Downhill mountain biking is one of the most spectacular and extreme cycling disciplines. It’s a sport that requires technical skill, fitness, and adequate equipment. And for new riders looking to get into the sport, the risks associated with it may be a concern. With the potential dangers in mind, you may rightfully ask yourself “is Downhill Mountain Biking dangerous?”
Downhill MTB is statistically more dangerous as the overall risk of serious injury is high relative to other sports, classifying it as an extreme sport. The associated risk factors range from difficult trail conditions, skill over-estimation to lacking maintenance and inadequate safety gear.Sources: British Journal of Sports Medicine, British Medical Bulletin, and EWS Medical Study
Most who have gotten into downhill will tell you how exciting the adrenaline rush is and how satisfying it feels to conquer a difficult section of track. But riding over roots, rocks and jumps is not without some dangers. And that’s exactly what makes it so exciting and intriguing!
Risks and Dangers of Downhill MTB
With the rise in the sport’s popularity, several studies have been conducted on the prevalence of injuries, the risks associated and the severity of injuries.
How often mountain bikers get injured
One very concrete number worth highlighting was published in the “British Journal of Sports Medicine”:
The calculated overall injury rate [of downhill mountain bikers] was 16.8 injuries per 1000 h of exposure.Study: Becker, Johannes et al. “A prospective study of downhill mountain biking injuries.” in the British journal of sports medicine No. 47 (2013)
So, on average, mountain bikers sustain 1 injury for every 59.5 hours of riding. Or 1 injury in 10 days worth spent in the saddle. The number of mistakes or crashes is likely much higher, as not every mishap leads necessarily leads to an injury.
Note that this number doesn’t say anything about the severity. Soft tissue damage like minor lacerations are thrown together with bone fractures and ligament damage.
Body locations most prone to injury in downhill MTB
In one of the largest studies researching mountain bike injuries to date, commissioned by the Enduro World Series, special attention was paid to exactly which type of injuries and at what frequency were sustained during the 2017 and 2018 seasons of EWS racing, where racing takes place on multiple timed downhill stages per race day. Over 2000 racers from 46 countries were observed over 10 race events.
The body part most prone to injury is the shoulder and clavicle area (13%), followed by hands (9%), the head (9%) and lower legs (8%). Elbows (7,4%), knees (6,9%), forearms (5,9%) and fingers (5,9%) are also common to sustain damage. Back (4,3%) and especially neck (2,1%) injuries are relatively rare.EWS Medical Study
We can extrapolate a couple of conclusions from these facts.
- Those are the body parts that are in harm’s way most often in case of a crash and worth protecting.
- Some of these numbers would have been even higher, were it not for mandatory safety gear like helmets and knee pads.
- Other protection like shoulder pads or elbow pads are uncommon to wear in Enduro racing, but are worth it, considering the risks.
- And then there are areas on the body that cannot be reasonably protected like the clavicle, hands, forearms, and fingers.
Of course, low statistical probabilities don’t help if you’re on the wrong side of them. While a 2.7% risk of thigh injury is negligible, a 2.1% risk of neck damage is another story. The outcomes can be dramatically different. One neck injury can be enough to sustain life-altering injuries.
Most common injury types for downhill mountain biking
Soft tissue & skin injuries.
Lacerations and abrasions are by far the most common. They can happen on asphalt surfaces, as you would expect, but also on hard dirt and gravel surfaces. Or hitting a part of the bike and even protective gear rubbing against the skin on a harsh impact.
Most can be treated using a regular first aid kit on-site and won’t end a ride immediately. The severity is relatively minor, but the prevalence is the highest out of all injury types.
Head injuries, on the other hand, cannot so easily be dismissed. Obviously, the head, the housing of your brain, is the most valuable body part. You only got one, and it doesn’t heal as well as other body parts, so take appropriate preemptive care.
Add to that the relatively high risk of hitting your head, concussions are among the most frequently reported injury diagnoses. While most are minor, each has to be treated with respect. Especially repeated head traumas can have long-lasting negative effects. Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are still somewhat unknown and difficult to treat long-term.
