Berkeley Cycling: Going to a Dangerous Place

[Update: ‘A Dangerous Place, Part II’]

The week before last, a cyclist was killed descending South Park Drive in the Berkeley Hills. News reports say the rider, Kim Flint, crossed the center line and hit the side of an uphill-bound vehicle. He was airlifted to a hospital in Walnut Creek, where he died.

Here’s the twist to the tragedy, as reported in a subsequent story carried on The Bay Citizen and in the Bay Area pages of The New York Times: Flint may have been attempting to set a speed record on the descent to maintain his first-place ranking on a site called Strava.com. Strava, like other sites, allows riders to upload data about their cycling performance and create publicly viewable online training and ride logs. Unlike other sites (that I know of), it keeps records of times for defined road segments. Until shortly after Flint’s death, there was a “King of the Mountain” ranking listed for South Park downhills.

What I find interesting about the Bay Citizen/Times article is the series of leaps it makes to more or less attribute Flint’s death to his activity on Strava. I say “interesting” because it’s from the same reporter who put together a complete, well-reasoned, and sensitive piece for the local news blog Berkeleyside then produced this second story that suggests Strava was an “obsession” for Flint, who recorded the fastest Strava time down South Park in early June. “But on June 15,” the second story says, “another rider bested his time by four seconds, prompting Mr. Flint to ride that stretch again four days later.” There’s no support in the story–statements from Flint or from his fellow riders–for the notion that Flint was “obsessed” with Strava or that his fatal ride on June 19 was driven by a hunger to reclaim his Strava record. In fact, based on the evidence available on Strava, there’s little to suggest that Flint or anyone else is particularly obsessed with the South Park descent. The site lists 71 total descents of the segment since the fall of 2007, with 34 of those this year. Flint is listed twice–once last August, and once during his “record” run in early June–before the ride on which he crashed. Just one quote from another cyclist about what sort of rider Flint was, how he handled himself on the road or on this hill, would be persuasive in helping us understand his “obsession.” The second story offers nothing; the first story includes a long quote from a friend and fellow rider who emphasized Flint was not a reckless type.

But the real point here isn’t whether someone’s sensationalizing a story by suggesting that a speed-crazed cyclist may have been driven to his death by a website that encourages dangerous behavior. No, it’s this: Cycling can be dangerous, and never is the danger more present (though perhaps not obvious) than during a steep descent. Strava or no Strava, the ride down South Park Drive demands skill and attention. Many riders, including me, have hit 50 mph on their way down. When I read that someone had been killed up there, I could imagine two or three places that could happen, including the spot where the accident occurred. All it takes is carrying a little bit too much speed into a corner, finding something in the road you weren’t expecting–some gravel or an animal, say–or a moment’s distraction, and you can be in trouble fast.

That having been said, the focus on Strava is misguided. The virtual competition encouraged by the site is simply another version of what happens whenever groups of fast, fit, competitive cyclists get together. They’ll often ride aggressively–on the climbs, on the flats, in sprints, and yes, on descents, too. Why? Bottom line, it’s challenging and fun. I remember seeing a couple of longboard skateboarders on Grizzly Peak, getting ready to go down Claremont. I followed on my bike to see how fast they’d go. I can’t really tell you, though, because my top speed, in the high 40s, wasn’t fast enough to keep them in sight. I did see the guys at the bottom. They were getting a ride back to the top to do it again. They were were doing something that was very hazardous and required a high degree of courage and ability, and they were having a blast.

None of which is to discount the tragedy of Mr. Flint’s death. Most of us who have ridden the roads hereabouts take an incident like this to heart. We can all too easily remember at least once when, whether through our own error or another’s, we’ve narrowly avoided serious injury or worse. Point is, it’s really the nature of the activity itself and the sum of all our habits, skills, and even emotions that lead us to this dangerous place, not the inducements of a Death Race website. That being the case, it’s important to ride with some discipline–this coming from someone who got stopped by the UC police for rolling through a stoplight on Friday night–and with a commitment to being safe.

