Sunday, January 12, 2014


In my 7 years of bicycling roads, I have been lucky to avoid crashing.  I will not count a few times falling over trying to stop or dismount and getting my foot tangled.  These are merely "falls" (and none causing notable injury) rather than an actual crash.

My luck ran out 28 September 2013, when I toppled while descending a mountain road.  Fortunately, my injuries did not include anything serious or lasting.

The ride started normally.  I met my friends Atri, Krishna, Prashant, and Shiva early near home and started off on a challenging route.  One of the climbs was the infamous Bohlman - On Orbit.  At the top of that climb, there is a one mile dirt trail that connects to Montevina Road on the other side of the mountain.

We all started descending together, but got spread out, with Atri and me at the back.  At some point I thought I heard an unusual hissing/scraping noise.  The descent was steep and fast, so there is usually a lot of wind noise.  And since the brakes are engaged to keep the speed in check, those add noise too.  Still, the noise I heard was bothersome so I stopped and checked to see if my brakes were fine, which they were.

I continued on and started hearing the noise again.  I could not figure out what it was.  Soon I felt the handling of the bicycle was not normal, so I started slowing down.  I decided I should stop again.  As I was slowing, the road turned sharply to the left.  As I leaned into the turn, I felt the bicycle start to slip from under me.  It happened fast, but it seemed like slow-motion to me.  I tipped over to the left, slammed to the pavement on my left side, and slid to a stop in the middle of the road.

I laid there staring at the sky, dazed.  Fortunately, Atri was behind me.  He stopped and helped me get up.  He picked up my bicycle and got it and me off to the side of the road.  I was still dazed, and it took a while for the situation to register.  I had a pain in my left hip, and scrapes in multiple places.  Atri happened to have three bandaids in his bag, so he put them on my three deepest scrapes – two on the side of my knee and one on my elbow.

Fortunately my helmet kept the side of my head from hitting the road.  There was a deep gash in my left glove.  I must have place my hand down to absorb some of the impact.  But no skin was broken on my hand underneath, so the glove took all the damage.  I was mostly worried about my hip.  I forced myself to walk around to evaluate it.  It was hurting, but no sharp pains.  It seemed clear that I did not break anything in my hip.

We examined my bicycle and saw that my front tire was flat.  That explained it.  The noise I was hearing was the tire deflating.  Once enough air was lost, it had no traction on the left turn, hence I went down.  Atri nicely had me sit while he replaced the tube.  We both checked the tire to see if we could find anything still embedded in it that caused a puncture.  We could not, so we pumped up the new tube and continued the descent.

Futher down, we encountered Krishna coming back up the check on us.  We explained what happened and continued.  I did not have to pedal on the descent.  Once we reached the flat section at the bottom, I found that I was able to pedal without pain.  We met the other guys who were waiting.  We explained to everyone what happened.

I decided that I would abort the ride and head back home.  I told the other guys that I would be fine by myself, so they should just continue their ride.  They seemed a little reluctant at first, but I insisted.  So we parted and I headed towards the unpaved Los Gatos Creek Trail.  By coincidence, this was the first time I can remember that I forgot to bring my cell phone with me on my ride.  I was planning to ride to Los Gatos and have Vaishali pick me up, but I had no way to contact her.  So my plan instead became to ride the remaining 9 miles home (slowly).  The route would be mostly flat so it would not be a problem.

However, after a quarter mile, I could tell my front tire was becoming soft again.  I stopped and confirmed it.  I had another spare tube, but there would be no point replacing it.  Clearly there was something sharp embedded in the tire.  My only reasonable plan would be to walk my bike to Los Gatos and borrow someone's phone to call Vaishali for a pick up.

The walk on the trail was three miles, and I pushed my bicycle.  I could walk fine, so it was no real problem.  One cyclist coming opposite on the trail stopped and asked if I was alright, seeing that I was a bit bloodied.  I explained the situation and said I did not need any help from him.

I continued walking and got off the trail in downtown Los Gatos.  I knew that a lot of other cyclists congregate here so it would be a good place to find a friendly fellow cyclist to borrow a phone from.  Just half a block from the trail entrance was a popular coffee shop with a couple groups of cyclists outside.  I parked my bicycle at a rack and asked the nearest cyclist if I could quickly borrow their phone to call for a ride.  He did so without hesitation.  Fortunately I was able to get Vaishali on the first call.  I explained that I had a crash, but was not hurt seriously.  I told her that the bicycle was now unrideable so I needed her to pick me up.  She said she would ask my parents to watch the kids while she came. I told her which coffee shop I was at and that I would just wait there for her.

