Cycling spills and soreness
Locals discuss injuries associated with cycling, from the extreme to the everyday
Alex Blease had high aspirations for a career in competition cycling back in December of 2010. Then a student at Chico State, Blease devoted more than 20 hours a week to training, encouraged by solid performances in regional and national competitions.
But a severe bicycle accident on a country road outsidethe town of Los Gatos abruptly ended his season. As Blease approached a familiar sharp left-hand corner he often took at high speed, he noticed too late that an overflowing gutter had sent water spilling across his path. He locked up both wheels—something he recognizes now as a mistake—and when his bike slid out from underneath him, Blease landed hard on his left hip.
After attempting and failing to stand, Blease dragged himself to the side of the road, intentionally leaving his bike in the roadway to stop traffic. Alone and without cell phone reception, he waited for 20 minutes before a driver stopped and took him to a hospital.
Hours later, doctors told Blease he had cleanly broken his left femur close to where it connects to the hip. In the midst of an excellent cycling season, the news was a crushing blow.
“The biggest thing was the disappointment,” Blease said during a recent interview at Dragon Graphics, where he works part time. “Putting in 20, 25 hours a week on the bike for weeks on end is pretty lonely—you don’t hang out with your friends very often because you have to get up early for a training ride.
“To sacrifice all that, and then to break your leg, is pretty devastating,” he continued. “I don’t remember crying for many years before that day, but sitting in that hospital bed it all hit me and I kind of broke down.”
While Blease’s story is an extreme example of a biking accident, more common are mundane maladies caused by the repetitive cycling motion.
Dr. Nicholas Komas, a staff physician at Enloe Medical Center and orthopedic surgeon at Chico Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medical Associates, said he has performed surgery for plenty of acute cycling injuries—like fractured clavicles and collarbones and separated shoulders from tumbling over the handlebars—but that repetitive stress injuries are far more common for cyclists, and athletes with repetitive-stress ailments in general account for roughly half his patients.
Jordan Colby, a physical therapist at Enloe, said that when a patient has nagging pain from cycling, there’s likely “a technique error, a muscle imbalance or an improperly fitted bike,” and that “unless there’s a change to one of those factors, the problem isn’t going to go away.”
Cyclists are particularly at risk of developing muscle imbalance, Colby said. While select muscle groups in the legs and backside get plenty of work, other groups are under-used, comparatively.
“There are other muscle groups [cyclists] should train to have a balanced body and avoid injury,” he said. “Cyclists need a strong core, strong neck muscles to stay in a proper riding position for a long period of time.”
Komas also emphasized the importance of fitting a bike, particularly for riders just getting serious about the sport.
“The elite athletes, they’ve already had their bike fitted,” he said. “Where you get into problems is someone who has just taken it up; maybe they don’t have a bike that fits appropriately.”
Regardless of the cause of discomfort, the worst thing a cyclist can do is continue riding without making an adjustment, Colby said.
“It’s not true just for cycling—if athletes are ignoring their body’s signals and continue to exercise in the same way, it will take a lot longer to reverse the bad habits,” he said. “You get muscles that are really tight, joints that are stiff, or joints that are too mobile and overused.
“Don’t ignore the signals of your body,” Colby continued. “If you have serious aches and pains when you get off your bike, they need to be addressed and something needs to change.”
As Blease acknowledges now, the best remedy for injuries associated with cycling is often something most competition cyclists are loath to consider—rest. Just two and a half months after breaking his femur, Blease was back in his bike saddle with an eye on competition; his doctors originally estimated it would take six to eight months for him to resume his training regimen.
“In hindsight, I was on a bike a lot sooner than I should have been,” he said. “I sat on the couch recovering for a couple weeks, and my left leg became very weak compared to the right one. Trying to pedal and walk around and stuff, my gait was thrown off; I started limping. Over time, that did a number on my knees.”
Indeed, roughly a year after his accident, Blease had surgery on both knees to remove scar tissue that accumulated from training and walking with improper form.
“If I were to give anybody advice on recovery, I would say if they give you a date to come back, double it,” he said. “You don’t want to go through the repercussions of rushing your recovery.
“Sometimes [cyclists] want to keep pushing through any pain or nagging injury,” continued Blease. “If you push through some of these issues, it can lead to surgery down the road, or even worse damage.”
Given his continual setbacks—and the realities of working life outside of school—Blease no longer trains for competition cycling. But that doesn’t mean he’s given up riding his bike.
“I still love riding and go out whenever I can,” said Blease. “Even with all the injuries I’ve gone through, it’s still worth it. I want to go out and ride every day.”