How Not to Get Off a Bike

Late Thursday afternoon, I went out for a short ride through the Berkeley and Oakland hills; just a way to wake up my body for a planned 600-kilometer (387.5-mile) ride this weekend. I also wanted to see how my “new” bike — a beautifully painted old Bridgestone RB-1 frame I just had built up with parts from my old RB-1 — handled on a course I know pretty well. The route took me south along Skyline Boulevard past the place where I had a pretty bad crash in January 1991. Whenever I ride past the spot, I remember the fall and the aftermath. It all came back Thursday, too: How quickly I hit the road, the ambulance ride to the hospital, the gruesome picture I took of my face when I got back home.

I turned around, rode back up the hill I had just come down, and headed back toward Berkeley. The road is rolling, with a few short, curving descents and a couple of short climbs. The downhill sections are a little tricky, with some bad pavement. I rounded one right-hand turn, skirted some badly patched asphalt and picked up speed as I headed for a left-hand turn. I was probably going 20 to 25 mph. Just before I got to the curve, I hit a hole in the road and fell hard on my left side. I struck the pavement with enough force that my glasses flew off, lost their lenses, and went skidding down the road. I thought I heard my helmet hit the ground, too, but it didn’t show any signs of damage.

I’m OK. I came out of the crash with road rash on my left knee, hip, hand, elbow and shoulder and a pulled muscle (I think) in my upper back or left shoulder. Oddly, my right elbow also got a pretty good scrape, too, and I had a tennis-ball-sized knot on the inside of my right leg just above the ankle. I wound up going down to Kaiser Hospital in Oakland in an ambulance and spending about four hours there, mostly waiting and watching what was happening with people who were a lot worse off than me. About half an hour after I was rolled into the emergency room, a “Code 3” ambulance (one transporting an urgent case, operating with lights and siren) arrived with a woman in the midst of some sort of seizure; she died about 20 minutes later, about 30 feet from where I was lying. Eventually, a couple of nurses had enough of a breather from the more dire cases that they could spend some time scrubbing out and dressing my abrasions so Kate and I could leave.

What’s shakes me is how quickly and decisively something like this can happen. One second: spinning along, nurturing a picture of middle-aged bike rider as road ace. Next second: lying in the road, groaning, feeling a mixture of shock, fear, pain, and foolishness and wondering, What did I hit? Is there a car behind me? Am I going to get run over? How badly am I hurt? Is the bike trashed? What are my glasses doing over there?

After maybe half a minute or so, I untangled myself from the bike and stood up. A driver coming the other way stopped and asked whether I was OK. I think I told him, or her, that I’d see whether I was or wasn’t. That car moved on. Another came down the hill, the same direction I had been riding. The woman driving, Sylvia, stopped and got out and got me to sit down. I reaized my neck hurt. A cyclist named Dave came down the hill and hit the same hole I did and nearly fell. He cursed and then stopped to help, observing that it was the second time he’d hit that spot and that it was all but invisible because it was in a shady spot. Another rider, Doug, stopped as he rolled up the hill. The three of them convinced me it was a good idea to call 911; Dave made the call, then gave me his phone to try to call Kate; Doug, who lives nearby, agreed to hang onto my bike since I couldn’t take it to the hospital.

After another 20 or 30 minutes, the Oakland Fire Department and paramedics and police showed up. I was put in a neck brace and strapped to a backboard. I warned the paramedics, Elise and Dawn, that I weighed 215 pounds; they hefted me onto their gurney and told me I was the lightest person they’d had to lift all day. Then they drove me down the hill to the hospital. Eventually, I got hold of Kate, and she waited with me until I got cleaned up. When we left, several doctors and nurses, including the young guy who had attempted CPR on the woman who had died, told me to get well and made a point of telling me I needed to get a new bike helmet since I had probably damaged the one I had been wearing.

Friday afternoon, Kate and I went up to Doug’s house to pick up my bike. I was surprised to find that there doesn’t appear to be even a nick in the beautiful paint job (the handlebars are trashed, though). We loaded up the bike and then drove to where I fell. Doug had gone out and spraypainted the rim of the hole, which surrounds a manhole cover. Even though it was about an hour and 45 minutes before the time of day when I hit the spot, the shade was already crossing the road, and, even with the warning paint, I could see how close to invisible the hole was. A foot or so to the right or left, and I would have ridden home without incident (or run into some other obstacle). And I’d be out riding today instead of explaining why I’m not.


