Safety First – Dodging lots of bullets
— Duane Wright
It was a dark and story … morning. There was a gloomy forecast, but at the moment no rain. Marvin Rambo gave his brief, morale building speech to the troops and at 7:00 a.m. bid us bon route. The group of at least 30 riders set off through northeastern Portland, heading for downtown. It was only several blocks from the start that the rain began. It would not stop for the duration. At about that same time I noticed the braking power of the tandem left a bit to be desired. On the descent to the Broadway Bridge I left extra space behind riders in front, and the brakes performed well enough.
After passing through the Pearl District the route climbs up through the Rose Garden, and up, and up, and up. Glasses were steamed up as we entered the low lying rain clouds. Now we were heading west on Skyline Boulevard. In spite of the low clouds there were occasionally views out over the flatter areas to the south and north, views there were mere reminders of the panoramas to be enjoyed on sunnier days.
The forecast had warned of strong winds, accompanied by gusts up to 45 mph. Skyline Boulevard was subject to these gusts. I gripped the bars tightly for about 10 miles, wrestling with strong winds and the occasional promised gust. After a cautious and somewhat chilly descent into the agricultural area west of the Portland metro area, the wind became less nerve-racking.
A small group of Seattle riders assembled, about 30 miles into the ride. From there Glencoe Road crosses U.S. Highway 26. The group had gotten a slight jump on us, and we followed, for several miles, about a hundred yards back. I kept hoping the gap would magically close but it became obvious we would have to chase the group down if we wished to capitalize on a draft. Just before picking up our pace, an on-coming car, towing a flat bed trailer, came around a curve in the road and lost a large tire that had been strapped to the bed. It bounced into the on-coming lane, behind the group of Seattle riders and in front of us. It continued across a field, coming to a stop when it crashed into a fence. It was fortunate that we had not started increasing our speed, just a bit earlier, or we would have been in the tire’s path.
At 51 miles the riders stopped at the store in Glenwood. Everyone was wringing water out of soggy gloves and generally lamenting the wet weather.
After a somewhat brief stop we were off again. Soon the route left Highway 6, turning onto Timber Road. The route through this forested area involved considerable climbing on the way to the next control (and possible lunch stop), Vernonia. Near the top of a climb we passed Chantel Balkovetz. As the road leveled out, and made a bend to the right, we then came upon Shane Balkovetz. It seemed prudent to get a bit in front of Shane and Chantel so as not to have three bikes entering the turns at the same time. Coming out of the turn a sign indicated a hair pin coming up and the speed warning said 15 mph. I didn’t slow right away because I wanted to created a slight gap between us and Shane and Chantel. As we came around the bend the bottom dropped out of the road. We were instantly in a step descent to the hair pin. I hit the brakes … and they did practically nothing! I couldn’t believe this was happening but it was! It seemed almost certain that I could not slow the bike enough to make the sharp left hairpin at the bottom of the descent. I squeezed the brake levers as hard as I could but unfortunately they were bottoming out. I pondered laying the bike down, in the road. It would mean serious road rash, and maybe worse, but it was a known environment. Going off the road would be getting into possibly very serious trouble. Then I decided to zig zag down the road, effectively increasing the travel distance. This would increase our stopping distance.
There was no on-coming traffic so I cut across the on-coming lane, going into the gravel shoulder, luckily not going down. Then I came back onto the road, crossing all of the way to the edge of the right side. This only succeeded in confirming that we were not decelerating, but merely maintaining a steady speed of, perhaps, 25 miles per hour. There was nothing to prevent me from attempting the turn, but in the middle of the turn was a rail road track. The combination of wet pavement, very excessive speed, a steel rail crossing, and the need to be braking into the turn, caused my instinct to decide to bail out. I resolved to not go down without a fight. I had been yelling since the descent started. Later Sylvia informed me that she had not heard me but was well aware that the bike was weaving all over the road. She none-the-less remained completely calm, throughout the ordeal, so I did not have to wrestle with a frenzied stoker.
Neither of us could see well due to glasses fogged from the long climb. My limited vision somehow spotted what appeared to be a cleared area, along the track, on our side of the track. We left the road, still at high speed. I didn’t known if there was a ditch, or a fence, or fallen tree limbs, or rock outcroppings, but I was committed.
