Pay up and please go die

July 9, 2014 § 52 Comments

Ronnie Toth qualifies as a phenom. In one year he went from a beginner trying out his first race to a Cat 1. Those who know him and who have raced with him agree that he is talented, hard working, and destined for success in the bike racing world. He entered the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix on Sunday, his first Pro race.

Today he’s on the incredibly long and painful road to recovery from a horrific accident in which he hit the steel barriers face first as he sprinted for the finish. His facial and head injuries are significant, and a fund has been set up to help defray his medical costs. You can donate here.

Whether Ronnie will be able to return to racing is unknown. But what is known is this: USAC in Southern California is complicit in his injuries and in many of the bad crashes that occur here on a regular basis. Our safety record is horrific, and testimony to USAC’s failures includes the death of Chris Cono in a Pro 1/2/3 race last year.

People who race in the Pro 1/2/3 races and in the Masters 35+ races, where the speed is often higher than the pro race, recount a battleground environment in which the most aggressive racers throw elbows, dive-bomb turns, brake-check, hip-check, and engage in a whole host of shitty maneuvers that have nothing to do with bike racing and everything to do with risky, violent intimidation. The worst offenders are well known, both the masters and the pros.

However, this isn’t the fault of the racers. They only do what the USAC officials will let them get away with, and one of the state’s top masters racers, recently returned from Tour of America’s Dairyland in Wisconsin, was blown away by the chief official there, Brett Griggs, who also happens to be the 2013 USAC Official of the Year.

Unlike SoCal, where officials don’t know anything about racing and don’t care what’s going on in the peloton, Griggs (an ex pro) and his team are watching the corners and after each race are proactively quizzing the riders. “Anyone dive-bombing? Chopping?” Riders who get reported or who are seen riding unsafely get a stern talking to, or they get pulled. Unsafe behavior isn’t tolerated. Crashes happen, but not due to repeat offender-type offenses because repeat offenders are disciplined and yanked.

Compare this with SoCal, where at one very publicized race this year a masters racer chopped and brake-checked another rider in a fast turn, almost causing a horrific crash. When the two riders took their complaint to the chief official, he stood there like a tree stump while the riders shouted at each other for half an hour. The official never said a single word. The riders walked away in disgust and the races went on, even though there were numerous eyewitnesses to the egregious and dangerous chop.

USAC officials in SoCal are famous for having no racing experience and for their random, clueless officiating, and it shows with regard to their approach to safety, or lack thereof.

I’ve never had a race official in SoCal or heard of one enforcing safe behavior in a crit or quizzing riders after a race. That’s because they are on site to collect their extortion from the promoter and they don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to the riders. The promoters can’t run races and monitor racer behavior, nor should they. That’s why they pay precious entry fee money to USAC officials, who rarely do anything beyond blowing the whistle.

Ronnie Toth’s terrible accident proves it. Many riders who are incredibly gifted and who jet up through the ranks in a compressed period of time do not always have the bike handling skills to match their physical prowess. This is such a well known aspect of cycling that categories exist to separate those with skills (supposedly) from those who don’t. Although I have never raced with him, one racer in the MBGP race on Sunday reported that Ronnie was “all over the place” and discussed it with other riders after the accident.

Moreover, the nature of his crash — a single rider sprinting, perhaps with his head down, in a straight line, into side barriers, with no other riders hitting him seems to indicate that his bike handling skills were not on a par with his Cat 1 license. There was a similar into-the-barriers crash by a relatively new Cat 1 or Cat 2 rider at the first race in the 805 crit series this year as well, and it too resulted in serious injuries.

Whether an aggressive and safety-oriented official would have been aware of this during the race or at other races and would have been able to proactively deal with the problem by pulling Ronnie is open to question, but judging from the way officials like Griggs in Wisconsin monitor safety, it certainly seems like they could have. At the very least, an aggressive policy of policing the peloton during and after races would decrease the mayhem that seems to characterize racing here which, thanks very much, is already dangerous enough.

Of course, that would require officials to do more than graze through the donut boxes.

