a full water bottle on your bike. Want to wear your water? Lots of cyclists who'll be going the distance wear something called a water bladder that sits like a backpack with a long straw attached. It allows them to sip as they ride without reaching.
  • Make sure your pant legs aren't so loose or so long that they can get caught up in the chain while you are riding. Snug clothes are best, but you can also tuck pant legs into socks if you need to.
  • Riding gloves can protect your hands, especially if you're off-road biking, and can be purchased from any bike store.
  • If you carry a backpack while riding, make sure the straps are tied so they don't become tangled in the spokes of the wheels. Better yet, tie the backpack in a basket or strap it to a rack. Keep the backpack light — if it's too heavy, you could lose your balance.
  • Wear shoes that grip the pedals. Cleats, shoes with heels, or flip-flops can easily slip off the pedals. (And it goes without saying, don't ride barefoot — ouch!) Really serious cyclists can buy biking shoes that are specifically made to hook into certain pedals. But, if you're not into all the gear, good sneakers work just fine. Tuck away laces that could catch while you are riding.

Riding Safely: The Rules of the Road

Riding on the road? Time to review all the stuff you learned in elementary school — especially if you'll be riding in traffic:

  • Always ride on the right side of the street in the same direction as the traffic. Never ride against traffic.
  • Try to use bike lanes or designated bike routes whenever you can. In some places, it's illegal to ride on the sidewalk.
  • Always stop and check for traffic in both directions when leaving your driveway, an alley, or a curb. Some people in cars just don't see cyclists.
  • Watch traffic closely for turning cars or cars pulling out of driveways.
  • Don't ride too closely to parked cars — doors can open suddenly!
  • Stop at all stop signs and obey red lights just as cars do. Take special care at intersections. It's a good idea to walk your bike across busy intersections using the crosswalk and following traffic signals.
  • If you're cycling with friends, ride single file.
  • Never change direction or change lanes without first looking behind you and using the correct hand signals. That way everyone knows where you're going. Use your left arm for all hand signals. To indicate you're making a left turn, hold your arm straight out to the left; to indicate a right turn, bend your elbow, holding your arm up in an "L" shape; and before you stop, bend your elbow, pointing your arm downward in an upside down "L" shape.
  • If you ride when it's dark, be sure to have reflectors on your bike and a battery-operated headlight.
  • And finally, don't wear headphones while biking — you need to hear what's going on around you.


Bike Maintenance

If you can, keep your bike indoors, especially on rainy days. This will help to keep your chain rust free. You'll also want to check your tire air pressure (the correct pressure is on the sidewall of the tire), the brakes, and the chain (for grease and tightness) on a regular basis.

Biking is a fun way to get exercise and a great way to get around. Observing these simple precautions will keep your ride smooth and your trails happy.

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: September 2010

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.