Over half of riders that sustained concussions in the EWS study were ordered to take time off riding to recover properly. No symptom can be ignored here. Rather end the day than suffer long-term consequences.
Most of the impacts in downhill are blunt. Bruises or bone fractures can be the result of violent impacts on dirt, wood, or rock surfaces. While fractures are among the more common injuries, they are also among the most severe ones in regard to recovery time. A broken bone will take you off the bike for over a month minimum.
The impact force can be mitigated by rolling, but that’s sometimes not possible to do when things get out of control. The first step to avoiding these is to not ride out of control or completely outside your comfort zone, so there’s still the possibility to ride a mistake out or dismount on your own terms.
The shoulder area is the body part taking the most abuse in downhill MTB. They are not only at a high risk of injury but also take the longest to recover from. While contusions can be mitigated, dislocations cannot proactively by safety gear. The shoulder still needs to move in order to ride well and in control.
There are no stand-alone shoulder pads. They’re only part of a protector vest with sleeves. It’s a major reason I personally decide to wear one even on the hottest of days.
Wrists, ankles, and elbows are the next most susceptible joints. Knees too, but injuries are uncommon because most riders wear knee protection. There are also wrist and ankle braces to wear, but those are often worn after an injury occurred rather than preemptively. They often impede mobility too much.
Organ damage is extremely rare but still worth a mention as there is a slim chance of happening when impacts get so violent, and more importantly, out of control that the upper body takes a forceful hit.
At very high speeds or on high falls (like on drops or steep chutes) awkward falls can generate enough force to lead to internal injuries by hitting parts of the bike (like the bar-ends without plugs!) or track features at the wrong angle. This is why body armor or protector vests have not only back protectors but also chest plates and some side panels over the kidneys to mitigate the impact force.
Personally, I’ve removed those for comfort as I’ve never even had a crash where these would’ve been helpful.
Spine and Spinal cord injuries.
The biggest fear of any mountain biker, or any extreme sports athlete is a life-altering injury to the spinal cord. Either to the neck, upper or lower spine. It may be an irrationally heightened fear, as these kinds of injuries are very rare statistically. But they are talked about and discussed when they do happen.
Luckily, there is great safety gear available like flexible back protectors, that go as far down the lower back as possible. Most don’t cover the lower back, which has a risk of injury three times as high (3.2%) than the upper back (1.1%). My POC VPD vest ticks all the boxes, but safety comes at a premium.
Neckbraces for full-face helmet use are another piece of kit adopted by downhillers. They are extremely rare in Enduro racing, and still, the number of neck risks is some of the lowest (2.1%). While neckbraces may help reduce the risk of spinal cord damage in some crashes, they are harmful in many other situations. So they are not as clear of a recommendation as backplates.
“Although the sport has a reputation for speed and risk, with research and awareness, injury prevention measures are being adopted making the sport as safe as possible.”Study: Michael R. Carmont, et al. Mountain biking injuries: a review, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 85, Issue 1 (2008)
Up until this point, we described in detail the potential outcomes in the worst-case scenario: a crash resulting in injury. This is a potential negative outcome that doesn’t have to occur.
Not all mistakes lead to a crash as a result. And not all crashes lead to injuries.
Those were the potential risks that can occur with various probabilities. Some minor ones may happen regularly, while more severe ones rarely occur. In any case, the likelihood of any of those happening can be decreased proactively!
Associated Risks and How to Mitigate Them
As you’ll see, most of the risk factors are in the individual rider’s hand.
Either limit those risks by good preparation or avoid certain dangerous situations altogether.
Knowing yourself and what you’re getting into is half the battle! Here are some ways to mitigate risks in downhill MTB.
Track features & obstacles.
Riding natural, technical terrain requires bike skill. And tracks loaded with obstacles to ride over are fundamental to downhill riding. While there are certain types of man-made features commonly seen in bike parks all over the world, the track design, gradient, feature size and environment are always different. And so is the actual track surface.
Riding rough terrain may feel random and like a gamble at first. With experience, how the bike reacts to certain track features and how your body can adjust will become second nature and predictable.