With fatalities, lots of bad crashes, and officials who stand around with their thumbs up their asses, USAC in SoCal has the burden to start taking their job seriously. Our lives (News flash!!) depend on it.

———-

7/10/2014 Update

I received an email from a person involved with the San Diego Velodrome and the aftermath of the death of rider Jackie Dunn. He criticized my article in detail. I asked him to post it as a comment, or to allow me to reproduce it anonymously, but never heard back. Since some of his criticism is valid I will summarize an edited version below. More importantly, he referred to a number of changes that have occurred since Jackie’s death which clearly show that better officiating and changing the culture at USAC can have important ramifications for riders.

1. At the time Jackie died, there was no USAC official because it was not a USAC race, therefore my attempt to link her death to bad USAC officiating was inaccurate, and it wrongly directed Internet outrage to USAC.

My response: I’ve deleted this inaccurate reference from the article.

2. The velodrome responded to Jackie’s death by:

– Harder promotions through the A/B/C/D series [not sure what this means, perhaps making it harder to move up through the categories, which is great]
–Embedded, vocal “mentor” riders in C/D [categories]
–Much more liberal use of official warnings, disqualifications in A/B [categories]
–Much more liberal use of unofficial “talks” to certain riders
–Updated emergency plan, with assigned roles
–A new role, which is in the event of any crash, no matter how insignificant, there’s a person who goes around and interviews any rider who saw the crash, and asks them what happened, and writes down the answers. This is used by the non-USAC officials to decide how to handle it, and to develop a record if there are patterns involving certain people.

My response: This shows two things. First, that whatever officiating was taking place at the velodrome when Jackie died, even though it was non-USAC, it was deemed insufficient and drastic steps were taken to improve it. That’s great and is a model for what USAC officials should be doing at SoCal crits and road races. Although my criticisms were directed at USAC, the above shows that officiating in non-USAC races as well can benefit from the kind of changes that SD Velodrome has implemented. It was my fault for calling Jackie Dunn’s race a USAC race, but the relationship between bad officiating and bad accidents still stands, no matter who’s at the switch. I wish the USAC officials would do, in the aftermath of the deaths of Chris Cono (2013) and Suzanne Rivera (2012), what SD Veldrome has done. But they haven’t.

3. There’s one official at the SD Velodrome behind a lot of the changes. She has made safety her mission. She helped implement the above changes, and joined the USAC officiating program with the mind of bringing some change to USAC. She’s now qualified to be a head USAC official, and has been head official of some of the Saturday Night races at the velodrome. She’s working to change the culture of USAC, too. She’s young, and a former racer who’s crashed bad. She’s “gets it.”

My response: This is great, and an example of how one person can make a difference. But the culture hasn’t changed yet in SoCal crits and road races, and officiating is still pretty much “anything goes,” with no follow-up on crashes, investigating why/how they happened, how they can be prevented, and identifying riders who need more hands-on help. In sum, I apologize for linking Jackie’s death to USAC, but it sounds like my premise was spot-on: Officials can make a difference, and they have an obligation to do the hard work of policing the peloton. That’s what they get paid to do.

Tagged: ,

§ 52 Responses to Pay up and please go die

  • Wily says:

    The finishing straights in the bigger races around SoCal need to have board barriers and not that awful orange metal fencing and don’t tell me it will cost too much you can fuggin advertise on the boards and shit. With boards if you get pushed into them you’ll slide and get thrown back into the coarse. It’s still going to hurt but it’s better than getting your bike/body tangled into that rediculous orange fencing at 35+ mph. I mean wtf is that? Why not line the road with spikes or bear traps?

