Speed multiplier

February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments

Do people get hurt worse now than they used to?

My memory was faulty even when it was perfect, but I don’t remember people falling off their bikes and getting hurt as much as they do now. There was a guy one time who I didn’t know back in ’85 who was getting chased by a dog up around Georgetown, and he fell off and hit his head and died. That was considered a pretty legit injury back then, dying.

People talked about it a lot and about how when your number was up, well, better go ahead and make arrangements at the funeral parlor. There was a lot of fatalism. There was also a lot of helmet bashing, because the guy had been wearing a Bell Biker. Remember those? They were the size of a small motor home, and weighed like one, too. Everyone nodded grimly about how helmets were worthless and whatnot.

But people still didn’t seem to get hurt like they do now, and no one wore a helmet. Broken hips weren’t simply a rarity; I’d never heard of it happening. People had bicycle falling off incidents all the time in races, in fact bike racing was a euphemism for that, and they almost always hopped back on and finished the race. Road rash was pretty much the worst thing you could get, that and a badly busted ego.

And training rides were mostly injury free, even though a lot of the guys I rode with were always stoned. Or maybe it’s because they were stoned, I don’t know. Some wanker would fall off his bike and take down another couple of idiots, there would be some cussing and finger pointing, and we would continue on.

Nowadays it isn’t that way. I couldn’t list all the people who have suffered serious injuries if I tried, and those are the people I personally know. Broken humerus, broken hip, broken neck, broken spine, closed head injury, broken hand, severed digit, broken knee, facial fracture, death, catastrophic brain injury, paralysis … the list is endless, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a lot older and have therefore ridden a lot more miles and seen a lot more falls, or just because my job is “bike injury lawyer,” although those are surely factors.

I think the reason people get hurt more, and get hurt more badly, is because they go faster than they used to. And I think the main reason they go faster than they used to is because of equipment.

The biggest speed multiplier is of course wheels. Used to be, the only fast wheels were aluminum-rim tubulars, and the only people who had them were racers. Even those wheels weren’t that fast; thirty-six spoke, box rim, metal wheels were standard “race wheels,” with “blazing fast” wheels having 32 or 28 spokes. Those wheels were slow. Heavy and slow and soft.

The bikes were heavy and mushy and there weren’t a whole lot of gears, and what also slowed you down was the fact that you couldn’t magically change gears with the flick of an index shifter. In sum, bikes go a lot faster today than they used to; 2-3 miles per hour, easy, probably closer to 5-6. I remember when, if you averaged 18 mph on a training ride you pretty much had to be scraped off the saddle with a spatula. People average 20 now without even batting an eye, to say nothing of 23, 24, and up.

Just look at what aero has done to triathlon, and how many tri-dorks get hurt in training and racing. You may think that riding by yourself is as safe as it gets, but I know one idiot who bought a fancy TT bike, went down to Fiesta Island, and broke his neck because he lost control in the start/finish area. The bikes go crazy fast, and the combination of fast wheels, low profile, narrow bars, twitchy front end, and basement-level IQ means that the risk for falling is higher than it used to be.

And the speeds may not sound like much, but when your average speed is around 16 or 17, and it goes up to 23 (or 27-28 if you’re on a TT bike), the potential for crashing jumps exponentially. The decrease in reaction time isn’t linear, and the same goes for the impact when your meatbag comes off the bicycle and slams onto the asphalt. Falling at 17 is nothing like falling at 28; just ask Fiesta Island Brokeneck. And of course top ends are higher because those light bikes with fast wheels can easily hit the low 30’s. Throw in a tailwind and a light downhill grade and you’re in the mid-high 30’s as a Cat 5.

The low 30’s … remember those? Those used to be the finishing speeds of people who won real bike races. Now it just means you were mid-pack. And some middle-aged dude on a crazy light, crazy fast bike pedaling like mad on the weekend ride can hit those speeds almost as easily as he can hit the pavement, with catastrophic results.

There are probably other force multipliers, such as the false sense of security people get from helmets, the number of people who get into cycling with no previous riding background, older and frailer riders, more cars on the roads, and the omnipresent quotient of dumbfuckery among the general human population, but it seems to me that the faster you go, the harder you’re gonna fall.

