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Crashes and How to Get Back to Riding, Part One

by Garey Hoffman
August 17, 2012
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a professional bike mechanic. Do not take any of this as medical advice or sponsorship for some big name bike brand. Make sure you get checked out by your doctor before you start on track to getting back into racing. You might also want to make sure your psychiatrist thinks you’re sane; your significant other is willing to stay with you; and your bank account won’t implode from the expense. But do feel free to use this as an excuse to buy a new bike.
Crashes, both big and small, are not confined to the pro peloton. Nor do they solely occur to the lower ranks in amateur racing. They are a real danger and if you ride and race often enough, the odds will catch up with you and the inevitable crash will occur. Crashes tend to be more violent in racing than they are in training but the damage is just as real. Stick to telling a whopper of a tale when describing your wreck: you may feel less foolish if people believe you crashed while riding up Mount Everest even if it does hurt the same.
Avoiding a crash is its own topic. We will focus on what to do if you crashed and how to make it back onto the bike ready to ride again. There are some assumptions that must be made. First, you cannot be dead. Second, you’ve been cleared by your doctor.
Part One will focus on your gear. Your bike is an amazing example of precision engineering. As long as you service it and do not abuse it, your bike will be there to take you on your next training ride or, if you’re lucky, onto the podium after your next race. Just don’t actually bring the bike onto the podium.
The High Cost of Busted Gear
Your bike is subject to the same oppressive forces of physics that has injured your body. Like you, the bike may be broken, bent, scraped and/or melted.
The wisest course of action is to simply replace your whole bike. But not all of us have such generous sponsors (or the bank account of a venture capitalist) who can make a new bike seem to appear out of nowhere. So you --- or your LBS bike mechanic ---  will need to inspect every detail of your bike. You’ll need to repair or replace any part or component that is too damaged to be safely used.
Here’s a rough guide on materials:
How it behaves in a crash
Fix or replace?
Good ol’ steel
Steel usually bends. Under extreme forces it can sheer or crack.
Steel frames are relatively easy to repair. Get expert advice. You might find it cheaper to replace. Steel components (when was your bike built!?) may be repairable but it might be difficult due the size/shape of the component. Replacement might be your only option (use it as an excuse to upgrade!)
It cracks or bends. Forged aluminum components may survive extreme loads. But if it is bent, treat it like damage to a frame.
Repairing an aluminum frame is difficult and expensive but doable. Do not bend it back into shape. Get expert advice. You might find it cheaper to replace. Replace bent or broken components. Wheels, in particular, should have very close inspection. Rims are frequently made of aluminium. Do not try to bend components back into shape. They will be even more prone failure.
It is brittle under high load but resilient. Expect titanium to bend then crack or sheer. Forged titanium components may survive extreme loads. But if it is bent, treat it like damage to a frame.
Assuming you can find expert repair options, repairing a titanium frame is possible but expensive. As always, get expert advice. When in doubt, replace it. Don’t bother trying to repair badly damaged components. Just replace them regardless of how bad it hurts your wallet.
Carbon Fiber
It bends and returns to original form if it has not passed its Yield Strength limit. It it passes this limit, it breaks. Carbon does not survive stress it was not designed for gracefully. Splintering is the biggest concern (actually, getting speared by a giant carbon fiber splinter is the biggest concern)
Much like aluminum, the true damage to a carbon fiber frame (or major components) may be difficult to determine. A carbon frame or handlebar may have been bent beyond its limit but no visible damage may be present but microcracks may have formed that can make the frame or component very dangerous to use again. If there is even the slightest doubt of serious stress from a crash, replace it. Seeking out expert advice should be obvious here. Take out a loan from your parents to help defer the cost of replacement. Tell them it is for school supplies.
Your Brain Bucket
If you’ve been around the bike scene for even a short period of time, you know you are supposed to replace your helmet after a crash. An impact to the helmet causes it to absorb the impact by self-destructing. Even a small impact can drastically alter the integrity of your helmet.
Much like getting the oil changed in your car, you don’t always follow the rules and you may try to get away with putting a few more miles on your car and using your old helmet.
In case you hit your head in your crash, I’ll repeat it once more: if there is even the smallest scratch on your helmet from your crash then you should get a new one. Like chewing gum, your helmet is meant for one-time use. Don’t be that guy chewing gum left on the table or using a battle-damaged helmet.
Consider yourself smart that you were wearing your helmet and happily fork over the cash for a new one.
The Spandex Uniform
This is personal preference and largely driven by how much extra cash you have after you get your bike in order. If you don’t mind stitching up your ripped up kit, by all means, do so. But if your rear end is hanging out, please do all of us a favor and get a new pair of shorts. Or use duct tape.