  • sibex9591 says:

    We lost a talented racer last year as well due to a combination of USAC and promoter negligence. The legal process is still ongoing, however we lost a local good father, husband, community fireman, talented rider. Unfortunately he was a green racer, and though he had a summers worth of Tuesday Night Smackdown experience, his mass start experience was nill. Our coaching that the riff raff can be eliminated in the first lap, should have also included, “Always, and I mean always keep your eyes forward down the road and ahead of the pack”. That would have kept our friend alive. Of course, had the race promoter sent off the pace car with a comms device, our friend would be alive as well, as there would not have been a need to slow the pace car in order to “throw” a phone into it. That “throw” failed, and the device ended up in the road where the USAC official working his last race after 30 years, decided it couldn’t stay there with the pack charging at 35-40 mph. Our friend was 3rd or 4th wheel and so didn’t see or wasn’t looking ahead, and when the pack parted, our friend hit the official full on at speed and crumpled with a face plant onto the pavement. The official was launched nearly 20 feet off the road, and as I understand it, still has no recollection of even being at the race that day. Our friend passed away two weeks later. Still a very sad and painful loss.

  • Jeff Cozad says:

    Brett’s a good guy. It’s always great to work with him. I’ll pass this on to him.

  • Brett says:

    Happy to give back to a sport I love folks! Only grabbed Midwest official of the year but no thanks needed. Seeing folks show up day after day and enjoying racing is enough. Brett

    • fsethd says:

      You’re helping make sure they can show up for the next one. Thanks for being a role model.

      Are you available for cloning?

  • CW says:

    Love that warm fuzzy I get when the SoCal officials yell out, Nobody fall cuz I don’t want to have to do any paperwork!

  • dan martin says:

    Every barrier should be a padded safety barrier. Every telephone pole should be padded. There is no excuse. Just like in the deadly era of formula one, nothing will change unless the riders demand more safety and refuse to race untill safety of race courses becomes a priority to race promoters.

  • Tom says:

    I was near the finish line when Ronnie crashed, but IIRC the ambulances & medics were all near the turns 3&4 — the 180º turn near the Fire Station.
    I am pretty sure the crash was *not* on the final 200 meter straightaway, but it’s possible I could be wrong.

    That final 180 does require a lot of skill at high speed. It’s a changing radius, and the transition from turn to straight goes over a shallow culvert … at speed, that culvert dip/bump requires unweighting your butt from saddle to absorb shock & maintain good control.

    Couple yrs ago in the MBGP 55/60 race, one bike’s chain broke in middle of that turn, racer lost control, and he too crashed into the nasty orange metal fencing.

  • Rob says:

    The Tuff Blok padding that is used at supercross and motocross events should be used here. But who’s going to pay for that? Safety always comes at a price.

  • jeff says:

    I am not a cyclist or even a cycling fan but I was standing just on the other side of the barricades that Ronnie hit. IMHO Ronnie was forced into the barricades by the surging pack sprinting to the finish line. Those orange barricades with the open design caught Ronnie’s handlebars and sent him flying face first over the top. The second problem is since the barricades were not lashed together, the first barricade he hit tilted as he made contact but when he hit the second barricade it was standing strait up and hit that face first and at the corner. That memory will take a while to forget. I wish Ronnie a speedy recovery. To the MBGP organizers and riders I suggest you take a good hard look at your barricades, at a minimum you need to cover the openings and lash the barricades together.

    • amos says:

      Thank you Jeff for telling what really happened as an eye witness!

      Much better than making up stuff that you did not see for yourself (or about a person that you have never raced with) just to cause drama for the sake of creating drama for the latest rant!

      Lame!

      • fsethd says:

        Yes, it’s just creating drama when someone has a horrific accident and asks questions of the cycling community. Much better to keep racing and pretend all is well. Maybe hand out USAC officiating licenses in homeless shelters and order another gross of steel barricades?

        As for what “really” happened, here’s what “really” happened: a rider went down in a solo crash on a straight piece of pavement. It’s not clear (in his case, based on what I was told by at least one rider in the race with him) that he had the skills to be in that race. Maybe aggressive officiating as at ToAD, or a longer apprenticeship in the lower ranks would have obviated the crash. Maybe not.

        But if you think regular, very bad crashes, awful officiating, and two fatalities in one year are just “drama,” you are seriously fucked up.

    • fsethd says:

      At a minimum. Thanks!

