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Drafting, cycling 50 mph downhill, a bus, & semi-truck: Not my brightest moment
dennis the menace

Live long enough and you might just realize you’re an idiot.

My “aha moment” came a few months ago when a guy I bicycled with a lot called up out of the blue to reminisce. One thing led to another and all of a sudden he started talking about how close I came several times to being killed or at least maimed bicycling.

I started to protest that wasn’t the case when he started rattling off a list of incidents.

The fact he could recall times where I skirted real bad outcomes wasn’t the problem. It was the number of them that he could recall.

I am not a risk taker in the classic death defying stunt sort of way. That said the six years of my life you couldn’t pry my hands off drop bars or get me to part riding using anything but a hardcore Brooks leather saddle that would be a lethal weapon if you struck somebody with it was very productive for bicycle helmet manufacturers and emergency rooms.

Five helmets priced north of $100 gave their all to protect my head. I took three trips to the emergency room strapped to a backboard.

One time I managed to rip apart skin, muscle, and other tissue the size of a 50 cent piece all the way down to the bone on my knee cap after a dog ran in front of my bicycle when I was going downhill at 40 mph. I ended up doing a complete flip and a half. I did do the right thing and let go of the handlebars and go into a wrestler’s tuck.

The second backboard trip happened during an organized century ride out of Auburn where a newbie cyclist in front of a pack of riders in the middle of the road going uphill. The three riders ahead of me suddenly veered off in both directions. In an instance I saw the stopped cyclist — who for some reason I’ll never understand had paid $24 to enter a century suited for road or racing bicycles but was riding a low-end clunker mountain bike.

I hit his back tire and flipped over him. Later I was told he said the climb was too tough for him so he stopped in the middle of a bunch of riders. We were barely going 15 mph and the grade was about as wimpy as you could get. Long story short a doctor who was riding told the paramedics that he was an MD and from the looks of how I landed, it appeared I may have broken my neck.

Backboard trip No. 3 was on Sonora Pass just past an 18 percent grade. It was the fifth day of a seven-day 500-mile bike ride crisscrossing the Sierra. I ended up being taken on a backboard to Tuolumne General Hospital in Sonora. That’s where the ER doctor told me the next morning after sleeping all night on an exam table and taking four IVs between the ambulance ride and the hospital that I had suffered the worst bonk he’d ever seen.

Keep in mind I refused to try more than just two criterium races despite others urging me to do. Despite logging three years of 10,000 miles plus annually riding a bicycle with just over 46,000 miles for the six years I was into cycling like a mad man even riding when it was raining or foggy, I was just an average roadie — if that.

In my first criterium that happened to be in Turlock in 1992, I placed 16th out of 20 entries in the novice class. I would have been 18th, but two riders that finished ahead of me had been disqualified after it was determined they tried to sit out one lap without being detected.

Why I gave up on criterium besides my obviously lack of athletic prowess had to do with the riders. Most of them were in their late teens or early 20s. I was 33 at the time.

It wasn’t the fact I was “old” and did not possess blazing speed that deterred me. It was how gleefully they recounted various crashes they’d been on while racing criteriums. They bragged about scars, broken bones, and bent frames.

I didn’t see myself as a risk taker.

When I’d descend the Mt. Rose Highway southwest of Reno heading toward 395 pushing 60 mph while riding with a group of us that made once-a-month trips to do the Mt. Rose, Sponner Summit, and Geiger Grade loop because that’s what a young Greg LeMond cut his teeth on, I’d constantly be thinking of what to do if I was about to crash.

And yes, my friend thought I was crazy given on one descent of Mt. Rose he saw me pass two cars — where it was two lanes going the same direction and they were in the slow lane. To be clear I never topped the speed limit and the top speed of 64 mph my cyclometer registered was with the aid of wind at my back while going downhill on smooth highway pavement.

As we were winding down our phone chat, he asked me what my scariest moment was on a bicycle.

It didn’t take me but a second to say it was on Aug. 6, 1990. It was during a time when every Wednesday involved driving from Roseville to Truckee, hopping on a bicycle, doing a quick loop over Brockway Summit, skirt Lake Tahoe, jam past Squaw Valley, back to the car and had home.

It was my 14th consecutive Wednesday of doing the route. I had crested the summit at 7,201 feet riding on the shoulder.

After a bus passed me by, I looked over my shoulder. I then did what I usually did. With the travel lane behind me clear, I moved over into the road, shifted down, and started cranking up toward 45 mph. If a vehicle came up on me and I wasn’t doing the speed limit, I’d move onto the shoulder that was fairly wide.

This particular day as I moved over after the bus passed I saw two signs in quick succession that said “road work” and then “loose gravel.” Crews had swept loose gravel from road work onto the shoulder.

What happened next took a matter of 20 seconds, if that. I was in the middle of lane when and — without realizing it — I was drafting the bus. A hardcore roadie knows what was happening. Thanks to be caught in the bus’ slipstream, I couldn’t slow my bicycle down and was about to slam into the back of the bus.

The last thing I wanted for do was hit the loose gravel on the shoulder at 45 mph plus. So I exercised the only other option besides slamming into the bus. I moved to the left to pass.

Some people would give their eye teeth to do what I was doing — sling shooting around the bus. All I could remember was seeing the oncoming semi and being able to squeeze in front of the bus with seconds to spare.

When I finally got to the point I could pull over near the Brockway Golf Course and come to a stop, I could hear my heart pounding faster than a Congo drum line for a good two minutes.

I will tell you with all honesty that I took a calculated risk to try and get out of a serious situation. I was clearly lucky that day.

But that isn’t what makes me an idiot.

I’m actually been thinking how I miss my backboard days when I spent more money on high quality bicycle tires in a year than I did on car tires every three years.