Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I am going to admit to experiencing a prolonged period of obsessing about crashing. Anyone who has ridden a bike for any period of time can tell you that, sooner or later, it is going to happen. It is not a matter of skill, or care, or luck. While you can minimize the likelihood of going down, you cannot ride a bike day after day, year after year and expect to escape unscathed. It is that expected part that seems to have found a spot at the back of my mind and has been difficult to abolish. Expected, expected, expected, expect it; and if you let it, it will gnaw away at your self-confidence. And not that it has ever kept me from riding, I have continued to ride as much as time will allow.

I consider myself an accomplished rider, maybe even skillful, at least enough so that during all the races I did in the past I only hit the pavement twice - the first time could not be avoided, a massive pile-up with no where to go; second one was kind of the same thing, but as I was picking up speed again to chase, another racer plowed into the back of me. He must have been going full speed, because I flew.

Then there were the times I was lucky, when a rider would go down in front of me but slide or bounce off to the side, into someone else's path perhaps, but at the same time out of my line of travel. Or the time during a technical criterium when another racer tried cutting inside of me, entangling his handlebars with mine; he went down, but I luckily continued on.

Of course like most people who have raced, I have spent far more time training than racing, with a proportional rise in crashes during those times. Some have been quite dramatic, from my perspective anyway, such as sliding out going around a left turn at speed and skidding a good 50 feet or more along a gasoline slick, until the opposite curb was helpful enough to halt my forward momentum. Or riding all day in the pouring rain only to have some gremlin grab hold of my front wheel and lodge it in an unseen crack in the pavement.

Others have been less dramatic, downright embarrassing really. Heading uphill with the peleton, a crash up front, everyone comes to a stop, I come to a stop against the curb and promptly fall over into the dirt. And then there were the two car incidents - 1. coming down a typical twisting mountain road and rounding a turn only to find a car blocking the road, the driver in the middle of making a u-turn - brilliant location for it. Smash, I'm flying again. Or, 2. riding in to work, early morning, sun low at my back, rolling through the intersection, car in the left turn lane, I am looking directly at him, he is looking directly at me and waiting, no he's going, WTH. Smash, flying yet again.

So why relive all this when I admit to expecting that crashes may happen at any given moment. I have come to the conclusion that they build up in your mind, a lot like toxins in the ocean, or DDT in the food chain. And they maybe start to affect you. I mean I can pretty effectively recollect every crash I have had, solo or group. And I don't really appreciate the purpose that holding on to those memories seems to serve.

So here is the thing. Numerous year ago (more than 12) while charging down Highway 39 from Crystal Lake one winter, a road I had topped 50 mph on two previous occasions, I got the front end wobble, or death wobble if you will. I glanced down, and noticed that it looked like I was riding a rubber bike, the front end was flexing so much. Not a comforting feeling, terrifying in fact, I was sure I was going hit the pavement hard. Even so, I managed to pull it out and come to a stop, though I had been fully preparing to dive and roll. I was sure that shivering in the cold air had set things off, and today, for this first incident, still am.

I did not give the incident another thought, until it happened again, then again, and again. In fact it got to a point that it could happen out of the blue on slopes that even ants would be embarrassed to call hills. For someone who loves to climb, this was torture. Going up was fine, but then I had to come down, and when that happened inevitably the wobble would return. I considered bike geometry and component set-up, and convinced myself that these were the causes. At the same time, I toyed with the idea, but refused to believe that the problem was ultimately mental.

My one saving grace turned out to be mountain biking. No wobble. I could descend as fast as I was willing with no ill effects. As a result I completely gave up on the road bike for a while; if I rode to work it was on the mtb. There were certain advantages; I rarely worried about flats or being tripped up by cracks in the pavement. But the call of the road has always been strong and I eventually had to give in and returned to it.

All during this time I continued searching for a place to find fault, eventually ruling out frame geometry, or set up, and weather conditions. All along, at the back of my mind was the nagging suspicion that it was me; the spectre of multiple crashes, and the memory of that first and all subsequent wobble incidents would combine and slink forward, I would tense up and the wobble would return. I read up on other riders' experiences with the wobble, and I have done the research on causes and effects - loosen the grip, relax the arms, weight off the saddle; these are all techniques that I took for granted once, intuitive cycling, I never had to think about them. But I have had to relearn them, and most importantly relearn to focus, to not over-think things while riding. And it seems to be working so far. I am regaining my confidence in descending and with a little more fortitude, a little more mind control I should be able to rail the mountain tarmac again. After all what is an old climber to do, I am certainly not resigning myself to the flat lands. Just in case, any trustworthy sports hypnotists out there?

Update 13 October: Now that I have been riding my new bike (KHS) for a couple months, done some climbing and descending on mountain roads, I am pleased to announce that I have not experienced a case of front end wobble during this time, and am knocking on wood... right... about now.


  1. You can stop the wobble by making another point of contact between you and your bicycle. Put a knee against the top tube or grab the top tube with your hand.
    It does not take very much weight in the wrong place or very much damage to the bicycle frame to create a situation where the wobble occurs. I once put a handlebar bag on a road bike and going down a hill it would wobble. My wife had a brand new mountain bike that wobbled after a certain speed going down hill. After questioning the shop mechanic I found out the bicycle had come to the shop with shipping damage. the front wheel had been crushed. They had built the hub on another rim and said nothing about it to me. The manufacture traded the bicycle out for me. You could not see frame damage with your eye but something had to be out of square.

  2. Michael. Same situation here. A couple months ago I took a rather hard spill while descending a twisty road and a month later I found myself getting ready to hit the pavement because I could not control the 'wobble' on my front wheel. Now I find myself thinking about how to ride: break before the turn, weight on the outside pedal, if the turn is sharp counter-steer, etc. All this came naturally before and I think I just need to, as you point out, relax and not to over-think things while riding.

  3. Sound like you've crashed that frame enough to tweak it. Take it to a shop that can measure it precisely to check the alignment of both the fork & the frame. It only take a almost imperceptible twist anywhere in the frame to push it out of perfectly straight. When you stress it by going fast over small bumps, it oscillates. Thats more likely your wobble. Not you, it's the bike...

  4. Thanks all. Pressing a knee against the top tube is another tip I had read about, but probably (for me anyway) the least intuitive. I fully agree that in many cases frame/fork alignment is the primary contributing factor, however, that the wobble has occurred on 3 different road bikes, has led me to the belief that other factors are also involved. The first time it happened was on a GT which up to that point was easily the best descending bike I ever owned. But, it was also the bike I was riding when hit riding through the intersection. After I had repairs made, it just did not feel the same so I had the alignment checked and was told it was fine. I can tell you, though, it never felt the same again. The common variable between all the times it has happened seems to have been thinking "oh man, what if I get the wobble right now." Anyway it has been years since buying a new frame, so maybe I will have the opportunity to test things out soon.

  5. You're just lucky you can go fast enough to wobble. I freak out before that point. LOL, but serious too...


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