Emily Collins is a 26-year-old cyclist from New Zealand. She won the National Criterium Championships in 2013 and began racing professionally with Wiggle Honda (now Wiggle High5). Since 2015 she's raced for Team TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, picking up many top ten finishes along the way. In May 2016, she crashed badly, suffering spinal and elbow fractures and concussion.
The accident meant Collins was off the bike for well over three months, and she’s still uncertain if she will return to racing, instead planning to take the next season off to consider her future plans.. She is, however, back on the bike and back enjoying her riding.
Here, Emily shares her story, and some tips for riders who have suffered a crash and are struggling to return to their previous levels of confidence…
Crashing - or as it’s commonly called in the peloton, ‘hitting the deck’ - is unfortunately just a cruel side of the sport we love but sometimes love to hate. It happens to us all; from professional riders to beginners. Most of the time, following a few days of TLC and icing, it’s relatively easy to physically get back up and going again to tick off another training day on the bike. Unfortunately, the biggest issue for most of us is overcoming the mental stresses to move on and continue to ride as normal.
I’ve been cycling for eleven years now and most experiences from the sport are positive, albeit with a little too much pain dispersed over the years! I began at the relatively young age of fifteen after joining the school cycling team in a bid to pursue triathlon as a keen runner at the time. Once I was skilled and trained enough to jump in a pack to race, I was hooked. The adrenaline and freedom of bike racing fuelled my competitive streak and I didn’t look back.
I’ve now been racing overseas since 2010 and professionally since 2013 where I kicked things off with Great Britain’s Wiggle Honda before heading Stateside in 2015 to join Team TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank. It’s been a roller coaster journey since that initial plane ride from New Zealand to Europe to dive into the real world of road cycling. I’ve raced alongside and against the very best, won races and lost many trying, travelled the world, met some of my best friends along the way and grown into the person I am today. Alongside these experiences, there’s naturally been setbacks. Some of which were accidents; from broken wrists to bruised hips and plenty of battle scars to show for it. Up until recently I’ve always been fine to get back up and going again as most of us do for the love of the sport.
In May, during the final stage of the Women’s Tour of California I ‘hit the deck’ pretty hard. I don’t remember the accident after being knocked out on impact but came away with a compression fracture in my spine, a complicated elbow fracture and a mild concussion. After ten days in hospital and following surgery I thought I would be back in no time, following the healing process of the fractures. These were always my initial thoughts and the motivation was certainly there to get back to racing as soon as allowed. As time went by, however, my thought process started to take a turn as I began to deeply fear the thought of being back in the peloton, descending at speed and trusting my equipment.
Time continued to tick on and I was soon back in the New Zealand winter continuing with recovery and rehab. My first outing on the road didn’t happen until August and I don’t think I’ve ever crept around my local hour recovery loop as slow as I did that day. I refused to get up to speed and felt more nervous than I would on race day. Cornering was terrible and the thought of flying down a hill was upsetting. All these things I used to do without a spot of fear had overtime become a serious struggle.
After returning to Spain to join my partner mid-August, I slowly but surely began to ride a little more each week and each time overcome a little more fear. It’s now been three months since my first ride and six months since the accident and I can proudly say I’ve come a long way and have slowly learnt to love my bike again. Physically, I am almost 100 per cent and mentally I’m much better, but not quite there as I still struggle in bunches and on technical rides. The progression continues each week, however and I know eventually I will be back to my old ways.
It’s hard and a little frustrating to accept that the process can’t be rushed. It needs to be done on your own timeframe and you can only know when the time is right to get back on the saddle. It is part of the sport and yes, it happens to everyone at some point. Overcoming those mental setbacks after any fall, big or small and that sometimes we don’t even realise are there, is the hardest part but also easily fixed if we accept it and work to move forward.
Tips for Recovering Mentally after a Crash Whilst Cycling
Here are some tips that helped me and could help you throughout the process, if you've had an experience at all similar:
- Start riding again on the indoor trainer. This way, you will overcome the uncomfortable feeling of being back on a bike and forgetting how to ride. One we all get after too much time off the pedals. Start out with twenty minutes and work up to one hour over a few weeks. Due to my elbow and back injuries, this was a necessary step anyway so by the time I got to the road my fitness was at a reasonable level.
- Have your bike checked. Even if you are pretty sure it’s fine, it’ll be peace of mind and some reassurance to have it checked over with a trusted mechanic after any incident.
- Hit the road but don’t hit it running. Take your time, go slow! There’s no point in trying to immediately get back to where you were before the crash. Be patient and you may be back to yourself before you know. Slow-steady and short rides to start out worked best for me.
- Avoid bunches and groups on your first ride/s back. Being around other riders and at close proximity can make things harder when trying to overcome fear or nerves and you should only be going as fast as you feel comfortable. So avoid the local bunch ride or your regular training group for a bit and stick to riding solo or with a friend or two who know you need some time and will stick to your pace.
- Aim to stay away from busy roads and traffic. Don’t set out at rush hour and ride the quiet routes. If it means getting in the car and driving twenty minutes out of the city on the weekend to start out then do so.
- Don’t overthink. Do your best to forget about the fear or what happened and stop worrying. You know how to ride a bike and take a corner, these things come naturally. Do your best to think happy thoughts!
- Enjoy it. Remember why you ride, whether it be for fitness, socializing, fun, competition or all. Most of us get some enjoyment out of riding and you can’t beat the feeling of the wind in your face when out there. For me, just getting back out there, remembering why I love it and riding for fun, without a training programme has been key.
- If you’re returning to racing then start small. Small steps are always key. Start out with a local club race, maybe even a time trial to get going on your own. If you’re a club rider, maybe step down a grade for your first one back just to ensure you’re confident and ready to go again. For me, my first race back was always a challenge following any crash or fall but most often, following the first part of the race and after getting comfortable again in the peloton, the tension would ease and I’d be back in the action.
If you're struggling with confidence after a crash, we hope these tips help. And of course, we wish Emily all the best as she makes plans for the future - both on and off the bike. You can keep up with her adventures via her blog, here.
After another perspective? Read: Dani King Shares Her Advice for Overcoming Post-Crash Nerves.