Inhaling until my lungs couldn’t expand any further, the air was nostril-flaring crisp and milky smelling. Dew glistened like diamonds from every blade of grass on the lawn. Arms stretched out to bend all my crunchy parts free from the night of sleeping rigidity, a glance upward revealed a Disney Film blue magical sky. A lick on the finger and holding it in the air, there was no significant sensation on my wind meter test. Hollywood couldn’t create a better setting for a mega-elevation road ride adventure in Collingwood, Ontario.
Out the door of our favourite Bed and Breakfast, Pedulla’s B&B, the coolness on our skin felt like we were in an audition for Peppermint Paddies! A refreshing feeling, literally, before our long, leg pumping climb and the start of our adventure. The warm up felt like trying to sprint on Tin man’s legs. With 10km in, we were good for 120 more! Up we went on never ending hills followed with speedy descents back to endless climbing with false summits. Each revealing another stunning view of green fields, outlined by evergreen trees and a magazine cover farm setting. Taken with the victorianesque scenery, the hours seem to race by. After 128 km and 5,000 feet of quadricep crushing hill climbing, it was time to return and rest the wobbly legs. My stomach was officially eating into my back since there were more calories used than consumed and my brain was slowly starting to turn simple images into a food product. A quick descent for 4 km and there was Greek cuisine and a pint of beer waiting for us. The psych was hard to contain and the stomach grumbling was clearly audible!
At the approach to the final, long, steep, windy descent on Scenic Caves Rd., simultaneously we said, “Let’s do it!” We went into stealth bomber position and the sound of the wind passing my ears sounded like there was a wind tunnel in my brain. The ability to reach speeds of 80-90 km is effortless due to the steep grade. Steven quickly moved ahead of me by a short distance. A quick glance down at my Garmin and in what seemed like a blink of an eye, we were already at 70 km/hr. My eyes grew wide as this is my holy crap zone so I began softly braking to take me back to a happy place speed around 60 km/hr. Glancing ahead, it was apparent that Steven was thinking the same thing since he was slowing down as well.
The next few seconds seemed like an eternity and a million frames per second became forever carved into my memory. Suddenly Steven began swerving wildly. Totally bewildered, I thought, “Why the hell would he goof around like that at 60 km/hr?” My stomach sank when my inner voice said, “You dumbass, he’s in a speed wobble!” I stared in horror as we were heading towards a blind corner and he was no longer in a speed wobble, it had escalated to the ‘death wobble’ and he was losing control. He struggled to keep his bike upright. His realization was apparent that he was going to crash and had to make the decision of his life. His head quickly glanced to the right where the last sharp corner was and the guardrail that blocked a very steep, tree-filled ravine on the other side. At this point, his front wheel appeared to be skipping off the pavement. Instantly, he muscled his bike and shot it straight forward like he was crossing a finish line to a victory. There was no victory awaiting him as he went straight across the road, through the oncoming lane towards a grassy, forested area and a man-eating ditch, narrowly missing an oncoming car.
I screamed out his name as his bike washed out sideways on the gravel that filled the road shoulder. The gravel and dust exploded into the air as his body and bike bounced and slid through it. Suddenly he was gone out of sight. He disappeared into the ditch as his bike jettisoned into the air without him. Terrified, I kept yelling his name while trying to slow down with a car behind me. Nearing the crash zone, the smell of gravel to metal, wet soil, fuel scented dust and freshly cut grass filled the air! There was a moment of relief when his hand appeared from the ditch. He was waving ever so weakly. I couldn’t get off my bike fast enough. Attempting to run in my road bike shoes is like trying to run in a pair of uneven clogs. I desperately stumbled to find him and discovered Steven lying in a deep ditch, covered in blood and debris. His mangled bike was resting on top of him.
Both drivers that witnessed the crash pulled over to provide assistance. There was obvious terror in their eyes when they glanced over into the ditch. In an instant, my internal emergency survival switch turned on. Panic was not allowed, only clarity was valuable. The extent of his injuries were uncertain but it no longer mattered that I was his wife, only that it was necessary to make the right decisions to ensure that things didn’t get worse.
The witnesses stood aside as I moved his crumpled bike away from him. Steven immediately sat upright before I could tell him to stay still. He was shaking and took off his helmet that had broken in six places. The right side of his body glowed red from blood. Not a part was missed from shoulder to ankle and the wounds were a mix of blood, gravel and all sorts of unidentifiable crap.
He sat hunched over and remained silent as my eyes and questions attempted to determine his medical situation. Slowly looking up at me, he eked out a faint smile and asked for assistance to stand up. Refusing to accept my insistence to stay sitting he began to use my shoulder as a crutch to stand. In the process of standing, the extend of his wounds were as glaring as a neon sign in Las Vegas at night. Deep tracks of gravel carved throughout his entire right side and a good portion of his shorts were no longer existent. He was badly damaged and he knew it, but it was apparent he was happy to be alive. Dazed, he stood trying to collect himself mentally. Shaking his head in disappointment, his eyes welled up with tears. With a whisper, he asked if he had made the right decision to crash where he did? It was without a doubt the right decision and saved his life and I gave him a smile and a firm, “Absolutely!”
