The Broken Handlebar

Vail Race 012
Riding Downhill

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 to be able to keep my speed fast enough to move smoothly. The section of the Colorado Trail we were riding drops slowly and steadily for miles as it winds its way down the Craig Creek drainage. It’s a fast, fun, and mostly effortless ride. Sure, there are plenty of obstacles along the way, such as unfortunately positioned rocks, encroaching Potentilla bushes, and washed-out ruts. But the only really tricky spots occur where side creeks, thick with willows, come in from the sides. While most of the trail can successfully be ridden by using a combination of vigilance and solid riding technique, the creek crossings generally require something a little more. And with all of their mud, roots, and big rocks, 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 the thing in the other direction, a couple of times before, which obviously made it an uphill. While the grade going that way wasn’t steep at any one point, it was simply more fun to go in the downhill direction. And so, like this particular time, that’s mostly what I did.

When going in the downhill direction, the start begins with a substantial climb leading up to a high point at the west end of the “park.” At that point, a gate separates the uphill from the downhill and marks the start of over two miles of carved turns, fast straightaways, and almost effortless pedaling slowed only by the creek crossings and the persistent need to stop and soak it all in.

And so, we began. As we rode, Drew and I had no need or time for worrying about anything other than how to maneuver around the occasional rock, keep our pedals from hitting the side of the trail, or 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 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 thought mostly about 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 during a downhill such as the one we were on. If such a thing were to occur, I concluded that there’d be an instant loss of bike control which would most likely result in a horrendous crash. As I rounded yet another corner, I envisioned an out of control cyclist riding straight off of a massive drop-off as the trail veered away in another direction. I saw nameless faces smacking into rocks, heads auguring into the ground, and bodies sailing off of cliffs. It was ugly.

With those visions overwhelming my mind, I was beginning to feel nauseous as 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 walking and maneuvering both them and ourselves around other rocks 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 initially both surprised and 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 both of us initially laughed and speculated about the various “what ifs” related to it all. But then, our smiles turned to frowns as we realized the predicament that 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 having to walk 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 to get back to my truck and that was not how I wanted the ride to end.

And so, I rifled through my small pack looking for any sort of remedy. Among the various things I pulled out were a headlamp, rain jacket, and my first aid kit. That’s it, I concluded! The answer. The first aid kit undoubtedly contained a possible fix. I opened it up, and the solution was right there in front of me, or at least I thought. I would be saved by the ace bandage and roll of white athletic tape almost staring me in the face. Sure, I knew that they were 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 specific case.

I was convinced that they 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 pulled the two items out and wrapped and taped the broken bar back together. But when finished, I realized that the repaired bar was going to be way too flimsy for serving its purpose, if it did, indeed, even remain stuck together. My idea simply hadn’t worked.

I was at something of an emotional and mental crossroad when Drew pulled out a single shot Quickfill air cartridge, which he always carried in the event of a flat tire and 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 and inserted all of that into the still attached part. Then we began wrapping tape around the whole thing to secure and hold it 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, although it had probably added 6 ounces to the weight of the bike. At least, I reasoned, it was solid enough to allow me to be able 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 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 pure 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, 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 collectively pass them all by 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 actually riding, soon became a “given.” Eventually, we were back up to cruising speed, weaving in and out, and almost rhythmically flowing our way down the trail. Each time that 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 to in any form or fashion. But since we actually got to ride that last mile of single track the way it was supposed to be ridden, the whole episode became epic.


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.