Anatomy of a Wipe-Out
One of the things that makes riding up hills seem so worthwhile is getting to race down them as fast as possible. This is the most enjoyable part of riding for me, going fast and getting the adrenaline buzz.
To ride down mountains fast, I peddle hard from the very top, working into my hardest gear, and spinning the pedals faster until they no longer make a difference in speed (around 30+ mph with 50-11 gearing).
Then tuck in an aero position with hands on the aero bars in front, feet horizontal to each other and parallel to the ground, knees tucked in to frame bag, and my spine straightened enough for me to feel the breeze on my low back. This last point seems minor, as if just a posture preference, but my experience suggests that a straight back increases speed as it acts as a wind foil putting pressure on my back to push me forward.
When going down in a straight line on reasonably smooth road this works well, however when navigating bumpy surfaces or hair-pin turns I need to insure more control by moving my hands from the aero’s to the drops and using the breaks before entering the curves. If I can see the full corner I often do not need to break. But if I see turn chevrons, 35 MPH warning signs, or simply cannot see the full turn, a break is needed.
It may be hard to believe, but the total surface contact between the bike and the road is equivalent to about two postage stamps. Tires can do one thing at a time: accelerate, decelerate, or turn. Doing any two of these things at once is hard, and doing two things at once on a slippery road is cause for disaster.
The process is to break before the turn and then role through the turn, and then--if being really aggressive--re-accelerate.
Still, surprises on the road happen, even when I think I know how to handle myself. Consider this short story from riding 2019’s Trans America Bike Race.
Starting down from the top of the fourth mountain in a row in Kentucky in the middle of the night, the narrow road was windy and pitch black. New pavement I think. Wrong, wet pavement. I come into the first curve way too fast, hit the brakes hard, and skid the rear wheel. Oh Oh! Going too fast and already into the curve. The outside of the curve looks really unfriendly. Break again, I have to do something. Rear wheel losses traction on the slippery tarmac, and I go into a slide. My knuckles and knees hitting pavement first, sliding on my bike about 15 feet.
Disgusted at misjudging the condition, and frustrated at not being able to go fast, I pick myself off the ground to take stock of the areas of blood on my hand and knee. Just some lost skin, nothing serious. (Later I realized that my ring on my hand had taken the brunt of the fall and had actually cracked open.) I look at the scrape marks on the road to see how I hit, then checked the light (which needed adjustment), wheels, breaks, and shifters.
This time the chain had come off and was lodged between the little chain ring and the frame. Usually not a big deal, but this was a bit different. The chain had ripped through a few layers of carbon on the frame and was really stuck. I was afraid that if I cranked on it too hard I would simply bend or break the chain, a potential set-back given the distance to any bike shop and time of night. Calm down. Review the situation. Work it out, I told myself. After some effort I worked it free. I was on my way, at a much slower pace.