A fairytale day with only one kilometer left to go, ended with a terrifying finish and a trip to the hospital. The extent of his injuries: a serious concussion and extensive road rash that required months of oozing, cleaning and cringing from the sting of wound washing to clean away any stowaway gravel. The bike and helmet were damaged and replaceable as was his sunglasses that were ejected into the forest and are probably worn by some tree gnome now who is the now the coolest gnome on that side of Scenic Caves Rd. The scarring, on the other hand, was carved deep physically and mentally and it will, without a doubt, last a lifetime!
It’s a mystery why the death wobble started since we had descended that hill many times in the past and at greater speeds. Unfortunately, his bike was beyond repair and prevented parts from being examined for imbalance.
It’s because of this haunting experience that he learned more about the contributing factors to a speed wobble and techniques to reduce and hopefully stop one when it’s in the earliest stages. Unfortunately, there are ones that can’t be stopped and you could only hope that there was a lake or a foam pit to launch into instead of taking the slide into cheese-grating pavement. I had made the assumption that he knew what I knew about this unwelcome Elvis on a bike action, and I never thought to ask. We had both been on many rides with pro-cyclists and there was never a mention or discussion of such a beast. Since then, I’ve come to discover how many road cyclists have never heard of a speed or death wobble and even if they had, they were unaware of how to deal with one.
For those not familiar with the “holy crap, why is my bike doing a jig on the road…speed wobble,” it is also known as a ‘speed shimmy’ and can lead to the inconvenient and unwelcome ‘death wobble’. This can happen on anything that has a single steering pivot, in other words….motorcycle, bicycle, unicycle etc. Google it and you’ll be impressed on the number of videos you can find that will make you throw your hand to your mouth and gasp. The speed wobble is a result of a resonant frequency that often starts from the front wheel and its interaction with that of the frame. The oscillation increases, you start to ‘shimmy’ and ‘shake’ and then all hell breaks loose if you can’t get it under control.
Your bike doesn’t need to have anything wrong with it for this resonant frequency to begin but it may help to check out some things that could contribute to the start of it. Some known factors are: low front tire pressure, poor fork alignment, incorrect weight distribution by the rider, locked elbows, a poorly designed or built frame (where the front and rear wheel are not tracking properly), loose headset and hubs to name a few.
Even if all bike factors are in check, another element that can make your bike do the fancy dance can be the speed alone on those dreamy smooth roads that adorn many a Vermont magazine cover. With nothing to interfere on the initiation of a resonant frequency, the jig becomes a zig, then a zag at the speed of a washing machine on a spin cycle.
Many of us love the sensation of letting it rip down some buttery smooth, majestic road. If this adventurous side of you takes hold and you’re in the Tour de Yourself as the wind blows through your hair while the sound of the whirrrrr fills your ears and the objects in your peripheral view become a blur and you begin to feel a quick oscillation with your handlebars, there are some things you can try to keep it from becoming the butt-puckering, DNA donating to the tarmac experience. After all, it is always preferential to keep the rubber side down and complete the descent to enjoy a stellar pint and ride another day.
I am by no means an expert on speed wobbles so it is recommended that some Google searching be done to learn more about them and how to prevent them. The few things that I have found:
1. If you’re experiencing a wobble, change your weight distribution by taking some weight off your seat and shifting your weight to the centre or front end to help dampen the oscillation. Get more weight onto your handlebars but be sure to not over grip or manhandle your bike (hard thing not to do when you feel like you’re going to die!) Keep your elbows bent to keep the handling of your bike more supple.
2. Before one occurs, while descending, get your body weight balanced by putting the pedals into 6/12 o’clock position. This centering of your body may help you achieve a better position over the bike.
3. While descending, as you shift your weight off the seat, squeeze one or both legs against the top tube. Pressure from your body on the top tube can help dampen any vibration and prevent it from turning into an all out bronco bucking ride!
4. If a wobble begins, don’t brake too hard or aggressively. Not something you want to do on a road bike anyhow but it is incredible what confusion and fear can make you do. Brake very softly or ease up on the brakes if the shimmy becomes worse. Trying to reduce your speed dramatically can worsen the situation rapidly.
5. Refrain from moving your weight back onto the saddle until the wobble is gone
6. Make sure that any items attached to your bike, i.e. pouch, cages etc. are firmly attached.
7. Ultimately, maintain your body weight in the center of the bike. Too much weight on the front or the back will allow the lighter end to possibly begin to vibrate.
The power of a memory is truly incredible. It is amazing how, even when you close your eyes, a scene can play out as if it is currently happening and comes complete with smells, sounds, sweaty hands and other physical sensations. This is one of those memories that was carved so deeply into our minds (and fortunately not on a tombstone). I can relive every second and hope that what we’ve learned will resonate (pun intended) with others and lessons learned hard by us will create only good memories on adventures for others.
Have a happy, safe, bucking bronco free ride!