Post crash anxiety

I’m feel dread when crossing railroad tracks since my header last Saturday.


Railway tracks warning sign

I was Just Riding Along last Saturday when my wheel dropped into a railroad track slot in front of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. I grunted something just before my body hit the pavement, but I think the sound the hundreds of witnessses around me will most likely remember is that ghastly clattering racket a plastic bike makes when it slams wrong side down on asphalt. I bent a wheel and broke a camera lens and bloodied the whole left side of my body, but everything seemed fine so I picked up the pieces and continued on my way.

Since then, I’m extremely nervous going over railroad tracks. I’m still sore from my mishap and I hashed up my arms, hip and leg, but I’ve crashed much worse, including a couple that required hospital visits. I’m still comfortable riding in heavy, fast traffic with cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses and other assorted maniacs, but every time I’ve approached railroad tracks this week, I feel fear. I slow way down, even at crossings that are perfectly perpendicular. This irrational fear even seems to make my riding unsure and sketchy, which likely increases my risk of falling.


Drafting the train

This is a daily thing — my commute takes me through downtown San Jose, which is crisscrossed with trolley tracks, so my encounters with tracks are unavoidable. I’ve always ridden over these tracks before with confidence. That photo above is me riding between a set of tracks behind a train. Before last weekend, this was a little daredevil-ish but not horribly so. Today, it seems unbelievably crazy insane.

The usual advice to avoid this kind of bike crash anxiety is to get back on the bike as soon as you can. I was up and riding immediately after the crash, and I didn’t really think about it until after I arrived home two hours later, where I washed the wounds and saw how gory they actually look. Then on my Monday commute, I approached the tracks I always cross. These everyday road obstructions are normally handled at an almost subconscious level, but this time fear hormones flooded my body — blood pressure and heart rate elevated, a sense of dread and fear and stress. I slowed to near walking speed to cross tracks that I’ve previously crossed Every Single Day at 20 MPH.

My wife’s a therapist so I’ll ask her about this. In the meantime, have you experienced this kind of bike crash anxiety? Does it go away with time and exposure?

Track sign photo by Richard Drdul, Creative Commons “attribution/share alike” licence. Photo of my hashed up arm by my daughter. Drafting the VTA trolley photo by Yours Truly.

20 Comments

  • Chris Evans
    July 28, 2011 - 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I had serious post-crash worry on descents for a while, and I still do in some circumstances. I shattered my collarbone by riding too hot through a corner and losing traction on the left-edge of the roadway. 

    When I first got back on the bike I literally walked some steeper corners on descents on Skyline (as if there are steep corners on skyline…)

    On dry roads I’m back, ahead of where I was descending-wise prior to my crash. But, put in a steep switchback, 1/64″ of gravel, or a drop of water on the road and I become a nervous wreck.

    I don’t know if it will ever totally go away, or if I really ever want to go back to being “fearless”. 

  • July 28, 2011 - 7:09 pm | Permalink

    A few years ago, I had a non-bike related accident followed by two minor bike crashes. I didn’t get back on a bike for months and developed an anxiety. Finally, I pulled out my old mtn bike and started riding it every day, half a mile to the train station. Eventually I got my confidence back.

    Just keep riding!

  • July 28, 2011 - 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately (or fortunately) I haven’t had a big crash yet. I cross train tracks alot, but not every day. I do slow down to less than 20MPH (30km). I generally hit up tracks at around 10km/h, mind you they are not streetcar tracks but freight train tracks, so are not in good condition for going fast over. 

    Just think of the war wounds you will get. I hear chicks dig them. :)

  • Andy
    July 28, 2011 - 7:15 pm | Permalink

    After rolling over the hood of a car that pulled out of a driveway as I was coming down a hill at 30mph (slowed before the hit to only about 10-15), I’m just much more aware of that potential issue while descending. I wasn’t hurt much more than minor bruises, so I continued biking the next day. I try to stay very visible when going fast downtown, and will often stand up to make sure I’m a bit more seen in certain places. As someone that bikes a lot, and bikes fairly fast, I know to expect things like this to happen once in a while, and also know that it won’t stop me from continuing.

  • July 28, 2011 - 7:28 pm | Permalink

    sidewalk seams still freak me out :) but a little fear is the beginning of wisdom :)

  • Treadly and Me
    July 28, 2011 - 8:03 pm | Permalink

    In Melbourne there are two types of cyclist: those who have fallen on tram tracks and those who have yet to fall on tram tracks. It’s almost a rite of passage.

    This doesn’t make it fun though. I hope you’ll soon be back to riding over rails with confidence.

  • July 28, 2011 - 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I actually had some anxiety after getting my foot and part of my bike run over by a car exiting a parking lot. Having a run in with a car I think can be pretty crippling on the anxiety front because even a slow speed collision can impress upon you just exactly how much damage something with that much mass can do.

  • Siouxgeonz
    July 28, 2011 - 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I do the Deer in Headlights thing on just about anything but smooooth, straight roads.   I blame it on the prairie, ’cause that’s what almost all my riding is on.   So yesterday when the Pedaling for Pleasure group took the Kaufman Lake Path (http://www.resourceroom.net/pcc/countryfairpath/index.htm ) and there was a stretch of gravel… I was walking until I informed my self that no, gravel does **not** grab my bike and hurl it to the ground.  
         That route does, though, go over some angled tracks and we had given a lesson on perpendicularizing, with three of us duly noting that tracks *had* grabbed us and hurled us to the ground.
        If I am by myself, the fear often reigns (I don’t get the raised blood pressure and all that — I do more of a freeze/slow motion thing)… but I duly noted on a 110 mile ride on 10-10-10 that when I simply blocked the gravel input from my mind and said “keep up with your buds!” that… um, yes, the bike stayed on teh road perfectly fine.  
        I know there’s a third “attack!” mode — the one that I learned to call up when we woudl walk on the river at Rapidan Camps… if you stopped and steadied yourself with every step, then your step length was shorter than you needed.  I *had* to trust my reactions and keep moving.   I am not sure I can do it now — but I could find out, ’cause I’m going there in a couple of weeks…

  • Dicknogs
    July 28, 2011 - 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I once saw this phenomenon described beautifully as a graph of cornering/RRtracks/descending/etc confidence over time.  You have this gradually increasing confidence level ending at a sharp, sudden decrease (the wreck).  Rinse, repeat.  What you’re feeling is normal.

