Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Most Spectactular Crash Ever

Inevitably, when you talk about bicycle racing with other riders, or even about just a lot of cycling in general, the question comes up, "What was your worst crash ever?" One can interpret this question in two ways. One is looking at which crash caused you to sustain the worst injuries (or did the most bike damage). The other is which crash was the most spectacular (but not necessarily damaging).

The latter are the ones I like. I mean I don't like crashes, but if I'm to crash, I'd rather crash spectacularly and walk away totally intact (bike and body) rather than topple over at a light and break something.

My most spectacular crash was in the era of non-helmets, steel frames, aluminum parts, friction downtube shifting, and no aero anything. Well "aero" was when you turned your cap backwards so the brim was behind you. In other words it was a primitive era. One February way back then I was taking advantage of a break in weather to ride about 25 miles to my girlfriend's house (I had no car).

The route took me over some moderate climbs - up to a mile long, with corresponding descents. I wore some wool blend tights, shorts, long sleeve jersey, base layer top, a long sleeve skinsuit as a base-base layer, summer gloves, and what I call a "kevlar helmet" - a yellow Campy cycling cap.

Turned backwards of course.

The air felt crisp, the skies were clear, and although a lot of sand lay on the road, overall the conditions appeared fine. The temperature was a bit low - in the low to mid 30's - and if I was doing the same ride now, I'd have winter gloves, jacket, heavy tights, neck stuff, head stuff, booties... how times change.

I loved the descents. I did then and I do now. Back then I approached them in an extreme aero tuck. My tuck, "learned" by looking at pictures of pros, was not proper - I thought leaning forward as far as possible was a good thing. A different day, on the exact same road, I leaned so far forward I burnt the underside of my chin on the front tire. Now I'm a little more conservative in my tucks but I don't go nearly as fast.

I was headed down a traffic-light-bisected descent. Said light shone red but it turned green as I approached it. The lone car at the light pulled away and I thought "Perfect motorpace opportunity!" I untucked and did a sprint to get onto the car's bumper.

I was already going about 40-45 mph when I did my massive acceleration. I got on the bumper of the car and pedaled furiously in my top gear. The driver of the car, wearing one of those double peak "old guy" hats, looked up at the rear view mirror, did a double take, and floored it. I couldn't go much more than another 50 yards before I topped out. We had just gone into a section of road shaded by the hill to the side and the air felt noticeably colder.

So as not to block any traffic as I came off the bumper, I decided I'd pull off. I did so in the "cool" way (at least in my head) which consisted of a "leadout man pulling off" type of move. I made an aggressive move to the right. As I did I ran over a patch of sand.

Dark sand.

Icy sand.

My front wheel immediately washed out and I landed on the road. Considering the speed the impact seemed light and short so I lay back to gather my thoughts.

Those thoughts started flying by pretty quickly when I realized the tree tops were still moving past me at a rapid pace. A little confused, I turned my head to figure out exactly what was happening.

It was at that point when I stopped sliding and started tumbling.

It was a spectacular tumble, no doubt about that. I felt like a rag doll in a front load dryer. Tumbling, tumbling, tumbling. I saw a flash of red (was that my bike?), the ground, sky, sand, stuff. I actually tumbled in such a way that I ended up on my feet (I'd like to think it was my 10 months of suffering through Judo but who knows), but the ground was whirling around pretty hard and I fell backwards onto a snowbank. That was distinctly uncomfortable so I sprang up and promptly fell forward onto the road. I got up to my hands and knees and decided I should stay put until my head stopped spinning.

After an eternity but probably 10 or 15 seconds, a guy ran over to me. He had been behind me driving a red Toyota MR2. I know this because I thought they were the coolest cars around. Anyway, he was yelling and screaming in excitement. "Wow that was incredible! Are you okay? I thought you were going to die! That was incredible! Wow! Here's your bike! It was in the middle of the road! Oh my God that was incredible!" And so on and so forth. Then he said "I'd offer you a ride but I don't have any room. Bye!"

And he was gone.

I did damage assessment. First me. Nothing hurt. Later I'd find very light road rash but I was essentially untouched. My tights ripped, also my skinsuit (underneath everything). That was a bummer as it was a 7-11 team skinsuit. Long sleeve jersey (my only one) ripped. Gloves shredded but hands okay. No head impact (how I don't know). My shoes must have been okay since I don't remember anything about them.

Next the bike. I figured my head was a bit addled so I took extra care to check things. Quick releases. Spin the wheels. Shift the precious rear derailleur (things weren't so primitive that I didn't have a titanium equipped rear derailleur). Check the spokes. Check the bars, stem, brake levers (the levers were crooked, I moved them back). Seat, seat post, pedals, cranks. Incredibly nothing was damaged, nothing was bent.

I looked around. The road, a state road, was totally deserted. I looked at the side of the road and saw not only the snow banks on the side but runoff that had frozen on the road due to the lack of sun.

I was closer to my dorm room by a long shot so I decided to ride back and call my girlfriend and cancel our "date" (this before the cellphone era). I started riding up the shoulder (still on the same side, so now I was riding the wrong way), slowly, at low rpms, thinking about how my body felt, when I came up to a round spot of ice covered by a thin film of sand. A large V disrupted the sand, the open part pointing down hill. This is exactly the pattern a sliding tire would create as it heeled over to the ground.