Requiem for a Road Bike

Fifteen years ago, after having done a few long rides, including the Davis Double Century, I bought a bike I had developed a lust for (a lust, but only the chaste cycling kind). It was a Bridgestone RB-1, and was well-known for being a relatively light and sporty lugged steel road bike with a nice mix of components for a relatively modest price. I bought it at The Missing Link, a co-op shop in downtown Berkeley with a vague counterculture reputation, for about eight hundred dollars. I picked it up the week before the Grizzly Peak Century, a hilly 100-mile ride, and wondered during and after whether I had made a mistake. The bike worked fine, but it was geared sort of aggressively for a non-hill climber like myself. Back then, it wouldn’t have soon occurred to me to change the components to make it easier to ride, and I just got used to riding hills with what for me was an uncomfortably large smallest gear — 42×23 in cycling jargon (meaning my smaller front chainring had 42 teeth and my biggest rear cog had 23 teeth; in practical terms, that meant the rear wheel would turn about 1.85 times for every revolution of the cranks; that’s a big gear for a mere mortal struggling up a steep hill).


Since I bought the bike, I’ve had years where I rode a lot and many more when I did not. Sometimes the RB-1 would sit so long between rides that I had to dust it off before I took it out. But in 2003, when I decided to try to do Paris-Brest-Paris, the quadrennial 750-mile, 4-day ride in France, I decided I’d do it on the RB-1 rather than spring for a fancier and more expensive bike. By then, the bike had been out of production for nearly a decade, and it had sort of a cachet to it. I decided to strip off the original parts, have the bike repainted (by Ed Litton, a framebuilder up in Point Richmond), put new components on (including a triple crank with some low gears for when I started to fade) and ride it as new during the qualifying brevets leading up to PBP as well as during the main event. Ed’s paint job was simple but elegant — a dark green with a single ivory panel that displayed the Bridgestone decal. The bike’s spare, classic appearance and relative rarity — first that it was an RB-1, second that it was a lugged steel frame at a time they’re disappearing from the road in favor of titanium, carbon fiber and aluminum frames — drew some comment. Eventually, I, or maybe it was Kate, even gave it a name: Tir na nOg, Irish for “Land of the Young” (see the movie “Into the West” — the reference is explained there), which is where you get to on long, long bike rides.

PBP ’03 was a great experience, but then with one thing and another, I rode less in 2004 and 2005 before ramping up again this year in anticipation of PBP ’07. A couple months ago, though, I started to have some problems with Tir na nOg — the front derailleur seemed to not want to stay in adjustment. I fiddled with it myself, and so did more than one of the folks at The Missing Link. On April 1, I did a 300-kilometer brevet from Santa Cruz, through the mountains near town, and down to the Pinnacles and back. At the end of the ride, the shifting problem was bad. I put the bike aside afterward and have done some long rides since on my son Thom’s bike — a more modern steel Bianchi. I finally decided to take the RB-1 in to get looked at, again, yesterday. When I described what was going on, and how the crank seemed to be warped, Chuck, the mechanic, took a look at the frame near the bottom bracket.

“Here’s your problem,” he said. “You’ve got a cracked frame.” He pointed to a 1-inch fissure in the down tube — the diagonal one from the bottom bracket to the head tube. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before, but then neither had anyone in the shop. Chuck said he’d strip the frame so I could bring it to a framebuilder for repair. I went back today, and he said, “I want to show you something.” Taking the components off the bike, he had discovered the crack ran a couple inches farther than we’d seen yesterday: Through the bottom-bracket lug where it receives the seat tube. The crack was so big I could see daylight through it. “I think it might be game over for this frame,” Chuck said — though he suggested I show it to a framebuilder in Oakland just to see whether there was any chance at fixing it. In any case, that’s the end of the long rides for this bike. As it happens, I have another freshly painted RB-1 frame I bought at the end of 2003 that’s just been sitting here in our house. I’ve been hesitant to spend the money to get it built up with all new components; now I’m going to have Chuck put it together with the gear from the old bike. If ti all works out, that will be my ride for next month’s Cascade 1,200 — a 750-miile, four-day ride in Washington state.

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