Shoes that Make You Walk Funny
Your feet often get overlooked after a crash. Although your feet may be fine, your shoes need to be inspected.
  • Check the shoes for abrasions. Is the fabric and molding intact?
  • Are the shoes still stiff? Shoes with carbon soles may snap in half in violent crashes.
  • Check the cleats. Plastic cleats can be damaged or even ripped off. It happened to me once. Have you ever tried pedaling with a broken cleat in a race after a wreck? I don’t recommend it.
  • Do all the bindings, laces or Velcro closures function properly? If not, are any of them replaceable? If unsure, take them to your LBS and get their opinion. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that the ratchet buckle on your shoes that got ripped off can be fixed for a reasonable cost. That, my friend, is much cheaper than what you paid for those shoes.
Wheels of Unfathomable Cost
Wheels deserve their own special attention in your inspection. They probably endure more stress and force than any other component on your bike during normal use. And they are frequently the most damaged part of your bike in a crash (not including your ego).
  • A “taco’d” wheel is an apt description. If this happens to your wheels, I’m truly sorry for you. The only salvageable part may be your hubs. The spokes are too stretched to re-use. If it isn’t obvious that your rim is a goner, then maybe that crash did more damage to your head than you originally thought.
  • Your tires need to be inspected. If your wheels didn’t become a “taco”, they might be good to re-use. Take it off the rim. Look for gouges, damaged sidewalls or missing tread.
  • Unless your wheels avoided any real damage, make it a habit to toss out the tubes and replace them.
  • Carbon rims deserve extra scrutiny. Like carbon frames, they do not survive well from crashes and hidden issues may lurk inside. Get them checked out by experts before attempting to ride on them ever again.
The Drivetrain: AKA The Money Pit
Most of the components of quality modern racing bikes are not serviceable. If it bends or breaks, you’ll probably have to replace it. Here’s some tips on what to look for:
  • After any reasonably serious crash, make it a habit of replacing the chain. It could be stretched from the stress of the crash.
  • Derailleurs: Scrapes are fine. Consider it a Badge of Honor. Look for play, or wobble, in the joints. If the bike mishifts, you may need to replace them. If you didn’t heed the advice about replacing your chain, do it now and see how your derailleurs perform. A new chain may solve the problem and leave a little extra cash in your wallet.
  • Brake/Shift Levers almost always get damaged in a decent crash. And they are also one of your most expensive components. I know, it isn’t fair but that is how it is. Like derailleurs, look for play and shifting response. High end levers can survive some serious impacts. Be sure to inspect carbon levers closely for splintering. Although levers do not endure high stress during normal use, no one wants to get a carbon splinter in their finger.
  • Checking your cabling is an easy one. Any damage should be obvious. Like your chain, replace your cables if your shifting (or brakes!) aren’t up to snuff. Cables are a cheaper replacement compared to pawning your car for new components.
The Rest of Your Bike
  • Saddles are often damaged in even minor crashes. You can ride on a scraped up saddle as long as the frame is intact (remember that ‘Badge of Honor’ quip? It applies here, too). Check the rails for bends, breaks or separation from the saddle frame. You can ride with missing leather or foam. It is just there for your comfort so the level of comfort you need is entirely up to you.
  • Torn up handlebar tape is a good indicator of how much force was applied to your handlebars in the crash. Use that as a guide when evaluating them. Handlebars are generally made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Do not try to remove a bend in an aluminum handlebar. Get a new one. Carbon bars have been known to shatter in crashes. Hopefully, those splinters did not end up in you. Be wary of minor damage, major issues may lurk inside so replace them if they feel even a little less stiff.
  • Handlebar tape: as long as it isn’t causing your hands to slip, feel free to just use some electrical tape if you’re too cheap (or broke) to replace it.
  • Brake calipers are not usually damaged in crashes but inspect them anyway. If debris were caught in your spokes (yeah, that could be someone’s leg... shudder) then it could get pinned up to your brakes. Check for bends, cracks or splinters on the caliper arms. See previous advice for the material type used to construct the brakes if issues are found.
  • Pedals are tough. Unless you see obvious damage, they likely survived your impact with the pavement. Many higher end pedals have service kits to fix common issues. Replace them if a service kit or new cleats don’t solve any issues.
Now that you have a plan to fix your bike, it is time to get your body and your mind fixed up. Part Two will focus on how to get yourself back on your fixed-up bike.
Garey Hoffman is a former amateur road racer. He comes from a whole family of racers and they are all better at it than he is. Despite the heckling, he continues to be a rabid fan of bike racing, even when riding his trusty touring bike. Dodging cars, cats and curmudgeonly old folks takes talent. And don’t make fun of his fenders.

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