Road-bike season is just around the corner, and this year I have decided to try extra hard to avoid getting killed.
Last April, I took a fall that scared everyone who witnessed it. One guy told me that he actually shut his eyes when he thought I was about to get snuffed. I didn't write about it on the blog, because it took awhile to process and I never got around to figuring out how to describe it.
I was on a 100k ride from Anchorage to Girdwood and back, and was used to riding only one other person in the group. (That should always raise a caution flag.) We were on the Seward Highway, also known as the most dangerous highway in Alaska. (That should always raise a caution flag, too.)
One rider was a lot slower than the main group, and I didn’t want her to feel bad for always being off the back, so on the return from Girdwood, I slowed down to ride near her for a while. After a stop that pulled the group back together, I decided to bring up the rear.
We were soon nearing McHugh Creek south of Anchorage when one guy flatted and other riders began pulling to the side of the shoulder to wait. That’s when I made the mistake of passing Miss Slow on her left.
Next thing I knew, she was body-checking me toward the northbound lane of the highway on a sunny Saturday afternoon. When you’re looking at the white line and your brain instantly calculates that the upper half of your body is going to land in the lane of traffic, you have a second or two to think about things.
You think about things like the Seward Highway being the state’s most infamous, and how popular it is with distracted sightseers on sunny days. And you think about how that stretch of the highway has only one lane going each direction and very little room for motorists to swerve around falling cyclists. You also think about the fact your head will soon be directly in the path of tires traveling 60 mph.
That’s not a happy moment.
As soon as I hit the pavement, I knew I needed to get up fast. But there was a woman on my legs, and she was still trying to unclip from her pedals. I couldn’t do anything but wait until she got up or everything went dark.
So I laid there and waited. A couple of other riders soon realized she wasn't moving quickly enough, so they pulled her off me. As I started to get up, I finally did what I'd been afraid to do from the ground—I turned and looked behind me. Two pickups had managed to come to a complete stop to avoid crushing me. (The next time you get pissed off at a bad driver, remember to be grateful for the alert, careful ones.)
We all regrouped for a few minutes as the flat tire was repaired. When we started riding again, I was high on adrenaline and led us into Anchorage with a wide gap. It was several miles before I realized two of my fingers were really hurting. After I pulled off my glove and got a look at my hand, my friend Heather and I split from the group and took a direct route to my house, where we poured some wine and put a bag of ice on my hand. When my wife—a nurse—showed up with pizza, she took one look at my fingers and announced that my wedding ring had to be cut off immediately. Heather’s husband, Ken, did the deed with a pair of wire cutters.
Because it was one of the few times I've had a potentially fatal experience on a bike, I drank more than my share of wine that night. My fingers—which had probably been smashed between my handlebar and the pavement—were swollen for weeks. All this because I failed to recognize that someone in the group was still learning to use clipless pedals.
I like doing things to encourage new riders. We've all been there. And we've all fallen because we were learning to unclip. Being patient and bringing more people into the cult is a good thing. But I think I'll restrict those efforts to singletrack.
I’ll be keeping an eye out for newbies on the road this spring, and I’ll be keeping my distance.