The sport of cycling is still recovering from the actions of its former champion, Lance Armstrong, and others like him who have been connected to the multitude of doping scandals which have developed in recent years.  Our focus isn’t on Lance Armstrong, but rather a much less prominent, but nevertheless very compelling figure – Bart Bell.  Haven’t heard of him?  Read on.Bart Bell’s story speaks to a substantial danger associated with crashes in the sport of cycling – Traumatic Brain Injury.   

Bart Bell’s cycling story started in 1984, when he was only 16 years old.  Bell reportedly became inspired to try his hand at competitive cycling by watching the 1984 Olympics and within a year his dedication and athletic talent had earned him a spot on the U.S. Junior National developmental program.  He rode and trained alongside other well known stars, including Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie, and raced all over the world over for the next five years until he ultimately qualified for the Olympic Trials.  Unfortunately the path he was set upon by those trials was a very different one from the one he’d hoped and dreamed for.

Bell’s fateful race took place on June 28, 1992.  Tragically as Bell and his partner, Tom Brinker, raced their tandem bike down the final straight, the front wheel collapsed sending Bell flying over the handlebars at nearly 40 mph.  Fortunately for him he landed on the grassy infield.  Unfortunately he landed on his head.  And while he was wearing a helmet, the primary impact was delivered to his forehead, just over his eye and just below the protection of his helmet.

The force of the impact immediately rendered Bell unconscious and he remained in a coma for a considerable period of time.  Bell suffered a “mild traumatic brain injury” in the crash.  On the spectrum of possible brain injuries, his was not the most severe.  His doctors would report that he’d been fortunate, as the bleeding and swelling of his brain were not severe.  But Bell’s story shows that a brain injury labeled as “mild” can produce consequences, which are anything but mild.

Following the crash Bell spent approximately two weeks a coma.  It was another three weeks before he regained full consciousness.  He spent two months in hospitals and another year in rehab.  Through dedication and hard work, not to mention a bit of luck, he was able to regain his ability to walk.  As it turned out he was never able to return to competitive cycling and to this day he reportedly continues to suffer the effects of his injuries.

Despite his injury Bell’s story is one of success.  He built a business which consisted of multiple franchise outlets.  More recently he has come back into the news.  Reports indicate that he has sold his business and rededicated himself to the study of exercise science.  His goal?  To help wounded military veterans and others who want to transition into Paralympic sports.  News reports indicate that he is currently working with Jacksonville State University to develop a Paralympic training hub.  Bell was recently quoted as saying:  “I’ve worked and been around a lot of really great people. I’m very fortunate. I’ve traveled a lot, and I want to help those who really need it.”

Bell’s story is truly remarkable.  It provides a compelling example of what can be surmounted through hard work and perseverance.  But we cannot lose sight of the fact that Bell was lucky.

A person’s ability to overcome an injury, particularly a serious injury – such as a traumatic brain injury – depends on a great many variables.  Unfortunately most people who suffer injuries comparable to those sustained by Bell will not be quite as fortunate as he was.

For cyclists however there is another message hidden in Bell’s story.  And it is the real reason why I’ve posted this particular blog:

You can suffer serious brain and other injuries, despite proper use of safety equipment such as helmets.

Remember bicycles can travel at significant speeds.  In states like New Jersey there are often no designated bicycle lanes.  Cyclists try to keep right, out of the flow of traffic, but the shoulders on New Jersey’s roads are frequently small (or non-existent).  Being human powered, bicycles lack the ability to suddenly accelerate, as a motorcycle can, to escape sudden hazards or evade careless motorists.  And while cyclists are legally permitted on most roadways (other than major freeways) and are considered a “vehicle” for purposes of our rules of the road, we cyclists often do not receive the respect of the motorists with whom we must share the road.  All of these factors combine to produce serious injuries when a cyclist is struck by a car or otherwise caused to crash.

Bike helmets are critical safety gear.  But they cannot provide perfect protection in all situations.  So protect yourselves as much as you can.  Ride in groups.  Choose your ride locations wisely.  Be visible.  Wear your safety gear.  Wear your helmet TIGHTLY and position it LOW on the forehead.  If you see others with their helmet loose or tilted back and riding high on the forehead, speak up.  And if you or others you know are injured by the carelessness of others, seek help.