Always keep the rubber side down. But be ready, just in case.

You got to learn how to fall before you learn to fly
And mama, mama it ain’t no lie
Before you learn to fly, learn how to fall.
— Paul Simon, Learn How To Fall

A few decades back, I lived down in San Diego before I moved up here to L.A.

One Sunday morning, I got up bright and early for a quick spin along the beach. The early hour meant I had the bikeway all to myself — no cyclists, no pedestrians, no tourists — which allowed me to get up a good head of speed as I circled the bay.

Without warning, a small boy burst out of a beachfront cottage and darted across the path just feet in front of my wheel. There was no time to react, so I instinctively laid my bike on its side; I remember thinking on the way down that this was really going to hurt.

And it did.

But it worked; he walked away without a scratch. And I rode home with road rash and a broken arm, and only his parents gratitude to numb the pain.

I’ve been thinking about that lately because of a recent comment I received. The writer objected to my suggestion that sooner or later, every cyclist can expect to fall, and said that rather than offering tips on how to fall, I should offer advice on how to avoid falling.

Fair enough. But then he added something that has bothered me ever since:

…To that end, I would like to offer my advice for riders: Do not ride your bike where there is any chance to falling.

Which leaves me wondering just where exactly that would be.

Over the years, I’ve fallen in a lot of places, for a lot of different reasons. I’ve fallen after catching a wheel in a cattle guard, and after sinking six inches deep into loose gravel that hid a pothole. I’ve been knocked off my bike by a big friendly dog, and by drunken frat boys who intentionally doored me.

I’ve been forced into loose sand by careless pedestrians, gone sideways because I couldn’t clip out of my cleats, and flipped over my handlebars due to my own carelessness. I’ve been a victim of road rage, and of a massive swarm of bees that suddenly materialized without warning — an event so random that it might as well have been an alien abduction.

I’ve fallen when I was riding straight and when I was turning, going fast and going slow, and been knocked over when I was standing still.

If you can find a common thread there, you’re a lot better at this sort of thing than I am.

Experience tells me you can minimize the risk of falling, but never eliminate it entirely. You can ride slower. You can ride more cautiously. You can avoid busy streets, rough roads and crowded areas.

But the fact remains that a bike is, by it’s very nature, an inherently unstable vehicle. It wants to fall over. And it is only the skill of the rider that keeps it from doing so more often.

As I’ve developed more skill as a rider, I’ve learned what to look out for, and improved my ability to react.

But the only place I know where there’s no risk of falling is in my apartment in front of the TV, with the bike locked onto my ancient mag trainer. And that’s assuming that there isn’t an earthquake.

So sure, minimize the risk. Ride wherever and however you’re comfortable. Do everything you can to keep the rubber side on the road.

But be prepared for the alternative, just in case.

After all, even he falls every now and then.

………

Stephen Box comments on separate but unequal cycling infrastructure, and getting run out of town. Actor Shemar Moore is injured after being hit by a car while riding in Los Angeles; Damien at Streetsblog takes the mainstream media to task for trivializing the story. Ever wonder what happens to bikes left on transit systems? Me neither. Evidently, some people in Columbia, MO think the law should be changed to make it legal to harass cyclists again. Wired wonders if bikes should be treated like cars. A dead cyclist is found laying next to his bike on a Colorado overpass, with no evidence to explain what happened. A Las Vegas paper reports on a story so rare, it merits full coverage — a cyclist commuting to work by bike. Tucson Bike Lawyer barely avoids a wrong-way cyclist while driving. A Kentucky man kills a triathlete on a closed course and drives off with the bike still embedded in his windshield. And finally, in case you ride around that area, my friend at Altadena Blog offers a map to help you avoid cute, cuddly cartoon bears.

6 comments

  1. disgruntled says:

    I was taught that you don’t know how to ride a horse until you’ve fallen off one seven times…

    If you can’t ride a bike unless you’re sure you aren’t going to fall off, then how about never driving your car unless you’re certain you won’t crash it?

    Of course, having said all that, I’ve wimped out of mountain biking because that is basically all about falling off, or risking it.

  2. Gary K. says:

    Don’t think that riding on the indoor trainer gets you 100% safe from falling. I know someone who snapped a seat post clamp while riding hard on a trainer and fell over pretty hard, putting a serious dent in his iPhone, but it still works fine.

  3. No kidding. Your contra commenter’s real commandment in regards to zeroing out any chance of a spill is: Do Not Ride Your Bike. Any gibberish after that he should’ve just let, uh… fall.

    On average I lay things down twice a year. In the case of last year I lost traction going over a dusty rail track in June and a couple months later while grinding slowly uphill with my head down I pedaled right into the back of a double-parked minivan that I swear materialized out of thin air. Crunched my forks and gashed open my chin on the rear window. NOT my finest moment.

    This year I’ve been lucky to date but there’s a few month left. That’s just the way things are. I don’t look forward to them and I do my best to avoid them, but like you said: be prepared.

    • bikinginla says:

      I remember reading your story of hitting the back of that van — that was a pretty gnarly wipeout. I did something similar back in my single days, when I made the mistake of watching a cute girl across the street instead of the parked car in front of me.

  4. TheTricksterNZ says:

    Well as the adage goes – there are two types of riders, those who have crashed and those who are about to.

    I’m lucky that my immediate family has had two competitive gymnasts, so I was taught how to fall properly at a pretty easy age. In any activity that has the potential for a heavy impact between your body and the ground it is a key skill to learn. Still hasn’t stopped me breaking my share of bones though. 4/6 were my own stupidity as a teenager and two were through playing Cricket.

  5. gtinla says:

    If you ride, eventually you will fall. If you ride a lot, you will fall sooner.

    I know that is really what you said, but anyone who rides, knows that. About the learning how to fall? Well, in my opinion, you either have good instincts and reflex and you will have less damage, else there is more.

    Case and point: today’s return ride from Manhatten Beach on the ‘Bike’ path – teenage girl and boy on beach cruisers up ahead, slight left to ride curve coming up, slight downhill – lots of sand, both of them zig-zagging all over the place – when the girl goes ‘splash’ and I go into the sand of the path to the right (the left still hurts to much from my last OTB). Got lucky on this one, lots of sand in the chain and rings, but no injury (the ice plant is soft landing ground). But, things will always happen. Don’t let your guard down and pray for a bit of luck.

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