Crashes

My blogging buddy Brittany asked me a question about crashing on a recumbent versus a standard bike. It got me to thinking.

When I crashed on Big Nellie, my recumbent, I was rolling and turning toward a slight downhill to my left. I hit a root heave, a bump perpendicular to my line of travel. The impact of wheel on root caused my fork to break. The handlebars just sort of disengaged and the wheel turned all the way around to the left. The bike and me crashed to the right side.

Crashing on a recumbent is usually much less painful than on a standard bike, primarily because you have a much shorter distance to fall. When people crash on a standard bike, their instinct is to stick their arm out to brace themselves. This often results in a broken collarbone.

On a recumbent you’re usually on the ground before you can react. Sometimes recumbent riders react by putting their foot down. This is a bad idea. The downside to such recumbent crashes is something called leg suck. If one of your feet comes off the pedal, and you’re moving fast, your foot will be drawn (or sucked) under the bike. This can result in a rather abrupt broken leg. I’ve had my foot slip of the pedal at speed. It hit the ground with such force that it was very hard to avoid leg suck. I had to lift my foot straight up until the bike slowed. It was scary.

Sometimes you can tell you’re about to crash. On a standard bike you want to take the impact on the outside of your upper arm and roll when you hit the ground. Bicycle racers practice this. Me, not so much.

On a recumbent, you want to ride the crash out. Just keep your feet on the pedals and your hands on the handlebars and, Just before contact with the ground, stick your butt cheek out to absorb the force of the crash. I’ve done this a few times and it works amazingly well. When the fork broke this summer, however, I was on the ground so fast I couldn’t react.

I have had a fork break once before. I had taken my trusty old 1978 Raleigh Grand Prix out for a ride in Arlington VA. This bike had survived innumerable crashes and road salt from six New England winters. I rode it down a hill to the Potomac River, then, a while later, rode back up the hill. At the top, something felt odd about the steering so I stopped. Then I heard a CLANG! My right fork blade just fell off onto the pavement! I am very fortunate this didn’t happen going down that hill.

An odd feeling is typical of steel tubing. It gets squishy before it fails. A friend was riding a tour on the Natchez Trace when his bike felt funny. He stopped and noticed that his top tube had broken, metal fatigue caused by a crash. Eek. Unlike steel, aluminum tubing just snaps without warning. It can ruin your whole day.

Frame and fork breaks are pretty rare, thankfully. A more common cause of a crash is low tire pressure. I was riding home from work one day and started to turn onto a bike trail. In an instant, I found myself on the ground and in a world of hurt. My front tire had gone flat and, as I turned, my rim made contact with the pavement and I went down. Hard. Flat back tires are not so traumatic. Usually your back wheel starts to fishtail. This happened to me on the Mount Vernon Trail while riding Big Nellie. The back end started to wobble so I just started to glide and went straight off the trail onto a grassy area. I didn’t even tip over. Just a nice controlled stop. We all should be so lucky when we crash.

Check your tires before you ride. Every time.

Strange Digression: Long ago I interned at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regional office in San Francisco. I took an articulated bus home to my place in Berkeley one night. I sat in the rear of the bus, beyond the center hinge. We were on the old Oakland-Bay Bridge when the back end of the bus started to swing violently from side to side. My mind flashed to Def Con One: EARTHQUAKE!

Seeing as how the bay was waaaay dooown theeere, the other passengers, who, unlike me, almost certainly knew what an earthquake felt like, freaked out and yelled at the driver to slow down. The next day at the office I mentioned this episode to the staff, one of whom was an expert on tires. He said that the cause of the swaying was probably underinflated rear tires.