My tire.

I looked back at the snowbank where I made my wingless angel impression and realized I'd traveled quite some distance. In my quest to document all my training ride details, I decided to ride back and measure the distance. The only thing I had was the shiny bright GP4 sticker on my rim so I counted revolutions. I have to check my diary but it was something like 23 revolutions.

I multiplied it by the diameter (figure 27 inches), divided by 12, and got about 52 feet. It seemed a lot longer but I didn't want to be imprecise so I kept double checking my somewhat questionable "in my head" math. I rode back and measured the distance a second time and then realized I was getting cold. I crossed the road and set on up the hill, this time on the correct side, and mentally prepared for the trudge home.

Suddenly a red UHaul with flashing lights pulled up next to me, sliding to a stop. A guy yelled out the window.

"Are you the biker who got hit by a car?"

Well now. My brain wasn't that addled. I put a foot down and replied that although I just fell and I was near a car when I fell, technically no car hit me.

"Don't move!"

Two guys jumped out of the truck and ran over to me. I realized that it wasn't a UHaul, it was some sort of fire department EMT truck which happened to be all red with no white anything on it. They left their doors open, the truck idling and straddling the double yellow line, and made me sit down on the ground. One guy started explaining - apparently they got a call that some cyclist got absolutely demolished by a car and the bicyclist was probably dead. So seeing this apparition riding up the hill was quite a surprise to them.

That's when all the other vehicles showed up.

A state police cruiser. Another state police cruiser. At least five or six volunteer EMT vehicles (civilian cars with a flashing blue light on the dash). A real ambulance. Another real ambulance. A fire truck. Honest to God, they sent a 500 gallon pumper. I have no idea why. They totally blocked the road. And traffic backed up.

At some point they asked me to sit on the red EMT truck bumper. It was metal. I had ripped tights on. It was cold.

They didn't check me very much. They asked me some basic questions (what day is it, where am I, what's my name). Head injury questions. They must have figured that if I had gotten run over by a car and claimed to be fine, I must have had one hum-dinger of a concussion.

Eventually they decided that wasn't the case. It might have been when I asked if it was necessary to have so many responders to a guy who fell off his bike. The friendly EMT said that the state police cruisers were actually coming to this spot because of the ice on the road. They were going to sit on either end of the stretch with their lights flashing until a sand/salt truck could make its way here and bury the ice in that New England solution for all slippery pavement problems. The volunteers - they're required to respond. He said the second ambulance was a mistake (the first one got there pretty quickly). And he also had no idea about the fire truck. To his credit he seemed a little embarrassed at the slight over-reaction to the call, but whoever made the 911 call probably exaggerated a bit and made it sound a lot worse than it was.

It was getting dark and I was 10 miles away from home. I asked for a ride and the EMT said that, unfortunately, we can't give rides. Luckily he knew that the public phone at the gas station (he pointed) "up there" worked.

So I had to ride to the gas station up the hill and call a dorm mate (collect, no less) who had a car. He came, picked me up, and drove me back to the nice warm dorm.

Of course my return to the dorm was a big deal. It was a little more curious to retrieve a crashed bike racer than say a fight or the RA getting mad at someone. So of course I had to tell and retell the story.

It was at that point that one of the guys pointed out that I didn't calculate the distance right. These frickin' college students, too smart for their own good. I was pretty defensive but he was right. I simply calculated the sum of the diameters (23 revolutions x diameter). To calculate circumference of the wheel times the revolutions, I would have to multiply my original "solution" by Pi. 3.14. In other words, it wasn't 52 feet. It was more like 160 feet.

That's when I bumped up the crash to number one slot on the "my most spectacular crash ever".

And it's stayed there ever since.


Anonymous said...

That is an AMAZING story!!! You were lucky to not have damaged yourself OR your bike. Makes my crash last Saturday insignificant by comparison - though I had more damage to body and bike, it was more like the "falling over at the stop light" kind of crash than anything spectacular. Great post Aki! (and the links to pics were funny too)

Anonymous said...

Wow, Aki, that beats all of my crash stories. Once, riding in Berkeley years ago, I came upon a teammate standing by the side of the road. It was a steep, winding mountain road heading down the East Bay hills to Orinda. He was looking up at a tree, where his bike was hanging in the branches. Somehow, when he crashed, his bike went flying off the road and landed in the tree on the downhill slope. Too bad I didn't see it happen.

Aki said...

To make it clear for anyone reading, I think helmets (not the kevlar type) are great. I have about half a dozen cracked helmets to demonstrate my belief in helmets.

Anyway, I wish I could have seen the crash. I tell people that if churches wanted to raise money, they should sell clips of people's lives to them (courtesy God). I'd pay a lot (not sure how much but a lot) to be able to have a clip of that crash.

The kicker is that it was about 5 years into my racing life. Virtually all my crashes happened in the first 10 years of racing. The last 15 have been boring in comparison.

Johnnysmooth said...

Boring is Okay - really it is!

Great story, actually, liked pretty much everything I've read so far on your Blog and congrats on going thru with the Bethel Race.

Your compatriot in Beantown.