Crashing on fast downhills

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009
By Yokota Fritz

I cycled up and down Mountain Charlie Road in the Santa Cruz Mountains Saturday afternoon. Mountain Charlie is a very narrow single lane road that is steep, curvy, and poorly maintained. It's a nice, lightly trafficked road that takes me to the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

One Lane Road

Mountain Charlie Road is a little more challenging than your normal hill climb road -- the pavement is poorly maintained and the curves are unusually sharp, meaning you really need to watch your speed. If you lose control on some corners, there's no rail or wall to stop you. I don't recommend Mountain Charlie unless you know the road and you know your bike. You need good brakes, good tires, and good bike handling skills.

Like any hill climb, the real fun is the ride down. Saturday, though, I was thinking of Rachel Atherton. Immediately prior to my ride I was at the bike shop and heard about Rachel's head one collision with a pickup truck not far from where I live. She was flying downhill on Amesti Road in Corralitos, crossed the centerline coming around a curve and hit a truck, flying over the hood and into the windshield.

Later on, I learned of Liz Hatch's crash during a fast downhill in Napa County when she hit a patch of pine needles coming around a curve, lost control and went over a guard rail at nearly 30 mph.

A couple of years ago, local cyclist Bob Hebeler was riding down Empire Grade Road at about 40 mph in the Santa Cruz Mountains when he reportedly crossed the centerline going around a curve and hit a pickup truck going the other direction. Unlike Atherton, Hebeler passed away from massive head injuries from his collision.

I've known of a couple of other amateur cyclists who've perished after losing control and crashing on steep and fast downhill runs. I also have motorcycling friends who've taken risks biking on winding, curving roads, and lost control around those corners.

One of my more spectacular crashes was in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Coming down Trail Ridge Road I attempted a left turn onto Fall River Road to get to the Fall River park entrance. I had descended from 12,000 feet elevation to 9,000 feet in 15 miles and 20 minutes. I took that turn at probably 30 mph when I hit sand and slid through the intersection on my side.

Many of us take risks when cycling, but what about you on those hills? Are you a thrill seeker? Do you stay on your side of the road? Or have you lost control momentarily and either gone off the road or drifted into the oncoming lane?

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I have crossed the centerline on downhills before. I don't do it now unless I screw up and am going too fast. I am now older and more cautious.
I don't cross the centerline on downhills, but will push the speed as hard as I can.
Color me crazy, but I enjoy the grind going up more than the daredevil decents.

In my first century, I misjudged an intersection and basically skidded through it. Luckily there was no traffic, but I might not be writing this if there had been.
I used to cross the centerline on descents, but I try not to do that anymore. I think, like Duncan, I am a bit older and wiser now. Still, I do love that feeling of speed so I always want to push for a new personal top speed on the Paris mountain descent. Luckily the fasted stretch is fairly straight so I am not tempted to take risks on the twisty sections.
Oops, I meant fastest, not fasted.
Yeah, I hit a sharp pothole with the rear wheel on my bike on a recent ride (I hopped it with the front) which put a wobble in the wheel. Later that ride, heading downhill I hit a curve at speed and saw an oncoming motorbike. I was heading toward the center and did the classic overbraking thing - locking the rear briefly. I didn't go down, nor go over the center line, but I certainly crapped myself and don't push it so hard now. I'm too old, don't race anymore, so what's the point of the risk?
I am generally a poor high-speed descender, but I've found that a bicycle with low-trail steering geometry and wide, grippy tires offers greater ease and precision in holding your line through fast downhill curves.
Halloween 1999 I laid my bike down on Page Mill at speed, hit some mud or wet leaves right at the sharpest part of my lean, the rear wheel slid out. Fractured my pelvis and ended up in surgery the next day. Bummer.

Dude, do you seriously descend Mountain Charlie? Isn't San Jose-Santa Cruz or whatever much much nicer? And old chestnut of mine is up SJ-SC, down the other side, up Moutain Charlie, and back down the whizzy downhill to Los Gatos on SJ-SC.
Mountain Charlie is much funner going uphill than downhill. I originally planned to cross over at Summit Road and coming back downhill on Soquel/San Jose, but I got a late start (too much jabbering at the bike shop), and I had a hard deadline in the afternoon (Dr appt for son, piano lessons for daughter).
Speaking of broken hips, do you know Barry? He broke his hip last year on a crash on a fast downhill. He's still recovering from that one after several months.
I descend much slower than I use to and try not to take too many risks on the downhill. Mainly because I've come too close to eating it and I have heard of many in the cycling community who've gone down hard at faster speeds. I just play it safe and tell others that I'm Chicken Little.
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