Friday, March 26, 2010

Crashing in the Ozarks: "Ride safe, Aggie."

On Tuesday, I completed a 50-mile ride through the rolling countryside west of Springfield, Missouri. The landscape was classically pastoral: cattle grazing on hillsides, wandering streams surrounded by riparian swaths of trees, open fields of newly emergent green. Once I got beyond the Springfield city limits, I was passed by only two cars in 45 miles, and both of them gave me a wide berth as they went around me.

That Missourian kindness and courtesy became really crucial on Wednesday, when I went down hard on a descent in the Ozarks. 

I parked my car at the post office in Oldfield, a tiny little hamlet southeast of Springfield in the Ozark foothills. The terrain reminded me of Duncan's Mills in Sonoma County, without the redwoods and the Pacific air. Still, I was in a sort of heaven, spinning along in short sleeves, cruising down hills, and trying to power up ascents.

The bike felt good, too. The CCR 1 frame that Fuji sent me to ride until my new SL-1 warranty replacement arrives was solid, if unassuming. It dampned plenty of vibration and seemed to resist torsional flex better than my old Team Issue. The CCR series is Fuji's first entry into the "Plush" category, the sort of bike that Bicycling describes as "performance-comfort."

This ride marked my sixth time out on the loaner frame and the new cables that True Wheel installed when they transferred my old Dura-Ace 7800 gruppo from the old frame. Of course, I know that cables stretch. I know that after a few rides, the limit screws have to be adjusted. And, of course, I forgot about all that as I tucked in for a long descent.

When I hit the bottom of the valley, I started shifting the chain up the rear cassette, trying maintain a high cadence for the climb up the other side. But I realized I was getting cross-chained since I forgot to shift onto the little ring in front. I tried to correct it. I tried--but I threw the chain completely off the rear cassette and lodged it between the cassette body and the rear spokes. That's a rookie mistake, but the cables had stretched just enough to let the chain fall off the big cog in the back.

My rear wheel stopped spinning, and I went into a power skid at about 18 miles an hour.

I thought for a moment about my old teammate Shannon Still, remembering the horror of watching him go flying down the Sweetwater Springs descent during my first year of Aggie training camp. He had a rear tire blowout so severe that the tube exploded out the sidewall and wrapped around the break caliper, effectively stopping his rear wheel. The rim started shooting sparks into the air as it got ground down on the asphalt. He stayed upright, miraculously, and slid into a ditch on the side of the road. Justin Morgan, Brooke Roberts and I all talked long and hard about how close we'd come to disaster. Luckily, Shannon's wife was wine tasting nearby, so she was able to stop and pick him up.

About an hour later, someone who shall remain nameless led our paceline through a rockfall on HWY 116, and I blew MY rear tire apart on a sharp piece of granite. I flatted SEVEN times during the next 17 miles; the sidewall slit was so big that nothing--empty GU packs, tire patches, a dollar bill--could boot the tire, so new inner tubes kept blowing through the slit. Our group of ten guys literally ran out of spare tubes, so I sent them ahead to Bodega Bay on the coastal HWY 1 while I hoofed it on the shoulder. They had to ride 11 miles back to our camp HQ and get a car to come pick me up. After 15 minutes of walking with my bike on my shoulder, a young couple in an SUV picked me up and drove me back to the lodge. But I promptly forgot to call Shannon to tell him that I had made it back safely. He drove up and down HWY 1 for an hour, looking for me, while I sat in the dining hall and told the rest of the team about the day's disasters. Whoops.

As I contemplated the beginning of my emerging Ozark disaster, I thought about Shannon's Kysrium Elite rim getting ground down as he skidded down the hill. I thought to myself, "I hope my tire holds." I think I might have said, "Stay loose. You're going down."

And I did. I tried to lay the bike down and slide on my left ass cheek, the one I've torn up twice before by deliberately sliding out rather than hitting a wall of crashed riders during crit races. But I high-sided it and got thrown hard toward the grassy ditch on the right side of the road. I landed on the back of my right shoulder and rolled at least once, coming to rest on my back about 10 feet off the road. My legs were sticking straight up in the air, my feet still clipped in, holding the bike above my body.

I lay still for a moment and considered the brilliant blue of the spring sky. I felt the soft grass under my back. I noticed the barbed-wire fence stretched just above my head. I studied a dun cow chewing its cud as it decided how to respond to the lycra-clad idiot who had just cartwheeled into the ditch.

I let my extended legs slump to the right of my body and carefully unclipped my feet from the pedals. I stood up and rolled my shoulders a few times; nothing felt sprained or broken. I felt some road rash on my right calf.

Then I looked at the bike.

The rear derailleur was stuck between two spokes and the top of the right chainstay. When the derailleur got caught in the wheel, the stoutness of the the Mavic bladed spokes had severed the derailleur hanger and pulled the derailleur itself from beneath the chain stay, flung it all the way around the wheel's rotation, and lodged it atop of the right chainstay. I've never seen anything like it.

I lacked a chain tool in my seat bag, so I couldn't break the chain and shorten it enough to loop around the rings in the front and the cassette in the back without running it through the derailleur pulleys. I was basically stuck below an Ozark ridge line, about nine miles away from my car. I tried to call my wife, but my cell phone had no signal. No cars had come by in the 10 minutes I'd been fiddling around with my bike.


When a huge F-250 pickup finally came rumbling around the curve in the road, I almost didn't stick out my thumb. I mean, the truck just screamed "bike-hating redneck!" but I thought, "what the hell?" The truck slowed a bit but basically blew right by me, so I shouldered the bike and started to walk up the road. But about 2 minutes later, I heard the truck growling back down the hill toward me. The driver rolled down his window and asked, "Need a hand?"

"I left my car up at Oldfield. Can you drop me off?"

"Can do. Throw the bike in the back and hop in."

The driver's wife told me that she'd asked him to stop because, "You never know who mighta picked you up back in those woods."

I thanked them profusely.

She asked, "Ya'll sure ride around here a lot, huh? We always see bikers in the hills back there."

"Well, I'm from out of town, but I hear it's a popular route," I said.

"Bet you got some speed coming down this hill, huh?" the driver asked. "Where else were you going to ride?"

I described the loop I'd read about-- 50 hilly miles. The wife asked, "And you can do all that in one DAY?"

"Well, not now," I said.

"Wow. Wow!" said the wife. "That's a long way!" She introduced herself: "I'm Randi, and this here's Rob. Where you from?"

"I live in Omaha right now," I told her, "But I've been teaching in Davis, California for the last few years."

"Hear that, Robbie?" she squealed. "You did a short course at UC-Davis, didn't you?"

"Sure did," said Robbie.

"Robbie here's a vet. He took a course on embryonic something or other there at the University in Davis."

Robbie added, "I did my graduate work at Mizzou, but they sent us to UC-Davis for a quarter. Good riding THERE, huh?" he asked me. "Small world."

I didn't know what to say.  

As they dropped me off in Oldfield, Randi squealed goodbye.

Robbie simply said, "Ride safe, Aggie."

I put my broken bike in the roof rack and drove back to my in-laws' house in Springfield.

I resolved to never again assume anything about the drivers of massive pickup trucks.

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