The Broken Handlebar

Vail Race 012
Riding Downhill

I was going downhill, and the trail flowed well. The section of the Colorado Trail we were mountain biking down drops slowly and steadily for miles as it winds its way down the Craig Creek drainage. It’s a fast, fun, and effortless ride and one I had done many times previously. Sure, there are some obstacles along the way, such as unfortunately positioned rocks, encroaching Potentilla bushes, and washed-out ruts. But the only significantly tricky spots occur where small creeks, thick with willows, come in from the sides. While you can successfully ride most of the trail by using a combination of vigilance and good riding technique, the creek crossings are a little iffier, and those parts often end up being walked. Despite the downsides, it’s mountain biking in the wilds of Colorado at its best.

I’d ridden it in the other direction a couple of times before, in which case it’s considered an “uphill.” While going that way isn’t all that steep or physically demanding, it’s simply more fun to go in the downhill direction.

When going in the downhill direction, the start begins with a short climb from the trailhead up to a high point at the west end of Craig Park. At that point, a gate separates the uphill from the downhill. It marks the start of over two miles of carved turns, fast straightaways, and almost effortless pedaling slowed only by the creek crossings and a persistent desire to stop and soak the surroundings in.

And so, we began. As we rode, Drew and I mainly just worried about maneuvering around the occasional rock, keeping our pedals from hitting the sides of the trail, and avoiding 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 mostly 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, and computers.

For the first third of the descent, I focused most of my attention on the riding technicalities of the next bit of trail. If something other than that started 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 fault and no one else’s. I should’ve known better or been stronger in my resolve. But I wasn’t and began to mentally speculate about what would happen if a handlebar broke during a downhill such as the one we were on. If that were to occur, I concluded that there’d be an instant loss of bike control, which would likely result in a horrendous crash. As I rounded yet another corner, I envisioned an out-of-control cyclist riding straight off a massive drop-off as the trail veered in another direction. I envisioned nameless faces smacking into rocks, heads auguring into the ground, and bodies sailing off cliffs. It was ugly.

With those visions dominating my mind, we rode up to one of the creek crossings. We picked our way along the trail for a few feet into the willows but then came to a complete stop as we rode up to a large rock that almost completely blocked the way. We got off our bikes and began maneuvering around the rock and across multitudes of mudholes. After only a few minutes, we came to a particularly tricky spot, and I latched tightly onto my handlebar to hoist my bike up and over an obstacle. When I pulled up, the right half of the bar did the same, but without the bike attached. I was caught off-guard by the whole incident since it wasn’t the response I was anticipating. I bumbled around for a moment as I dealt with the rocks, mud, and bushes as the two of us laughed and speculated about the various “what ifs” related to the situation. But then, our smiles turned to frowns as we realized the predicament we were in and the potential wasting of another mile or so of downhill bliss.

I was at a momentary loss for a solution and began to visualize walking with my bike the rest of the way. Far off down the valley, I could see where Craig Creek turned toward Lost Creek, which gave me a frame of reference regarding the situation. From where we were, I calculated that it would take two hours for me to walk (what could be ridden in 15 minutes) back to my truck, which was not how I wanted the ride to end.

And so, I rifled through my small pack looking for any remedy. I pulled out a headlamp with a cord tangled up with my rain jacket, an old grapefruit that had become solid, a fleece hat, and then—my first aid kit. That’s it, I immediately concluded, the first aid kit! Undoubtedly, I reasoned, somewhere within that heap of band-aids, tape, and gauze, there would be a fix. I opened it up, and the possible solution was right there in front of me. I would be saved by the ace bandage and roll of white athletic tape, almost staring me in the face. Sure, I knew that the intent for their use was for human body repair. But I realized that there was no reason why I couldn’t use those two items together for this specific situation.

I determined that I could combine them 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 and realized that the ride could go on.

I pulled the two items out and wrapped and taped the broken bar back together. But when finished, I realized that the repaired bar would be way too flimsy for serving its purpose. That was if it even remained stuck together. My idea didn’t work.

At that point, I was at something of an emotional and mental crossroads. But then, Drew pulled out a single-shot flat repair Quickfill air cartridge. He inserted it into the hollow and still partially tape-attached handlebar tube as if he’d done it before. The three-inch-long, full of CO2, and hollow submarine-like piece of metal was an almost perfect fit. Without hesitation, we stuck the broken end of the bar onto one end of the cartridge. Then, we inserted that into the part of the bar that was still attached to the bike. Finally, we wrapped the tape around the whole thing to hold it all in place. When finished, I pulled and tugged on it to check, and it was solid. There was hardly any movement. It was almost as good as new. While it wasn’t perfect, I reasoned that at least it was solid enough to 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 and rolling down the trail. Initially, I was a bit tentative and backed off a bit on my speed, but for the most part, the handlebar felt as good as it ever had.

When I first began to ride, I felt total satisfaction about how the fix allowed 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, and giving the jutting rocks wide berths.

But our riding method didn’t last. Slowly, our speed increased. Single bushes began to blend into several, and we kept getting closer and closer to the jutting rocks. Instead of seeing each potential trail hazard and consciously dealing with them one a time, we began to pass them all by almost mindlessly and kept looking further and further down the trail. Something seemed to take control, and it wasn’t rational. Our concern about just simply being able to get back to the car with both of us riding soon became a “given.” Eventually, we were back up to full cruising speed, weaving in and out and almost rhythmically flowing our way down the trail. Each time we looked down the valley to where Lost Creek veered off toward the road, it was closer. But instead of just savoring the end of the trail, we were suddenly hoping the ride would last a little longer.

We reached the road and, ultimately, my truck. When the handlebar incident had first occurred, our hope was only that the two of us would be able to ride out in any form or fashion. But since we ultimately got to ride that last mile of single track the way it was meant to be ridden, the whole episode became epic. The situation convinced me that some problems are best solved by using mind over matter.

A dirt road via mountain bike
Mountain biking

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.

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