Thursday, August 4, 2011

Diablo ex Machina

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for intense action, a suggestion of gore, and mild strong language.

In medias res

This post tells a shocking true story. Now, a common storytelling convention is to begin with exposition, introduce a conflict, proceed to rising action culminating in a climax, then have a bit of falling action and resolution at the end. But that can get rather dull. Luckily, fancy English major types like me sometimes follow an ancient epic poem tradition and begin in medias res, meaning in the middle of all the action, with other info being leaked out later, perhaps when the reader’s heart is racing and he could use a break. Meanwhile, employing more than one narrative voice can enhance a narrative, as shown by James Joyce and also that one “Magnum, PI” episode about the bank robbery.

Thus, I’ll start this post—a dark yarn about a bike ride gone really, really wrong—by quoting (as best I can from memory) my biking pal Dave who picks up the tale right from the middle:

“I come around the bend, and there’s this pickup truck in the road—a big one, a working man’s truck, with a welding rig in the back—and the driver and passenger are out on the road talking to Dana and the guys. And I’m thinking, uh oh, these pickup truck guys must not have taken too kindly to being passed by cyclists on this downhill, and now they’re mixing it up with our boys. So I’m figuring I’m about to join in on a big brawl. And by the time I get to Dana, he’s just sitting there trying to scream with his face ripped off.”

Okay, that was really irresponsible. I added that last sentence myself and it bears zero resemblance to anything Dave actually said (though it would never surprise me for him to quote “Mad Max” like that). But the rest of that quote is real (to the best of my recollection). Dave’s initial assessment of the situation was actually pretty far off.

Before I begin, here is our little group at the top of Mount Diablo, before anything went wrong:

What actually happened

Five pals and I were descending Mount Diablo via South Gate. We were going jolly fast, carving just right through the curves, and it was glorious. Lucas was lighting it up at the front, Steve was flying along behind him, and your faithful narrator was speeding along behind Steve. As I saw it, Steve was taking it a bit easier than Lucas through the curves and was accelerating out of them to get back in Lucas’ draft. I in turn, being a responsible family man, was taking the curves a bit easier than Steve, and hauling ass out of them to get back into his draft. I was out of the saddle quite a bit. (Oops, there I go, providing exposition.)

On the lower third of South Gate, past the little ranger’s kiosk, we take this left-hand curve and I’m sprinting out of it when suddenly Platino, my trusty bike, starts whipping around like a cobra being attacked by a mongoose. Time, of course, seems to slow down. (I guess I’ve fallen completely into the classic story arc; you’ve got your conflict right there.)

Time slows down

Huh? Time slows down? No, this isn’t a science fiction post. I’m talking about the strange way in which the brain perceives time during a moment of great danger. So long as panic doesn’t take hold, the brain can process information incredibly effectively and time really does seem to slow down. As the neuroscientist David Eagleman has said of this amazing processing ability, “It has a lot to do with your amygdala acting as an emergency control center that gets all the other parts of the brain to quit mucking around with their daily tasks and concentrate all the resources on the one, main thing that is happening. It is like being an athlete or performer ‘in the zone.’” (For a great article on this topic, click here. Eagleman’s quote is from this Q&A session. For an article on how this phenomenon relates to cycling in particular, click here.)

When an experienced bicycle racer—who is already “in the zone” during a downhill—is thrust into a dangerous situation, this “emergency control center” effect is pronounced. Cycling is a pretty orderly affair when done right, and even the crash situations generally fall into one or another fairly predictable category. The action you need to take is usually pretty obvious, whether or not you can manage to execute it. When a cyclist loses control, the result—either a crash or a save—is not long in coming; maybe a few seconds at most. But those few seconds can seem like a lot longer when the veteran rider’s amygdala kicks into high gear.

So it is when I lose control on this Mount Diablo descent. I even have time to think, “What the hell is going on?” The bike has lurched to the right, and I’ve managed to change its trajectory but it seems I’ve overcorrected—now I’m heading into the left lane, toward an oncoming car. (Am I scared? No, fear is conscious reaction, one of the mental processes that gets pushed to the back burner.) The car is pretty far down the road and not going very fast, so my immediate concern is getting the bike back upright and in the right lane.


