How Dangerous is MTB

Studies show how dangerous Mountain Biking really is

Mountain biking as a whole is relatively safe with injury risk similar to other outdoor sports.

The more extreme form of mountain biking, Downhill MTB is statistically a dangerous sport as the overall risk of injury is high relative to other sports, classifying it as an extreme sport.

The biggest risk factors range from difficult trail conditions, skill over-estimation to lacking maintenance and inadequate safety gear.

Please find the respective sources linked within each chapter and compiles at the end of this article.

Most common injuries

A 2-year study done by the EWS recorded the injury incidence of enduro racers per body part. Over 2000 racers were observed over 10 race events.

The most commonly injured body parts are:

  • shoulder and collarbone area (13%)
  • head (9%)
  • hands (9%)
  • lower legs (8%)
  • elbows (7,4%)
  • knees (6,9%)
  • forearms (5,9%)
  • fingers (5,9%)
  • back (4,3%)
  • wrists (3,7%)
  • neck (2,1%)
Watermarked 8

The limbs are more frequently injured than the axial skeleton, with the most common types of injuries being wounds, contusions, skeletal fractures, and musculoskeletal soft tissue injuries.

As far as types of injuries go, concussion injury was the most frequent diagnosis (7.4%). More on concussions later.

8.9% of those 2000 racers were injured which is comparable to downhill racing – the highest-risk group in MTB.

How common MTB accidents are

Mountain biking has an overall injury risk rate of 0.6% per year, translating to 1 injury per 1000 hours of riding on average. A similar injury risk rate to other outdoor sports.

The injury rate for Downhill is 17 times higher
[at 16.8 injuries per 1000 h]

Study: Becker, Johannes et al. “A prospective study of downhill mountain biking injuries.” in the British journal of sports medicine No. 47 (2013)

And DH racing injury risk is 38 times higher at 38.3 injuries per 1.000 hours (see EWS study).

So, on average, downhill mountain bikers sustain 1 injury for every 59.5 hours of riding. Men are generally more commonly injured than women. Note that this number doesn’t say anything about the severity.

Most injuries are minor such as skin abrasions and simple contusions. However, around 10% of injuries are severe enough to require hospitalization. The highest hospital admission rates are with head, neck and torso injuries

(Sources: Injuries in mountain biking by Gaulrapp, Weber, & Rosemeyer, 2001 and Recreational mountain biking injuries – Aitken, Biant, & Court-Brown, 2010)

downhill mtb crash
Not all downhill MTB rides end like George Brannigan’s crash at a Downhill World Cup race. // Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Concussion statistics

Mountain bikers have a 6.9% annual prevalence of diagnosed concussions, which is notably high relative to other sports.

More than one-third of mountain bikers do not recognize when they have had a concussion. Two thirds continue riding after experiencing concussion symptoms – increasing their risk of worsening symptoms and acquiring a second injury.

Sponsored riders have a 5-fold increased risk of concussions compared to recreational riders.

(Source: Do Mountain Bikers Know When They Have Had a Concussion and, Do They Know to Stop Riding?)

Fatality statistics

While specific data on mountain bike deaths per year are scarce, there was a recent study focusing on the Austrian Alps over a 16 year period recorded 97 fatalities among recreational mountain bikers.

Out of those 96 were male. The average age was 55.

The majority (55%) died of non-traumatic cardiovascular causes mainly while uphill riding. 41% died due to traumatic events while riding downhill.

Combined with the number of total accidents, the mortality index for MTB is 1.34 (out of 1.000 accidents = 0.13%).

(Source: Mortality in Recreational Mountain-Biking in the Austrian Alps: A Retrospective Study over 16 Years)

Risks & Mitigation

Up until this point, we described the worst-case scenario: a crash resulting in injury.

This is a potential negative outcome that doesn’t have to occur. Not all riding mistakes lead to a crash. And not all crashes lead to injuries.

As you’ll see, most of the risk factors are entirely in the rider’s control.

“Although the sport has a reputation for speed and risk, with rider awareness, injury prevention measures are being adopted making the sport as safe as possible.”

Michael R. Carmont, et al. Mountain biking injuries: a review, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 85, Issue 1 (2008)
mtb pov crash
Hands are always at risk when crashing.

Biggest risks: why mountain bikers crash

The biggest risk factors include:

  • difficult, wet trail conditions,
  • inadequate safety gear,
  • skill over-estimation and
  • excessive speed.

Notice how mechanical failure isn’t one of them? Those are rare freak accidents (prevented by good bike maintenance).

All of these represent personal factors that could be mitigated.

Sure, we the big draw of mountain biking is the thrill of riding on the edge and pushing your limits. That can be done in a relatively safe way or completely out of control. How much risk you are willing to take is your choice at the end of the day.

And as far as going too fast for your skill level goes …. Spoiler: There are two brakes on every bike. You always can go as fast as you feel comfortable.

(Source: Injuries in mountain biking by Gaulrapp, Weber, & Rosemeyer, 2001)

Reducing the risk of injuries

Here are some actionable tips to mitigate risk and prevent accidents – some backed by research, some come from personal experience.

The quick summary is:

Know your limits and stay within them.

Wear appropriate protection

At the risk of stating the obvious: The use of protective MTB gear is crucial in mitigating the severity of injuries.

We can come to a couple of conclusions from the facts above.

  • Body parts with a high risk of injury should always be covered by essential MTB gear.
  • Some of the EWS injury numbers would have been even higher, were it not for mandatory safety gear like helmets, back protectors 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 to these areas.
  • And then there are areas on the body that cannot be reasonably protected like the clavicle, hands, forearms, and fingers.
  • Neck injuries were the lowest out of all, even tho MTB neckbraces are not used in Enduro racing
A Giro Switchblade MTB Helmet from the side with a big visor on top
My low-cut, half-shell Giro Switchblade Enduro MTB Helmet …
Giro Switchblade MTB Helmet with chin bar
… is convertible into a DH-rated full-face lid.
a dirty 100% Aircraft helmet Calypso silver side view
But my go-to is a true full-face helmet like my 100% Aircraft helmet.

Acknowledge your energy 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).

Gym workouts and fitness training were a game changer for my upper body strength and my riding confidence.

Mindset & peer pressure

Know your skill level and how to ride within it. I know in Youtube videos everything looks way smaller and totally easy.

Unsurprisingly, the rate of injury during competition, where riders push their individual limits, is reported as significantly higher.

Source

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.

two uncool dressed bikers jumping on a tandem bike
Riding with like-minded buddies is all fun and games until it becomes competitive.

Don’t ride alone

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.

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.

Skills clinic

If you feel like you’re riding unsafe or are not progressing fast enough, consider hiring a riding coach.

This way you’ll make big leaps in your skill level in a short amount of time. Riding safer and faster.

Bike setup

The more predictable your bike is, the less you have to think about it and the more bandwidth you have to focus on your riding, your body position and the upcoming trail features.

Simple things like tire pressure, suspension setup, handlebar width, brake lever angle, and saddle height go a long way in making you more comfortable and safer.

old brittle tubeless tire leaking sealant
Old, brittle tires are not the best prerequisite for a rough downhill track.

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Julian
Julian

Julian Mat is a former bike shop owner and editor of Suspension Traveler. He has been riding Downhill MTB and Enduro for over two decades.
Julian has poured all his accumulated knowledge, best-kept secrets, and proven guides into Suspension Traveler, to make it the go-to resource for gravity mountain bikers.

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