Protecting my Brain and Cervical Spine
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
What I am doing to reduce the risk of brain and cervical spine injuries while mountain biking
My interest in brain and cervical spinal (neck) protection has been extra high since I almost put myself into a wheelchair in March of this year. You can read all about it here:
While the fall did not cause a concussion, the impact of my head with the ground almost broke my neck, with the impact crushing and bruising my spinal cord. I distinctly remember what happened the instant my helmeted head struck the ground. Like a hammer ringing a bell, the shock from the sudden deceleration was sharply transmitted from the helmet to the skull bones, then instantly to the bones of the neck. At the same time, I was violently bent over like a scorpion, crushing my spinal cord in the process.
When I first saw this MRI of my spinal cord I was shocked, confirming that I was very lucky not to be permanently paralysed.
Crashes in cross-country mountain-biking are usually slow speed - they are for me anyway. It is not a sudden, violent whack that usually does the damage because most of these falls are more like slides than the direct, violent impacts that might be the case when hitting a car and falling head-first onto pavement.
In my crashes, the most damage to the head and neck happens when the sliding helmet catches on the ground or an obstacle like rocks or roots. In this case, powerful torsional forces are transmitted from the helmet to the skull and onto the neck. Other than relatively minor grazes, cuts and bruises and the occasional broken bone, by far the most serious damage I have suffered is to my neck. On all previous occasions this has involved a fall, going into some kind of slide/tumble then the helmet catching and my neck getting a violent twist. This is why most of the serious damage I have suffered has been to the neck and never a concussion. The difference with this latest neck injury was the more direct impact onto the helmet after going over my handle bars and my extra vulnerability to harm due to the structural weaknesses in my cervical spine from past damage.
I knew immediately that this was the one accident that I was not going to walk away from!
I did end up walking away from it after several weeks but I did seriously consider that this was the end of all high-risk activities for me. I thought seriously about retiring from all competitive cycling. As I am writing, I am aware that I have one numb small finger and some residual nerve pain in both arms. My neck is back to about where it was pre-injury in terms of mobility, so that is encouraging.
I am now back to full training, in very good condition and really enjoying life. So I have decided not to retire but to continue to do what I really enjoy while I still can, including contesting the next mountain biking world championships this August. I'm 66 year old later this year and still going strong, so why stop now? Instead of giving up, my strategy is to do everything I can to reduce my risk of further injuries to my cervical spine which is showing clear signs of being a little the worst for wear and tear.
What I am dong to reduce my risk of further injury
I have nailed this down to the following:
Re-configuring my bike so that I am less likely to go over the handle bars.
Improving my skills and strength.
Not taking careless risks.
Wearing a helmet that is designed to reduce the transmission of shock and torsion through to the cervical spine.
1. Re-configuring my bike so that I am less likely to go over the handle bars
Going over the handle bars is what did the serious damage this last time. I have a 2019 Cannondale Scalpel Ocha which is the best racing machine on the market. However, there was one thing about its setup that might increase the risk of going over the bars. I was riding with a light carbon seat post which can not be lowered when descending steep slopes and obstacles. While I was not riding this bike at the time of my accident, modifying all of my bikes with seat post that can be lowered in an instant was an obvious move. This is done by fitting what is called a "Dropper Post". The only downside is the Dropper Post adds about 300 grams to the weight of the bike.
Video: The safety features of Gary's race bike
2. Improving my skills and strength
It is easy to fall into the trap of just cranking out the miles on the bike while neglecting the basics of mountain bike performance and safety. As we get older we accept that declining strength, flexibility, balance and reactions all decline. They don't have to.
I've always made the point of keeping a strong and flexible upper body by lifting weights in the evenings and stretching. I have a barbell and kettle bells in the living room so I can do my exercise while watching the television. It is good use of precious time and I'm now doing more lifting - not less.
In addition to keeping strong I practice falling. I'll stop by a playground, remove my backpack if I have one then practice forward and backward rolls - mostly shoulder rolls. If I can't do a graceful shoulder roll at the playground, I am not going to do any better when plunging head-first off a bike!
I'm always going back to practising basic skills such as balancing on the bike, doing tight figure eight turns, bunny-hops and small jumps. The sport of cyclocross is perfect for developing these basic skills, so I'm dong this right now. Actually my most recent and worst accident happened while I was teaching my partner safety drills on the bike! Which leads onto the next point.
3. Not taking careless risks
I am a risk-taker, but each one is carefully calculated to be within my limits of skill and strength. Constant practice of the basics, having the right equipment and being constantly aware of my surroundings is what keeps me safe in what is a high-risk sport.
My worst accidents, including the last one that damaged my spine have all happened during moments of inattention, such as talking too much and not looking where I'm going. If I am going to talk, I'll stop first, then talk!
4. Wearing a helmet that is designed to reduce the transmission of shock and torsion through to the cervical spine
Next to preventing accidents in the first place, protection by way of a helmet is pretty obvious.
The new POC bicycle helmets claim to provide better protection for the brain and the neck when involved in bicycle accidents. Do they live up to this claim?
I have always been a fan of POC mainly because their helmets are incredibly light and comfortable. I was not wearing a POC at the time of my last and most serious accident because my serviceable one had been stolen. I needed a new and better helmet, so I wrote to the NZ distributors, www.wideopen.co.nz, requesting their advice about how to better protect my seriously damaged neck. They came back with an offer to supply me with one of their latest POC helmets which has a patented shock absorbing system. I took up their offer while buying a second one from a local shop.
