Why do collarbones break so easily?

Stage nine and Richie Porte crashed out of the 2018 Tour de France with a broken collarbone. It was devastating news for Australian cycling fans, and obviously devastating news to Richie and his team who have been training so hard and giving it their all. 

Every Tour there are multiple tumbles and usually the pros regroup and continue riding, even if their ass is hanging out of the new breeze feature of their knicks. 

On just about every fall though, someone doesn’t get back up and will retire from the race with a broken collarbone. In race years past we have seen riders finish the stage one handed, their broken wing tucked in, just to get the stage completed, but that’s the end of their Tour journey. While a collarbone isn’t as essential to cycling motion, like arm and leg bones, the intense pressure that comes from leaning on the handle bars means the pain of a collarbone break is excruciating, to the point of no return, well, not until next year. 

And you don’t have to be a pro to experience this. 

Collarbone breaks are really common. They make up about five per cent of all adults bone breaks and that can come from sport (contact and non-contact sports), car crashes, falls from cycling, roller blading, skateboarding, anything fast really as well as just awkward tumbles from two legs. In some cases babies have had collarbone breaks during birth. 

So what is with these collarbone breaks, why the collarbone over and over again? 

It’s actually not bad luck. The collarbone is designed for one purpose and that’s to take a hit and break to lessen the impact on the rest of the body, it’s like a crumple zone in a car. 

The long curved shape, outward position and structure of the bone means that it breaks easily with certain types of impact and usually in the same place without shattering. It’s also designed to heal on it’s own, without medical support, surgery or even a sling (although getting help and correct repositioning is significantly helpful in modern times, especially for getting back on the bike in the future). What it meant for early humans is that after a slip off a rock, or battle with a sabre-toothed tiger, an injured cave person could rest up somewhere and come out with no significant damage afterwards, ready to fight another day. 

All this is essential because of the impractical human design, not that I’m complaining, I like how we are set up, I couldn’t cycle otherwise, but there is a problem; our heads are heavy, weighing in at about five kilos, making up over seven per cent of our total body weight, yet it is balanced on the very top of our body, on a thin neck with long limbs and really small feet underneath. Add to that our love for movement including up and down trees, stairs, highways and hurtling downhill on two wheels at 100 kilometres an hour and you can see how easy it is for that top heavy, imbalanced load to fall over. Actually, it’s sort of surprising we stay upright at all. 

Humans have many unique traits, and one of those more unhappy ones is we are the only animal on the planet that can claim their leading cause of death and injury to falls. 

So while it might seem like bad luck when you are off the bike (or out of the Tour de France) until your collarbone heals, it’s actually the best thing that could happen to you, because without that designed break, you could be in for some serious trouble. 

Best-case scenario, under the collarbone is a host of important blood vessels and nerves. Without your collarbone a hard hitting fall can see ruptures, tears and even lacerations that can leave you with permanent nerve damage or severe internal haemorrhaging. 

Worse case scenario, you break your neck, so that’s game over.

Even if you survive any of that, you are off the bike for good. 

While a collarbone break is painful, and waiting for it to heal (and the loss of arm and muscle strength as a result) is frustrating, let’s be really grateful that we have our fragile collarbones so that we can take a hit and return to our cycling best with time. 

Richie, we are glad you are okay and wish you all the best for the rest of 2018!

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