Slip and Slide

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Here are some facts. Southeast Concord Road between Oatfield and McLoughlin Boulevard in Milwaukie Oregon is .3 miles long. It is also a very steep .3 miles that terminates in a very busy intersection. In Oregon it rains a lot. The Portland metro area, of which Milwaukie is part, has a well established bike culture. Portlanders are encouraged to bike commute.

For a while part of my morning commute was rocketing down the bike lane on Concord road to catch the bus at the bottom of the hill. Work was too far to easily ride to but the mile of so from my house to the bus stop was a nice bike ride in the morning. Followed by a packed bus ride to a near work bus stop followed by another mile or so ride to actually get to work. Taking the bike clipped what could be a 2 hour commute and made it into a 90 minute one. That is a substantial time savings.

I began biking as part of my commute during the late spring and summer. There isn’t much rain during those seasons and what little there is is a welcome relief. No need for rain gear or bike fenders. However Summer eventually succumbed to Fall. With that change the rains resumed. In a car you think about basically 20 or 30 feet from the shelter of the house to the car in the driveway. If it’s raining buckets you are going to get a little damp but no worries you’ll be dry in a few minutes. On a bike that’s a whole other realm of wetness.

While riding a bike one quickly passes through dampness, zips by wet and tips over in to soaking in just a few minutes on the road. Rain gear is a must. As a larger lady without the typical cyclist build. (translation: I am fat) I had a hard time finding gear that was breathable and that fit. I ended up with a decent shell up top but rain pants eluded me until I found a pair of mens pants. They weren’t the high end gore tex waterproof and breathable kind. They were your standard thick rubbery plastic that you see fishermen wear. Beggars can’t be choosers and evidently neither can fat people so rather than be soaked each morning I started wearing them.

That fateful morning three things were at play. I was running late. The rain was coming down so thick and fast the drains couldn’t keep up with water coming off the roads. And I had no front bike fender.

Coming down a steep hill on a bike is both fun and terrifying. My speedometer said that I regularly hit 25 mph on that stretch which doesn’t sound fast if you are encased in 2000 pounds of metal and glass but on a bike where its just a few pieces of cloth between you and serious road rash or broken bones that adds a little thrill of fear to that seemingly sedate pace. It’s also about twice as fast as I regularly go on a flat road. Usually I ride the brakes a bit on the lower half of the hill and end up almost stopping to be able to make the sharp right hand turn to avoid the heavy traffic and to get to the bus stop at the bottom of the hill. I’m asking a lot of these breaks with the momentum I build up but they’d been handling it just fine all summer long.

So there I am running late. I turned on to Concord and began my descent. Since I was running late I was moving a bit faster than usual coming from the slightly more level Oatfield road. I quickly got up to speed which was rather more terrifying than usual.

The amount of rain on the road meant I was effectively riding in a small stream that had formed in the bike lane. I couldn’t quite see the ground clearly through the rain and water on the road. That meant I’d be unable to see any large rocks or sticks until I was right on top of them. Cyclists get used to dodging thing like that in the bike lane but you need to be able to seem them to dodge them. Also since I was plowing through almost an inch of water I was throwing up quite a bit of spray from my tires. Most people reading that will have an image of my back tire flinging water into the air behind me. They wouldn’t be wrong. However the more important to me spray was the sheet of water coming off my front tire and smacking me in the face helping to blind me further.

You’d think my bike frame would block some of upward directed spray but then you’d be wrong. At this point I’m more than half blind, plunging down hill towards a busy intersection while wondering if I will begin hydroplaning before I hit some road debris that will do doubt launch me from the saddle and into oncoming traffic. So I did what any Normal terrified person does in that situation. I applies the brakes. Hard!

Has anyone else here ever tried to determine the coefficient of friction of rubber over wet metal? No? Well it’s really, really really low, let me tell you that. The water on my metal rim was making my brakes barely functional. While it’s possible I was slowing I was now most of the way down the hill. The rate at which I was slowing was not enough to stop me before the intersection. I gripped the breaks harder and tried to scan the intersection to see if I’d hopefully hit it during a green light. The rain and tire spray made it hard to tell. There is something else you should know about the bottom of my route. There was a metal manhole cover in front of a sewer drain right before a small pothole. On any normal morning I was able to stop before them, then hop the curb to the side walk and walk the bike to the bus stop. This was a far from a normal morning.

Luckily there was no car beside me as I reached the bottom of the hill still going about 7 mph according to my speedometer. I say luckily because that is when I also hit the water slick manhole cover. Remember how the coefficient of friction is suuuuper low when rubber meets metal? Yeah. The pothole directly after the slick surface grabbed my front tire and turned it. At the same time I felt my back wheel swing around as it hit the manhole cover. I tried to lay the bike over on its side in the several inch deep pond at the bottom of the hill. I was lucky not to be catapulted over the handlebars. My right hip and knee hit first followed by the rest of my right side. I’d expected the splash and jolting thump but not the fact that my momentum would carrying me and the bike skittering out into the traffic.

I don’t think I took half a breath when I stopped before I began frantically trying to scramble out of the lane and up on to the sidewalk. When I was clear I shook water from my eyes, double checked the traffic was stopped then scrambled to grab my bike out of the lane. My only physical damage was a deeply bruised right hip with a spot the size of my hand that turned an impressive purple then green before for going a ugly yellow many days later. My bike was fine, surprisingly. It turns out the thing that really saved me was those tough rubbery plastic rain pants that took the road rash and still kept me dry. Without them I probably would have had a shredded hip and leg.

Oh and for those curious. I took to riding just a little bit farther down Oatfield and its gentle decent before turning on Oak Grove to get to a different bus stop thus avoiding the death defying steepness that is Concords more direct route. I think and extra 5 minutes is worth the safety factor.