8 Comments

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8 Responses to Berkeley Cycling: Going to a Dangerous Place

  1. Dan, I wrote the piece on Kim Flint for the New York Times. I have written a longer piece with more information on Berkeleyside.com
    http://www.berkeleyside.com/2010/07/05/did-bicycle-web-site-contribute-to-cyclists-death/

  2. Dan

    Frances, thanks for the link to that follow-up. I’d still say the evidence for an “obsession” is lacking or that Strava is somehow an accessory to the incident. I also think you’re selective in what you quote. For instance, Flint himself said after a fast descent of another road that he didn’t know why he’d been descending so fast recently.
    But my larger point isn’t that this was an accident that could happen to anybody, but that a whole chain of factors, including where you decide to ride and all the decisions you make as a rider, make us more or less vulnerable to the dangers inherent in cycling. I concede that trying to ride fast to beat a record creates a higher risk. But you might as well blame stopwatches, bicycle speedometers, or the availability of high-performance bicycles and components, which are all competitive tools, as blame a website.
    It’s not clear to me from what you’ve written whether you’ve ridden in the Berkeley Hills, or on South Park, yourself. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, it would be highly instructive to do that, and I’d be glad to go out there with you.

  3. Joe Hill

    Courage? Strange choice of words. I’ve seen the longboarders on Claremont. I’ve seen cyclists descend at high speeds all over the Bay Area (I’m a roadie myself).
    What we are talking about here is sheer stupidity. Approaching 70 feet per second on a 23c tire on an undulating, twisty road with turnouts for trail parking, BBQ areas and botanical gardens is just nuts.

  4. I agree with Dan — you’ve really got to experience a descent on South Park to realize it’s dangerous, no matter whether you’re competing with yourself or other people’s times. Or even if you’re not competing — the gravity of the descent itself sucks you into a speed tunnel from which it’s impossible to exit until the end, no matter how good one’s bike-handling skills. I even worry about my ascent of South Park — it’s definitely heart-attack inducing at my age.

  5. Dan

    Yeah, well–if you’ve ridden in the hills and never had a moment where you’ve thinned out your margin of safety a little, my hat’s off to you. There are hills some folks simply shouldn’t be on if they can’t handle the physical challenge involved. The descent of Oakville Grade to the Napa Valley comes to mind. As part of a rather large ride, I remember encountering a couple of fellow riders grabbing their brakes for dear life and also skittering all over the road. They posed a real danger to themselves and to the others who were safely descending at far higher speeds (and yes, I’ve heard of a tandem pair who crashed after a blowout at 55 mph; they were badly injured but lived to tell the tale).
    But arguments about what’s stupid and what’s not aside, I’d say the most important thing that can come out of a tragedy like this rider’s death is for people to reflect on their own behavior. It’s certainly given me a lot to think about.

  6. jb

    I reckon the long boarders should do as they please but they should have health and liability insurance. If they are minors then let their daddies pay. The State of California should not have to pay for their f**k-ups. And they should be prosecuted if they cause an accident,injury, or death to some unsuspecting bystander…you just that’s going to happen. If the cops can catch them, maybe a speeding ticket is in order. One comforting thing about a bike: they have breaks.

  7. Dan

    As it happens, cyclists and skateboarders represent about .00001 percent of the public danger that motorcycles and cars represent (statistic not scientifically derived) on these roads. Motorcyclers love to speed through the winding roads in the hills, and more than once I’ve thought about what my options would be if an oncoming motorcyclist laid down his bike and started skidding toward me. It’s nice to have the illusion you could react to and escape a collision like that. In reality, things would probably turn out like they did for the bicyclist who was hit head on by a motorcyclist who crossed the centerline while speeding along a twisting, residential section of Skyline Boulevard in Oakland. The operator of the non-motorized vehicle was killed; the motorcyclist walked away from the crash (and has never been charged).