  • JH
    July 28, 2011 - 11:09 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had similar bad crashes, though not RR tracks specifically.

    The anxiety will abate with time and exposure.  But you’re now aware in a much more visceral way of the risk that RR tracks pose, and this *will* color your future feelings about them.  But it’ll get much much better.  My guess is that you’ll avoid acute-angle approaches to tracks and learn to bunny hop them 100% of the time.  With time you’ll do it with 100% confidence.   And that won’t be a bad thing.

  • Anonymous
    July 28, 2011 - 11:19 pm | Permalink

    I went down on the Market Street tracks in SF, crossing them at too small an angle.  I got up, readjusted my helmet, and rode away thinking it was no big deal.

    When I got home I noticed that the blinky I had zip-tied to the back of my helmet was destroyed and then that my helmet was cracked in two places in the back.  I did not even think I had hit my head at all.  All of that shook me up to be sure.

    I was back riding the next week, but I treated the tracks with great respect after that.

  • July 29, 2011 - 1:21 am | Permalink

    I got hit by a Jeep a few years ago at an intersection where I had the right of way – didn’t much matter as it still sent me to the hospital with a broken hand that required surgery. Now I’m all sketched out at intersections – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    I also wiped out on RR tracks back in January and broke my knee (tibial plateau) and avulsed my ACL – both requiring surgery. I haven’t ridden since, but when I am finally able to ride again I’m sure RR tracks are gonna wig me out bigtime. Before I never paid them much mind – big mistake.

  • July 29, 2011 - 8:58 am | Permalink

    I’ve done the same thing… so scary! cool cycle computer though… I got mine at http://www.cyclexpress.co.uk

  • July 29, 2011 - 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I had previously mentioned my crash at train tracks as well.  39.763716°, -105.212656° (plug into Google Earth).

    I’ve crashed a lot this past year. I’ve crashed and gotten road rash and bruises. I’ve had scary crashes that only banged me up a little bit. Only this last crash on the RR tracks shook me up enough to make me question riding. I understand the physics that create an unholy marriage between bike and track. What I don’t understand is how I defied those physics for so long and DIDN’T crash.

  • Curtis
    July 30, 2011 - 12:01 am | Permalink

    That whole area in front of the boardwalk is a nightmare. I’ve fallen, but not crashed on those tracks before. So have most of my friends. My friend’s dad broke his arm after a pack of girls jumped in front of him as he was riding down the bike lane.

    I jumped into blackberry bushes to avoid slamming into a rider who had stopped on the single track at the checkpoint right after the boardwalk. I got cut up pretty good, and felt really sketchy for the rest of the day. But I finished, and managed to keep the shiny side on top for the rest of the race.

    If you’re not crashing once in a while, you’re probably not trying hard enough. Train tracks suck, but at least you’ll try even harder to unweight the front wheel the next time to cross them. Lesson learned, welcome to the club.

  • July 30, 2011 - 6:16 am | Permalink

    Oddly enough, I don’t worry about railroad tracks on my bikes but I do when I cross them on my motorcycle. But I totally get the gunshyness, there are places on the trails I ride regularly where I’ve crashed and there’s simply no way those crashes don’t go through my mind when I ride through them. I’m careful(er) there but I try not to dwell on them too much!

    And, by the way, I actually rode through the Boardwalk with my boys on their little bikes (talk about stress, a five and seven year old on their own bikes!). One of the only places I got a bit sketched on was crossing the tracks right in front of the Coconut Grove but we had no mishaps this time!

  • bikesgonewild
    July 30, 2011 - 8:43 pm | Permalink

    …ouch, amigo !!!…you, sir, fortunately  are of both sound mind & body & ya, you will get over it by doing exactly as you’re doing, continuing to ride over ‘em…you will, however have a much higher ‘regard’ for train tracks in your future, i’ll bet, ya ???…

    …btw, this does qualify you for one of those ‘train track’ t-shirts that 0.00mpg makes, i believe…

    …hope you’re doing well, fritz…

  • Anonymous
    August 1, 2011 - 9:53 pm | Permalink

    To this day, I always go way wide, gawk all over the place, and generally slow down (despite being at the bottom of a nice, long downhill) at the intersection where I crashed into a deer about a year ago. The sweaty palms and increased heart rate have leveled off, though.

  • August 1, 2011 - 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Curtis — that was me stopped on that trail. So sorry about that. Guy in front of me stopped short, I veered left into the bushes so everybody behind me could get past but  then I watched you get scraped up in the bushes right next to me. Ouch.

    I always unweight the front, and suspect it might have been my rear wheel that dropped into the rail slot. Weird, I know, but that’s the wheel that got bent plus the tire sidewall is scraped up at one point.

  • August 1, 2011 - 10:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s kind of weird, but this year I’ve been feathering the brakes on steep curvy downhills in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I even do this on a couple of the tighter spots on Empire Grade (which aren’t really *that* tight). Always before it’s been full speed ahead as long as the road is dry and clean.  I’ve had a couple of close calls on those turns  but it’s been several years since I’ve slid out on a tight bend.  Maybe I’m just getting a little wiser in my old age.

  • Leave a Reply