I was awakened by the sound of Mike’s stove. I got dressed and shambled over to the picnic table where Mike was working on his bike. He had the crank arm bolt out and was looking at the threads intensely. “Here’s the problem,” he said, holding the bolt up for me to see. “There’s a little bit of debris in the threads!”
I took a look. “Hmmm, I don’t know how that would cause it to loosen…”
“It’s gotta be,” Mike said.
“Well, I hope you’re right. Maybe this will be our glitch for the trip.”
After breakfast we loaded up the bikes and headed south on Highway 101. Our goal for the day was Potlatch State Park, 40 miles away. It was foggy and a light mist hung lazily in the air. Our tires kicked up fine rooster tails from the damp pavement as we cruised along at a steady 12 miles an hour. The road along this stretch makes for particularly pleasant riding and there are a lot of roadside attractions; old buildings, anitque cars, a cool tavern and an abandonded gas station with some great old gas pumps. It's low, rolling hills until at about 2 miles when the road begins a steady climb. We shifted down and tackled the hill with our usual slow-but-sure approach.
The hill wasn’t bad, about 4 or 5%, and Mike and I reached the top at about the same time. We’d been talking between wheezes and gasps about how much fun the descent was going to be. “Man, I’m ready for some downhill,” Mike said.
“Me, too,” I replied and looked at my speedometer. It read 3.5 miles an hour. We pedaled another ten feet then crested and started the descent. The shoulder here was narrow, trees overhung the road and we could see a big swooping left hand curve down about a hundred yards.
This is gonna be fun.
I rolled my shoulders, got down on the drops, shifted into high gear and began picking up speed. I could see Mike right in front of me doing the same thing. We were going about 18 miles an hour by the time we reached the first big corner. As I leaned into the turn I noticed something very wrong. Instead of following the curve, Mike appeared to be going straight! In another few seconds, he’d be sailing off the road and into the ditch. I could see him tense up. What the hell?
A fully loaded touring bike can be a monster to handle in an emergency maneuver. You want to avoid any sudden or erratic moves, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. That’s when experience and a cool head is all that will save you. With all that weight hanging on the front rack, steering can be a delicate thing, and I could see Mike had his hands full keeping control. He leaned into the curve and the bike responded sluggishly but he kept it out of the ditch and I held my breath as he finally brought it to a safe stop on the side of the road.
I rolled up next to him. “Wow, that was some show,” I said. “You kind of scared me.”
Mike turned to me with a huge grin. “Get a load of this,” he said. He turned his handlebars but the front wheel didn’t move.
“What the….?” I said, incredulous.
“The stem came loose.” He wiggled the handlebars back and forth a couple of times to demonstrate. “I had no steering back there. Had to shift my weight to stay on the road.”
We set our bikes on their kickstands and got out the tool kit. Mike checked and found the stem bolt was tight. We looked at each other. “You know what that means,” I said.
“Yup,” Mike replied, “the extender is loose or broken…we’re up the creek.”
“At least your crank is tight.” I said.
Both our bikes have long stem extenders that raise the handlebars up to a height that allows us to ride in a more upright position. The extender fits into the steering tube at the bottom and the regular stem fits into the extender at the top. The extender is about 8 inches high and requires an extra long wrench to tighten. Neither of us had the proper tool so there was nothing to do but for Mike to try to descend the hill with almost no steering control.
Mike stood astraddle his bike and gave me a look, “Well, this should be interesting,” he said and started down the hill. We crept along at 2 or 3 miles an hour, stopping every several yards to re-straighten Mike’s handlebars. The hill flattened in about 3 miles and we pulled into a small store.
I went inside while Mike set about tearing down his steering system. “Hi,” I said to the man behind the counter. He was about 45 and friendly.
“Where are you riding?” he asked.
“We came from Seattle and we’re heading to Potlatch today.”
“Yeah, but we have a problem. You don’t have any allen wrenches for sale do you?”
“Nope, but I have some tools up in my shop… what do you need?”
After about 10 minutes he returned with a couple of wrenches, one of which did the trick. We bought some food and a bottle of wine, thanked our new friend and were off.
Along about 2 O'clock, just a few miles before the campground, we pulled over for a break. As we sat on the ground charging up with some energy bars, another bike tourist stopped to chat. He was an older guy who had been on the road for 4 months. “A year ago,” he said, “I was diagnosed with mesenteric artery disease. I could hardly get out of bed. The docs couldn’t do a damn thing for me. I was a lost cause. Finally, I said to hell with it and got on my bike and took off. I figured if I was going to die, I was going to die with my boots on. I left Simi Valley where I live and headed up to British Columbia. At first I was miserable. I didn’t figure I’d last very long. Then, after a couple of weeks, something amazing happened. I started getting better! I lost 60 pounds and my health improved dramatically. It’s been 4 months now and I’ve never felt better. My kids ask me when I’m coming home and I tell them never! I’m just going to keep riding.”
“Where are you headed now?” Mike asked.
“Well, I’m gonna ride down the Oregon Coast to California, visit my kids then head to Mexico. From there, maybe Central America, who knows? All I know is I’m never gonna stop till I die.”
He had the brightest smile and happiest attitude of anyone I’ve met in a long time. I told him about my plans to ride around the world.
“Go for it,” he said with a broad grin, “you’ll never regret it!”
To Be Continued. Tomorrow: Potlatch State Park to Seattle.