—Steve Austin, Astronaut. A man barely alive.
I’m a happy man. Not because I enjoy staring at my computer, sporadically typing as the coffee slowly warms my sleepy cockles, on yet another bright and breezy California morning. I’m happy because my head no longer feels like it’s being squeezed between the bowling balls of a nasty oil-stained concussion, whose relentless grip has steadily faded with every passing day. His BFF, vertigo, has been stalking me for weeks and only makes itself known when I stand up too fast or move about too quickly. Like slamming a fifth of tequila with every flight of stairs, the dizzying effects of slapping one’s brain against the sides of a thickened skull, preferably your own, can be quite debilitating. But I’m feeling better now… much mo’ betta’. Perhaps 93.98% mo’ betta’.
After a day of scything through the Angeles National Forest, capped with hearty conversation amidst a smokey cigar in front of a quietly closed Newcomb’s Ranch, I swiftly make my way down the hill with some friends. Mostly because I’m jonesin’ for a burrito; that and I’m itching to ride. Today, my lovingly modified Tuono 1100RR feels enticingly sharp while the empty ribbons of tarmac are remarkably clean and clear on this gorgeous Friday afternoon. Days like this are why I choose to live in Southern California and I’m grateful for unlimited access to this incredible playground in my backyard. So, while the 65-degree V4 belts out a Coltrane-esque solo that echoes soulfully off the peaceful mountain walls, all I can think about is how fortunate I am to be amidst this enchanted forest, aboard this fiery Italian beast, aimed directly at a hot and spicy hand-held dinner. Life is good.
And like my crypto portfolio, things went south fast. Part way down, as I round a slower section of road known as Lower Ladybug – a fun sweeping hairpin right with a fast decreasing radius – my rear wheel kicks abruptly to the left, as if it’d been leg swept by an angry squirrel with a black belt in Jiu Jitsu. I must’ve hit some unseen oil, but where? The road was completely clean when I entered the turn, so what the pho? (Yes, that’s how it’s pronounced, round eye.) Stunned by circumstance, there’s no time to ponder as I instinctively stand the bike up and find myself pointed directly at the rapidly approaching mountain, only seconds away.
Thankfully there’s a break in traffic as I barrel across the double yellow and straight into the oncoming lane. Believing I’m on oil, I refuse to touch the brakes until I can pinpoint where it is and ends – so yeah, still going a perfectly legal 45 mph, officer. Cough. But by now the rear of the bike is bucking wildly, swinging violently from left to right and I’m running out of time and options. This is starting to suck. Ignoring the voices in my head screaming “WTF is this demonic oil?!” amidst a “let’s not die today!!”, I break my death gaze from the rocky embankment, re-target my fixation through the turn, drop my right shoulder and with a firm twist of perfectly timed throttle, lean the bike back towards my own lane in a last ditch attempt at self preservation. Call me selfish but I’m a fan of completing every turn I enter, including this one; so as I grit my teeth and yank the bar, I prepare for victory.
Aaaaand…. I’m met with nothing. Nada. Zilch. Like smoking an entire bag of oregano in high school, a maniacal panic-fueled fistful of 1100 Italian cc’s did nothing. And as I’m confusingly contemplating this newfound moment of nothingness, the quiet mountain serenity is pierced only by the sound of my body exhaling the manliest of effervescent squeals as I flip and slam the roadway headfirst in a most unforgiving and disturbing way. A high-side for the ages. I Mary Lou fkn Retton’d. I had finally found my Tuono’s dreaded “eject” button. They all have one, I was just hoping to never use it.
Lying face down in the sand and rocks, nestling enfeebled against the mountainside, classic phrases such as “holy mother sh#t f&cks!!” burst from my brain. But I’m alive. And, as I take a quick inventory of my physical state, my shoulder hurts and my forearm stings; yet I’m free of none more dangly bits than usual, so I’m good. Once on my feet, I nervously turn my attention to my flaming motorcycle. As in shrimp night at Benihana’s, the bike is now on fire in a dejectedly, sausage-slumping way. Oh FFS, really?! With no water in sight, I frantically barehand fistfuls of dirt and rock all over my searing Tuono in an effort to prevent the mother of all forest fires that will surely cement my involuntary 15 seconds of “news at 11:00” fame.