  • Greg says:

    Jackie Dunn’s crash wasn’t in a USAC race. It was Tuesday Night Racing, ATRA sanctioned. The organizers are experienced racers, and aggressive racing is aggessively policed by the riders. It’s not appropriate to lump Jackie into your rant, and indirectly blame the velodrome community. I was in the race…..

    • fsethd says:

      When you criticize motorists for killing cyclists you’re a good “cycling advocate.”

      When you ask hard questions about PEOPLE WHO DIE IN A FUCKING BICYCLE RACE it’s a “rant.”

      Got it.

      • Greg says:

        ‘Rant’ wasn’t the right term. I don’t mind hard questions. I know Ronnie, and knew Jackie, and am very appreciative of the questions about fencing and behavior. But when you ask hard questions, it’s good to do a little research so the hard questions don’t go in the wrong direction. You said Jackie was in a USAC-related race. She simply wasn’t. It wasn’t a USAC race. I’m part of the velodrome community down here, and, trust me, those hard questions were asked, and many hard conversations took place. I’m simply defending my community.

      • fsethd says:

        My mistak

  • Valley Girl says:

    You started to touch on a bigger problem…Cat’ing up WAY too fast for the general good. How does one go from a Crash 5 to a 1 in a year? That shouldn’t EVER be possible. Peeps should have to do their time in the ranks before moving up…There are people who are getting upgraded that can’t hold their line through and brake into turns, cause multiple crashes and/or can’t ride in their drops…and that’s problem.

    • fsethd says:

      Please see the previous comment, where “Greg” makes it clear that just because someone dies in a bicycle race it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a safety problem.

      You’re so right, VG. There’s more to racing a bike than upgrade points, cf Chris Froome.

      • dan martin says:

        Those same barricades will be lining the road at Brentwood GP.

      • fsethd says:

        And the same clueless officials will be ignoring every wheel chop, dive bomb, and thrown elbow because you know, THAT SHIT IS JUST DRAMA.

      • Winemaker says:

        Old guy talking…
        ….seemed like it used to be that the district rep upgraded people on placings as well as skill…sometimes just placings worked, and sometimes without placings but with obvious fastness and skill, one got upgraded. I don’t think the time spent on the bike or in mass start events is always (most of the time, but not always) a key, it is simply the skill level present in that rider. The district rep had that responsibility, got paid for it (then the USCF) and gave a shit about the riders.
        S.- re the USAC officials — one of the current/longest tenured Socal officials was derisively known as “Crash” during his racing days in the mid 70’s. He never got above Cat 3., He loves bike racing, he has a willingness to want to be there officiating, but he is just not capable of being a good official….yet he has been earning dough (and I believe that is all that matters to him) for 30 years being an official. I have always laughed to myself when I see him at races. Now I don’t daugh, but just hold my breath.
        So…Pay the officials more, REQUIRE the promoters and officials to set up the courses safely, and work professionally to get the costs (that are inevitable) covered by mainstream (not your LBS) companies.

      • fsethd says:

        Incredible. Not.

    • Tom says:

      ” … . How does one go from a Crash 5 to a 1 in a year? … ”

      You can, if you’e extremely aerobically fit, and win or podium a lot.

      IIRC, USAC *mandates* an upgrade if you win too many races in a short period of time.

      Maybe “upgrade” points need to be combined with “experience” races, so you also require:
      1) minimum # of finishes, and
      2) field has be a minimum size.

      Presently, many upgrades, eg cat4 to cat3, are optionally allowed solely on basis of ‘experience’, even if you are just pack fodder for 25-30 races.
      The USAC rules are hard to interpret, so I could be wrong on this.

  • channel_zero says:

    Watch where you point your finger Seth.

    engage in a whole host of shitty maneuvers that have nothing to do with bike racing and everything to do with risky, violent intimidation.

    Hey, look at that, adults that can’t regulate their own behaviour at some industrial park crit nobody sees.

    Does USAC have a direct role in this? Yes. For sure. Since USAC members have no say in how their federation is run, I don’t know why you guys/girls still reward them.

