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From 'biff' to ow!

As President Bush found, mountain biking can be rough on its devotees, posing the risk of cuts, concussions and broken bones.

August 16, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Mountain biking is the kind of sport that comes with its own lexicon of slang terms devoted to crashing and getting hurt. There is the "endo," flipping over the handlebars end over end; "road rash," a usually large, bloody scrape on the arm or leg; and the all-purpose "biff," or smash-up.

Not everyone who rides endures pain and suffering, but generally mountain biking and injuries are irrevocably intertwined. On the high end of the scale is someone like semi-pro mountain bike racer Tony Gardikis, who competes for the Honda Turner race team. His list of wounds includes three concussions, a broken arm, two broken wrists, fractured vertebrae and coccyx, a broken foot, and many cuts and lacerations.

"Generally I get cuts and scrapes every week," the Aliso Viejo resident says. "I'll have just hit something, and my friends will say, 'Dude, why is your arm all bloody?' I think you build up a tolerance to it."

On the low end of the scale would be someone like President Bush, who's taken two spills in the last few months (both blamed on loose topsoil), resulting in minor scrapes.

The publicity generated by those mishaps highlights the risks involved, although the severity of the injuries varies depending on a number of factors. Rider skill, speed, bike suspension, types of trails and protective gear all play a part in whether a fall will result in a break or a bruise.

Generally, recreational riders who stick to cross-country routes don't suffer many traumatic wounds. They do, however, tend to get into trouble when tackling an unfamiliar, difficult trail (usually downhill) at too high a speed.

That's when injuries such as dislocated shoulders, broken collarbones and broken wrists happen. Shoulder injuries are common among visitors to Dr. Clarence Shields' office at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles. Shields, a cyclist himself, says most occur when riders get knocked off the bike and land on a shoulder. Turning the front wheel too sharply can result in getting pinned between a rock and the bike, which weighs about 45 pounds.

In addition to shoulder injuries, Dr. Bob Sallis, co-director of the Sports Medicine Fellowship at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, sees a fair number of wrist fractures. Those occur, he says, while reaching out a hand to break a fall. "Overuse injuries are common too," he adds. "They occur mostly in the lower extremities, such as the knee and ankle, from pedaling."

Concussions can happen when a biker travels at a good clip downhill, then slams on the front brakes and locks the front tire. That maneuver often results in an "endo," flipping over the handlebars end over end and hitting the head on landing.

"For the average guy who goes out on the weekend, falls tend to happen at slow speeds," says Steve Madden, editor in chief of Bicycling magazine. "They're more embarrassing than anything. The most spectacular crashes happen on downhills, which are like ski racing."

A firefighter by trade, 34-year-old Gardikis can point to every mountain-bike-induced scar and recall exactly where and when he got it. "Everyone on the team is that way," he says. "If something hurts, you soak it up. It's gotten to the point where it's really got to hurt for me not to ride. When I broke my back, I ended up walking out of the race. It probably wasn't the best thing."

Of course, racers go into battle well prepared. The standard uniform is a helmet (with faceplate); goggles; gloves; and body armor, the term for a lightweight, high-tech bodysuit with padding and protection for vulnerable areas such as the shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles. Separate hard plastic plates cover the spine, chest, forearms and shins.

While recreational cross-country riders don't have to suit up so drastically, health experts caution that protection is still necessary.

Helmets are mandatory, Shields says, to prevent head injuries. Elbow and knee pads protect against impacts, and long-sleeved shirts and pants can guard against cuts and scrapes. He also recommends goggles or sunglasses to protect the eyes from dirt.

Both physicians agree that most accidents can be prevented by staying on trails that match the rider's skill level.

"You should start on fire roads," says Shields, referring to the wider, smoother trails, "until you have better balance and control of the bike. If it's your first time on a dangerous, narrow trail, there's a high risk of injury. Use common sense."

Rank beginners might benefit from classes, taught through local bike shops, community recreation programs or continuing education courses.

Being in good shape is important as well. "Some people don't ride for a month," says Sallis, "then get out there and spend all day riding, and come back with aching hamstrings and back and neck pain from leaning over the handlebars. A good way to avoid those is to train regularly."

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