Big group death

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Some things hit really close to home, and this is one of them. Herman Shum, a 40-year-old high school principal, joined the House of Pain ride last Saturday that leaves out of Danville, CA. The group had somewhere between fifty and seventy riders. the riders were tightly packed across the single lane, and surging to position for a sprint.

rider left the pavement, and in hopping back from the shoulder he caused a crash. Three riders went down. Herman crossed the center line in the mayhem and was killed by an oncoming water utility truck.

Danville is several hundred miles away from Southern California, but it might as well be right next door. Every national holiday we have the Holiday Ride here in the South Bay, but unlike the “HOP” ride, our ride doesn’t have dozens of riders, it has hundreds. We cram onto the roads and race our way to Mandeville Canyon, where what’s left of the battered field — a “mere” 150 or so riders — surges to the fore as each rider jockeys for position on the incredibly narrow, two-lane residential road.

A few hard accelerations later and the group is whittled down to perhaps twenty riders who are still filling the whole lane, heads down, wheels inches apart, bars, bodies, and brains, on the limit for the better part of the 18-minute climb. Oncoming traffic, folks pulling out from their driveways, livid passing vehicles crossing the center line at 50 while showering us with curses … I’ve seen all that and more, including the time that the peloton almost ran over a woman pushing an infant in a pram.

I stopped doing our Holiday Ride a few years ago because the ride from Manhattan Beach to San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood had become absolutely batshit crazy. People who cannot ride a bike were mixed in with people who shouldn’t ride a bike who were mixed in with people who were trying to stay away from everyone else who were mixed in with hotshot racers drilling it at the front at 30. There is a crash almost every time, and worse — one time a knucklehead slammed on his brakes, got off his bike, and walked across the reflective dots in the pavement. Fortunately there were only about a hundred stomping maroons charging up his sphincter at the time. I’m pretty sure he always wanted a carbon enema. Campy, of course.

The HOP ride in Danville comes with a warning, and it’s the kind of warning that is going to soon become the focal point for the attorney who represents Mr. Shum’s family in the wrongful death/negligence lawsuit that will likely be filed. Here it is, from the NorCal Cycling News web site:

House of Pain (HOP)

  • Where: Peet’s Coffee Danville
  • When: Saturday Mornings
  • 8:45 HOP Line
  • 9:00 HOP Media
  • 9:15 HOP The Original HOP

“The Lowdown: There are three versions of the House of Pain (HOP) ride.  HOP, HOP Medium, and HOP Lite.  All three of them leave Peet’s in Danville on Saturday morning.  HOP – full on race ride (emphasis mine), no waiting for the weak or people with flats.  No regroups. HOP Lite – steady pace.  No attacking and there are a couple of regroups. HOP Medium – In between HOP and HOP Medium.”

The killer language? “Full on race ride.”

A lawyer’s going to want to know exactly what that means, and I suppose I could explain it to him: It’s an informal road ride where, at certain points, the riders go to their absolute max in an attempt to crack everyone else. In a “full on race ride” there are a handful of riders who are doling out the pain, and everyone else is trying to hang on. Race rides are filled with testosterone and speed, but they’re not filled with insurance, race permits, course marshals, officials, ambulances, or waivers.

The lawyer will have more questions. Who put on this ride? Who wrote this language? Who manages the (now defunct) Facebook page? And most importantly, “Who has the fuggin’ money, because that’s the person who’s in the wrong.”

But I’m not going to write about the legal merits of such a lawsuit, or the lack thereof. What I am going to write about is the concept of the “full on race ride.” These things are a part of cycling, and they entail risk. Actually, “risk” is a bad word. It’s too neutral. These rides entail death and permanent, horrific injury.

I participate in them, most notably the Thursday morning beatdown ride and the Saturday morning Donut Ride here in the South Bay. I also travel a few times a year down to San Diego to join their Holiday Ride — perversely, because in the past it has been harder and more grueling than the one we have here.

At some point, though, we’re going to have to think more carefully about the size and composition of these beatdown events. Although they are for the most part harmless, all it takes is one unlucky confluence of factors and suddenly someone’s dead. One avenue that I’ve taken is avoiding the mass events that are “race rides.” As one very experienced friend pointed out about bike racing, “The more crowded the field, the more crashes. Period.”

That’s true for “race rides” too. Three hundred idiots, as are likely to show up at Manhattan Beach on January 1, are more dangerous than 25 riders showing up at 6:35 AM at Malaga Cove.

In addition to group size, there’s another factor, the ease of the ride. The South Bay Holiday Ride is a true wankfest, where anyone with reasonable fitness can hang on for a huge chunk of the ride. The roaring, swelling, swaying pack of idiots tears through Santa Monica, a dense urban landscape clogged with cagers, pedestrians, and tourists like a cloud of locusts.

Not so with the Donut Ride. By the ten minute mark many have been dropped. By the thirty minute mark the group is fractured, and those who remain are riding single file. Once the climb starts at 35 minutes, and for the rest of the day, it’s a pretty small group, and with only a few small route changes the group could be split to pieces even earlier.

That’s not to say that these rides don’t have the potential for accidents, but maybe we’ve reached an era where bigger really isn’t better, at least for the “race ride” or the “beatdown event.” Maybe a little discretion will go a long way to avoiding the kind of accident that led to Herman’s senseless and needless death last Saturday. Maybe.

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