You’re on your mountain bike, zipping down the trail. You’re railing all the curves and feeling awesome on the bike. Suddenly something unexpected happens. Something unforeseen. Something dangerous.
It could be a downed tree just around a blind curve. It may be an animal, poised and ready to attack you. Instead, it could be a mechanical failure that happens at the most inopportune moment. Whatever the danger, you have no time to think. You must simply react and hope for the best. It’s times like these when a cyclist must rely on their reflexes, their skill, and a little bit of divine intervention. Here’s what happens when a cyclist encounters a high-speed surprise.
Insects are often the cause of many high-speed surprises. Just ask any cyclist if they’ve ever had a bug fly into their mouth. I would be willing to bet that every single one would answer affirmatively. I know we’re supposed to breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, but in reality, we don’t always do this. Sometimes, it’s simply because we’re talking to another rider and as we draw a breath to speak, a gnat gets sucked right into the back of our throat. This is immediately followed by the humorous sounds of coughing and hacking in an attempt to clear it out. At all costs, we must handle this oral invasion without taking our hands off the handlebars.
I once had a rather large bug fly into my ear. It seemed like it was the size of a bumblebee. I had been turning my head to the side to say something to the cyclist behind me when…shhhhhlappp! A large insect struck my ear canal with so much force, that I just knew it was lodged in my ear. I was going about 20 mph in a pace line, so I couldn’t just stop. I shook my head and turned it the other way, out of the wind. I took one hand off the bars and tried to dig the bug out with my fingernail. I swallowed and tried to compress my ears internally. Nothing helped. I could feel it in there buzzing and burrowing. I just about screamed in revulsion. I asked the group to stop and had one of the girls look into my ear to see if she could see it. She said nothing was there. I went through the rest of the evening, certain that I had a bug in my head. The next morning, I felt normal. I don’t know if it crawled out at night while I slept. Or maybe my body’s defense mechanisms broke the insect down inside me. Maybe it never really went all the way in. Perhaps, the impact of the initial hit made me feel like it was still inside, when actually it just flew out of my ear while I was still slowing the bike down. I suppose I’ll never know unless one day I find a colony of newborn bees flying out of my ear.
A little scarier is when a dog attacks while you’re on a bike. Sometimes it will be a dog barreling down on you as you ride past his house on your road bike. These territorial creatures don’t understand that although you are passing within a few feet of their turf, you are not planning on crossing the property line. When a dog attacks a cyclist who is riding a road bike at high speeds, the best course of action is usually to speed up. It’s also a good idea to know what's behind you, because you may need to veer out into the road away from the dog. Although canines are very fast, they can’t maintain those speeds for a long time. In most cases, you will pull away and the dog will tire and give up with a “Ha, I thought so” bark. After all, in his mind, he just chased you away and defended his property.
A dog attack when you’re on a mountain bike is a little sketchier. Once I was passing by an old man with an unleashed dog in the Wenonah trail system. He saw me coming and said, “Oh, no! My dog doesn’t like bikes!” The little yapper came running toward me, barking ferociously. The owner tried to use his walking stick to hold the dog back as I went past carefully. As soon as I was past, the dog chased me. I accelerated and started to lose the animal, but then I came upon a steep section with stairs built into the trail. At the bottom of the stairs was a rooty approach to a narrow wooden walkway over a stream. It’s challenging enough to navigate this section when you have full concentration. I just didn’t think I could do it with a dog nipping at my heels, so I stopped the bike. The dog stopped about 6 feet away from me and ran back and forth, barking its head off. I kept my bike between the dog and myself and started down the stairs. The dog lunged to attack, so I turned the bike toward the dog and lunged at it myself, acting like I was going to run it over. It backed up, and then feigned a few more attacks as I continued down the stairs. The owner was calling his dog but was still out of sight around the bend, so he could do nothing to control his little menace. Ug, I hate when unbehaved dogs are unleashed out in public! The dog gave up. Good thing because the Bikinator eats little dogs for lunch!
High-speed surprises can also be mechanical in nature. A tire blow out at high speeds is never fun. Neither is a catastrophic failure of your carbon frame bicycle while you are going down a fast hill. My husband George had a very strange malfunction happen to him while he was riding his road bike on a group ride. He was pedaling through an intersection with the other riders when suddenly his cranks fell off his bike with his feet still clipped into the pedals. Imagine standing up to put some oomph into your pedaling when all of a sudden your floor (the pedals) drops out from under you. Your feet would immediately fall about 12 inches to the street beneath you. However before your feet landed on the ground, the top tube of your bike would stop your body’s 8-inch fall by coming to rest against your private parts. Meanwhile the speed at which you were traveling would cause your body lurch forward as your feet dragged on the ground. You’d find yourself nearly impaled on your stem, with the handlebars resting painfully against your chest. You’d likely topple over and fall to the street, hopelessly tangled up in your bike frame with your feet still clipped into your dangling crank arms. You can imagine George’s confusion when this happened to him. Although the incident was very unnerving, and not very comfortable for his nether regions, he still finds great satisfaction in telling the story about how his pedals fell off his bike while he was riding it, and he kept it upright!
As you can see, high-speed surprises are never fun. They can often be pretty scary and downright dangerous. No rider ever wishes for these situations to happen, but there is a benefit to high-speed surprises. Once you’ve survived the surprise, you get to tell the story to everyone you know. The stories of riders’ high-speed surprises are told with all the pomp and circumstance akin to when the grandchildren would gather around grandpa to hear once again how back in the olden days, he chased the wolves off farm to protect the sheep. The stories become engraved into the rider’s memory and each time they tell the tale, they get a little better at telling it. Maybe this is because the story gets a little more sensational each time, a few more descriptive words added, a little bit more suspense injected into the timeline… Either way, this is a time to tell the story of a moment when, against all odds, you relied on your superb riding skills to keep yourself upright as long as possible. Put some good friends together, add beer, and you will no doubt hear the most exciting stories of crashes galore. Oh the joys of high speed surprises! Feel free to post one of yours...