The cleared area was quite rocky, and the off road jaunt proved to be very bumpy. The long wheel base of the tandem was surprisingly stable, however. To my amazement (and great relief) after about 100 feet the bike came to a rest, still upright. I started apologizing profusely to Sylvia, she kept inquiring as to how I was doing. I have experienced, in the past, receiving a shot of adrenaline, in the pit of my stomach, during scary situations. In this situation it felt as if the adrenaline had filled up to about my sternum. I also had received an instant headache in the back of my head, perhaps related to some neuro-chemical activity related to panic. Sylvia praised my experienced bike handling skills, but I felt bad about having taken the previous turn too fast for the condition of the brakes.
I slumped over the bars for a few seconds, waiting until I had calmed down. Then we turned the bike around, got back on, pedaled to the road, and continued on our way.
Shane inquired as to our off road maneuver and I told him it was a short cut to the control … that hadn’t panned out.
At the lunch stop in Vernonia I checked the brakes. There was plenty of pad left but the cables needed more tension. I adjusted the barrels and the brakes felt just fine. We decided to cut the Vernonia stop short because the small restaurant was overwhelmed by 15 to 20 cyclists. Several miles down the road a group of seven of us were making the climb to Vernonia Pass – Don Harkelroad, Dottie Smith, Tom Killion, Sue Mathews, Sylvia Shiroyama and I. Several miles before the summit the tandem, Sue and Tom were riding in a line. The weary tandem captain very possibly did not point out several large stones/small rocks on the road. Tom unfortunately hit one of these and was directed off of the road and down into the ditch. He opted to save the bike from harm, taking most of the impact on his back. We stopped to check on him but he was able to get back on the bike and handle it all in good humor. Just then Don, Dottie and Ron came along and wondered what we were up to. We joked that Tom had intentionally fallen into the ditch, allowing the group behind us to pass us and reach the summit before us.
We pushed on to the pass, and the tandem took the rear on the descent. The brakes were now working just fine but I was still very cautious and the road was very wet. After we had come down to the flats, just prior to reaching Scappoose and Highway 30, a large SUV passed us, just as an on-coming car was at the same spot. The right mirror of the SUV almost clipped us in the head.
Lots of riders were stopped at Dairy Queen, in Scappoose. Sylvia and I went next door, to Quiznos, and found that a toasted sandwich hit the spot. I had some lemonade, as well, which probably was a bit too cool. With my soggy clothes I now found myself shaking.
A small group of Seattle riders, Greg Sneed, Terry Olmsted, Shane, Chantel, and several others headed out, a bit in front of the tandem and Sue Mathews. Now it was raining quite hard and we anticipated a stiff headwind on this southerly stretch into Portland. To our delight the headwinds were hardly noticeable. For quite a few miles we saw the group of cyclists, ahead of us, but we couldn’t close the gap. Then we caught up to them because they had all stopped. We slowed down and noticed a vehicle pulling over to converse with one of the riders. Then the vehicle pulled up a ways and onto the shoulder. We slowed way down and asked if everyone was o.k. Someone said ‘yes’ and we continued on, assuming it was a flat.
We later learned that it had been a crash. Terry Olmsted had caught the joint of a utility vault and gone off the road, landing on his head in a patch of mud. This was the only soft spot for quite some distance in either direction. The mud had cushioned his spill, though oozed through the vents in his helmet. Several riders doused his head with water from their water bottles (Terry later insisted that someone also doused him with Gatorade!) and courageous Terry continued to ride. At first he noticed a loss of hearing in his right ear. Then he realized it was packed with mud!
At the finish, back in Wilshire Park, Marvin Rambo and Susan France recorded riders’ times. Then about two dozen of the Seattle riders went back to their rooms, got cleaned up, and headed to Pasta Bella. There they dominated the restaurant and received great service from the wonderful staff at the restaurant. Before the meal ended Greg Sneed proposed several toasts, including a big thank you that everyone had survived the various altercations of the day.
This report was originally published in the April 2005 newsletter of the Redmond Cycling Club
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