Aug 03 2009

Crash Course: Striking it Lucky

The ground came up so frightfully fast. Before I knew it, I was staring down the highway from the height of a turtle about to cross the road. I’d crashed my bike.

The last time I crashed with my bike was 30 years ago. I got a goose egg then, smack in the middle of my forehead (I’ve worn a helmet ever since). While I’ve never been so naive as to think I was immune from a bike accident, I hedge my bets by being a prudent cyclist, and have kept my equipment in good condition so crash-causing mechanical failures would be unlikely. Still, though I didn’t court hubris, I did hope that my confidence and skill would keep me on the up-and-up. Occasionally I’ve even allowed myself to think that I might be one of the lucky ones who gets through the rest of my life without another crash. And then came my ride this Saturday.

The weather was lovely. Puffy clouds sailed against a cerulean sky, and the wind wasn’t too bad, though erratic westerly gusts occasionally shoved at me a bit as I spun north to do one of my favorite circuits. The highway shoulder is wide and for the most part smooth, but longitudinal cracks to the right of the white line encouraged me to take the inside of the curve a bit closer to the pavement edge than is wise. I was moving along fast now, setting up for a 35 mph three-quarter-mile descent ahead. Then a robin shot from the shrubs to the right and crossed my path not far ahead of me. I worried about his safe crossing, and watched him reach the woods on the opposite side. Just then I was hit by a lusty gust, and my inattention in combination with the gust sent me over the edge.

I had drifted too close to the pavement’s three-inch lip. Off went my front wheel, then my rear. Unconsolidated crushed stone began to slow me down. The bank is not high but it is steep, and the ditch is thick with grasses and wildflowers. I was still in control at this stage, and still thinking in coherent sentences. No way would I be able to come up onto the pavement with its abrupt lip, so I intended to ride it out by carving a path along the sloping crushed stone until I could come to a stop. Lightly braking by now, the bike felt like it does when descending grades on rough rides. The handlebars juddered, the tires carved deep into the bank, and I was just thinking that I’d pull it off when the front wheel hit a very soft patch of gravel. I might even have been easing the handlebars to the left in order to begin climbing up the bank to the highway, but I can’t be sure. The bike came to a quick stop and toppled to the left. The handlebars twisted left hard, and my left hand shot off the brake hood. Palm out and down, forearm parallel to the pavement, I skidded to a stop still lashed to my pedals with toe clips. The only thought I had while going down was OH, MY POOR BIKE!


Crash Site

I pulled my feet free of the loose toe clips, then kicked and rolled out from under the bike, my right hand still gripping the brake hood. I pulled the bike up with me as I stumbled on the loose, sloping stone. Immediately I began looking for damage to the bike. The left handlebar end had been knocked under the top tube and was stuck there—this is a 42 cm Surly Long Haul Trucker, and normally the handlebar doesn’t swing under the low top tube. My handlebar bag had popped free of the bracket and was lying just ahead of the front wheel. Amazingly, my rearview mirror wasn’t broken or thrown off the bars. The Louie Garneau trunk was still on the rear rack and hadn’t been scuffed. I was very pleased to see that, since that’s where my DSLR is packed when I take it along. The chain had come partially off the large ring and needed to be returned to position. And in the rear, the chain had jammed between the smallest cog and the chainstay.

I popped the handlebar end free of the top tube’s grip, reset the chain on crank, then loosened the rear wheel skewer. This allowed enough slack so I could release tension on chain and reset it on the small cog. I then tightened the skewer. I established that the derailleurs, brakes, and wheels worked properly. There was no wobble in the front wheel at all—I love hefty wheels! I then returned the handlebar bag to the bracket and rested the bike on its kickstand.


Petra post-crash

Time to look myself over. All my limbs were in working order, my head and face hadn’t hit the ground. My right forearm and palm took all the force as my extended arm put the brakes on in my skid. Here’s why I wear gloves:


Petra post-crash

Note the scraped handlebar tape caused by being forced under the top tube. By this time, the road rash began to hurt a little, and it stung when I rinsed the wound with clean water from one of my water bottles. I gave the bike another going-over in case I missed something in the confusion right after the crash. All seemed in working order, but I did hear a faint rubbing sound from the rear wheel when it was spun. I couldn’t see what caused the rubbing and assumed it was a bent fender stay. I was becoming a little addled by now and my mind was crowded with questions and concerns.

The big question became whether I should continue my ride. I’d only gone a couple miles from home and it was such a nice day that I didn’t want to miss out. I was worried that there might be something wrong with the bike which I failed to catch, and the steep descent just ahead wasn’t the place where I wanted to discover it, so I turned back the way I’d come in hopes of uncovering any problems. After two yo-yo passes of a half-mile each leg, I decided to return home. Though I’d rinsed the abrasion on my arm, infection wasn’t something I yearned for. The wound would need a careful cleaning, and the bike required a complete examination. Home I went.

The good news is that the bike is just fine. The Nitto Noodles are tough handlebars and suffered no injuries. The Shimano bar-end shifter is only marred by a slight scratch:


Petra post-crash

The underside of the top tube is scuffed but not dented:


Petra post-crash

And the rear rack has a few scrapes in the alloy:


Petra post-crash

It’s an inexpensive rack from Bob Yueh. Don’t let anyone tell you that cheap racks aren’t up to the job—this isn’t the only time that an inexpensive rear rack has come out of a crash without significant damage. The rubbing when I rotated the rear wheel turned out to be brake pads slightly rubbing on the sidewalls of the tires. Remember I had loosened the rear skewer to release tension on the frame-trapped chain. When I tightened the skewer again, I did so on the soft stone surface, not on pavement. The wheel axle wasn’t snugged up against the dropout properly. That was easily remedied by loosening the skewer and retightening after properly seating the axle.

Oh, me? Yeah, I’m OK. The road rash looked worse than it felt:


Tamia post-crash

I jarred the muscles of my upper arm and shoulder, as well. They began to tighten up inside a couple hours of the crash, but range-of-motion exercises[LINK] and ibuprofin are helping. All in all I’m fine. It could have been a heck of a lot worse.

Are there lessons to be learned from this? Aren’t there always? My decision to always wear a helmet was reinforced, even thought I didn’t knock my head. If I hadn’t been wearing cycling gloves I’d have lost a lot of skin on my palm, perhaps even enough to expose muscle. I make my living with my hands, and that would have been a serious set-back. A rearview mirror is essential equipment in my opinion, and though it didn’t prevent me crashing, it had been useful all along the ride to help me keep a continuous eye on what was coming up from behind. And I’d like to think that good cycling form kept me from breaking a bone or separating my shoulder, though in truth it was probably luck more than skill which helped prevent that. I kept hold of the handlebars and tried to steer out of the unplanned excursion through the sloping crushed stone. If I’d stuck out my arm to stop my fall, I’m sure I’d have done more damage to myself.

The wind contributed to my crash, but it was my own fault through inattention. Stop paying attention to the road and you can go down in a hurry, almost before you know what’s happening. My minor crash is a reminder that the human body is a vulnerable, soft sack that can withstand a tremendous knock and bounce back—if you strike it lucky. If not? You’re dead, or worse. So be careful out there. Road rash and sore muscles might not be too difficult to endure, but they’re a warning. However careful we are, we take risks every time we head out on our bikes, and courting hubris can have painful results—for you, and for those who care about you.


Tamia post-crash

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