The Handlebar

A broken mountain bike handlebar in the Colorado backcountry leads to an interesting fix.

mountain biking in the Aspens
Mountain biking the Colorado Trail

It was a long downhill and flowed well. I’d ridden it before and knew that, even though we were going down the valley toward Lost Park, I would need to pedal most of the way in order to keep my speed up. That particular section of the Colorado Trail keeps dropping slightly and slowly for miles as it winds its way down the mostly open Craig Creek drainage and since I’d ridden it before, I knew that it’d be fast, fun and effortless, save for the pedaling. Sure, there were plenty of obstacles all along the way- loose, unfortunately positioned rocks, encroaching Potentilla bushes, and washed out ruts, but only a few consistently tricky spots, all of which occurred where side creeks, thick with willows, came in. While the trail obstacles could be dealt with by using vigilance and technique, the creek crossings required something a little more involved. With their mud, roots, big rocks and water, they were simply best done on foot. Despite all of the downsides, it was Rocky Mountain mountain biking at its best.

I’d ridden the thing in the other direction, a couple of times before, which obviously made it an uphill. While the grade going in that way wasn’t steep, it was simply more fun to go in the downhill direction. And so, like this particular time, that’s what I mostly did.

Even when going in the downhill direction, the start begins with a substantial climb leading up to a high point on a low pass at the west end of the “park”, which is what many such open valleys and meadows like the one we were about to ride into, are called. A gate separates the uphill from the downhill and, in our case, marked the start of over two miles of carved turns, fast straightaways and effortless pedaling slowed only by the creek crossings and the sporadic need to stop and soak it all in.

And so, we began. As we rode, Drew and I had no need or time for water, food, adding or removing layers, or worrying about anything other than how to maneuver around the occasional rock, keep our pedals from hitting the side of the trail and how to avoid each other’s dust. Bison Peak and the entire Lost Creek Wilderness loomed to the west, but since our focus was on the trail, we didn’t have the luxury of looking at or pondering it. While we could sense the remoteness of where we were, we were confident that speed would quickly gobble up the distance and soon enough take us back to the world of cars, roads, the telephone and computers.

For about the first third of the descent, or 15 minutes, I thought of nothing, other than what the next bit of trail was like. If any other sort of thing tried to work its way into my thoughts, I blocked it out before it could ever gain traction.

But, eventually, I let it happen. It was my own fault and no one else’s. I should’ve known better or been stronger in my resolve, but I began to mentally speculate about what would happen if a handlebar broke in the midst of a downhill like the one we were doing. If such a thing were to occur, I realized, there’d be a guaranteed instant loss of bike control which would likely lead to some sort of horrendous crash. As I rounded yet another corner, I envisioned an out of control rider going straight off of a big drop-off while the trail veered off in another direction. I started seeing nameless faces smacking into rocks, heads augering into the ground, bodies sailing off of cliffs and people heading straight at big trees.

I was beginning to feel almost sick as I couldn’t get those thoughts and visualizations out of my mind, when we thankfully began to slow as we rode up to one of the creek crossings, which gave me something else to think about. We picked our way, still riding, a few feet into the willows and finally came to a complete stop as we rode up to a large rock, blocking the way. We got off and began walking and maneuvering our bikes through and around more big rocks and mudhole after mudhole.

After only a few minutes, we came to a particularly tricky spot and I latched tightly onto my handlebar to hoist the bike up and over one of the obstacles. When I pulled up, the right half of the bar came up, but without the bike attached. I was initially surprised and caught off-guard by the whole incident, since it wasn’t the response I was anticipating. I bumbled around for a moment between the rocks, mud and bushes as the two of us initially laughed, sighed, and speculated about various things related to what had just happened including a few “what- ifs”. But then, the smiles turned to frowns as we realized the predicament we were in of a potential wasting of another mile or so of downhill bliss.

I was at a momentary loss for a solution as I visualized having to walk with my bike the rest of the way. In the far distance, I could see Craig Creek turning toward Lost Creek way down at the bottom of the valley. It would take me two hours to walk what could be ridden in 15 minutes just to get over to the Lost Park Road. I didn’t want that to be the way the ride went. I rifled through my small pack looking for any sort of remedy. There was a headlamp, snacks, rain jacket, toilet paper, a small ball of cord, an old orange peel and my first aid kit.

That was it, I concluded! The answer. The first aid kit contained a possible way to fix it. I opened it up and the possible solution was right in front of me. I would be saved by the ace bandage and roll of white athletic tape that was almost staring me in the face and mixed in with the gauze pads, band-aids and cleansing pads, into a somewhat organized heap of “out in the field” medical paraphernalia. Sure, I knew that all of it was intended for human body repair, but realized that there was no reason why the two particular items couldn’t be used together to work in this particular case.

I was convinced that the two could be combined in such a way as to put the bar back together, at least sufficiently enough to allow me to ride back to the road. I became overjoyed as I realized that the ride as intended could go on.

I was ecstatic to have a fix handy. I pulled the two items out, wrapped and taped the broken bar back together and when finished, came to the realization that the repaired bar was going to be way too flimsy for serving its purpose, if it did, indeed, even stay stuck together. My idea simply didn’t work.

I was at something of an emotional and mental crossroad, when Drew pulled out a single shot, CO2, Quickfill air cartridge, which he always carried in the event of a flat tire and inserted it into the hollow, still partially attached, handlebar tube, as if he’d done it before. It was an almost perfect fit.  Without hesitation, we stuck the broken end of the bar onto the other side of the cartridge and then began wrapping tape around the whole thing in order to secure and hold it in place. When finished, I pulled and tugged on it to check, and it was solid. There was no movement. It was almost as good as new, although it had probably added 6 ounces to the weight of bike. At least, I thought, it would allow me to ride out to the road.

And that’s what it did, but with a bonus. Within moments of finishing the repair, we were back on our bikes, rolling down the trail again. Initially, I was a little tentative and backed-off a bit on my speed, but for the most part, the handlebar felt as good as it ever had. Once back on the trail, my first thought was simple satisfaction about how the fix was allowing me to ride, rather than walk. Admittedly, I was kind of amazed that it was working. We rode slowly at first, picking our way down, gingerly steering clear of the Potentilla bushes, giving the jutting rocks wide berths.

But, our riding method didn’t last. Slowly, our speed increased. One bush, became several and we cut kept cutting closer and closer to the jutting rocks. Instead of seeing each potential trail hazard and consciously dealing with them one at a time, we began to somehow collectively pass them all by and kept looking further and further down the trail. Something seemed to take control and it didn’t seem to be rational. Our concern about just simply being able to get back to the car with both of us actually riding, soon became a “given”. Eventually, we were back up to cruising speed, weaving in and out and back and forth, almost rhythmically flowing our way down the trail for the final mile. Each time we looked down and beyond at the bend where Lost Creek turned toward the road, it got closer. But instead of just savoring the end of the trail, we were suddenly hoping for more single track.

We did reach the road and ultimately rode on back to our car. At first, when the whole handlebar incident had occurred, our greatest hope had been simply that the two of us would actually be able to ride out to the road, no matter how long it took. It seems like a small thing now, but just the fact that the two of us were able to ride all the way back, in any form or fashion, was a big thing at the time. And that, when combined with the fact that we got to ride that last mile of single track back into Lost Park the way it was supposed to be ridden, made the whole episode an especially big thing.

Mountain biking Colorado
Mountain biking through the Potentillas

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.