The strange pull of cycling

November 19, 2014 § 20 Comments

I first saw the old elephant about three years ago. He was gray-headed and busting out at the seams as we flew past him on the Donut Ride. He’d gotten a good ten-minute head start but we overhauled him long before the first big climb. He huffed and puffed and mashed for about ten pedal strokes, trying to hang on before he was blown out the back.

As we passed him someone said, “Good job, Bill,” and then we were gone.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s Backintheday Bill,” the other rider said as he filled me in on Bill’s career as a top local pro and general two-wheeled wrecking ball.

“He looks terrible,” I said. “He’s gotta weigh over 250.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen him in fifteen years, maybe more. His race weight was 140.” From that Saturday on I saw Bill every weekend and always said hello when we passed. Over time he stopped taking head starts and began rolling out with the group. And he was getting smaller.

At the beginning of the year I noticed that he was sticking with us up the first hard surge, and although he was still a pretty big fella, he was certainly under 200, and his kits didn’t look like they were about to unravel and kill someone with the force of the exploding seams. Now he’s visibly getting thinner by the month, and sticks with a much younger grupetto all the way over the first big climb. All of his kits are new because the old ones flat out don’t fit anymore.

Bill’s one of many, many riders who come and go and then come back. They leave for all the right reasons — racing is dumb, cycling is costly, pedaling is dangerous. Some leave for all the wrong reasons, too. My buddy J.C. had found Miss Right through cycling.

“Can you imagine anything better?” he had said. “A girlfriend who loves to bike?”

I didn’t say anything, because I could imagine a lot of things better, like a girlfriend who loves to cook, who earns seven figures, and who loves you to bike while she perfects her home brewing recipe. But I didn’t say anything except “Nope.”

They married and six months later she quit cycling. Then six more months later she told him to quit cycling. Then six more months later he was single again, and back, of course, on his bike.

Some dudes quit for spiritual enlightenment, like The Buddha. Tony used to be one of the most feared racers in SoCal. Then he started growing a big bushy beard, and worse, reading books, long books with hard words. They ruined him, of course, and one day he announced on Facebag that he was “done.” Now he’s a Buddhist adept, spreading love instead of dishing out the pain, but mark my words, he’ll be back. As nice as it is to make the world a better place, it’s even nicer to watch people crumble.

Sometimes when a guy sells his bikes and is “done” you’re kind of glad, but other times it’s a sinking feeling of genuine loss, like when Todd quit coming to the rides, then sold his bike, then vanished from view. Everybody loved Todd. He never had a bad word to say, he was one of the funniest guys alive, and he was always up for a beer. If you had a problem he’d give you the shirt off your back, even if what you really needed was a pair of trousers.

But as a cyclist, he was the guy who made your ride fun. You know how when someone pedals up and everyone kind of moans inwardly, as in “Why’d that buzzkill show up?” Todd was the opposite. Punctual-departure-Nazis would sit around for ten, fifteen minutes, gladly waiting for him even though he was always late and didn’t show up despite blood pacts the night before about “being there no matter what.” Todd was the brightest jewel in the crown of South Bay cycling fun, and then one day he was gone except for the occasional post on Facebag, which always made me sad.

Then yesterday Fireman texted me a photo. “Just finished our ride,” the message said, and next to the words was a picture of him and Todd draining a fermented recovery drink. There was a huge smile on Todd’s face, and I bet it was mostly from being back on his bike.

But his smile wasn’t nearly as big as mine.

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SLO-est of them all

November 18, 2014 § 17 Comments

As we settled into our lawn chairs around the blazing fire, one of our guests from the previous night appeared. She was not in Hecklebitch’s contingent, and so we welcomed her. After a couple of beers, she started to cry. “You can’t believe what Cora’s had to go through,” she said.

We sipped on our beer. She sobbed some more. Then T-Dub said, “Uh, who’s Cora?”

“She’s the transgender racer who raced with the women today.”

We looked at each other. “You mean that dude down at your camp site?”

“Cora is not a dude!” said Tammy. “She is a woman!”

We sipped on our beer some more and no one said anything. Three old guys who just finished recovering from a bad race and a worse hangover who are chilling around a campfire after a good dinner usually have a hard time getting it up for a meaty discussion on gender politics. Rob sighed and tried.