Here is what POC have to say about the MIPS protection system:
MIPS (MULTI-DIRECTIONAL IMPACT PROTECTION SYSTEM) MIPS is a system used to reduce the rotational force to the brain in case of oblique impacts. Accident statistics show that the most common accident occurs in an oblique impact to the head, resulting in a rotation of the head and brain. The brain is more sensitive to oblique impacts than radial impacts. In a helmet equipped with MIPS technology, a low friction layer separates the shell and the inside of the helmet. When subjected to an oblique impact, the low friction layer allows a small controlled rotation of the shell relative to the lining. https://www.pocsports.com/eu/research-innovation/protective-concepts.html
When researching MIPS systems online, POC was not rated the best but it was close to the top. They use an innovative gel system which is different to other MIPS. They call theirs "SPIN" (Shearing Pad INside):
"A silicone gel-like membrane inside the pad forms the basis of our patent-pending SPIN (Shearing Pad INside) technology. It is just one of our technologies that form our whole-helmet approach that we always take when creating head protection."
How SPIN works is demonstrated in the video below and discussed further with helmet expert, Paul Dorotich.
I do like the light weight and the feel of their helmets, so I decided to stick with this brand for now.
As I said earlier, it is the oblique impacts with rotation that have done the damage to me. This damage has been to my neck and not the brain.
I have three helmets: two new POC plus a Neon which I purchased in Andorra to replace the POC that had been stolen.
The following images show that you can have added protection while still having a very light and comfortable helmet.
My daughter, Mary-Ann has a POC as do several of my training buddies, including Andrew who is accompanying me to the next UCI Masters Mountain Biking World Championships. When it comes to protecting one's brains, the people who care do not skimp on investing in a good helmet. Me included.
Video: an outline of the main safety features of the new POC helmets
What exactly is the POC Octal System and how does it rate alongside MIPS-rated helmets?
I sought the advice of helmet expert, Paul Dorotich. Paul is the founder of the Australia-based start-up, 'Headstrong Helmets'. He is currently developing a motocross helmet but as a keen MTB racer, he's thinking ahead as to how to transfer his new protective system into MTB helmets.
This is what Paul Dorotich has to say about the POC Spin
(Shearing Pad INside)
Let's refer to the independent star rating system of Virginia Tech - see link below. This does 2 things; firstly it allows consumers to get informed about how protective different helmets are and therefore buy the best they can afford and secondly, it incentivises manufacturers to improve the products that they provide to us. It takes away some of the bias effect of marketing spin and instead brings it back to the facts! https://www.helmet.beam.vt.edu/bicycle-helmet-ratings.html The POC Octal (base model) is a 4 star helmet so the X Spin should be a higher rating helmet. Four out of 5 stars is a very good result but not quite as good as a 5 star helmet none-the-less. This should encourage POC to up-spec all their helmets with SPIN or MIPS and for riders to buy the highest spec helmet. However the bottom line is this; getting a MIPS or SPIN equipped helmet should be considered an absolute necessity. As racers we thrive on competition and so I think it is only fitting that helmet brands are encouraged to compete with each other to provide us with the best there is. Don't you agree? We use star rating systems on many things like vehicle safety and washing machine efficiency and yet helmets don't have widely-used star ratings, yet! Anyway, for clarity and accuracy it would be worth noting that the POC Octal X SPIN (top of the line model) has POC's own version of MIPS, being the SPIN gel pad. That is, POC uses SPIN not MIPS (in the Octal helmets at least). MIPS is the standard system that dominates the helmet market but POC have developed their own proprietary system that aims to do the same thing (to counter rotational impact forces). So what I'm saying here is to clarify SPIN is used not MIPS."
How popular are POC helmets?
Pretty popular if you ask me. Let me tell you an amusing story.
I took a brand new, super-light POC helmet with me to the 2018 UCI Masters Mountain Bike World Championships in Andorra. Somebody nicked it from the grandstand while I was watching the Open Elite races. I left the stand for just a minute to greet someone passing by and it was gone in a flash. That is why I had a Neon helmet while in Andorra.
When I was desperately searching for the stolen helmet the Andorran authorities insisted time and again that it could not have been one of their people. Instead, they kept saying that it had to one of those many Spanish rascals who come to their country and who are always getting up to no good!
I did some serious damage on the 21st of March of this year and I did think my active sporting life was over. It was time to retire and plenty of people hinted that I should be taking it easy, acting my age, that I had nothing left to prove, that I wasn't Super Man and so on. I thought about this a lot while recovering in bed. It was a good option. Sensible.
However, as I quickly regained my strength and vitality I had a change of mind. Despite some residual symptoms I felt better than ever. I had taken the time in hospital and at home to detox from all caffeine products such as tea and coffee. Did this make a difference to my energy levels? Sure did! I am now more than three months clean and delighted.
The UCI Mountain Bike Masters World Championships are being held in Quebec, Canada and I had two months to prepare after getting my medical clearance. It was not very long but I knew I could do it. Life is too short to cut it even shorter by prematurely retiring from the things I enjoy. Besides we had already purchased the flights and accommodation for Canada. What could be better than a month of exploring the trails of Mt St Anne during their Summer, with Alofa, the love of my life, then finishing up by competing against the best age group mountain bikers in the world?
I'm taking my Cannondale bike, my POC helmets, my skills and common-sense with me. It won't be easy to win again - it never is - but my intention is to return with a second gold medal.