What About the Bike?

I’ve got something to share with you. Part of the cost of me being a total word nerd is that some turns of phrase in the bike industry drive me crazy. Case in point: Any time a magazine refers to a “review” as a “test.” The God’s honest truth is almost no one ever gets a piece of gear from a manufacturer with the express advance consent to destroy it by some scientific method. Sure, bikes get broken (been there, done that) and phone calls containing profuse apologies ensue (made them). But actually putting a bicycle frame or component on some sort of test rig so that you can push it to its absolute limit and then report on the particular method of failure isn’t something bike magazines routinely do.

The upshot is that what we all publish are best described as “reviews.” My opposition to the use of the word “test” is that it implies some sort of scientific evaluation. While I do my best to subject bikes and components to objective evaluations, there’s always a subjective element, a part of the experience, the appraisal, that cannot be reduced to raw numbers. As a result, it’s really rare that we are ever in a position to discuss failure mode on a first-hand basis.

That said, crashing can be a pretty effective way to find out just how strong a part is. When I went down in Tuna Canyon, I came as close as I’m likely to come to finding out about failure modes for a few different items. Some of you have asked what I was riding and how it fared. The bike that day was a Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL4 with the new SRAM Red and Zipp Firecrest 202 Carbon Clinchers.

Aside from my jaw and teeth, I can also claim to have thoroughly investigated failure modes for the S-Works Tarmac SL4 frame and fork, not to mention the S-Works Shallow Bend Carbon Fiber Handlebar, as well as the new Zipp 202s.

The final GPS sample taken just before my ill-fated face-first dismount indicated that I was traveling at 29.9 mph. That’s one true statement about the moments leading up to my crash. Here’s another: I never touched the brakes. I think it’s safe to conclude that by the time I buried my wheel in whatever I shoved it in with sufficient gusto to arrest my bike’s forward motion like a couple of drunks in a bar fight, I may have scrubbed a bit of speed, but it couldn’t have been anything significant. Of that last statement I’m certain for one simple reason: The time that elapsed between my bike stopping and me stopping was insufficient to allow me to tuck, roll or even get my hands or arms up to protect my head and face. When people talk about things happening in fractions of a second, I can tell you this was faster than love at first sight.

That’s before I even cleaned the dirt off.

If ever there had been a time where I might have reported on riding something hard enough to break it, well, this would have been that occasion. Taking one for the readers. Occupational hazard. Being empirical. Whatever. The simple fact is that I didn’t break the handlebar. I didn’t break the fork. I didn’t break the stem. I didn’t break the frame and most impressive, I didn’t break the front wheel.

Let’s say that last one again, for emphasis: I didn’t break the front wheel. Hell, it didn’t even come out of true. While my face took the majority of the impact force, the front wheel did take a fair drubbing when it hit whatever it did to bring the bike to a stop and thrust me, tether-ball-like, over the bar.

I can recall my friends picking up my bike as the paramedics were doing their dead-level best to convince me that I’d been unconscious since the release of Star Wars. Amid the many questions they asked as they secured me to the backboard, in the background I heard my buddies say, “Man, his bike is fine.”

I also recall thinking, “Yeah, no shit. Have you seen my face?”

Like I said, I thought that if for no other reason than it hurt too much to say out loud. At that point I still had a mouthful of gravel and dirt. The dirt didn’t bother me; the gravel was a definite pain. The experience was not unlike having a mouthful of peppercorns. Inevitably, you’re going to swallow some and I really could have used a beer to help wash it down. Looks like I have plenty of those now, though—thanks again.

I’ve broken my share of components over the years. I’m not a heavy guy (that day I was all of 162 lbs.) and I’m not even all that forceful as I ride, but I’ve broken bars, stems, seatposts, saddles, a couple of forks and plenty of wheels. When I picked up my bike from the friend who stored it for me for a few days, the only indication I could find that proved the bike had hit the deck was some dirt on one lever and on the bar tape; there was a bit more dirt on the front wheel.

That’s it.

I’ve inspected the bike thoroughly. I can’t find anything wrong with it. And I’m aware that the way composites are laid up today, they are designed that if they suffer a serious impact, though several layers of carbon may break, the entire structure won’t instantly fail. This gives the rider the opportunity to feel that something is soft, not all is right, time enough to pull over and avoid catastrophe.

I can tell you this bike feels the same as it did before I went down. The story might be different if the bar or levers or some other component had taken the second big impact, rather than my face, but they didn’t. I’ve looked for any indication I can find that I shouldn’t trust this bike and I couldn’t find a reason not to ride it.

So I rode it today.

It’s fine and I’m better for getting back in the saddle of the horse that threw me.

My ride today was, in part, an affirmation in my belief of how far carbon fiber technology has come in the bike industry. I don’t think manufacturers get enough credit for how much they’ve improved the durability of carbon products. And I’m not suggestion this is in any way isolated to Specialized or Zipp. I am willing to bet most of the bikes and wheels out there would have survived my particular crash. I can’t imagine how hard you have to hit to actually make any of those things fail.