“So, what did Cora have to go through?” he asked.

“Some of the other women are complaining about her, claiming that it’s unfair for them to have to race against a man,” said Tammy.

“They kind of have a point,” said Mike, which sent Tammy off onto another crying jag.

“But she’s a woman!” wailed Tammy.

“Is she?” I asked.

“Of course she is! She’s taking all of the treatments!”

This was clearly one of those deals where our desire to slowly get plastered was going to be thwarted by arguing about whether or not Cora was a he or a she. “Tell her to come on over and have a beer with us,” I offered.

“This isn’t about beer!” wailed Tammy some more.

By now it was pitch dark, and it looked like we were in for the night from hell. I’d been mercilessly heckled. I’d finished DFL. I had the slowest lap of the day except for a kid in the 12-year old boys’ race. My new drunk hadn’t completely chased away my old hangover. My legs, neck, and shoulders hurt, along with my internal organs and most of my skin. And now we were stuck with someone who wanted us to argue about something that didn’t really matter to us. We were just guys having a beer.

And then magic happened. Someone said, “Well, we’re dudes racing in the dude division, so I guess you girls will have to work it out yourselves,” and Tammy ran off, sobbing.

After a few moments of silence, people began wandering over to our campfire, and by “people” I mean two beautiful women, and one of them sat next to me. Now, when you are an aged, wrinkly, stinky old dude who hasn’t bathed for two days after a hard race in the dirt, and you’re still wearing the same crusty underwear from Thursday, and you haven’t brushed your teeth, cleaned your ears, or combed the food out of your beard for 48 hours, the last thing in the world you expect is to have two beautiful women join your campfire. Hecklebitch, sure. These two? Nooooooo way.

So we all perked right up and thanked dog that it was too dark for them to see us properly. In addition to bringing themselves, which was gift enough, they also brought beer, good beer, which we swilled right away. As things started getting better and friendlier, the cute blonde next to me reached into her coat pocket and brought out a bottle of Fireball, a delicate mixture of cinnamon, gasoline, sulfuric acid, and whiskey. “Last time I drank this shit, someone got married,” muttered Mike as the sledgehammer started to hit.

Then a couple of guys came up to our fire. “Hey,” said the tall one, “can you give us some firewood?”

We only had a few logs left, perhaps enough to last past midnight, and we’d had to fork out good money and carefully tend our fire all night long. “Fuck no,” I said, “but pull up a chair and you can have a beer.”

“Thanks,” said Tallboy, and they sat down.

This was the mistake of the night. He took a swig of beer and began to brag, but not before telling the lovely brunette that “psychology is crap.” She was training to be one, of course.

When Blondie told him she used musical therapy to work with disturbed children and adults, he informed her that that, too was “crap.” In other words, he knew everything, which was impressive since he was only 21 and a chemical engineering student at Cal Poly there in SLO. He was camping for the weekend with some friends and they had obviously run him out of their campsite due to his incredible talents as an instant buzzkill.

The one thing he hadn’t learned much about in engineering class, though, was ‘cross racing, and in particular about aged, wrinkly ‘cross racers with crusty underwear who had just gotten through a conversation about gender equality, three cases of IPA, most of a bottle of rotgut, and were very focused on talking to pretty women. Within ten minutes he had done the unthinkable: Thanks to him, our women got up and left. Our two other guests left. Mike the cop had wandered off to retrieve his spare wheels from the pit and to keep from busting Tallboy in the face.

A brief pause ensued as Tallboy gathered his breath to tell us more about how much money he had, about how smart he was, and about all of his worldly success. “Son,” I said, “hold that next thought, would you?”

“Sure,” he said. Our voices carried over the entire campground, and people were listening.

“Because I want to tell you that you are the most obnoxious, arrogant little fuck I’ve ever met.”

“I am?”

“Yeah. You come to our campsite. You drink our fuggin’ beer. You insult three old dudes, one of whom’s a cop, the other works for the power company, and the other is a former middleweight boxer. You run off our fuggin’ women. So you know what happens next?”

“What?”

“If you were my son, I’d hang my head in shame and ask you to change your last name. But since you aren’t, someone, probably the ex-boxer there, is probably gonna get up and knock out all your fuggin’ teeth.”