The trouble is, my bike refuses to respond. Platino, my normally compliant show horse, a star in the dressage event, has become a bucking bronco. A typical problem, such loss of traction due to road conditions, doesn’t foul up a bike completely—there are generally ways to get it back in line. For example, a few months back I punctured going into a sharp curve at high speed, but was able to swing the bike back upright to regain traction, lean back over to avoid hitting the embankment, right the bike again, and then brake to a stop. But now, on this road, the bike feels utterly foreign, not even like a bike anymore. I’m no longer over it—I’m basically next to it, like I’m a motorcycle road racer or something.

Weirdest of all, the top tube of the frame (the crossbar) is resting under my right thigh, near the back of my knee. And the bike’s wheels are no longer pointing down the hill, though that’s the direction I’m going. So I’m sliding—but I’m somehow not down yet. I’m keeping tabs on the approaching car but it’s not approaching very fast. I slide for what seems like a remarkably long time, which is good: delaying the crash is the name of the game. My brother Max, a brilliant descender, describes the difference between a novice and an expert in such situations: “The novice wants to get it all over with as soon as possible. He’s like, ‘I don’t want to be here. This is bullshit.’ But the expert knows that the longer he can stay up, the better off he’ll be.” It’s true: if you can delay the crash long enough to slow down a bit, you’ll do a lot less damage.

Disconcertingly, nothing in my library of past engagements feels remotely like this crazy slide. The closest match I can find is a stunt I do for my kids where I sit sideways on my top tube, legs stretched out for comic Pee Wee Herman effect. So I work with that motif. I’m still lucid, still refusing to panic; in fact, I’m thinking, “I can save this!” I even have time to contemplate that if I pull this out, it’ll be one of the greatest saves in cycling history.

But fate cannot be stalled forever. Abruptly, the bike seems to high-side: the kind of crash where the tires are sliding, the bike at an acute angle to the ground, and then suddenly the tires catch and the bike flips over the other way like a pancake, driving the rider into the ground.


WHAP! I am one with the asphalt. But I don’t come to a stop right away. I have time to think, “Wow—that’s gotta hurt.” That and “Damnit!” Platino is no longer with me. I let out a yell—sort of an incoherent and/or profane version of “OOF!” It’s not like I’m sliding for long, of course—I have totally augered in. Now the crash is officially over and it’s time to get up and out of the road. But first I take a long millisecond or two to think, “Erin [my wife] is going to kill me.” Then I move on to, “What the hell just happened? Why did I crash? I took that curve exactly right. Is my proficiency in this sport an illusion? Have I just been insanely lucky for the last thirty years?” I pinch my front tire: fully inflated.

Now I’m up and on my feet and the car that had been oozing its way toward me has stopped. It’s two old people and the driver looks pissed. He’s giving me serious stink-eye. As I collect my bike I thank the guy for being alert and not running me over. He just stares. As I haul Platino off onto the shoulder, Lucas and Steve have made their way back up to me. Then—oops, almost forgot my pedal. I snatch it out of the road and get over to the shoulder.

Wait. WTF? What’s my pedal doing off my bike? Oh, wow: the right crankarm has snapped, a couple inches from the pedal. Bing! Mystery solved: crash caused by catastrophic component failure during a full sprint on a descent. Basically a no-win scenario. I’m relieved, actually. To finally know what happened, after those a long few seconds of complete bafflement, is a great relief. I won’t live the rest of my life wondering what obscure physical law I’d unknowingly broken that resulted in this crash. On future descents, I won’t have to second-guess my ability … just my equipment.


One or two of my bike pals arrive, and I’m really glad they weren’t closer behind—they might have run me over. On the other hand, they didn’t get to watch the mêlée, which must have been something to see. Oh well. Then a pickup truck rolls up. It’s a big one, a working man’s truck, with a welding rig in the back. We’d passed it a bit earlier (the driver had pulled over to the side to let us by). The driver and passenger get out (blue-collar types; ball caps, sunglasses). They offer to give me a ride. I hesitate: could they be serious? They are. My friend Dave arrives and joins in the standard fuss over me and my bike.

Am I okay? I rotate my arm all around. My wrist, elbow, and shoulder are wanged real good. Do they hurt? Of course. But is it that particular type of pain that makes you want to cradle the joint, shelter it, put it to bed, swaddle it? No. I think I’m good. Platino looks mostly okay, too. Brake levers are twisted inward, but the saddle and bar tap aren’t even ripped, and the wheels aren’t potato-chipped. My bike gets loaded into the back of the truck.

