Bike stories

Posted , 7 minute read.

A collection of bike stories.

I used to bike 20 miles a day in high school. I'd bike to school, for exercise, to see how fast I could go, because I was bored, because I needed to bike out some strong emotions. I biked over most of the streets in my hometown of Ann Arbor, mostly before they installed cycling infrastructure.

I'm pretty sure I've hurt myself most ways it's possible to, with varying severities of incident and injury (up to and including being hit by a car). Most of these have been pretty minor, I've never been admitted to a hospital as a result, though I once was pretty sure I broke an arm and I got checked out for a concussion after being hit by a car.

Now, as an adult, I occasionally find myself biking through Manhattan. That's been a risky endeavor, which has led me to reflect on the instincts I've developed to keep myself safe, and how hard-won some of those experiences were. I haven't thought about a lot of these stories in years, so I thought I'd put pen to page and capture them as I best recall.

Bad dismount

In my late teens, I was biking up Main St near the UM Football Stadium (largest in the world). They had just repainted the sidewalk, and I was riding top speed with no handlebars (a recurring theme) and distracted by a police stop. I glance forward just in time to see that the crosswalk lines don't lead to the curb cut, but directly into a 4-6" newly-poured curb. I don't recall if I got my hands back on the bars, but it didn't matter because I had no time to brake.

This was one of my worst falls. I went fully over the handlebars with a twist, landing flat on my ass and doing a full backwards somersault. I jarred my elbow and gotten some scraptes, but was otherwise fine. I biked home cradling my arm, wondering if I might have broken it. It was sore for a couple days, but cleared up on its own. I might have been 16 or 17. I don't wear a helmet, which wasn't a factor in this fall.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Don't trust the infrastructure
  • Pay attention
  • Pay attention, idiot

Crosswalk fakeout

I had a 10-20 mile route through the city that I'd do quite frequently, varying the route based on my energy and available time to tune the distance. It almost always, though, included a stretch from a shopping center near the highway into downtown, one that goes through a small valley with very narrow lanes, high vehicle speeds, and a lot of traffic. In the years since, I've read about numerous bicylist deaths on this stretch.

So, I was riding on the sidewalk. It was one of my first times riding this route, and my first time on this side of the street. I had just gotten a soda, and was riding no handed while drinking it, as the route was a straight line with clear sightlines on turning cars. Suddenly, I spot that the crosswalk ahead of me doglegs sharply left exactly 1 sidewalk width. The path straight is worn dirt, gravel, and a beaten up shallow curb.

I violently bump and jostle my way over the first bump, barely touching the handlebars and dropping my soda. One of my feet slips off the pedal, and I slightly overextend something in my ankle while I regain control. I manage to stay upright, though, bumping less violently over the other end of the crosswalk. Not a major injury, but I stopped riding on that side of the street (or, at least, I'd be prepared to ramp off the curb when necessary). I don't wear a helmet, which wasn't a factor in this fall.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Don't trust the infrastructure
  • Pay attention

Not for bikes

I had another unexpected curb while biking out of the edge of town, out past a gas station on State Street near the airport. I was biking flat-out, maximum effort on a wide smooth asphalt path, which on a good day I could top out near 30mph. Midway across a driveway, I spy that the far side has no curb cut, it's a solid 6" curb.

I slam the brakes and lock the rear tire. The front tire has far, far more braking power (that's how people flip, over-applying the front brake with too much forward lean), but is tricker to emergency brake on without dumping the bike. And anyway, I needed that hand for something else; I'm pretty good at bunny hops, and thought I had a chance to clear it with my speed.

I grab a fistful of brake and balance on the locked rear wheel, leaving a good dozen feet of rubber track before I let go and jump. I did actually clear the front wheel, but the rear took a hard impact right on the curb, hard enough to crack the aluminum rim. I think I still have it in a closet; cracked, dented in close to an inch, and badly out of true. I can't have been older than 16, because I remember calling my first high school girlfriend while waiting for my mom to pick me up. I don't wear a helmet, which wasn't a factor in this fall.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Scope out a route before going maximum effort
  • Don't trust the infrastructure

Surprise stairs

The west edge of downtown Ann Arbor has a short but somewhat steep hill, which (I learned) was steep enough to merit 2 stairs into a crosswalk. As is my custom, I was barreling along top speed when I made this discovery, suddenly finding myself 18 inches off the ground at close to 20 mph. Fortunately, in the midst of laying on the power, I was in a good position to react to unexpected conditions and landed not much worse for wear. (Okay, this isn't really an injury story, but it easily could have been). I don't wear a helmet, which wasn't a factor.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Don't trust the infrastructure

Blind corners, biking angry

I was about 22, working at my first startup, and it was the bad days. The team collapsed a few weeks later, and the company folded not long thereafter. I had just had one of an escalating series of fights with the cofounder, and I needed to bike about it. I drag my bike out of the office and start riding flat out, choosing physical stress to override my emotional stress. As I biked out of the office, I remember thinking "if there's a car here, I won't be able to react" due to a completely blind corner.

Sure enough. In fact, 3 of the 6 of us in the office ended up being hit by a car at this intersection over the summer. My glasses were knocked off, I lost one of my shoes, and my bike frame was bent, but generally rideable. This was the most damaging and highest-risk of any of my falls, but I was relatively unhurt. I got checked for a concussion to be safe (clear), but otherwise didn't suffer any ill effects. I did need to replace my bike (fun fact: this badly damaged bike was later stolen and subsequently returned, I presume because it was worthless). I don't wear a helmet, which wasn't a factor in this fall — it was a near miss, though.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Don't trust the infrastructure
  • Don't ride (too) angry

Wet asphalt

This is one of the most trivial of my falls, and yet the one where I most badly hurt myself. It was shortly after a rain on fresh (< 6 months old) asphalt; nice and smooth. I'm riding home from downtown, north on Plymouth just after the bridge, guard lowered entirely. I suddenly found my chin on the pavement and my handlebar jammed into my thigh. My off-road tires lost traction in an instant on the wet, smooth path, and I went down hard before I realized what happened.

Bleeding from my chin and limping from a muscle bruise on my leg, I walked the remaining ~2 miles home (stopping to clean myself up in a bathroom along the way). I was probably 15, I still remember coming in and seeing my mom's face go white when she saw me bleeding. "I fell." I don't wear a helmet, which wasn't a factor in this fall — I'd have needed to be wearing a full-face helmet, like for motorcycles or off-roading, to avoid an injury.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Be extra wary in wet conditions

Downtown BMX

There was a really zany path going up Jackson road, heading from Westland into downtown. It's a gentle downhill for a over half a mile, with a tight sidewalk, a busy 2-lane road on 1 side and close-cropped hedges, fences, and walls on the other. Very few people walk this route, and over time (this was on the tail end of my 20mi route, so I ended up here frequently) I began to treat it like a personal BMX course. The downhill made it easy to maintain a high speed, even while tired, and the bumps served very well as obstacles and ramps.

I actually never hurt myself or had any close calls, but it was so unsafe in hindsight. The driveways were blind and narrow, with possibility for mixed car and pedestrian traffic. Absolutely not a place for the speeds I would hit. (no ragrets)

Lessons to be learned:

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