Like I said, I didn’t enjoy this, but I’m glad that the bike I was on performed as advertised. I might even call it a “test.”


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  1. Kenneth Trueman

    Good story. Glad to see you are doing OK. I bought a couple of “beers” for you last night. BTW, the first question should always be “How is your bike?” … Everything else can heal with time or becomes the stuff of stories, but your bike needs to work for you to get around. 🙂

  2. Patrick O'Grady

    Good on you for getting back on the hoss, Hoss. That first post-injury ride is almost always a doozy.

    I’m not surprised the bike is fine. In every stellar crash I’ve had, if I was a total loss, the bike was unblemished (or nearly so). If the bike was destroyed, I was generally unmarred.

    Incidentally, this works for automobiles, too. I walked away from a train-car collision that obliterated a nifty 1964 Chevy Biscayne. Lost my driver’s license, but kept all my bits.

  3. Les Borean

    Noticed the Speedplays on your bike. I use those too, love ’em.

    Which made me question, how did you un-attch from the pedals? Surely you didn’t twist to un-clip! I’m thinking that, maybe when presented with enough force, the Speedplays un-clip without the twist.

    Or were you still attached after the event?

    Once I hit a pothole that wasn’t deep enough to toss me, but hitting the opposite edge of the hole created enough of a shock to throw the computer off the handlebar. The DT Swiss “Mon Chasseral” rim showed not a trace of evidence of the event.

    If only our bodies were as fault-tolerant as our machines!

  4. GeorgeM

    I’d still take the fork off and look real close at it, especially where the tubes come together. Put some light oil on those areas and wipe it off and then flex things and look for cracks pushing oil out. Critical spot to look at just to be safe, and I would do this no matter the materials.

    1. Author

      PO’G: As they say, if it’s not one thing, it’s the other.

      Les Borean: The first friend who happened on me had to remove my bike from me.

      GeorgeM: My inspection was pretty thorough, but I’ll go back and give the oil a try. That’s a new one on me.

      A-Trav: First time anyone has been willing to say that of me.

  5. Jody Prummer

    I agree with you on how well these company’s build their carbon bikes. I had a crash this spring (24.1 gps) and my bike/carbon wheels were fine, me not so much. According to my teammates I asked about my bike while still hung up in the barbed wire fence but have no memory of anything. Glad you are back on the bike stay well.

  6. tinytim

    Good job getting back on that horse! But dude, a good ‘look over’ with carbon is a concerning proposition. Despite what PR guys and engineers will tell you, carbon can and will break instantly. I would be extra concerned with the full carbon steer tube if the front wheel showed scuff. That and the stem, as well as the bars hidden by bar tape, as these parts suck if they fail (like going down again unexpectedly on a riping descent). I gotta express this, even though you already now it. I’ve gotten rid of carbon bikes, not because they were clearly damaged, but because they had been crash multiple times (and looked fine) and the road that I subject them to resemble pave more than tarmac. Steel breaks for sure, but as a material it gives one ample warning before a nasty failure.

  7. Derek

    I remember the very first bicycle wreck I had where my first thought was not “How’s my bike”. It was fine, I was not. It took me much longer to heal up and be able to get back on the bike, glad you are out riding again. Remember, rubber side down.

    1. Author

      Vandy: That bag is a brilliant little design from Lezyne (rhymes with design) that doesn’t feature the ubiquitous velcro straps that are anathema to the survival of pricey bibs. It’ll be reviewed soon. Very positively, at that.

  8. Jim Durrett

    Six weeks ago I hit a hole in the road at 34 mph according to my Garmin. It was dark. Thrown toward the right curb – granite – and WHAM! Airborne. My front wheel did not survive, and neither did my clavicle nor my scapula, but my Scott CR1 Elite had not a scratch on it. Today is my second day back in the saddle. Feels good to be back.

  9. scaler911

    @les, @all:
    I ride Speedplays as well. Without boring you with the play by play, I hammered into my fallen teammates scapula at 55Kph at a local circuit race near the end of July. I hit the pave with enough force that I was sure I’d broken my hip (I didn’t, just a nasty hematoma). Front Reynolds tub was unscathed, as was my Blue. My cleats never came unclipped. Save having some torn bar tape, my bike survived way better than I did.

  10. Adam

    I hope you heal up, cause I’m so close to pulling the trigger on an SL4 and you could clinch this for me. Here’s about the only place I come to any longer for reviews.

  11. peter weiner

    Why did you crash? Unless I missed it, in none of the blogs did I read anything about the cause of the crash. It takes an unusual set of circumstance for a rider to go over the handlebars and land directly on their face if bike is moving forward and upright at the beginning of the caduta. Basically, the bicycle has to come to a complete stop. In my case, I was sprinting and my cleat came out of the pedal, my knee hit the end of the right handlebar, turning the front wheel ninety degrees, and the bike came to a stop.