There are of course further logistics to sort out. I realize that Dave, having parked his car at my place before the ride, should ride back with me in the truck. After all, if he showed up at my house for his car before I made it home, or I showed up before him, my wife and kids would be spooked something fierce: two men left, only one came back! It also occurs to me (mostly in jest), “What if the guys in the truck have a box of Ziploc freezer bags with my name on it?”

They ’re not psychos, of course—they’re really nice. The driver is from Kentucky. The passenger is from Germany by way of San Diego. They’re here building a pipeline of some kind in Modesto. It’s a day off, they just finished running up Mount Diablo, and they’re happy to help a guy out. They drive Dave and me to Bart.


An announcement—“I just crashed descending Mount Diablo!”—is no way to break the news to the family. The trick is, you let them take it for granted that everything is fine, and then you gradually relate the facts of the case. So on the way to my house from Bart, Dave and I stopped at the corner grocery and bought a loaf of Acme olive bread. Then we breezed into the house, chatting merrily, thrilling the kids with the bread, and it was a good couple minutes before my daughter Lindsay asked, “What’s that scrape on your knee?” By this point it was too late for anybody to get spooked, and I said airily, “Oh, I took a little spill on my bike.” Gradually I related the rest of the story, tossing out each fact—the broken crank, the broken helmet, the speed involved, my incredible luck—as lightly as possible.

The bike, as I mentioned before, wasn’t much damaged (other than the crank). I ruined one sock but my other clothing amazingly came out pretty much okay. My helmet has a tiny hairline crack, just enough to require replacement but not enough to suggest I hit my head hard at all, which as far as I know I didn’t. At no point did my mind get foggy—at least any foggier than usual. (I am blond, after all.)

I came through with remarkably little injury: a scuffed wrist, a dime-sized spot of road rash on my right knee, a pea-sized spot on my right ankle, another little dollop of road rash on my right elbow, another on my left ankle (oddly enough), and my right elbow had some swelling. My right shoulder got a bit of a scrape. My shoulder, elbow, spine, and especially my neck were sore for a couple of days but nothing an Advil or two couldn’t fix. I even shaved, hours after getting home, just to test the range of motion of my shoulder and elbow (the same ones I fell on a few years ago, following which I sported a full beard for awhile).

My children cleaned up my token road rash. This was their idea. They begged me to let them do it, intrigued mainly by the clear bandages I’d bought. They argued over who got what wound. They did a great job scrubbing out my scrapes because they did exactly as I instructed, not worrying about how much it must hurt. Of course they were aware that it hurt; in fact, it turns out that an adult’s pain threshold is fascinating to a child. (Perhaps they indulged in a little schadenfreude? This is for not having cable TV!” they might think, or “This is for all the boring lectures!”) Look at their handiwork:

Reconstruction of the crash event

So what really happened? With the help of a photo taken by one of my teammates, I was able to piece together the way in which this most bizarre of crashes unfolded. Look at the white squiggle I left on the road:
A black squiggle would make sense—I was laying down a rubber road straight to freedom! But a light squiggle? Huh?

After much pondering, I can explain it. The right crank was surely under pressure when it broke, so it must have been between the 1 and 5 o’clock position. Since the right pedal was no longer pushing back against my foot, all my weight pitched violently to the right. This leaned the bike way over to the right, making it slide leftward. I tried to right the bike by throwing my weight back over to the left, but without the right pedal to help anchor me to the bike, my body just went past the bike instead of bringing it upright. That’s how my right leg got hooked over the top tube. The broken right crank must have been pointing straight down and dragging on the ground, making that squiggle on the road surface. Sure enough, the leading corner of the crank stub is blackened:

Though the bike had to have been leaned way over, the crank stub was basically holding it up (kind of a tripod effect). Meanwhile, I was on the other side of the frame, basically surfing the bike along the ground.

I figure that what I had originally taken for a high-side scenario was actually the crank digging in enough to stop sliding. When it ground to a halt the bike still had forward momentum, so it was instantly popped the rest of the way over. I guess I kind of kept going, which is how I managed to hit my helmet and shoulder on the ground. (My pal Craig came around the curve just in time to see me sprawl on the pavement. As he tells it, I let out a “nice, primal scream.”) The bike must have gotten flipped up at some point, since both brake levers were folded in by the end.

Always wear your helmet. Zoom in on this photo and you’ll see why.

