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Riding the Dragon in a fearsome descent
Victim of a bike wobble

 

by Christopher Cudworth

 

Heading into the Labor Day weekend and an anticipated participation in The Wright Stuff, a hilly 100, 64 or 30 mile ride in southwestern Wisconsin, it was the climbing that was a primary worry. The hills in SW Wisconsin are humbling to say the least.

But as strange and mythic luck would have it, it was a descent at 40mph that turned out to be like riding a dragon into hell itself. 

I was really feeling good that Sunday morning. The climbs were actually going great. I hadn't even gotten out of the saddle on the steepest climb before the first rest stop at Taliesin, the legacy home of Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom the ride is named.

Coming off the peak there was a stiff left turn and the road slowly curved north toward the American Player's Theater, the Shakespeare performance venue where my wife and I had joined friends just 4 weeks before at a production of The Twelfth Night. We've been to Spring Green together many times, and I had ridden up and down the hill passing in front of the theater many times.

As the descent gained speed, however, the road surface changed ever so slightly.

Within 2 seconds of hitting this surface change the bike began to wobble below me, changing shape before my very eyes. The road below look miles away, as if I were riding the back of one of those scaly medieval dragons far above the countryside, through clouds and over alpine lakes, when all that was truly below me were tarsnakes and patches of bleached white concrete. In fact all reality seemed to be coming apart. The laws of physics were melting down and being bent by some unseen, magical, evil metaphysical force.

In other words, I was about to crash. 

Thinking there were mechanical problems with the front wheel, I touched the brakes to slow down. But it turns out that is actually the last thing you actually want to do when your bike goes into what cyclists and motorcyclists call "the death wobble."  Now the reverberating bike was careening down an asphalt road 35-40 mph with me on board. The red frame shook and trembled. I did not know at the time that I was flying through a space in time where the laws of reaction are actually all counterintuitive: Do the opposite of what you think you should do, and you might survive. But all that was to be learned later.

This was all entirely new to me. The previous day my riding friends and I had topped 45mph in a "noodle" ride around Governor Dodge State Park so it wasn't like we were hitting some new, uncontrollable pace.

But the red dragon wobble felt like being pinned to the back of some mythic creature. And as we continued down the hill together, the violence of the flight pattern only increased in breadth and violence. I tried screaming to my companion who was racing down the hill ahead with another rider we'd joined on the ascent. But no one could hear me. Perhaps my voice was trapped in another dimension. I was in Narnia. Or Middle Earth. Crashing to the ground. 

No one heard me yell, anyway, and things were happening too fast to control. The bike kept wobbling and shivering as if it were not made of earthly material of any kind.

My options were reduced to ugly simplicity. Crash on the road or get to the grassy ditch. Somehow.

When my tires hit the grass, an entirely new set of challenges took over. From that point on, not everything is clear in in my head. The actual crash happened so fast it felt like time was compressed. Looking back at the evidence once I'd crawled back up to the road, it was clear from the divot where my shoulder hit--pushing a dirt divot a foot high in the air--that I struck ground hard and then slid to a stop down the embankment, 15 feet off the road, tucked into a crease of deep grass. I lay there for a few moments, stunned, staring up at the beautiful September sky and realizing, "This is not good." There was no loss of consciousness, just a starkly realized awareness that I'd done the right thing, but things still hurt.

So I moved a little, and instantly felt and heard a crunching sound where the left clavicle should be. Yep, busted. It was hard to move at all, at first. Then I heard the wheels of my other companion whiz by.  He'd taken it easier up the last big descent but then rolled past faster than I could call out.

No other cyclists came by for a couple minutes. Our group of four had started the ride way late because our 4th companion, a woman triathlete from Tulsa, had tires go flat in the first 4 miles. Nearly everyone in the ride was ahead of us before we started. Still more passed by our group as we worked on her flat(s). We did pass riders along the way. So there a few behind us, I knew. 

But given our position toward the end of the ride, I knew my chances to be noticed were running out quickly.

Heaving up onto my right side, I pushed up the hill and sat there, assuming the pose that every cyclist with a busted collarbone tends to take whether they are local bush league (me) or Europro (in my dreams). Hunched and holding the arm in place, just trying not to move, hoping someone would come by sooner or later.