Tallboy stood up, his lower lip quivering. “I don’t like the way this conversation is going,” he said, as he strode off into the darkness.

“We didn’t like the way it started, asshole!” someone shouted after him.

The campground’s silence was broken by the sound of muffled laughter coming from various tables, benches, and tents. After five or ten minutes, people began appearing out of the darkness, laughing and pulling up a chair. Miracle of miracles, our two beauties returned as well.

As the fire died down to its embers and the Fireball whiskey burned down to our entrails, we looked up at the stars and beheld the brilliance of the Milky Way. “This ‘cross racing,” said Mike, “is pretty darned good.”

No one disagreed.

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Take it SLO-er

November 17, 2014 § 7 Comments

It’s been scientifically demonstrated that when a group of strangers assembles around a blazing campfire in the wilderness surrounded by unlimited beer the evening will result in fisticuffs, fucking, a mind bending hangover, or, if you’re super lucky, all three. Mike and I only achieved the hangover part, and we staggered out of the camper the next morning wildly looking for the water bottle and, on the off chance we might find it and kill it, the cat that had spend the night crapping in our mouths.

“Dude,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“No beer for me the rest of the weekend. I feel terrible. It’s gonna take a couple of days to recover from that.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I’m done drinking, too.”

We glanced over the embankment to see what had become of our campfire teammates, and they were even worse off than we were. You know that slow staggering zombie gait, half bent-over, that people use the morning after a night that ends with no one even looking anymore at the label on the bottle? Their whole campsite looked like it had been occupied by the zombie apocalypse.

The blonde girl who had spent the night shouting at us and complaining that she “couldn’t understand it why no guy would stay with her for more than a year” was trying to get the zombie campers down to the race course because it had dawned on them that in an hour or so they would all be required to engage their hangover muscles in a vicious, relentless pain fest around the worst ‘cross course ever designed by someone who hates bicycles. Then memory fragments of the previous night came trickling back like pus from a freshly lanced infection.

“What time are you racing?” I had asked the blonde girl, who had looked like she was about thirty.

“I fucking hate bike racing,” she snarled.

“Did you notice you were at a bike race with a bunch of bike racers?”

“You don’t look like a bike racer,” she said, staring at my stomach.

“Good point,” I conceded. “So what are you doing here?”

“I’m the team heckler.”

“The what?”

“The team heckler. I’m the best fucking ‘cross heckler in NorCal and my team takes me everywhere to heckle.”

“You do kind of have a loud voice,” I offered, reflecting on her noisy, grating, and jarring manner of speaking.

“Shut up and keep drinking,” she said, so I did.

Thankfully my race didn’t start until noon, and Hecklebitch and the Zombies (I think they’re also a garage punk band) had gone down to do the women’s race. Mike and I ate several plates of dirt to keep the Gatorade down, cleaned our already clean bikes, and rolled down to the course.

Once there we did what everyone at every cyclocross race does; which is to say we began asking people about tire pressure. In ‘cross it’s all about tire pressure, and even though you run the same TP virtually every race, it’s terribly important to talk about it. At the sign-in table, which was a quarter-mile away from the opposite end of the course, we heard a terrible howling sound, like what you would hear if someone were trying to warn someone about a bank robbery, or if their child had been stolen, or if their balls had been sauteed and drained with a hundred safety pin punctures. It was a yammering, screaming, banshee of a yowl, and despite the distance it made our skin crawl.

“Who’s being tortured?” I asked.

The sign-in gal shook her head. “I don’t know, but it’s been going on all morning.”

“We’d better go take a look and kill it.”

“Kill what?” she asked.

“The poor animal that’s caught in the steel trap. That’s the only thing that could howl so miserably.”

Mike and I pinned on our numbers, asked a few more people about tire pressure and ignored their responses, and then did the only other mandatory thing that you have to do at a ‘cross race. It goes like this. “Hey dude,” you say to a bystander, “is the course open for a pre-ride?”

“No. There’s a race going on. The course is now closed.”