I had to wait about 30 minutes for Vaishali to arrive.  I alternated between sitting and walking around.  I chatted with the cyclist whose phone I borrowed and a couple of his friends.  After explaining what happened, he remarked that I looked to be in pretty good shape for someone who crashed on a descent.  I agreed.  Basically my elbow and knee were scraped and bloodied, but the three band-aids I had on hid the deeper scrapes.  The bruises were starting to become noticeable, as my hip knee, elbow and shoulder were all developing stiffness and pain.

Vaishali arrived and I loaded the bicycle in the car, and we returned home.  Both my parents were at home too, and they helped dressing my wounds.  The first thing I did was take a shower and wash all my wounds well with soap.  After I had taken my outfit off, everyone could see the size of the abrasions on my shoulder and hip, and they were bigger than they expected.  Now my mother's experience as a retired nurse would come in handy.  She brought some larger bandages that she had at her house, plus some more from the drugstore.  She put anti-bacterial ointment on the wounds before covering them with bandages.

I felt beaten up for a couple days.  The soreness of the scrapes was expected, but the main effect was the deep bruise on my left hip.  I could not lay on my left side for three weeks.  My scrapes were all mostly healed in a week.  I had no problems going to work, since I can spend my time mostly sitting in the office.  And all my bandaged wounds were concealed by my usual office attire.  Most of my co-workers did not suspect that I was injured.

Surprisingly, my clothes did not look too bad considering that I slid on the hard pavement.  It was a warm day, so I was wearing only a cycling shirt (thin, form-fitting polyester) and biker shorts (lycra).  There is a quarter-size hole in the shorts, and the area around it looks thin, but the shorts are still usable.   More surprisingly, there was not much sign of wear on the shirt.  The skin of my shoulder underneath the shirt got scraped, but the sturdiness and smoothness of the fabric meant it slid on the road mostly without catching or tearing. There was minimal scratching on the left torso side.

Looking back on what caused the flat tire, I guessed that the puncture must have happened riding the dirt trail before staring the descent.  Although my front tire looked like it was in decent shape, I checked my logs and found that the tire was 5 years old and had 8000 miles on it.  That is an OLD tire.  It is likely that the rubber tread had gotten so thin that there was very little protection to offer the inner tube.

Usually rear tires wear faster than front tires, since the rear is the drive tire.  So rear tires get replaced more often.  But this was a reminder that a bicycle must always have a good front tire since that affects overall stability more.  I put a brand new tire on the front wheel.

Atri said he noticed that I had slowed down considerably before the crash.  I subsequently tried to estimate what speed I had been going the next time I rode downhill.  I got down to the speed I felt I was at when I crashed and saw that it was 15 miles per hour.  On a steep road like Montevina, I usually descend at 20 to 25 miles per hour (more if the road is straight and smooth, less if it is rough or winding).  Though it may not seem like a big difference, a crash at 15 mph is much less catastrophic than at 20 mph.  Above 25 mph, it seems unlikely to escape without broken bones.

It did not take me long to get back on the bicycle.  After a few days, I started commuting to work by bicycle again.  But longer rides were more difficult.  And surprisingly, the issues were more mental than physical.  Having an unexpected crash injected a paranoia into my mind that is taking a long time to dissipate.  Riding on flat ground and going uphill are no problem.  Riding downhill was initially terrifying, and is still (more than 3 months later) still unnerving.

I was never a carefree descender.  I usually kept a slower speed that others when going downhill.  But now I find it uncomfortable to go past 20 mph, and there are many roads where I normally would easily be comfortable doing 30 mph.  The biggest difficulty is that I am now overly sensitive to noises and shaking coming from my bicycle.  And these are irrational fears, because I have been riding the same bicycles for years, and they are no louder or shakier than before.  On my first ride after the crash that included a downhill section, I got completely spooked when a lawn sprinkler went off as I passed.  The hissing noise it made was too similar to the hissing/scraping noise I heard just before the crash.  But I know that it is just a matter of time before I am fully comfortable on the hills I know so well.

I normally take good care of my bicycles and keep everything in good working order.  But now I will be monitoring the state of my front tire in a more formal way.  I will probably keep track of the mileage on it an replace it more often.

1 comment:

Ravi said...

Glad you are ok. You are so totally right - always keep the front wheel safe - like life depends on it :) One thing i have done in the past is when the rear tire needs replacement - switch the front to the back and put the new one in the front. Yes it takes a while to get over the memories of the crash - may be u can do some cornering drills in a flat parking lot.