Finally, after a period of probably 5 minutes, 3 cyclists came rolling down the hill. We'd passed them 2 descents earlier on a series of short climbs... that felt good at the time to ride. It is amazing when you have put in a summer's worth of work to climb and have the legs actually give back. That is what I wanted to experience, and did. Though I've been riding for 8 years and 20,000 miles, and have raced numerous criteriums, I'd never just done a "ride" for the feel and joy of it. My friends had done The Wright Stuff for a number of years. But for me, some serious aspects of life had intervened all those years. They still exist now, but my wife had done a mini-vacation with her sister and mother a few weeks before, and she said, "It's your turn. Go on, have some fun."

Laying in a ditch with a busted collarbone is not most people's idea of fun, obviously. But I was grateful as heck when those three riders stopped to assist me that I was conscious, not bleeding except for a small slit above my eye, and able to talk.

A gal named Libby crept around in front of me and asked, "Was it a bike wobble?"

"Wow," I thought to myself. "That's exactly what happened." But I had never heard the term before. 

I tipped my head up and weakly replied, "Yes."

She explained that she'd just attended a seminar on the subject. She told me all about bike harmonics and that not even the experts can tell exactly when a bike wobble will happen. While it was a relief to hear her words and understand the 'dragon' I'd just ridden through, it was still the most terrifying few moments of my life. I never wanted to encounter the dragon of bike wobble again. It is just too unreal. 

At that moment, I wanted to quit cycling forever if bike wobble could just arrive, randomly, at any moment. That is the very definition of fear and terror if you ask me.

Had I known about bike wobble it might have been possible to clamp my knees tightly on the top bar, as Libby advised then––and as I've since confirmed on the Internet and hundreds of articles on the topic. Then I could have gotten my carbon-fiber Felt 4c (The Red Rocket, it was called in a 2006 cycling magazine Bike of the Year review) under control.

Again, I'm no pro rider. I compete in CAT 5 and Master's 50+ races, basically bottom of the barrel in competitive cycling. My solo training rides average from 17-19 mph, and group rides are from 20-22mph average. My top crit average was 26.8 mph in a 40 minute+2 laps criterium. But nothing in any of that experience prepared me to handle bike wobble at 40mph on a hill in Wisconsin.

When the paramedics arrived it was all the standard procedure stuff. But they were rookies it seemed, who did not even know whether to put my neck in a brace. My blood pressure checked out and I wasn't going into shock. The riders who stopped (God Bless the Good Samaritans) to help the bloodied, beaten rider out of the ditch said goodbye and good luck.

Then they closed the ambulance door and I realized, this is the first time I've ridden in an ambulance for my own injuries.

The little Upland Hills hospital in Dodgeville confirmed the worst news with an x-ray. There wasn't much they could really do but give me a sling and send me on my way to go to a doctor back home.

But I did not see the actual picture x-ray image until visiting the Emergency room at Central DuPage Hospital, where my friend the triathlete is a lead doctor. It was not a pretty sight, that fractured collarbone. Surgery is pending.

My companions had worried and wondered where I'd gone, of course. But having trained for more than 40 years since high school with the two of them, they figured I might have either gotten lost (though I told them I knew the roads well) or done some other Cudlike thing. I'm not always the most predictable character in good times or bad. Or so they intimated.

They inquired to the race officials and communications had not gotten through from the EMTs to the meat wagons driving the course in search of crashed up people like me. 100 miles of road is hard to cover even on a bright September day. I'm grate I did not cover any of that road with my skin or limbs, frankly. Grateful to have reached the weeds and missed the hidden wire cable by inches, apparently. Grateful there is no brain or spinal injury. Hardly any road rash even. Grateful that I am alive and able to write these words 2 days after a terrifying tarsnake of 75 yards of bike wobble at 35mph.

Just grateful. It will be a little while before I ride again. But I'll keep writing. Riding and running and writing are one and the same to me. I'll start by walking. Then running. Then get back on the bike when healed. It's what I've always done through injury and circumstance.

Gratefully.

If you're interested in more information on Bike Wobble and how to control it, either Google the subject or try this page as a starting point. http://www.roadbikerider.com/advanced-skills/speed-wobble