“Okay, thanks.” Then you go to a spot where no one is looking and hop onto the course. We did, and our punishment was immediate. The SLO ‘cross course had been laid out by a blind person. Not the usual blind person who does ‘cross races, but the blind person who, before beginning the all-day job of marking the course with with twelve miles of tape, begins the job with the tools of the trade (hammer, PVC pipe, steel spikes, and post-hole digger) as well as twelve cases of light beer.

This means that after about a quarter of the way through the course the blind dude with the hammer is himself hopelessly hammered, and the course becomes a mishmash of what you’d expect to see after several cases of beer in the hot sun: A fog of senselessly twisted barrier tape.

The course had a turn every twenty or thirty feet, which, of all the weaknesses in my ‘cross skill set, and there are about 3,350 of them, played to the weakest weakness of all — my inability to turn a bicycle. As we pre-rode the course, gradually approaching the backside, the banshee screaming increased and sounded more horrible, until we hit the small series of uphill turns that were pleasantly lined with massive gopher holes that ate your front wheel whole and jarred your bones so hard that it felt like your testicles would jounce out of their sack.

I checked my service revolver so that I could quickly shoot the trapped animal until we saw that it wasn’t a trapped animal at all, rather it was Hecklebitch. The noise was deafening. She had built her own heckling bell contraption, two thick pieces of metal that had giant steel cans welded to them. She would clang the cans together and it was so frightening that your first urge was to crap, your second to run away. Accompanied by a howling yell to “Pedal your ass faster!” and “Get at it, goddammit!” it was scary enough.

But what was truly beyond the pale was Hecklebitch’s incredible physical strength. Standing between the lanes on the sharp uphill section of the course, she would run parallel to her riders and scream at them while clanging the crazy cans of hell. Clanging the crazy cans took amazing Amazon strength, but doing that while repeatedly running a 4-minute uphill mile over a vale of gopher-style sinkholes and screaming like a drill sergeant easily made her the fittest person at the event.

To top it off she was dressed in black yoga pants and wearing a huge black floppy hat that obscured everything except her beady, red crazy eyes so that you actually thought hell had opened its gates and let out its worst denizen to suck your blood and eat you for lunch if you didn’t “Pedal faster, goddammit!”

And her teammates did in fact pedal faster; by the look on their faces it was evident that she was the best legal performance enhancer anyone in the race had.

“I’m not surprised she has trouble keeping a guy for more than a year,” said Mike.

“I’m surprised she’s ever kept one for more than a day,” I agreed. “If only because it probably takes her a full day to eat them.”

My race began and I attacked off the back, figuring I would catch everyone on the final lap and pass them in the beer tent. This course was so terrible that my technique of brake-hard-in-the-middle-of-the-turn-while-taking-the-widest-line put me way, way OTB. This was good because it meant I didn’t have to worry about being near any other pesky riders, but it was bad because my conspicuousness brought me to the attention of Hecklebitch.

By now she had been yelling and running and clanging nonstop for hours, and she was worked up into a frothy, sweating rage, making her earlier exhortations look like the peeping of mice. “Pedal your fucking bike you lazy, candy-assed sandbagging sonofabitch!” she cursed as I casually pedaled by combing my hair.

Unfortunately the taping meant I had to go back and forth like in a queue at Disneyland, passing her five or six times before advancing down the course. With each passing her rage mounted, and her teammates, who had finished, joined her in a knot of screaming abusers. They were so amazed at my slowness and apparent lack of effort that they reached new heights in insults and abuse, many of which were inventive and funny to everyone except me.

“Hashtag don’twannasweat!” screamed one.

“Hashtag don’tgetmyglassesdirty!” howled another.

“Hashtag allsmacknosack!” roared Hecklebitch.

As the abuse got more intense I began to fume, until on the third lap as they took their collective breath to heap additional insults on my head, I slipped in “Hashtag whycan’tIkeepaguyformorethanone year, and Hashtag becauseI’mbatshitcrazy.”

That shut up the entire heckling section for one full lap, but their lusty insults had provoked such amusement that a small clot of other hecklers had formed farther up. One guy kept yelling, “It will go faster if you pedal it!” until the final lap he offered up the worst insult ever as I rode by — because it was so sincere. “Quit sandbagging!” he said. Then he said “Hey, dude you’re just warming up, aren’t you? Sorry for all the heckling.”

By then I was moments away from being lapped and getting to beer early.