  12. Les Borean

    So, when one goes over the bars, is it a good thing or a bad thing when one’s cleats stay clipped in? I suppose it all depends on the specifics of the crash. Seems that having to pull the mass of the vehicle along would slow down the rider’s (flier’s?) forward momentum somewhat.

    1. Author

      Les Borean: The only observation I have on that point is that because my feet stayed clipped in, they couldn’t bang into the delicate midsections of the carbon tubes. So at least that much is good. The rest? Who knows.

  13. Corey

    The ONLY downside from a crash that doesn’t mangle your bike is that you don’t have any potentially fun bike souvenirs to do something creative with (no, scars don’t count). I had a nasty off this summer that smashed most of the fingers in my left hand and gave me a concussion and some road rash. It also broke my helmet and cracked a fancy carbon handlebar. I mounted the bars on my riding mower like J.R. Ewing’s caddy; the helmet has been cut in half and hangs on the wall in my office. Kinda fun. Crash not so much.

  14. Robert

    Very happy to hear you’re doing well and back on the bike. After undergoing a personal event much like yours about two years ago during the early portion of a high-speed descent (good thing there was all that tarmac to break my fall…), I too have to attest to the quality of late-model carbon frames.

    It was on a 2008 Storck Scenario C1.1 and just my second ride on new Zipp 404 clinchers. Only damage to bike: a nicked decal on one of the Zipps, a flat rear tire, scratches to the right shifter and the need for new bar tape. Less than $40 in parts/repairs, and no damage to the frame whatsoever, as I remained attached to the bike during my fall (sandwiching it in the process).

    Damage to me: broken clavicle, fractured rib(s), damage to scapula, slightly punctured lung, concussion (helmets are our friends), various scrapes contusions to hands/knees.

    Both rider and bike were back in business after about 6 weeks.

    Someone looking over me that day? Yes, I’d say so…

  15. Marc

    If you have not done so, please make sure to remove the stem from the bars and inspect that area. Inside the face plate, inside the stem face and inside the stem where it clamps the steerer. And I hope you removed the bar tape and moved the levers to inspect there as well. Another check for the fork is to remove it from the frame, remove the brake (and computer sensor if you have one) and then hold the top of the steerer and ring a fork blade end against the heel of your hand like a tuning fork. It should ring true and clear. Clunking, buzzing or the like are a bad sign.

  16. Alex TC

    This post comes in good time, as I´ve crashed two weeks ago on my SL3 and recently inspected it as well. I´m still healing a broken femur (already walking, not yet riding) but the bike suffered only a few scratches on the STIs and a left Look pedal grinded ugly on the asphalt.

    I´ve crashed before a couple of times with this bike, one going down the Marie Blanc at almost 60kph and another hitting a pothole at 30kmh. Both times the bike and me came out unscathed, totally perfect (well, my pride was hurt and my confidence damaged). I took it to the shop after inspecting myself for a more thoroughly look and second opinion and it passed, not a scratch which is amazing.

    I believe it happens thanks to the low weight of these bikes. That seems to help. Not sure how I came to this conclusion, or hypothesys, but I´ve had much worse luck in the past crashing road and mtn bikes in alu and steel and remember facing equipment damage more frequently and seriously.

    Of course physics dictate that weight and speed should affect the outcome and severity of crashes, and I´m living proof of this… but somehow it affects bikes and stuff more than us (or vice-versa) ´cos I broke my leg on a stupid, 20km/h turn going home from training and the SL3 is practicaly undamaged.

  17. Randall

    Padraig, I’m curious as to whether you could get Specialized to slice your frame open and look for damage, and maybe give you a replacement deal. The data might actually be useful, and I thought you live near there anyway?

    1. Author

      Randall: Supposing there was a crack somewhere in the frame or fork, unless you happen to cut right at the location of the crack, you’ll never find it. So cutting a frame in half is a waste of money unless you’ve already determined that the frame or fork is damaged and unrideable. Now, that said, I’ve got a friend who works in aerospace who has access to an X-ray machine that may be big enough to fit a fork or a front wheel. If so, we’ll see if there’s any damage to either, but I continue to ride both and have yet to find anything to make me suspicious.

  18. channel_zero

    1. You are safe. That’s always first by a long, long way.

    2. TinyTim is right, you don’t know with any confidence at all if the laminates are intact. The various ways of checking for cracks/fails are okay,but this is carbon laminates. Carbon goes KAPOW!! Sudden failure, no cracks necessary. That’s a museum piece now.

    3. I would argue the impact was in a designed vector so the bike wasn’t going to fail spectacularly. Essentially, the carbon bike is built for front to back impact and more durable than any material that’s come before it *in that vector.*

    Check the front hub for cracks. Probably not there, but just in case.

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