Berkeley Cycling: A Dangerous Place, Part II

[Previous post: ‘Going to a Dangerous Place‘]

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post called Going to a Dangerous Place” about a series of stories about the death of a cyclist, Kim Flint, on South Park Drive in the Berkeley Hills. In particular, I took issue with the description of Flint as “obsessed” with a socially networked training-log site called Strava, whether his concern for attaining speed records for various road segments drove him to ride dangerously on the hazardous South Park descent, and whether his death could really be blamed on the service that Strava provides. A few days ago, a Berkeley cyclist I’ve met named Patrick Gordis offered to set me straight on some of the issues I raised. What follows are his comments on some of the issues raised by this incident. Patrick posted these as a long comment on the blog, but he gave me the OK to repost it as a separate entry (and the picture below comes from him, too; I’ll post a better version later). Here’s his post:

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? 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.

south_park_15mph_curve.jpg 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”). (Click picture for larger image.)

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, “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.

Look Ma, No Pedals

I was out riding late yesterday afternoon — a short loop out a flat route to San Pablo Dam Road, north of Berkeley, then south along the far side of the Berkeley Hills, then back up Wildcat Canyon Road through the hills and home to the flatlands below. Near the top of the 2.7-mile Wildcat climb, I thought I felt a little looseness in my right pedal, but when I really focused on it, nothing really seemed amiss. This put me in mind of an April ride out to the Point Reyes LIghthouse, when my left pedal sheared off as I stood up to climb a little hill, and I had a low-speed crash. I started to ponder whether I could have ridden on one pedal back to the nearest town, Point Reyes Station, in time to find a bike shop, get new pedals, and ride the second half of the 188-mile ride I had started. That western end of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, where my pedal disintegrated, is severely rolling. Obviously I could have walked up the steeper stretches on the way back to town, then coasted the downhills, and propelled myself one-legged on the reasonably level stretches. I’m guessing it’s about 15 miles back into Point Reyes Station from the lighthouse. Just idle speculation: It was just after 1 in the afternoon when my bike broke. I’m sure I could have limped back to town in say, three hours. So maybe I could have done it; I probably would have finished the ride at about midnight. Of course, then I wouldn’t have seen the two gray whales that cruised by the lighthouse as I waited for Kate to pick me up. And I’m leaving out of the equation the fact my front wheel was trashed when I went down and pretty much unrideable.

Anyway. I stopped at Inspiration Point at the top of Wildcat Canyon to take a look at Mount Diablo and the hills to the north and east in the dusk. The moon was a few nights short of full last night, but very bright, and Mars was rising. Just a beautiful evening. After a couple minutes, I clipped in and started riding back to town; the view of Mount Tam against the still-red sky was striking. After a quarter-mile or so, the road bends to the left and starts descending; as I picked up speed, suddenly my right foot seemed to come unclipped. Weird. I couldn’t seem to feel the pedal to clip in again, so I stopped. As soon as I put my right foot down, I could feel that I the pedal body was still clipped to my cleat and shoe. My first thought was that somehow the pedal had worked loose from the crank arm. But when I shone my light on the crank, I could see that the right spindle had sheared off, just the way the left one did in April.

Another cyclist — no lights, no helmet; “Maybe I have a death wish,” he said — appeared out of the dark and asked if I needed any help. He took a look at my pedals and said, “Those are shit. Get yourself some Dura-Ace or some Speedplay.” “What?” I exclaimed. “Those are Look pedals.” It wasn’t until later it struck me what a lame response that was. My guess is that, absent some sort of impact that would cause a fracture, this kind of failure should happen approximately never. And I’m not aware of ever having crashed my bike hard enough to damage either of the two pedals that have broken this year.


[My intact left pedal and the broken right one.]

Anyway. Five miles from home. One pedal. I had to walk up one little bump of a hill on the way back to Berkeley. The rest was a cruise. But: It hadn’t really occurred to me how tough it might be to ride one-legged. There was no way to get up out of the seat for bumps, for instance. And since I was a little out of balance on the bike — I rode most of the way with my right foot on top of my seat post water-bottle cage and my right knee pointing way out to the side — I really didn’t feel safe letting myself go too fast; in fact, at speed it seemed unsafe to take my hands off the bars at all. So, to get back to Point Reyes: With a working front wheel I could have made it, probably. But it would have been a different kind of workout, and not much fun.