Thursday, September 20

The Leadville Saga: Won't Come Back From Deadman's Curve

I want to revisit my near disastrous descent along Emerald Lake during the Alpine Odyssey. I know I relayed the event in a previous post, but I want to unpack and analyze the experience in a little more depth.

It's easy to ignore the inherent risks of riding a bicycle. After many miles and many days of successfully commuting in suburban traffic it's easy to drop your guard.

The same thing is true of fast descents on trails and dirt roads. And there's something intoxicating about bombing down some Tolkien-esque gorge at 30 mph while carving through Lance Armstrong's very recent tire tracks. It's easy to forget the inherent dangers (I.e. physics, not just perceived dangers) and throw caution to the wind.

Just below Paradise Divide on the second lap I backed off my speed. I was all alone on the course, and I realized if I skidded off one of those steep drop offs into a remote alpine gully I might not be found quickly. I recognized the reality combined with the pure physics of my predicament.

My desensitization to the risk put me in greater danger of suffering dire consequences than my normal adventures would. There was the brief perception that I wasn't all alone in a inherently risky situation.

I'm used to being in exactly the same sort of situations EXCEPT for being more self-reliant. But being part of an organized event temporarily gave me a false sense of security.

When I realized that I backed off.

But then as I followed another rider down past Emerald Lake I again let my guard down, and in the heat of the chase I cast caution to the ditch.

It almost cost me too much.

Toward the bottom of the section of road along Emerald Lake the road begins a series of short curves around buttresses on the steep mountain side.

The right edge of the road was a high and steep dropoff. The left edge of the road rose steeply above and blocked the downhill view for any distance.

The road surface itself was irregular but compacted enough to allow someone with fat tires to really open it up. And as I previously mentioned, I was able to reach much higher speeds on my bike than I would have in a car in that section.

Second lap. Some familiarity with the course. Too much confidence.

Before I realized it I was screaming toward Deadman's Curve with an abundance of inertia and little in my physics tool box to shore up the dire situation.

The race disappeared. My urgency to go fast faded. I forgot about the miles between me and the finish line. My singletrack performance anxiety evaporated in an instant. I had laser focus on one thing; I had only one finish line in mind for a few eternal nanoseconds: the edge of the road before the fatal chasm.

I knew not to lock up the brakes. As time slowed down I had that thought and moved on to: how bad is this going to hurt? Then my tires were grinding in the gravel. My panicked battle cry echoed off the valley walls. My mind was fighting the acceptance of my imminent doom with a will to live stronger than I've ever felt.

In retrospect I probably could have just laid the bike down to maximize my friction and stopping power. Instinct tells you to keep the bike upright. Reality is that road rash is an acceptable trade off to dying.

When I found control and was out of danger my tires were within six inches of where the road's edge became degraded and inconsistent. One bump, one rock, one infinitesimal mistake and I would have gone over.

With enough speed there would have been no painful tumble, just one horrendous impact at the bottom. As I was grinding toward the edge I realized I might still tumble down the sick-steep embankment. Too late I realized I could use my body as a huge brake. Then I was too frozen to dive backward and dig in with my fingernails. I made the subconscious decision to ride it out.

Maybe that saved me: sticking with it, fighting to maintain control right up to the event horizon, going down with the ship, fighting the stick instead of pulling the eject lever...maybe that's what saved the day.

[I know this sounds a bit melodramatic, but I assure you, I'm not embellishing this tale to pull in a bigger readership. I'd appreciate it though, if you would take a second to share this post by clicking on the icon of your favorite social media site below]

Full system restart. Laser focus flash burnt all of my previous anxieties. Once I banked out of the near-fatal curve I had fresh oxygen in my brain, had all the extraneous worries purged, and I had fresh adrenaline coursing through my body.

With care I pushed The One back up to ramming speed.

So what's the big deal? Right? I didn't plummet to my doom. I should just forget it and move on? Maybe. Or maybe I should always carry that little coin of experience right in my hip pocket.

Pushing it, giving it your all, going for the gold, doping to win...all those things will bring you glory, but not making it safe and whole to the finish line gains you absolutely zilch.

I want to add the caveat: I do not agree with magnifying the inherent risks of being alive to the level that you give up living a rich and full life.

Fear will prevent you from doing things that have manageable levels of risk. Driving to the grocery store has as much inherent risk (or more) than doing a mountain bike race. Don't be fooled by a false perception of physics.

Life is good. Life is too good to throw it away on shaving off a few measly minutes from an unremarkable performance in the grand scheme of things. I'm happy and content with my time. I'm glad I didn't trade it for ruin.


  1. I thought about this very thing when I was pre-riding the Wilmington Whiteface Qualifier course. Very steep gravely descents. Not a lot of car traffic. A crash could have been a long painful experience. I used a little more brake than I needed to and made my way down the roads and trails.

  2. Yeah, and what's funny is that when I'm out on my own I never think about the consequences. At least not consciously. I think maybe I ride at the limit where I feel in control and "safe," but during the Alpine Odyssey I was far exceeding the speed I would have been subconsciously comfortable riding all alone.

    I think the real meat of the post should have been the revelation of my false sense of security.

    Oh, and not sure why this showed up as having been posted on the 17th. I did upload it that day, but published it today. Got it fixed though!