Fortunately, I had help. Not from the three scared Asian ladies who had initially pulled over amidst the commotion, but failed to assist, seeing as they were scared Asian ladies. “Oh no! We’re afraid of the fiery man in leathers” their body language screeched in response to my garbled yelling and frenzied motioning. But in the form of two fellow Tuono riders who happened to be riding by my roadside barbecue – one being MO’s very own Sean Matic, who benevolently stopped to “help the stupid squid who ran out of talent”. I’m grateful that he did as together we were able to extinguish the blaze before it caused Armageddon.
Standing there in disbelief, scanning the scene in its entirety, it finally dawned on me, including the Sheriffs who had just pulled up, as to what had caused the crash. My precious carbon fiber wheel had exploded without warning.
There was no oil. No wmd’s. No rocks or sand in the road. Only an arcing trail of carbon fiber littering the turn behind my bike, tracing the undesirable path I had flailed moments prior. My brakes weren’t dragging. There were no skid marks on the pavement (perhaps my underwear after that), except for where my rear sprocket had dug into the asphalt right before my lunar launch. The carbon fiber had downright failed midway through that turn and the violent bucking and weaving was each spline successively breaking as the rim held on for dear life inside the swingarm. The reason I was met with nothing as I ripped the final throttle was because there was nothing connecting my hub to the outer rim. I was a dead man walking.
Man… I am lucky to be alive and not more seriously injured. I suffered a bit of friction burn on my elbow from the inside of my leathers, but that’s it. ATGATT, baby! Well… that and a gnarly concussion. My angels were clearly watching over me as I couldn’t have picked a better place or time to crash. 30 seconds earlier or 30 seconds later, and I might not be the author of this article. And bless you, Mr. Arai.
Once home from the hospital I reached out to Rotobox for comment, which stated they firmly stand behind their products 100%. As expected. They are emphatic that their wheels are as strong, if not stronger, than anything on the market while the performance gains over traditional alloys speak for themselves. Being DOT and JWL approved, they are voluntarily subjected to countless safety and operational tests before ever leaving the factory. But, admittedly, there are inherent weaknesses in the material and when subjected to rare, yet potentially lethal outside forces such as friction, high heat and lateral stress they can fail without warning. As a whole, the company owners were truly concerned for my well being, and I was told this failure was a first for them. Call me naive, but I believe them. Searching the internet produces not a single reported incident for this particular brand. Overall, their handling and response to this terrible situation was beyond satisfactory and I will continue to wear my Rotobox shirt in public.
Remember, these are high performance items designed and destined for the track, and in that specific environment, they undoubtedly excel. If I were scratching for holeshots and podiums, I would reach for a carbon fiber wheel catalog with nary a second thought. Though you can certainly run them on the streets without incident, in this setting there is a fine line between performance and durability. Railing them at high speeds along a weathered mountain pass while bolted to a bike capable of 80 ft/lbs of torque for thousands of miles has subjected them to things they might not encounter along a closed circuit. Things like repeated exposure to rocks and debris, including solvents and environmental contaminants that may contribute to their deterioration as well as the increased mileage (I had 20k+ on this five-year-old wheel) they may never see on a track bike. There’s a reason why MotoGP bikes replace their alloy wheels every other race. Hmm….
Though they robbed me of a timely meal and my cherished machine, I’m not here to condemn carbon fiber wheels as a whole, so don’t let this article scare you away from anything exotic you’re considering. What actually caused the failure to begin with has been subject to professional investigation and is beyond my pay grade. I have my educated guess as to what happened, but that’s not the point of this article. Regardless, as a journalist with integrity, I owe it to my readers to report the facts, both good and bad. And the fact is I still believe there’s no better upgrade to a bike’s overall performance than lightweight carbon fiber wheels, especially ones from Rotobox.
Unfortunately, this accident has shifted my thinking on running carbon fiber wheels on a street bike, especially one that sees constant canyon abuse. So no more for me. With that said, I highly recommend that if you decide to run them yourself, that you are absolutely vigilant with your inspection routine. Look for cracks and blemishes along the surface and check for tight wheel bearings fastidiously. Scan for any signs of structural imperfections and when in doubt, contact the manufacturer immediately with pictures and questions. Make thorough wheel inspections part of your pre-ride safety check as if your life depends on it. Because it does.
The bottom line is this – carbon fiber wheels are still the single best thing I’ve ever done to a bike and, unfortunately, now the single worst. For this I am truly torn. Your mileage may definitely vary.