It’s kind of amazing how long the bike dragged along on that crank stub (based on the length of that squiggle). I’ll bet that’s how we (Platino and I) came to shed so much speed. I’d been rather perplexed at the low amount of damage we sustained given how fast we came out of that curve. Looking at my bike computer log, I could see that for the 4½ miles before the crash, I’d averaged 30 mph, and hadn’t slowed down much for the curves. The minimal damage suggests that between losing control and finally smacking down I really get rid of some speed. Man did I luck out.

I asked the rest of the Diablo Six if this explanation made sense, and Steve e-mailed back, “I’m having a hard time visualizing what you describe. What do you say we go out and recreate the event to test your theory.” Sounds like an episode of “ChiPs!Too bad that show isn’t still on the air—my teammates and I could write the screenplay! We’d begin in medias res and everything!


  1. “Dark yarn” is:

    1. A nice summary of this post

    2. A phrase I used earlier in this post

    3. A good name for a rock band

    4. All of the above

  2. The problem with the title “Diablo ex Machina” is:

    1. It should be “Diabolus ex Machina, since “ex Machina” is Latin but “Diablo” is Spanish

    2. It actually is the name of a rock band

    3. Nothing that isn’t mitigated by the nice play on “Mount Diablo

    4. Answers (a) and (c) above

  3. The moral of this story is:

    1. To protect your riding privileges, take great care when notifying your wife of a bicycle crash

    2. Begin cycling young so you can learn the ropes before your bones, and even your brain, get too brittle

    3. Always remember that, although sports are dangerous, so is sitting around the house getting depressed and out of shape

    4. All of the above

The answer to all three questions is, of course, (d). Note that there is a rock band called Diabolus ex Machina.

dana albert blog


  1. Stupid Blogger! It erased my comment, which was certainly once of the finest comments ever written! I clicked Post Comment and it invited me to create a blogger account! What gives, Google?That's just evil!

    But so anyway, I'm glad that you still have the mad skilz to crash on a high-speed mountain descent and live to tell the dark yarn, and also that you still have the mad skilz to convince your family that it was nothing. I guess you'll live to do more fun mountain descending.

    As for that crank arm, I still can't believe that it failed. It's not like you're a really big guy, like Mr. Darnell, who broke the one-piece Ashtabula on "Ghostie" during that neighborhood bike ride. Not that we'd expect a solid steel Ashtabula crank arm to break, either, but still, Mr. Durnell was a big man. I certainly hope that Shimano will do the right thing and give you a new crank arm. Shoot, they should even upgrade you to one of those cranks with the hollow chainrings, just to help ease the pain a little. If they don't, it'll be a blow to me, that Shimano would make a crank that could break like that, and that they wouldn't make good on it.

    I have one question for you, though... Your beautiful new DuraAce brake levers aren't scratched, are they?

    PS The only way I could post this glorious comment is Anonymously. A am not anonymous, I am your brother, Bryan.

  2. Wow, that comment really threw me at first. The opening line, "Stupid Blogger!" made me think my blog had attracted its first hater. Then I realized you meant the site. You're not the first to lose a glorious comment to the website's flakiness. Sorry about that. To whoever reads this, please save your comment to Notepad, the only computer app that still works reliably, before daring to click "Post Comment."

    As for the crank warranty, I'm not optimistic, but I'll let you know. Frankly, my faith in Dura-Ace has really been shaken by this, even more than when Shimano copied Ashtabula's crazy one-piece crank idea. I well remember Mr. Darnell breaking that crank. It was a race, remember? When that crank broke he said, "You set me up!" That was how Ghostie became Ghostie, was it not? I dare somebody to ask what Ghostie was. That could be a blog topic...

  3. Oh, and the brake levers ... indeed, they're scratched, and scuffed, even to the point that you can see they've got some plastic in their construction. But I guess I can't really complain since they still work fine, and that's the extent of the damage to the bike (other than the crank, of course).

  4. I'd forgotten about this horrific tale. I will now try to forget about it again...

  5. Interesting article on your crank arm...I broke mine in the same spot this weekend but lucky for me I was pounding up a hill when it broke. Older Durace crank

    1. Wow, that's kind of frightening. I'm glad you weren't hurt. Was it a right or left crank? And was it an Octalink? I have a brand new Ultegra Octalink I'll sell you real cheap if you're interested!