Though some spectators and fans might dub downhillers “daredevils” the description isn’t fitting for most World Cup level riders. Athletes are very aware of what is safe and unsafe and which risks are worthy or not. Last year, conversations on the World Cup circuit culminated into a formative discussion about why riders could benefit from a safety-centric union.
After 15 years of competing in downhill, and suffering multiple injuries, five-time overall UCI Downhill World Cup champion Aaron Gwin is well aware of the risks–and he’s confident that safety on track could be improved, especially after experiencing NeuroCatch, a brain scanning device that can objectively measure brain function after a concussion. Technology in this space has historically been limited, occasionally putting mountain bike athletes who have UCI points on the line in a tough position after head injuries.
“For us at the World Cups right now, there’s literally no standard and no rules,” said Gwin in an interview with Singletracks. “So in theory, you could completely K.O. yourself in practice, which riders have done before, and then come back into the pits and go back and qualify like the next day if you wanted to. It’s literally up to the rider and the rider’s team to say if it’s OK or not.”
Gwin posted two photos from his visit at NeuroCatch on his Instagram profile in early May. His visit was mostly exploring the brain function and optimization tests, but it was also a good opportunity to talk about improving safety in competition.
“For so long I feel like we’ve had almost no idea what we’re doing with concussion protocol at the races or brain injury management in general,” he said in the post. Soon after, a handful of other athletes, relatives of athletes, and others commented and reached out, sharing their support and interest.
Getting NeuroCatch on track
Gwin can’t recall having a concussion since a teenager racing dirt bikes, but head injuries are common on course. Last year, top contender Tahnee Seagrave pulled herself out of the Fort William round in May after a crash and concussion weeks earlier. Myriam Nicole made the same decision at the same round after a concussion practicing for the race in Lourdes, France in March 2022. According to Singletrack World, Nicole still raced finals after the crash. We reached out to Seagrave, but unfortunately couldn’t connect with the first round of racing rapidly approaching.
“I’d say over the last 15 years in my racing career, I could name five or six athletes that have had serious head injuries, or concussions and kept racing because they were in the points or whatever and had another concussion a week or two later and ended up with multiple concussions in the same year,” said Gwin.
As he mentioned in his Instagram post, concussion testing and the determination to return to racing is largely up to the rider and/or their team.
“There really isn’t a process right now.”
Part of the challenge in properly assessing a concussion is that the mild head traumas have historically been hard to understand, even by the medical community. Symptoms of a concussion can present as reduced reaction time and reflexes, brain fog and problems with memory or attention, changes in mood and more. But concussion assessments usually come down to questionnaires and symptom checklists, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
And because athletes might be swayed one way or the other if they are at risk of losing standing in their series’ rankings, this complicates self assessment, not to mention slows the process of recovery.
As Ryan D’Arcy, the creator of NeuroCatch puts it, “you can’t treat what you can’t measure.”
D’Arcy, based in Vancouver, is a neuroscientist who co-founded NeuroCatch, seeking a way to fill in the gaps of concussion testing and technology, which has hardly progressed over the past several decades, he said. The first version of NeuroCatch debuted in the 2019 and the second version went to market in the fall of 2022.
“Today it’s still a big mystery for many athletes,” said D’Arcy. “Because, if you break a leg, you can kind of wrap your head around what you need to do, you go to the hospital or get an X-ray, get a cast on it, [and wait for it] to heal, whereas the brain is incredibly complex. So it creates a whole bunch of unknowns about having a concussion.”
The device fits in a suitcase and then uses a computer and a wrap to surround the patient’s head to deliver reports on brain function, including auditory sensation, basic attention, and cognitive processing. It takes the device about six minutes to process the information and ready a report. NeuroCatch doesn’t require a baseline test for the athlete; D’Arcy says it helps them identify effective treatments to help prevent sub-concussive impacts and accelerate treatment and recovery.
But aside from assessing the serious effects of a concussion, athletes are visiting the NeuroCatch facility to measure their cognitive functioning. It’s a given that athletes train their body, but training the brain to improve reaction time hasn’t always been on par and NeuroCatch can give people a way to improve cognitive anticipation. D’Arcy says they use different training strategies and can improve someone’s cognitive processing speeds by up to 70ms through rapid information processing or mindfulness training.
The entire device costs upwards of $30,000, but individuals can pay under $200 for a test with NeuroCatch.
After Gwin’s test, he was informed his cognitive functioning was within the top 5% of elite athletes. With the strong results, he doesn’t have any particular training goals after the test, but he’s more aware of his own mental health than ever, he says, and tries to put as much energy into it as he does his physical training.
He also reached out to the Enduro Sports Organization (ESO), the organization now overseeing World Cup production with the UCI, about the device after his test to see if it is something they’d consider having on World Cup courses. They seemed receptive, he said, and he hoped to talk with them more in Switzerland at the first round for 2023. We reached out to the ESO for comment, but did not hear back.
It’d likely require staffing a physician on site and a buy-in from the ESO and UCI, but Gwin sees the effort from both as well worth it if it helps keep riders safe.
“I wouldn’t say that you would just 100% lean on the device, but I think it is the most advanced technology we have to actually help a physician have the information that they would need to make a diagnosis and decide whether somebody’s good or not good.”