    Your post and many of the comments are made triply ridiculous by the fact the pedestrian barriers frequently used were never safe and you guys whine you aren’t willing to pay for something safer. What’s the cat3/4 annual budget for gear these days? How about chopping a quarter off it to make your events safer? Impossible! I know.

    I’m not indifferent to the terrible accidents. But, plenty of the regulars need to own up to their role in making the races in SoCal dangerous. They’ve been doing it for decades.

    Many of you need to acknowledge your own role in creating this situation and stop whining about the environment to which you contribute.

    • fsethd says:

      No argument here. Check the update to the piece.

      I’m not whining about paying for something that works.

      It’s interesting that this is a topic where the one thing everyone can agree on is that I’m wrong. Wrong to bring it up, wrong not to bring it up. Wrong to blame USAC, wrong not to blame USAC. Wrong to say that riders cat up too quickly, wrong to say that they don’t.

      The chat forums are having a field day with it. Best quote of the day: “That South Bay cycling blog is the dumbest rant site on the internet. I assume anything on there is an exaggeration, error, or blatant lie.”

      Winning!

      • dan martin says:

        Wait, there are internet chat forums about cycling? What a bunch of loosers. They need to go ride their bike up a hill till they want to puke, get shelled on the NPR, go to work, or anything productive, not just spinning a trainer in the basement thinking of witty things to type on the intrawebs.

      • fsethd says:

        Ha, ha!!

      • channel_zero says:

        Good job then. Keep up the great work.

  • Eric R says:

    When racing you rarely notice the poles and other obstacles near the course. This video shows at race speed how close the poles are to the curb. Even hitting a padded pole or hay bale could kill you. Can racing ever be safe? No, but it can be safer as mentioned above in reference to Formula One.

    Manhattan Grand Prix – final laps – Rahsaan Bahati’s onboard camera.

    • fsethd says:

      Scary. As. Hell.

    • Zach T. says:

      That video has pretty much scared me off from getting back into crit racing ever again. I thought I wanted to get back into it after racing XC MTB and CX mostly the past couple of years, but I think I’d rather deal with trees and muddy holes than careen around in a pack like that at 40 MPH. Damn.

    • Bryan L says:

      Fascinating vid. Scary too. 12 seconds in, Clark moves to protect his wheel by giving a slight nudge to the hip of SoCal rider. 14 seconds in SoCal rider looks right to see who’s nudged him. 16 seconds in Socal rider almost takes himself out when his eyes aren’t on the road in front of him and someone moves over on him. Pretty much exactly what Talansky did in the TDF today when he wipe the road with himself. Bahati then moves alongside Clark and we lose a few seconds of the video…

      Tom hits the nail on the head: it’s a rider problem and an official problem and a solution has to come from both. But as far as the fencing goes, the thought of getting tangled in those unprotected metal grates horrifies me. I get their purpose, but lining a course with them is fraught with peril. Even if (and that’s a big if) the racing line is nowhere near them, once the crash happens, bodies fly and slide an awful long way, and to have one of those catch your fall or stop your slide…well, we’ve seen what happens.

      • fsethd says:

        Thanks. The fencing scares the crap of out me, too, and most everyone with whom I’ve spoken.

  • Tom FitzGibbon says:

    This comment is about two things: (1) fencing and (2) safe racing.

    As a race promoter, we use the Orange Fence barricades because they make the race safe to ensure that no one gets on the course. I have not heard of anyone blaming the use of fences or barricades before for a crash or an injury, except when the barricades may be set up wrong. And FWIW, the barricades are connected at the bottom, that’s why they stand up. At the finish area, the fencing has banners on it, so you would hit the banner, not the barricade, in many places.

    At MBGP, racers were close to the barricades because it was a shorter line to the finish. I was right across from Ronnie when he hit the fence and saw it, and do not think you could blame the fence in any way for what happened. At many other races, like Brentwood, there is no reason to be next to the fence, so riders are very unlikely to ride right next to it. I can tell you that safety is our number one goal at the races.