Sighting laps are always encouraged before going at speed. I see way too many riders going as fast as they can on the first lap of the day or on their first “blind” ride down an unknown track. The likelihood of such an approach going well is low.
Riding above one’s skill level.
Riding at the edge of one’s comfort zone can be the most thrilling aspect of DH. This is how to progress skills and learn new techniques. But it can be taken too far and it’s a careful balancing act between safety and risk.
Still, riding over your limit is a risk for every rider, regardless of experience. You can always go faster than you feel comfortable with by braking less. You can always try jumps you’re not sure you can make. And it’s easy to get peer-pressured into going out of your comfort zone.
Which is a good thing and also what makes bike riding so fun, but it has to be kept in check. Try to only marginally go over your limits, instead of completely going overboard and out of control.
Riding within one’s capability is how to minimize the large majority of rider errors. They mostly happen because of being in over your head. And in downhill things can happen quickly, so a plan B is excellent preparation.
It’s also possible to just not pay enough attention to the details and overlook something or go “off-line” – meaning riding a different line through a section than intended.
Inappropriate protective gear.
A way to increase the inherent risk of downhill riding is to not wear the appropriate riding gear. Especially protective equipment. In other words: The gear you wear has a huge impact on reducing the risks associated.
Keeping your own body going is only half of it. There’s also the bike underneath you. Mechanicals are part of the sport, but unexpected ones can be avoided by proper care and maintenance. After a fall, make sure the bike is still mechanically sound to ride.
If your bike makes weird noises, like creaking or clicking, it’s time to give it a thorough check-up. Chances are parts got loose or bearings are dry. Ideally, that’s done before any of the worrying noises happen.
Other riders, hikers or animals are one of the very few risk factors not entirely in the rider’s hand.
While being common practice in road traffic to adjust the speed according to the line of sight, on a known downhill track, that’s not necessary. There’s no oncoming traffic. It’s one-way.
However, there are countless situations when there are people in places they shouldn’t be in.
Busy days in the bike park also mean large fluctuations in rider experience and skill. There’s a high chance of riders pausing on track, holding up faster ones, stopping and re-entering without looking, or generally doing something else unexpected. Especially beginners are often not up to par with common track etiquette in bike parks.
More traffic means more potential hazards. At the end of the day, you can’t control what anyone else does. But, you can always control your own riding to be more passive when more people are around.
Downhill Safety Gear and Injury Prevention
With all that talk about risks and consequences, most of them are in YOUR direct control. You just have to know what to look out for and how to prepare.
No helmet is a no-go.
A proper helmet is non-negotiable. MTB helmets are vastly different from road bike helmets, and shouldn’t be confused. This is the absolute minimum.
I personally prefer to wear my full-face downhill MTB helmet (review) or the convertible Giro Switchblade MTB helmet (check current price). If you’ve never worn one, it’s a little warmer and harder to breathe in but the airflow riding downhill more than makes up for it. Not to mention it’s a tiny price in sweat to pay for protecting the face.
Wear the appropriate riding gear.
I’m not only talking about protective gear, which can provide a comforting feeling and confidence but is also helpful in case of a dismount.
I’m also talking about the right shoes with grippy soles (flat-pedal or clipless), gloves with extra protective inserts (review), and goggles. In other words: anything that impacts your comfort level and handling on the bike.
A good riding kit is essential to rider confidence and safety.
Maintain your bike and gear.
Dedicated downhill bikes (like mine) require constant maintenance. Those things can take some abuse, and they definitely will. Nothing’s worse than smashing down a rough track with a question mark in the back of your head if the bike will hold up.
Another important aspect is bike setup. There are many moving parts on a DH bike, but special focus has to be on a predictable suspension setup, reliable brakes and puncture-resistant tires providing traction.
Still, mechanical issues can happen. And when they do, it’s often because of lacking care beforehand. Loose bolts, worn brakes, wrong tire pressures (here’s why that’s critical), brittle tires and leaking suspension components are easy to prevent by checking over your bike regularly.
Stay within your personal limit.
Most crashes come from a lack of control either from not knowing the track or speeds too fast for the rider’s skill level. Either way, it’s always the rider’s fault. And it can so easily be avoided.
If you hit a brand new feature you’ve never done before, be sure you know what you’re getting into. Have you done a similar section before? What’s your speed and line choice? Can someone you trust ride in front of you and “tow” you along? What are the risks and how are you mitigating them?
Yes, there’s always going to be a rider going faster, bigger and better than you – guaranteed. But don’t get peer pressured into going way above your personal limits.
Don’t let yourself get peer-pressured.
Do you know those viral videos of amateur MTBers crashing in huge spectacular wrecks? Why do you think someone decided to stop trackside and videotape it – all before it went down?
That’s because decisions were made to try something radical. Be it a big new jump for the first time, going extra fast into a section, doing a risky trick to spice things up or any other maneuver, where the outcome is highly unsure. Risk versus reward is skewed towards risk.
Peer pressure leads to accepting poor risk-reward because the bragging rights are seen as part of the reward. So, the group you ride with can have a big outside influence on the risk you personally are willing to take.
Learn from your mistakes.
And if you do eventually crash or have a near crash, take the opportunity to reflect on what went wrong and why. There’s always something good to take away. You just have to be willing to be critical of your riding and not shy away from highlighting errors.
Remember: Pretty much all variables are in your control. And if they aren’t, try and avoid those altogether.
Don’t ride alone.
This is usually easy to avoid in bike parks, even if you don’t travel in a group, especially in warm weather and on weekends. Still, easier tracks are usually more frequented than more difficult ones.
Even if having other riders around won’t save you from crashing, see it as a safety net in case something does go wrong. Fellow riders are generally quick to help and get you the assistance you need.
However, overly crowded tracks bring their own set of potential risks.
Keep enough distance from other riders.
Even if DH tracks are only wide enough for one rider at a time, traffic is one of the biggest risks!
This is because it’s an uncontrollable variable. Riders with a variety of skill levels come and ride the same track. At different speeds and using different lines. It’s not uncommon for inexperienced beginners or experienced experts riding over their limit to go off-track accidentally.
Especially if you don’t know them well. Yes, big party trains with the crew can be the funnest thing ever, but also one of the riskiest. One rider’s error can end in a pile-up. So, my tip for “party trains”: run in order of skill, and only with people, you can trust to ride predictably.
This is basically common MTB trail etiquette and nothing new for my fellow mountain bikers.
Be careful on track intersections.
Some tracks have a layout that allows for some optional lines or shortcuts. This leads to certain spots where lines come together or run parallel to each other. Always know where these spots are and keep an eye out for potential traffic.
Be mindful of your energy reserves and concentration levels.
Most crashes and the worst ones happen at the end of a long day. Muscles may just let go on big impacts. I’ve seen some horrendous accidents on the first laps of the day (no warm-up) and on the last ones before calling it quits for the day (lacking focus and energy).
At the danger of sounding repetitive, know your limits and stay within them. They might change over time, even within the same day.
I have been riding downhill for over a decade straight with dozens of bike park days per year. While I crashed fairly regularly in the first couple of years, attributed to a higher risk appetite and lacking experience (not a good combo), resulting in about one crash per riding day on average. Which made me a statistical outlier at the risky end with constant abrasions and contusions.
On average, I always had about one really big and painful crash per year, interestingly enough. Averages work out pretty reliably, it turns out. But in all my time riding downhill, I only had two injuries that kept me off the bike for a couple of weeks.
I attribute those relatively good stats to general fitness as a result of constant strength and cardio training, adequate protection (above the absolute necessities), knowing my limits, checking out tracks before trying to go fast, proper trail etiquette, a good group of riding buddies, that don’t peer pressure someone into doing stupidly risky stuff and maybe a bit of self-made luck by all the precautions combined.
If I’m not 90% sure I can make a section or feature safely, I will not do it. That applies to obstacles I’ve successfully done in the past, and even more so for stuff I haven’t hit before. When a jump or section is built safely such that a plan B is possible even midway through (like a case-pad on a big jump, or a runoff off-track) the risk is lower and even if I make a slight mistake, things won’t go up in flames immediately.