How dangerous is mountain biking?

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Accidents can happen (Pic: Rhodri Lewis)

The Forestry Commission safety review, that’s already identified changes to be made to DH uplift services, appears to have met another safety review coming the other way.

The Scotsman newspaper reports that accident and emergency doctors in Scotland are carrying out an investigation into a rise in bike-related injury numbers:

Borders General Hospital – close to the commission’s downhill resort at Glentress near Peebles – says it is now dealing with more than ten mountain-bike-related casualties every weekend.

Injuries range from serious lacerations to major fractures and head and spinal injuries. Last month, a 45-year-old GP from Jedburgh broke his neck when he went over the handlebars of his bike at Glentress.

A similar pattern has also emerged at Belford Hospital, near Fort William. A spokeswoman said: “Staff have noticed they are getting more and more mountain-bike-related injuries. As a result they have taken someone on to conduct an audit of outdoor sports injuries.”

The article goes on to say that “Safety campaigners say mountain bikers should be compelled to wear helmets and undertake basic safety training before being allowed to tackle potentially dangerous runs,” but doesn’t mention who these safety campaigners are or how a helmet will stop you breaking your back.

The Forestry Commission review is the same one that identified DH uplifts as an area for improvement – the review is covering all aspects of FC’s recreational provision, not just mountain biking. The review, being run by Commission official John Ireland (described by the Scotsman as having been “involved in mountain bike trail construction for more than 20 years”, although that would appear to almost predate the appearance of mountain bikes in the UK), will consider whether there’s enough safety information given to cyclists and also look at the actual construction and management of trails.

FC head of recreaton Alan Stevenson is quoted by the Scotsman as saying: “The review will build up our understanding of good practice and identify any weaknesses in the system. Information leaflets ask riders to make sure they have proper helmets and appropriately maintained bikes, and are experienced enough to tackle the trails. Trail-head signage is also very important, but the problem is that many people don’t read it.”

Glentress and Innerleithen are singled out as particular hotbeds of injuries – perhaps not all that surprising with visitor numbers doubling from 160,000 in 2003 to 330,000 last year. Naturally enough, FC considers that the rise in accidents simply “reflects the phenomenal growth in popularity of the sport,” but really no-one can blame it if it wants to be sure that it hasn’t missed anything obvious.

You can read the full text of The Scotsman’s article on its website.

Comment

There’s no doubt that the current generation of challenging purpose-built trails are potentially dangerous. That’s a large part of the point of them. But let’s not forget that ordinary tracks out in the hills can be dangerous too – people have been paralysed on bridleways. And the people who build purpose-built trails aren’t, on the whole, daft – their aim is to make something that’s exciting and feels a bit dangerous but keeping it as safe as possible. But there’s a limit to how safe things can be made – as long as you’re building tracks on rocky, wooded hillsides there are going to be things that you might hit.

One thing’s for sure, more protection is not the answer. A full-face helmet will help to protect you from head and face injuries, body armour and pads will stop you abrading your skin away, but neither is intended, or able, to do much about broken bones or spinal injuries. We always feel that lots of armour is, in some ways, counterproductive – sit on an 8in travel bike padded to the nines and you start to feel invulnerable. But you’re not, and you’re not any more talented either, even though you now feel comfortable at higher speeds. What’s needed is education and training. A lot of riders simply don’t realise that there’s a continuum of trail difficulty from Sustrans path at one end to DH or freeride trail at the other.

Mountain biking is one of the very few sports of its type that most people take up and don’t even consider finding anyone to teach them the finer points. Almost no-one takes up skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, abseiling, windsurfing, wakeboarding or any of a thousand other “action” sports without some sort of professional introduction to it. But mountain biking is seen as just riding a bike, and anyone can do that. But you can’t force people to train and practise before riding particular trails. All you can do is make the training available (and MTB courses are a growth area right now) and inform people of the skills they need to tackle purpose-built trails. And if they don’t take any notice, that’s their look-out.

What’s a little surprising is that anyone’s surprised by an increase in injuries. It’d be incredible if the level of participation went up by the amazing amount that it has without a parallel rise in people spanging themselves up a bit. Has mountain biking got more dangerous? Not fundamentally, no – there’s just more people doing it now.

A final thought: Stories like this like to suggest that mountain biking is somehow responsible for clogging up A&E departments up and down the country. But far more people injure themselves, say, playing football on a Sunday than riding bikes. And in both cases, the participants might tend to hurt themselves a little more often than the general population but they’re a lot less likely to be occupying a bed in the cardiac ward. If you really want to worry about certain groups and their impact on A&E resources, head into any sizable town or city on a Saturday night around closing time…

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