After the races were done for the day we regrouped at the campsite with T-Dub and Rob only to realize that we’d forgotten about our morning hangover, we’d forgotten our promise to stay sober, and most importantly we’d forgotten to re-provision the beer and wood for the campfire.

We jumped into T-Dub’s minivan. “This is a great bike race car,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, “but it’s not so hot when you’re meeting a chick for the first time who you met on Match.com.”

In SLO we drove around looking for cold beer and toured the city’s main attraction, a couple of walls down a narrow alley that were covered in chewing gum. Apparently people chew their gum and stick it to the wall so in addition to being nasty it is really, really nasty. “Do they have a booger wall here, too?” I asked.

No one answered because we had found the liquor store.

Back at the campsite we ate dinner, stoked the fire, settled into our chairs, and expressed our gratitude that Hecklebitch and the Zombies had gotten butthurt by my hashtag comment. As night closed in, a different group of crazy people began to trickle in, lured by the warmth of the flames and the enticement of free beer.

And shortly thereafter shit got, as they say, real. Very, very real.

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Take it SLO

November 15, 2014 § 6 Comments

I knew it was going to be a great weekend of ‘cross racing when we saw the straw drummer. Mike and I were standing in line at the Starbucks and an older dude was sitting at his table holding big green straws in each hand and a straw in the crook of each elbow.

With his earphones in, grooving to the beat, he drummed the air with his drinking straws, flipping them like drumsticks and catching them again in his elbow and mouth. He was skilled but clearly insane, just like a ‘cross racer. Unlike a ‘cross racer, however, it was before noon and he wasn’t obviously drunk.

As Mike pointed the RV north to San Luis Obispo, we took inventory. “Beer?” I asked.

“Six cases. So we’re covered for tonight.”

“Coffee?”

“Check.”

“Toilet paper?”

“They’ll have that at the race.”

Knowing that we were fully provisioned I relaxed as we powered up the 101. Three hours later we got to El Chorro Regional Park where they were setting up the course.

After being cooped up in the RV we were champing at the bit to ride. I kitted up and raced over the dirt wall behind our campsite. On the other side a nice fellow had just finished setting up his tent, which he had inconveniently placed immediately in front of my bike. Due to his poor placement, I was forced to ride over his tent.

He was kind of upset as we untangled his sleeping bag and camp stove from my derailleur, but I explained to him that if he had not put his tent in the way of my bike it wouldn’t have happened and plus now he had a new rear entrance to his tent which would improve airflow.

Mike and I rode for twenty minutes around the course then returned to camp, exhausted by the hard workout and ready for a big meal. Mike threw together an awesome mountain of pasta and meat sauce, sourdough slathered in butter, potato chips, Oreos, and beer.

As our campfire blazed and the temperature dropped, all the neighboring ‘crossers, thirsty and cold, gathered to the flames like moths. After nine hours all the beer was gone and the ‘crossers from Oakland were getting restless. I know this because the tall blonde was picking up the empties and draining the last drops of beer and Ebola spit from them.

When she finally reached for my beer I was afraid things would get ugly and then magically the SPY crew of Jim, Aden, and Vic showed up with six fresh cases. The natives all relaxed and the tall blonde took her hands off of my throat and we were all friends again.

Sometime much later the fire had died, the bottles were empty, and Mike was starting to look pretty cute. We climbed into the RV and were soon snoring the sleep of the dead.

There might be a better way to prep for a ‘cross race, but I don’t want to know what it is.

The anti-cyclist cyclist

November 14, 2014 § 58 Comments

It seemed pretty harmless. My fan sent me a private email and told me about a little bike-citation-trap that the LA Sheriff’s Department was running on PCH southbound. There is a shortcut that about seventy eleven billion riders take coming home on PCH, and it’s illegal because it requires you to go the wrong way down a one-lane, one-way street for about fifty feet before it becomes a two-lane, two-way street.

The reason that you break the law here is because you are tired and it’s the last 30 miles of your ride back to PV and if you go straight with your shot legs you have to “drag your wagon” as Miss Kentucky would say, all the way up Pepperdine Hill instead of sailing back to Malibu on a pancake flat, untrafficked road.

