Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Caution: This Bike May Self Destruct

The following article originally appeared in Bicycle Forum magazine, attributed to Dan Burden for the Bicycle Federation. It was republished in a condensed form in the 1985 Magazine for the Coors International Bicycle Classic. 

Spontaneous Combustion

Two years ago, a Florida bureaucrat wouldn't let another civil servant park his bicycle in the State Environmental Protection agency office building. He reportedly feared that the bicycle might "spontaneously combust." Upon hearing the news, our local bicycle club had a hearty laugh. All the laughter has ceased.

In late December, club member Arnie Olson narrowly escaped a hellish fate. His bike burst into flames two miles north of Craighead Swamp while he was descending the 3% grade off the crossing of the Appalachacola River. Arnie's brakes quickly melted down, making it impossible to slow or stop the bike.

The flames spread fast. Quick-witted Arnie climbed onto the bike's top tube. On and on he sped . . . twenty . . . thirty . . . forty miles per hour. Arnie was saved when brothers Dave and Don Willow came along side and lifted him free. The bicycle tumbled harmlessly to the pavement.

When they got back to the bike, they found the magnesium alloy frame engulfed in brilliant multicolored flames. So hot was the fire that it continued to burn even after the bike was thrown into the river. An inspection of the remains showed that rapid combustion began near -- but not at -- the front brake mount.

"The movement of the bike through oxygen-rich swamp air, especially at the higher speed of the descent, may have 'torched' the normally stable alloys," suggested State Fire Marshal Clee Anderson. "And this is not the first such case I have dealt with this month," he muttered.

I used my prodigious photoshop skills to make this
dramatic re-creation of a spontaneous combustion event.
Before becoming Florida's State Bicycle Coordinator in 1980, I would have scoffed at reports of such a phenomenon. But my research has disclosed 17 more confirmed cases of spontaneous combustion in five southern states. As many as eight other events could be related to the rapid and unexpected combustion of light alloy bicycle parts.

Recently, two Georgia officials, Louisiana's celebrated Fire Marshall, Ollie Bourgeine, and an Atlanta-based consulting team joined the search for a cause. Their interest was sparked when a Georgia State coed, Margaret Saunders, suffered first, second and third degree burns in the latest spontaneous combustion event in the Land O' Cotton. According to a friend who asked to remain anonymous, "Margaret was a careful rider who kept her bike immaculate, never allowing the first bit of grease or dirt accumulate."

Although no witnesses actually saw the fire start, a 7-11 store manager heard Margaret's desperate screams. He ran to the store room, grabbed an extinguisher and made it to curbside within two minutes. Margaret had already collapsed. In falling, she suffered hip, shoulder and head abrasions and a concussion from which she has yet to recover. All that remained of the bike was a grotesque outline burned into the asphalt, a bit of white ash, a few steel bearings and other steel parts that failed to melt in the inferno that consumed Margaret's chrome-moly Bianchi.

Not a single case of spontaneous combustion had been recorded before 1978. Two events in '78 are now confirmed, one in '79, then five in '80, five more in '81, eight in '82 and twelve in '83. Already, several Southern communities have enacted ordinances banning bikes within 200 feet from any wood frame building. Here's what we know about the new cycling menace: Most incidents have involved chrome-moly bikes, although at least two titanium frames and one graphite bike have fallen victim to the dreaded SCS (Spontaneous Combustion Syndrome). Further, a steady stream of water from well-directed waterbottles won't save the day once flames are present. Bourgeine reports that the fire reaches temperatures of 3800-4400 degrees Fahrenheit. "Only the total removal of an oxygen atmosphere can slow the consumption of the metals," he adds. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, quick to recognize a new hazard when the see one, has already stepped in. "We're too late for the 1985 model bikes," reports a senior official, "but you can be certain all 1986 bikes will be required to carry a fire extinguisher and riders will be required to wear flame-retardant underwear. Quite simply, we're not taking any chances of having this turn into a major disaster."

Bicyclists in North and Central Florida have taken advantage of the situation by wearing specially made jerseys and shirts that carry the message "Pass with care/this vehicle may spontaneously combust." Motorists have already gotten the message and have been observed to move to the left a full lane when passing cyclists. Others have been seen to detour two to three blocks from popular bike routes. America's bicyclists are cautioned to not let this thing get blown out of proportion. While the media is quick to dramatize any unexplained phenomenon or new type of disaster, so far there have only been twenty-seven confirmed cases. All of these have involved rapidly moving bikes, so storing your bike in the garage or basement seems quite safe.

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