Saturday, June 25, 2005

My Evel Knievel Bike Stunt

Before I get into the hair-raising part of this story, I have to provide a little background, which also provides a safety lesson.

When I was a teenager, I rode all over the county on a bike that I assembled from a frame I got for free plus all the other parts from a Sears Roebuck catalogue. One summer, I had a job at a truck farm in New Jersey, and I commuted on my bike from my home in Nanuet, NY (Rockland County).

(Some other time I'll tell about the miracle that got me that job, and more.)

One day there was a round stick on the road, and as my bike tires rolled over the stick on an angle, the stick rolled sideways, suddenly shifting the track of the bike sideways, and shifting the center of gravity. I had to swerve quickly to get the bike centered under me again, and the surprise unnerved me a bit.

As I thought about the physical principles that caused this near-mishap, I realized that if I were smarter, I would have known to avoid going over the stick. As I rode along, I thought further about what I would or should do if the bike ever fell over sideways, such as by skidding. I realized that if I kept one leg on each side of the bike, the leg on the bottom side would be scraped on the pavement (ouch!) -- I should get both legs on the top side if that happened.

One of the bike skills that my brothers and I learned was to start riding a bike by first holding the handlebars and running alongside the bike. If the bike was at your right, you would then hop onto the left pedal with your left foot, then swing your right leg over the back of the bike and get yourself seated while the bike was still rolling.

We also learned to dismount by a reversal of this technique: While the bike is still rolling, stand up on the left pedal, and swing your right leg over the back of the bike to the left side. Then hop off, running alongside the bike -- then slow to a walk and stop, holding the handlebars and steering the bike all the while.

So I figured if the bike ever slipped and fell over before I could stop, I could use the same leg swing to get myself on the side of the bike that becomes the top of a kind of sled sliding down the road. If I could somehow sit on the bike frame without slipping through the openings of the frame, the bike would take all the abrasion and I wouldn't lose any skin. (I was familiar with that -- when much younger, I always had skinned knees all summer long.)

This started a lifelong habit of studying potential accident situations and getting mentally prepared beforehand to handle them. After more than 40 years of driving, I have never been even scratched, even though I have slid down the steepest part of the Bradford hill sideways one winter, slid backwards on Route 3 once when another driver sideswiped me, and once did a 360-degree rotation while sliding down a slippery road.

OK -- back to the NJ-NY commute by bike. There were a number of routes of nearly equal length, and I chose one route for going to work and another for returning. The reason for dual routes was that my bike was the old-fashioned one-speed kind -- no shifting. So an ideal route in hilly country would have maybe one short, steep uphill segment (walk up, pushing the bike, and gain altitude in a short time) and many long, slightly downhill segments (just coast, cashing in that uphill work).

One day while returning from work, I must have been day-dreaming, because I took the wrong route. I arrived at a short but very steep hill that I normally walked up in the morning and bypassed returning home; but now I needed to descend this hill with my bike, which I had never done before.

For a moment I thought about walking down the hill with my bike. Then I thought I could start on the bike, going slow, and if it seemed too steep, I would stop, get off the bike, and walk it the rest of the way down the hill.

In those days, when they repaved roads, they first put down just gravel, then just tar, and then rolled both together on the road. To avoid leaving the road too sticky, they preferred a little more gravel rather than too much tar; so for months afterward, there would be piles of extra gravel along the edges of the road that was kicked there by passing cars. This hill had the usual gravel along the edges, but I would stay away from the edges.

I started downhill slowly and cautiously as planned, but as the hill got steeper, I had to stand hard on the brake to go slow. Then the brake locked, which means that the wheels don't turn, which means that I couldn't steer, which means I had no way to control the balance of the bike. The only resort I had was to briefly let up on the brake so that the wheels could roll, so I could quickly rebalance the bike, then stomp the brake again. Well, that just got the bike going faster, which made things worse.

Soon the bike was skidding -- I lost control, and the bike began tipping over. I quickly did the maneuver that I had practiced in my mind. I kept my hands on the bike frame as it fell to the road, and got myself seated on the frame bars that connect the seat to the pedal area, and braced my feet on the part of the frame where the front wheel pivots. My bike was now a sled.

As the bike slid, metal grinding against asphalt, sparks showered behind me like a welder's torch. The bike plummeted faster in spite of all that grinding friction because the hill was so steep. The direction of the bike-sled was angled slightly toward the side of the road, so soon gravel was spraying all over, mixed with the sparks. I hoped the gravel would slow the bike, but it didn't. As the bike veered further off the road, the bike frame started ploughing through the grass, throwing up divots. This slowed the bike so quickly that I was tossed headlong off the bike.

I had learned how to run across the lawn, dive, turn half a somersault in the air, and land on the back of my shoulders, and complete the next half of the somersault on the ground. If I ran hard enough, I would have enough momentum to do three or four somersaults in a row. Or, by crossing my ankles, I could use the extra momentum to pop back up to my feet. So when I found myself diving off the bike, I instinctively started doing somersaults -- and I had so much momentum that I had to do about five or six somersaults before I had slowed down enough to get up on my feet. As I rose to my feet, I was still going so fast that I had to run before slowing to a stop.

I turned to look, and my bike was 50 to 60 feet up the hill from where I had dived off the bike. I walked back up to the bike, and the brake was so hot I could only touch it very briefly. The pedal that had ploughed into the ground was twisted badly, but I managed to get the bike the rest of the way home, about a mile.

Several months later, I met a fellow that I knew but rarely saw. When he first saw me, from a distance, he had a strange look on his face like he had seen a ghost. He shouted over to me, "Jim Clark! Is that you?" When I assured him that I was, he continued, "Wow! I thought you were dead!" I looked at him, puzzled, and then he described the day that he saw me plummeting down the hill, sparks and gravel flying, then flying off the bike and rolling several yards to a stop.

I wondered afterward why he hadn't come over to check on me. Maybe he went to fetch an ambulance, and when they came, I was gone.

Maybe some day I'll tell you about the stunt I did on purpose when I was younger and stupider.


Bill in Vermont said...

Uncle Jim,
I want to hear about the younger, stupider bike episode. I vaguely remember my mother telling something about you & a stunt.
It would be best if got your version on record.


JC said...

It was a stupid stunt, but not a bike stunt. However, as a young parent, I witnessed a remarkable bike stunt done by a neighbor kid that could have been tragic, but luckily wasn't.