Injuries sustained by mountain bike riders tend to be relatively minor in nature according to research from a leading Australian university, with the head researcher also suggesting the benefits of riding far outweigh any perceived injury risks or costs associated with not riding at all.
In a review of 24 studies that covered more than 220,000 injured mountain bikers, research from Curtin’s School of Nursing found that mountain bike injuries were dominated by abrasions, lacerations and bruises to the upper limbs, with fractures to the shoulder girdle also somewhat common.
Speaking to AusCycling, lead author and PhD candidate Paul Braybrook suggested the findings of the research – which also looked at hiking injuries for comparison – may be attributed to improved trail design and a culture of wearing helmets among mountain bikers.
“Mountain bikers are not injuring their head as much as we would expect them to be. If both hikers and mountain bikers are getting 18% of head injuries, the likelihood is that the mountain biking figure is actually low because of the high propensity for people to wear helmets,” Braybrook said.
“So they're obviously working, otherwise you would expect to see a much higher increase or higher proportion of head injuries on mountain bikers.
“We also surmise that bikes are getting better, trail design is getting better, so all of these sort of factors are reducing the likelihood of these really severe injuries.”
New #CurtinResearch into injuries sustained by trail users has found mountain biking is not the dangerous, injury-plagued sport reserved for thrill-seekers that it is often perceived to be and that the health benefits outweigh the risks: https://t.co/5GPsFFaqeq#CurtinUniversity pic.twitter.com/Cvy6Z1i2zE— Curtin University (@CurtinUni) September 2, 2023
Braybook also explained how his broader research project is aimed at developing practical outcomes for trail design and management to improve injury response efficiencies.
“We accept that people are going to get injured when they undertake these sports, so therefore how do we get access to these people? So: entry points, egress points, good trail signage.
“What we don't want to see from a paramedic perspective is someone who has, say, an injured leg, a break in the leg and they can't walk out of where they are. They then become a very difficult patient to extricate because of the nature of the terrain. It either means a large team of people doing a carry out, which is dangerous for people doing that activity, or it means a helicopter rescue, which is phenomenally expensive.
“It really is about safety and design and about designing trails. We don't want to design trails that have no danger in them because that isn't mountain biking ... it's not about removing that [element of danger]. It's about accepting that injuries are going to occur and then how do we manage those injuries when they do occur.”
Braybrook, who is a practicing paramedic with over 20 years of experience in road and mountain bike riding, believes it’s also important for inexperienced riders to ride within their limits.
“I would also really like to see mountain bike users who are new to the sport be aware of their ability and to not rush their progression … [Nowadays] we have much lighter bikes, we have much more capable bikes, we have e-bikes, we have all these things which are giving people better access to trails.
“But it also means you don't have that sort of self-limitation which maybe would have been in place 10 or 15 years ago, where the bikes were so heavy and so hard to use that you had to develop a level of fitness and ability before you were able to take these bikes onto these sorts of quite extreme trails. That doesn't exist anymore.”
While the research was unable to differentiate the injuries sustained between downhill and cross country riders, Braybrook added that given most mountain bike injuries were arm and shoulder related, design in clothing and body armour could target these areas, provided it was fit for purpose.
“We know the biggest proportion are these minor injuries, abrasions and lacerations, so any sort of protective clothing that people are willing to wear is good. [But] no one is going to wear in Australia a jersey which is fully rip-proof and almost like a motocross-level jersey when it's 40 degrees, because it's just too hot, right?
“If you’re not going to make them useable, people won’t use them. It’s as simple as that, and especially with kids as well. I know from experience just from my own kid, unless he's comfortable in his full-face helmet and his other equipment, he just doesn't want to wear it.”
According to the nationwide Ausplay survey, the main reason people stop mountain bike riding is fear of injury, but Braybrook was adamant that aside from the fact that most mountain biking injuries are relatively minor, the consequences of not riding are far worse than a potential major injury.
“Yes, injuries can occur and yes, the injuries can be severe, but when you look at the outcomes of not undertaking physical exercise, and the disease and the morbidity and mortality we see from that, in my mind, I would personally prefer a fractured arm over a chronic long-term disease that there is no cure for,” Braybrook said.
“Yes, it can hurt, but hypertension and high cholesterol and all these other diseases are far, far worse to encounter.”
Braybrook aims to have his PhD research published by the end of 2024.
Read the published article here.