  8. P. Gordis

    Dan:
    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of this tragic accident. I would like to add a few more details to clarify the record. First of all, I don’t know if you came across the account of his accident as reported in the Daily Cal?
    http://www.dailycal.org/article/109737/cyclist_killed_in_attempt_to_break_biking_speed_re
    Note in particular the following quotes of his partner of 19 years:
    Violet Hefner, Flint’s partner of 19 years, said she is “99 percent certain he was trying to regain his lost record,” the day he was killed.
    Hefner said they had originally started cycling together, but she thought it was too dangerous.
    “He knew that I was very, very afraid of him riding on city streets,” she said. “I begged him not to.”
    Hefner added that once Flint joined Strava, his interest in his speed and his ride statistics became more intense.
    “Things really escalated once he got involved with Strava,” she said. “It became an obsession with him.”
    Flint holds a best time of an average of 33.9 miles per hour on the “Centennial Drive Descent” in Berkeley as well as the record for the “Skyline Boulevard Descent” in Oakland with an average of 30.4 miles per hour.
    Hefner said Flint had been focusing more and more on getting “king of the mountain” – the highest speed for a certain stretch of road – for downhill segments over the last two months.
    Hefner added that though the website fueled Flint’s urge to push himself, she didn’t blame the competitive nature of Strava for his death.
    *************************
    The Daily Cal story also seems to imply that Kim may have entered the sharp corner towards the upper section on South Park Drive where he sidewiped a passing car at close to 45 mph. Based on my own experience on that turn, I would say anything over 30 mph at the apex of the turn would be a difficult, if not impossible line to sustain without use of the entire road (even then, anything near 45 mph seems too fast for a turn of that kind – even for “Il Falco”).
    Furthermore, I had some private email exchanges with Kim the weekend before his death in which we discussed various Strava segments of a 95 mile ride we had taken together with one other cyclist. In particular, he analyzed for me why, in his view, he did not get the KOMs on the Palomares north side descent or the Joaquin Miller descent from Skyline to Mountain.
    From these email exchanges, from conversations I had with him about Strava on our rides and from observing him descending, it’s clear to me that he was very focused on obtaining Strava downhill records and attempting to reclaim any that he lost.
    For example, he carefully analyzed how he could enter the beginning of a Strava downhill segment with the maximum possible speed (based on different possible approaches). He concluded his analysis of our last segment down Joaquin Miller Road by noting, “Now I’ll need to plan a ride just with winning this one in mind. It’s not right to see a descent in the East Bay without SteveS or me at the top!”
    Like you, I respect and admired Kim’s strong competitive spirit which (as you note) is often, on one level or another, a strong animating force in many serious or avid cyclists of various stripes. However, based on my own extensive riding and competitive bike racing experience, I don’t concur with your equation of Strava with pretty much any competitive group ride experience.
    You wrote above, “That having been said, the focus on Strava is misguided. The virtual competition encouraged by the site is simply another version of what happens whenever groups of fast, fit, competitive cyclists get together. They’ll often ride aggressively–on the climbs, on the flats, in sprints, and yes, on descents, too. Why? Bottom line, it’s challenging and fun.”
    On group rides, a relatively less experienced cyclist like Kim would likely try to follow the wheel of a faster, more experienced rider down a technical or superfast descent. This is a valuable learning experience by which one learns how to descend fast and safely by trying to follow the best lines through turns, learning how to set up for the next turn and how fast to approach sharp curves which more seasoned riders have successfully cornered at high speed many times. On a group ride, you can learn to go faster in a controlled manner, profiting from the years long experience of other riders.
    When you are racing a Strava opponent, it is more analogous to some type of virtual or online/videogame opponent – a faceless entity you probably do not know at all. When Kim analyzed for me in our email exchange his unsuccessful attempt to gain the Palomares descent KOM (Kim wrote that he was the fastest on the steep upper portion, but lost time on the flatter section lower down), he did not know that he was comparing his performance to a multiple national track and crit champion who is as close to a local cycling legend as we have in this area.
    In a nutshell, at least for me, that is the central danger to downhill racing on Strava. Aside from the obvious risks to innocent bystanders, Strava can set up a direct competition between someone like Kim who had been avidly cycling for about two years, mostly riding on his own or with one other rider, and pit him against someone who may have been a national champion or a professional cyclist.

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