Problem is, the untrafficked road leads by Cher’s compound, and the trillionaires along the road, or at least one of them, doesn’t like it when bikers break the law to “sneak” onto “their” road. So, after getting a tip from my fan — the equivalent of someone telling you about a sobriety checkpoint — I went onto my Facebag lawyer page and gave the cycling planet a heads-up. “Don’t break the law here, and either go straight or walk your bike until the road becomes two-way.”

Pretty soon a maroon reared his ugly head, some wanker named Heath who is presumably a cyclist, and he made a couple of nasty comments about “lazy cyclists” and insinuating that the trillionaires were right to be angry at the scofflaws. I counter-posted once or twice and then deleted all of his comments, adhering to my new Facebag policy of “you gotta pay to play.”

In the past I would hunker down and engage in multi-day Facebag comment wars that were immensely entertaining to everyone but me. I realized the depth of my illness when, coming up for air, I realized that I had posted over 200 comments in a battle of the maroons between me and some wanker in upstate New York about whether or not his ‘cross skilz class would have prevented a crash. Yep. It was that weighty a topic. I engaged in this tweetle-beetle-battle-in-a-Facebag-bottle while visiting my elder son at college, ruining the weekend, and causing permanent emotional damage to the other maroon, who threatened legal action against me. (Note to reader: threatening lawyers with legal action is like threatening Bre’r Rabbit with the briar patch.)

However, it takes two maroons to have a tweetle beetle battle, and after reflection I realized that in this case I was the other one, and vowed not to do it anymore. So when Heath began tossing out the red meat I just tossed out the red delete and that was the end of it. Henceforth, I decided that if anyone wants to argue with me, they have to do it in my sandbox, here on the blog, where I not only make the rules but where I can edit everything they write or block them completely if I so choose. It’s not fair, just like life.

What struck me about Heath, though, is a common thread that runs through cycling in which cyclists themselves are extremely critical of other cyclists when it comes to obeying traffic laws. It’s a hall monitor complex, and it’s bizarre. I don’t condone scofflawing most of the time, but unless it’s egregious and puts someone else’s life at risk, I don’t much care about it, either. Cars break the laws all the time too, and when I’m motoring along and someone changes lanes without using a turn indicator (that actually happens), I don’t honk, or scream, or post a rant about it.

My motoring time is better spent driving defensively than it is screaming, cursing, flipping off, honking, or Facebagging about all the maroons out there who are trying to kill me.

Cycling is already dangerous enough without having to split my attention to whether or not someone runs a stop sign or goes the wrong way for 50 feet down Cher’s street. And in the battle between the scofflaws, it’s the motorist, not the cyclist, who is the overwhelming bad guy.

My buddy C. was dropping down Manhattan Boulevard a few days ago, traveling at the speed limit, and lawfully riding in the lane. A very busy and important manageress of a local MB optic shop came by, speeding, let out a blast on her horn, totally ignoring the new law that requires a passing motorist to give a cyclist 3-feet of clearance. C. got out of her way just in time to avoid being turned into pulp, and at the stoplight a few feet ahead, the one she had apparently been rushing to get to so she could stop, he thwacked on her window and yelled at her.

“I’m calling the police!” she screamed.

“Great,” he said. So they pulled over while she dialed 911. Unlike the LA police, where they don’t even bother to show up unless at least three shots have been fired and one person has been hit, the MB police aren’t quite as busy, and five minutes later a cop approached. To C.’s incredible joy and disbelief, it was a cop on a … bicycle. Finally, for once, justice was about to be done.

The eyeglass lady had been speeding. She had passed C. illegally. She had broken the law prohibiting unnecessary use of the horn. She had illegally crossed the double yellow line to pass. More to the point, she admitted to all of it.

So of course, the bicycle cop on the bicycle (did I mention he was riding a bike?) began to berate … the cyclist. After hearing both sides of the story, he asked C. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“You mean while she was trying to kill me as I descended at the speed limit? Kind of whip my phone out of my jersey pocket and dial 911?”

“Well, it’s illegal to hit someone’s window like you admit to having done.”

“Right. And my reaction was in response to her assaulting me. So are you going to cite her for all the things she’s admitted doing?”

“It’s your word against hers.”

“Right, except she and I both agree that she was breaking the law.”

“Well, you should have called me.”

