It was the futility that bothered me most, as I lay there in the sun with my feet up. The sweat of the ride hadn’t even begun to dry off the back of my neck, but it was all I could think of.
Leaning back as far as I could, getting my centre of gravity as far over the rear wheel of my steel-frame bike as my outstretched arms would allow without having to let go of the brakes, had led to an unexpected sacrifice:
The sacrifice of steering to enhance braking. Losing control to retain control. Futility.
I had savoured the rush of that downhill. The descent presented itself to me in episodes.
- Oooooh, that’s great: a downhill!
- Steep, and getting steeper - better hold the brakes.
- Great - there’s the bottom of the hill - clear run, let’s bomb it.
- Crap, there’s the left turn Cam warned me about - best I hit the brakes…
Quite obviously, I enjoyed Episode 3 the most. The sensation I was rewarded with when I released the brakes, drop my elbows and get low. The air resistance, rushing past my ears, pushing cold tears form the corners of my eyes. What a thrill! Just me and my bike, accompanied by my old companion gravity and my occasional riding companion, speed. Oh speed, how I missed you. We’re good mates, aren’t we?
The sudden arrival of Episode 4 was the first point at which matters deteriorated. I saw the turn rushing towards me, and I knew I needed to slam on the brakes. As hard as I could. As hard as I ever had. Ignoring my doubts about the tensile strength of those sluggish brake cables, I squeezed the levers. Haaarrrd. I also stood up on off the saddle to increase wind resistance. This is an old trick and another favourite of mine. Depending on the top speed, it’s good for about 10km/h. That’s how well I’ve come to understand that crafty old companion, speed.
But standing up didn’t do the trick. I needed to squeeze harder on the brakes. I felt the rubber clamp down on the rims of my wheels so hard that I made a mental note to check them at the bottom of the hill to see if I’d worn them away. That would be something to boast about! It would also most likely prompt my mates to comment on my weight, but hey, they’d been doing that for 10 years already. It’s still impressive - wearing a brake pad down in just one stop. But pulling on the brakes that hard swung my centre of balance, high up as it was, way too far over the front wheel. Everyone knows that this is how you go over the handlebars… I needed to lean back. So I did, and sacrificed control.
Always brake in a straight line. This was the second last voluntary thought I called to mind that morning. Fine, I thought. That’s what I’m trying to do! But my bike wasn’t going in a straight line. It was slanting off to the left. The turn was to the left, but so was a kerb about 20 meters before it. As the kerb drew nearer the futility of my situation fully dawned on me. My rate of deceleration was unprecedented:
- I could ease off the brakes but then I would not make the turn.
- If I shifted my weight forward to regain the ability to steer, I would tip over the front wheel and launch into flight over the handlebars.
- If I didn’t steer away, I would hit the kerb.
I decided to take my chances with the kerb. This was my last voluntary thought. I unclipped my left foot and stretched it out to meet the kerb. Any bit of braking force would help, and maybe this would be enough to slow me to a manageable impact speed. Was it? No.
After a span of time that may as well be used to measure the age of galaxies, I hit the kerb. My bike and I parted company and it was just me, good ol’ gravity and that tricksy bastard, speed. My left foot, having done its best, was now following the rest of my body towards the inevitable. My hands went out to break the fall, which they did so quickly I barely noticed. My head was up next, and I felt a reassuring bang as my helmet slammed into the pavement just behind and above my left ear. My shoulder, bless, then tried to cover the rest of the impact duty. It relented - my collarbone was not up to the task, dislocating. Then my left hip laid down some skin in its attempt to shrug off some of that bloody speed. With the sound of my crashing bike distracting me from the real action, my body then rolled over onto the right side where the sequence would have continued were it not for a low garden wall.
I came to a stop with my feet up in the air. Mildly pissed off and immediately puzzling over the futility of it all.