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.

Bikes on BART: An Inconvenient Truth


Once upon a time, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district required bicyclists to obtain a permit to ride its trains. You could get the permit by schlepping down to BART’s Lake Merritt station, or you could obtain it by mail. Our recollection is that you had to sign some paperwork stating you understood BART’s bike rules–most notably, to our mind, NO BIKES ON STATION ESCALATORS OR ON THE FIRST CAR OF TRAINS–and agreed to abide by them. Those were the days before the still-unfolding Cycling Enlightenment. Some years ago, BART dropped the permit requirement and pretty much welcomed all two-wheeled comers as long as they STAY OFF THE ESCALATORS AND PLEASE SIR WITH THE BIKE IN THE FIRST CAR MOVE TO ANY OTHER CAR ON THE TRAIN.

In theory, it’s swell to be able to travel with one’s velocipede on the BART system. Many’s the time we’ve ended rides at the far-off Dublin/Pleasanton and Fremont stations and taken the train back home. BART also provides a way of getting across the watery impediment known to locals as The San Francisco Bay. It’s not the only way of course–you can get a bike shuttle (a trailer service that hauls bikes across the Bay Bridge), take AC Transit (which has front-mounted bike racks), or, best of all, take the ferry. But BART is the most available option.

In practice, we’ve found the trains to be less than ideal for traveling from the East Bay to the city or back. The main reason is that the cars just aren’t designed to accommodate full-sized two-wheeled machines. If one sits, one almost by necessity takes up two seats. Not a big deal if it’s not a busy time of day; if it is, then taking the extra seat seems a little inconsiderate (this is a sermon delivered from the perspective of an offender).

The bigger problem with bikes on BART is that so many of the cyclists who bring their two-wheelers on the trains appear so lacking in care or respect for other passengers. For instance: If you’ve ridden the system at all, you can anticipate which door on the cars will open at which stations. But it’s common to see cyclists crowd their bikes into the exit door and block it when they have no intention of exiting (oh, sure, we see other passengers doing this too; we just expect cyclists to exhibit a little less lameness than the dopiest rapid-transit rider). It’s also typical to see riders station their machines in the aisles without regard to how it affects other passengers.

Take the specimen above (at left), photographed on a recent Sunday. He parked his bike in the exit door and for bonus points positioned it most of the way across the aisle. When someone sat opposite him, it was just possible for other passengers to squeeze by. He situated himself thus even though several other seats were available that would have allowed him to stay out of the way. After planting his rear end in his seat, he either affected obliviousness (or actually was oblivious) to all around him.

Part of the problem is that BART cars aren’t designed to accommodate bikes in the first place. A few have been refurbished with a sign that says “bike space.” But if more than a couple passengers bring their bicycles on board, the usual awkwardness ensues. Seeing that the physical space isn’t quite fit for bikes and passengers to co-exist, something’s got to give. The change has got to happen in the social space. Cyclists on BART need to be attentive to how their presence affects other passengers; just as attentive as they want the rest of the world to be to them and their needs.

Flying Pigeon, Manhattan Style


Flying Pigeon, at the East 35th Street ferry pier in Manhattan. The bike’s got classic good looks, and the locking strategy–using the cable lock as the bike version of The Club, preventing the front wheel from turning–I haven’t seen before. We came back to this spot several hours later, but I didn’t notice whether this machine was still there or not.

Bike Crashes, Mapped

Russell Neches, a blogger in Davis, California, produced a beautiful and compelling map of bike crashes in the city over four years, 2004 through 2008. He also mapped data from all traffic accidents in the city, including those that did not involve bicycles. The map represents high-accident areas in red, as hot zones. Areas with a lower incidence of accidents are depicted in cooler yellow, green, and blue. The purpose of the exercise is more than a flat informational report. Neches says in an accompanying blog post:

“In particular, this is map is intended to examine bicycle accidents. I hope people will look at this map, and think about how they behave on the roads, weather on foot, on a bicycle, or in a car. How you behave on the road has direct, and sometimes dire, consequences for you and for other people.”

‘Two Wheels and Four’

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Carroll, an unapologetic old fart and non-cyclist–I mean to cite his unreconstructedness as a compliment–on the favorite subject of the day: our national car-bike contretemps:

Two Wheels and Four

But bicyclists, probably by virtue of their virtue, have gotten a free pass. I too admire their decision to forgo the use of fossil fuels and improve their cardiovascular fitness. I’m on their side. So maybe someone could tell me when the word went out to all Velo Americans that stop signs, and even stoplights, were for cars and pedestrians and people in wheelchairs, but not for bicyclists.

Here’s a typical letter, from Karen Clayton, who was visiting San Francisco to meet a friend from Tokyo. On her way to dinner … well, here’s her report:

“Unfortunately, we were caught in the ‘Last Friday’ Critical Mass ride. We sat through 4 traffic light cycles. Our friend was agog – not by the Mass, but by the flouting of the traffic laws. At one point my husband edged out a tiny little bit into the cross walk, thinking we were at the end of the Mass – we did have the green light – and then another group came swooping into the intersection. One of the riders stopped, thumped our car and told us we should be aware that this ride happened on the last Friday of every month and we should ‘be careful.’

“Everyone in Tokyo rides bicycles. I did almost all of my grocery shopping by bike on my ‘housewife’ bike during the 7 years I lived there. I love to ride a bike – in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase – for pleasure, not competition. People routinely ring their bells in Japan when they are coming up behind you and everyone endeavors to be careful. It was a pleasure to ride there.”

Clayton goes on to suggest “self-policing.” I think that would be lovely. I think little bluebirds delivering bags of chocolate to the sick would be lovely too. We’ll see which happens first.”

“Velo Americans.” We like that.

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Bicycle for a Day


Bicycle for a Day, a project founded by actor Matthew “Private Joker” Modine. The rationales/goals:

“• a fun, open and proactive invitation designed to inspire individuals, communities, governments and corporations to take a step towards solving the current environmental issues.

• a global initiative bringing together people who choose to ride a bicycle rather than use gas-powered motor vehicles, immediately reducing their carbon footprint.

• supports organizations that restore and protect our environment and make biking safer and more accessible for everyone.”

And if you like the idea and want to flaunt the logo, you can buy a special edition bike messenger bag ($295 — !) or dog tags (was that Joker’s idea?) for $20.

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Art Racks

From today’s New York Times: David Byrne, Cultural Omnivore, Raises Cycling Gear to an Art Form With Bike Racks:

David Byrne is an installation artist, author, blogger, recording
executive, photographer, film director and PowerPoint enthusiast. He’s
even been known to dabble in music. But in certain New York
neighborhoods he may be most visible as a bicycle rider, a lanky figure
pedaling around the Lower East Side, or from Bay Ridge out to Coney
Island in Brooklyn or up to the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

In recent years his interest
in bicycles has expanded from riding them to thinking seriously about
the role they play in urban life, as he has started making connections
with politicians and international design consultants keen to keep cars
from taking over the city. So when the Department of Transportation
asked him to help judge a design competition for the city’s new bike
racks, he eagerly agreed — so eagerly, in fact, that he sent in his own
designs as well.

They were simple shapes to define different
neighborhoods around the city: a dollar sign for Wall Street; an
electric guitar for Williamsburg, Brooklyn; a car — “The Jersey” — for
the area near the Lincoln Tunnel. “I said, ‘Well, this disqualifies me
as a judge,’ ” he recalled, “but I just doodled them out and sent them
in.” He figured maybe they’d be used to decorate the contest Web site,