Falling Gracefully

Am I the only guy who can remember every fall they have had on a bicycle?  I’ve never been injured to any degree so it’s not the doctor bills or hospital stays that bring my falls into such sharp focus, but I do have a vivid memory of each and every one.

Most of my falls seem to be in slow motion. I know I’m going down, I know there is danger involved, and I find myself planning my arrival during the trip to the ground. I like to think I am a good faller rather than just being lucky, especially since I am getting older and stiffer and have yet to break a bone.

I have had a dramatic fall or two in my cycling career. In a previous article I described my arrival in a parking lot full of church goers where I whizzed up fully clipped in and stayed that way all the way to the asphalt. Worst of all, I had to go in, sit down and eat amongst them covered in dust and scabs. My only real injury was my pride.

My most dramatic fall ever was a mile or two into Alabama on the Chief Ladiga Trail, early one Labor Day morning.  I was participating in a sponsored ride to benefit the GRITS folks who maintain the Silver Comet Trail in Polk County. The day broke cloudy and muggy with a fifty percent chance of thunderstorms. I probably would have stayed home if I hadn’t already paid to ride and promised the sponsors I would be there.

I signed up to ride from Rockmart to Piedmont and back, along with fifty or so other folks. I reached Rockmart an hour or so before my ride began.  It was great to see the streets and sidewalks of this little burg teaming with cyclists preparing for the ride. The event coordinator was droning on and on over the loud speaker describing the lunch menu and recognizing various people in the crowd. He was nice enough to note my presence and thank me for building the trail.

As we pulled out of Rockmart, the volunteers in Piedmont had already phoned in a warning that wet pavement and more rain were waiting for us in Alabama. I had ridden in the rain before.  As long as it was warm and lightning free, I saw nothing wrong with honoring my commitment to ride.

The ride to the state line was uneventful.  As the herd began to disburse, I found myself riding with a couple of younger guys that were content riding  at my pace. The air was cool and muggy and the sky was a tranquil gray. Maybe we would luck out and make the trip before the fifty percent chance of rain manifested.

As my friends and I crossed the Georgia/Alabama state line, the wet concrete changed to wet asphalt and the maintenance level went from “gosh this trail is clean” to “where did the trail go?”  The narrowing asphalt trail was increasingly covered by a layer of wet pine straw. Obviously the safe thing to do would be to slow down and grip your bars a bit tighter.

Not yours truly! I was now the middle man in a ménage-a-trios drafting adventure, whizzing through the woodlands of Alabama at twenty mph with little respect for the condition of the surface below. How could I slow down or drop out of the cradle? They would think I couldn’t hang!

As I focused on the spray from the leader’s rear tire, I began to sense a loss of steering ability.  Thinking my tire had just slipped on the wet pine straw, I gripped a little tighter and kept pedaling. God forbid I shame myself in front of these youngsters and slow down to gain my balance.

The next thirty seconds were full of action (my version of  Tom Cruise hanging off that hundred story building). My front wheel suddenly veered off the trail to the right so I overcorrected all the way back across the trail (between my buddies) and off to the left. Thinking I had merely lost traction in the wet pine straw, I kept pedaling trying to regain my sweet spot between my fellow riders. This time my correction back to the right was less controlled and as I crossed the trail I realized my attempts to stay vertical were going to be unsuccessful. I made one more erratic sweep across the trail and down I went.

I rose from the asphalt still baffled by my inability to regain control before my fall. After inspecting my bike, I discovered a flat front tire had done me in, not the wet pavement or the pine straw. My deflated tire was passing from one edge of the rim to the other on each of my sweeps causing me to lose control again and again.

My buddies waited patiently while I regained my composure and changed my flat. Neither I nor my Fugi was seriously injured so our ride to Piedmont resumed in short order. As I reflected on my fall, I think I know why I escaped major injury:  I stayed with the bike!!  I stayed clipped in, arms and hands on the handlebars, resisting the urge to break the fall. The multi-colored bruise from my hip to my ankle included all colors found in Cumuli-Nimbus clouds (including the greens), but no other damage was done.  The bruise healed much quicker than my pride but I lived to ride (and fall) another day.