    (2) As to safe racing, the racers and officials have to work together to identify issues or problem riders and communicate about how to stop it. Not knowing what you are doing is different than intentionally causing a crash and can be dealt with differently–the former is training/information and the latter is enforcement. If a dialog is necessary among racers and officials, then let’s have it. I will say that it did not occur to me to blame the officials for any of these three incidents mentioned, as each was very different, and each seemed to be an accident that cannot be blamed on the refusal of the officials to remove a “problem” racer from the peloton.

    At Brentwood GP we are having a video competition that will hopefully result in a lot of racers filming the races. I hope that having a lot of video will mean (1) that riders will race better and safer knowing they are on video, and (2) that if there are still problem riders of either type described above, they can be identified and counseled or stopped (the video will help the officials, who can find it tough to punish a racer when it is based on differing accounts of a race). So let’s continue a constructive dialog on safety and bring your cameras to Brentwood.

    • fsethd says:

      Thanks, Tom.

    • Garrett says:

      Tom,

      I crashed with 20 riders in 2011. The fencing poked two holes in me, crushed a finger, caused a concussion, and unknown long term issues with my upper vertebrae. A 1-in square metal pole in the shape of a cheese grater is effective for protecting the crowd but not the racers. Not linking at the top presents a sharp right angle that makes a pretty effective spike in diagonal impacts.

      I was never contacted by a race official. Despite being one of 7 transported by ambulance (huge thanks to MBFD and Little Company Hospital who were absolute pros). Despite my wife sending the following letter to a Chevron contact who was involved in the race.

      “Hi Jeff, Thanks so much for checking in. We spent yesterday in the ER.
      Providence Little Company was amazing; I couldn’t believe how fast we
      went through the process of getting all the tests done and stitches in,
      etc. Garrett appears to be okay, but we still have to watch out for
      danger signs.

      More than anything, what you and Chevron can do to help is make sure the barricades that are used for this race are changed to ones that protect racers. The metal barricades are obviously meant to keep people out of roadways, not protect racers in any way. They are extremely dangerous, When you think about it, this race which is notorious for crashes, should never have metal barricades that can–and did–injure riders. Possible alternatives would be hay bales or the smooth plastic ones in the shape of jersey walls that are filled with water for weight. A safety expert should be brought in to help determine the most appropriate solution.

      I would love it if you or Jill could let me know what you think Chevron could do about this situation. Surely there is a simple solution. I’m
      grateful for your concern and look forward to hearing your ideas.”

      REPLY “Melissa, thanks for the reply and report on your husband; Little Company is amazing for sure as I have had so many wonderful ER experiences there with my kids and always insist on that facility vs. Torrance Memorial, which has been the total opposite.

      I sent your note to Jill who will give it to the USA Cycling and
      Southern California/Nevada Cycling Association officials and Race
      Director that oversees all aspects of the race/course/events/safety/etc.
      at a follow up meeting the South Bay Wheelman and race officials have
      next week.”

      Tom, even if Jill did not pass along that note, your statement that nobody has ever complained about the barricades frankly strains credulity. At best, I suppose it could be willful ignorance, but your statement that safety come first is a platitude. “Nobody ever complained” would be a weak excuse if it were true. I was injured severely enough to spend a day in the hospital. No effort was made by USAC to understand the dynamics of the crash and my injuries, or get my perspective on how the race could be made safer. Your note does not propose any review of MBGP race safety in light of the comments, just an empty, laughable defense and apparently more of the same. (Banners are now an engineered safety system, really? Why aren’t they at the critical turn, or at the top outside corner of the hill which is another crash zone?)

      I really should have sued. Sadly, that’s the only way this would have gotten some attention.

      If USAC is truly concerned about safety, I am totally available to share my productive input. Let us know what you’d like to do going forward.

      With sincere concern,
      Garret

      • fsethd says:

        Strong stuff. Thanks for posting this. If anyone thinks these races are safe, ask some of the racers with moto experience how they would rate course safety features.

Donate a few seconds of your life that you'll never get back

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Pay up and please go die at Cycling in the South Bay.

meta

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 808 other followers

%d bloggers like this: