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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Eating It: (Mis)Adventures in Urban Cycling, or Stupid Bicyclist Tricks

From flickr user Faceless B
The tracks. Bane of the Portland cyclist's life.

Portland is almost as renowned for its rail transportation as it is for its bicycling. But our current rail transit network is pretty recent: the first MAX light-rail line opened in 1986. The Portland Streetcar came in 2001. We don't have "heavy rail", so much of our network is street-level. And we have a lot of freight rail across the city as well. Which means there are plenty of crossing of tracks in this town.

And those tracks love grabbing bicycle wheels.

Now the easiest way to avoid "eating it"  on the tracks is to avoid streets with tracks. But inevitably one will need to cross tracks, so the best way to do it without crashing is crossing perpendicular to the tracks, at a right angle. Still, the tracks claim so many bicyclists each year, inexperienced and experienced alike. I know too many people, whether personally or friends of friends, who have eaten it in the tracks. Stories of broken arms, wrists, collarbones, teeth. The adage is if you haven't eaten it yet, just wait.

For ten years I managed to keep off that list. I followed the safest practices when dealing with tracks, and prided myself on that.

Until last night.

Thursday November 18. A dark and rainy night, a little after 9pm. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance just had a little shindig to celebrate their new digs in the Pearl. But it was done, and I was done, so I headed home. I opted to use the bike lanes on the Burnside Bridge. After crossing, my plan was to turn right onto Martin Luther King Blvd and then right onto SE Ankeny in order to get to SE Water Avenue. MLK has a fresh set of Streetcar tracks running down it here and turning right and staying in the right lane put me in between the rails. This was a stupid move, hands down, but I don't know what I was thinking. (Especially since I could have just stayed on Burnside for a few more blocks and cross all the tracks perpendicularly.) So turning right meant onto Ankeny meant cutting across a track. A wet track. And not perpendicularly. At speed. What the hell was I thinking? I wasn't.

And you can guess the outcome. BAM. I'm down on the pavement, face first.

I quickly got up and dragged myself and my bike to the side of the road. MLK is a busy street, thankfully no car was right behind me. Shaken and jacked up, I assessed the situation. Nothing felt broken. Bike doesn't look obviously broken. But my face: shit. I'm bleeding quite good from above my lip. Fuck. And I didn't have a mirror to see how I looked. I stood there for about five minutes, dabbing blood off of my face with a handkerchief, cursing myself for my stupidity. I had no one else to blame for this but me.

So I calmed down and got on my bike. It still rides, good. I rode home, occasionally dabbing my face with the kerchief. When I arrived at home I looked in the mirror. Shit. I took out a good little chunk of skin above my lip, plus scuff my chin a bit. And my right knee: it was bruised and hurting as well, but not a dire oh-shit pain. April assessed the sitch and said "You need stitches." Fuck. And no place to go but the Emergency Room.

Somehow I have managed to go my entire adult life without having to go to the ER. I've been to Urgent Care a few times, but the last ER visit for me was back in 1978 when I needed stitches on my chin. Guess there's a first time for everything, but I was really hoping I would still be on health insurance when this happened. (I think if I had insurance I would have just rode to the ER without going home first.)

I was in no state to bicycle the four miles to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital so we enlisted the aid of a friend, Heather. She drove us to the hospital with a Zipcar and left us to deal with the hospital. Thankfully the ER experience moved through relatively fast, and no one gave me shit. When they found out that I ate it on the tracks, I got a knowing nod. "Yeah, we've treated a lot of people here that have done that." There was some debate amongst the doctors whether stitches would do any good since I lost enough skin, but they ended up doing it. Now I have five stitches on my face, a fresh tetanus shot, and a packet of antibiotics and pain killers. Three hours it was done and April and I took a cab home.

This morning I look like I took a hit from a boxer. My upper lip is swollen and I have a good gash above it. My right knee swelled up and is in mild pain. No bicycling for a few days until it goes down. I feel stupid more than anything. If I was thinking clearly this whole experience could have been easily avoided.

But it could have been worse. I could have broken something, which has happened to a lot of people who ate it on the tracks. The bike I was riding, the Surly Long Haul Trucker, survived as well. I hobbled over to a local bike shop to have it checked and they gave it a clean bill of health. To be honest, I was almost a more worried about breaking the bike than myself. The hospital is most likely going to write off my bill as a "charity case" since I am so broke, but there ain't no such service for a bike. And blood is easily cleaned off a waxed cotton rain cape. (I'm sure you wanted to know that.)

Yes, it could have been much, much worse. I could have been eaten by an alligator.

From bikeportland.


  1. Ouch! We have much the same issue here in Manchester; the tram network is largely at street level throughout the city centre and at Trafford Park (I read somewhere it's the largest industrial park in Europe) there are train lines in a lot of the roads from the days of freight strains (still occasionally used too). As a side note, Schwalbe Fat Franks are wide enough to be immune to the recessed rails. I hope you recover quickly.

    Is it just me or does the man in the sign look a bit like he is sporting a Beatles-style mop-top?

  2. Oh man....pavement hurts. Pavement on face hurts more. Glad you got freebie healthcare for your face! The fat tire idea sounds good, but of course will slow you down (which might be good for the time being?).

  3. Mr. C--Thanks for your condolences. Good to know about the Fat Franks. For the record, Schwalbe Marathons 700x35 tires are not immune to recessed rails.

    As for the man on the sign, methinks it's supposed to be an artistic rendition of a helmet. I like the Beatles mop-top better.

    Ben--Thanks for the condolences. I don't know if the ER visit is a freebie yet, though, but I hope it will. Pavement on face is tres bad. If I didn't go to the ER, I wouldn't have known about the embedded road grit in the wound. If they hadn't cleaned it out, I'm sure I would have had an infection plus nastier scar than what I'm going to get.

  4. oh, no! sorry this happened to you. i bit it on the streetcar tracks when i was first navigating downtown and they still scare me. hope you feel better soon, and that the ER billing department is generous.

  5. I can relate to your pain! I bailed on train tracks once too - I was going fast and I kind of even saw it coming but something just didn't click - and then BAFF!

    My boyfriend tossed me in a taxi and he ghost-rode my poor little steed over to meet me the hospital.
    Hurrah for Canada's health care system because I just thought I was 'dazed' - but my wing was broken in 2 places! Shoulder and upper arm. BLECK.

    I don't know if pictures can be posted in these comment area, but scroll down for the 'Shop job on a picture I took in Portland a while back :

    ... your city does have a lot of signs that illustrate the many ways of crashing!

  6. Youch - I have yet to bite it on actual streetcar tracks, but coming down the hill from the OHSU hospital to the Dental School, there are kind of "expansion joints" in the road that are basically rails but with rubber in the middle - I did bite it on those once when they were wet. Thankfully nothing but my elbow and hand hit the road that time, but I did manage to tweak my right crank pretty good, and had to walk the bike to a bike shop. Thankfully, the crank was steel and they just bent it back again :)

    Hope it heals up quickly!


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