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§ 15 Responses to Speed multiplier

  • Eric Larsson says:

    There’s a curve that shows the risk of fatality from a car-pedestrian crash and it has an upward inflection point at 20mph. According to Edward O. Wilson by way of Jeff Speck, it’s explained by evolution: humans have a couple million years of selection for running around at up to 20, and we’ve only started to go faster quite recently.

  • RGT says:

    A very Tilfordesque post today, Seth.

  • Mark Preston says:

    IMO one of the worst things ever to be invented, and put on bikes (especially for the casual or recreational rider) is clip on tri bars. I have heard of a number of incidents where peope got serious head and facial injuries because they crashed while on the tri bars. I’ve been riding for almost 40 years and I will not ride anywhere near a person who is riding tri bars on a group ride. Most riders have neither the skill set nor the reflexes needed to adequately control their bikes when they are on them. They’re a hazard but bike shops routinely equip their bikes with them because, I imagine, it’s an easy extra $100 added to the price and people think they are cool. SMH

  • gcziko says:

    The faster you go, the more reason you have to control the lane and to even position yourself a bit left of the center of the lane. Why?

    1. To avoid road hazards, most of which are located on the right edge of the road such as potholes, road seams and debris such as broken glass, palm fronds and pine cones.

    2. To prevent or reduce the chance of a motorist-caused crash such a dooring, sideswipe, right hook, drive-out or left cross.

    3. To have better sight lines to see potential conflicts earlier and to be seen earlier by other drivers.

    There’s a reason that steering wheels are on the left side of the car. That’s a good lane position for bike drivers, too, especially fast ones.

  • shano92107 says:

    another factor is the strength (power) of the new gen of riders, probably due in large part to the proliferation of coaches and training programs. It seems like people in groups rides are just crazy strong and constantly throwing down. When dudes with a 300W FTP but no pack skills jump in on a group ride there is going to be carnage.

  • lborean says:

    Another factor is momentum, as in physics. Momentum is proportional to the square of speed.

    So comparing momentum at 17mph and 23mph, the momentum increases over 1.8 times. So running into an object at 23mph, one hits with almost twice the energy. That also applies to the amount of tumbling after meeting the asphalt.

  • flehnerz says:

    I’m more terrified of the tri-bros on Fiesta Island than I am of the drunk RV drivers.

  • Kinda thinking the condition of the roads contributes to carnage also. Do the roads seem worse than a few years ago to anyone else? Maybe I’m riding more adventurous places, but the City of Los Angles will paint a bike lane over anything. There are just more things to run into. I’m with Geziko above on lane position – further left than before, and out of some of the crud on the sides of roads.

    • flehnerz says:

      The roads may seem worse because a lot of governments experienced a steep drop in tax revenues during the Great Recession. As a result local roads weren’t maintained as often as before and fell into decay. Some are just now starting to work through a backlog of maintenance projects.

      I know LA is going crazy with door zone bike lanes but are they also painting bike lanes where half or more of their width is in the gutter? San Diego has been doing both and it drives me nuts.

  • senna65 says:

    It’s got to be a numbers game. More riders riding more and more drivers driving more. Speaking of Tilford, was just checking some lap times at the 24 Hours of Old Pueblo on Strava and pretty cool Tilford has one of the top 10 lap times. Not bad for an “old man” who I think did 7 laps that year 2015. I know he came blowing by me at least once that year…

    • Jeff Dinkin says:

      <<<<—THIS is seemingly a problem for every aspect of life now, and it's gone exponential.

      • Jeff Dinkin says:

        *the omnipresent quotient of dumbfuckery among the general human population.* <<<<—THIS is a problem for every aspect of life now, and it's gone exponential.

  • senna65 says:

    Flew into Vegas and then drove to St. George, UT last week and was thinking of our man Tilford. Know he drove those high desert highways just before meeting his maker. His spirit of toughness and humbleness (thinking of that post where he helped the women who was shacking up in one of his properties) live on. A true legend for anyone who turns the pedals and a unique and difference making person.

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