“Look,” said C., feeling very much as if he were living the Monty Python argument clinic or descending into tweetle-beetle-battle hell, “she called you and you’re here. What are you going to do about it?”

“It’s your word against hers,” said Deppity Doofus.

And that’s pretty much how it ended: The motorist, having admitted to a plethora of violations, one of them a moving violation, got to continue on while the Manhattan Beach bicycle cop (he was riding a bicycle) blamed the cyclist.

I thought about all this as I pondered Heath’s cyclist-hating comments and it made me think of Pogo. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Can they sue me?

November 13, 2014 § 24 Comments

It’s a common question with a short answer: Yes.

Here’s the scenario: You come up with a new course and invite your friends to join you. It’s the classic “group ride” with no waiver, no rules, no controlled access to the course, no referees, no ambulance on stand-by, and no entry fee.

The guy who invites his buddies to the beatdown wants to know, of course, whether or not he can be sued if someone falls off his bicycle, gets hit by a car, or gets taken out by another wanker.

The easy answer of course is “YES.” Anyone can sue anyone for anything at any time. Pay the filing fee and it’s game on. But the real question is whether or not the plaintiff will win. And it all starts with something called assumption of the risk.

In California, if some wanker sues you because he fell off his bike during the Thursday morning beatdown ride that you mentioned on Facebook, your best defense is assumption of the risk. In common language, this means that if you’re dumb enough to do it, don’t come whining to the judge when you get hurt.

Technically, it’s more, well, technical. After your former best friend sues you, and you’ve become the defendant, you move for summary judgment on the basis of primary assumption of the risk. This is a fancy way of saying that you’re asking the court to kick the case out the door before it ever goes to trial because you can show that you owed no legal duty to the whining wanker to prevent the harm that he’s now complaining about.

If you can show that the wounded wanker expressly assumed the risk, then you have a complete defense to his negligence lawsuit. Of course, the group ride is exactly the scenario in which you won’t have a signed waiver, or even a speech advising everyone that they’re about to engage in something that may maim or kill them, so proving an express assumption of the risk may be contentious. One way you can protect yourself is by admonishing everyone at the start of the ride that they’re voluntarily assuming the risk of death or catastrophic injury. Another way, of course, is making people sign a waiver.

The rationale behind the assumption of risk defense is that you owe no duty of care to protect a plaintiff against the risks inherent in a particular competitive sport voluntarily played by the wanker, absent some reckless or intentional misconduct. For cycling, falling off your bicycle is unquestionably an inherent risk of riding in proximity to other wankers. The only thing that a defendant may not do is increase the risk of harm above that inherent in the sport. For example, tossing hand grenades into the peloton, or intentionally knocking someone off his bike to “teach him a lesson,” or pushing someone off a cliff on a descent.

The ordinary stupidity that most wankers exhibit on a group ride isn’t enough for the whining wanker to win his lawsuit. California courts have said that “[i]n some situations, the careless conduct of others is treated as an ‘inherent risk’ of a sport, thus barring recovery by the plaintiff.” So, when there are 85 knuckleheads on the NPR, many of whom still don’t know how to ride in a straight line, you can’t sue someone because you got knocked off your bike.

Whether the primary assumption of risk doctrine applies doesn’t have anything to do with whether the whining wanker behaved reasonably. It’s a question of law that depends on the nature of the sport or activity in question and on the parties’ general relationship to the activity. The overriding consideration in the application of primary assumption of risk is to avoid imposing a duty which might chill vigorous participation in the implicated activity and thereby alter its fundamental nature.

In other words, group rides involve riding proximately to unskilled idiots, lots of them. It is inherent that if you’re going to hammer your bike on a public road next to some bonehead, said bonehead may inadvertently chop your wheel, whack into you from behind, or barf onto your handlebars. The law says, “Tough shit.”

Generally, the primary assumption of risk doctrine applies in a “sports setting,” and an organized, noncompetitive, long-distance bicycle ride is one of those sports activities to which the primary assumption of risk doctrine applies. The case of Moser v. Ratinoff basically held that you can’t sue a fellow wanker who takes you out on a group ride when the person who knocked you off the bike was just an ordinary idiot. Remember when your mom told you that if you hang out with dope smokers you’ll be a pothead, too? Same deal.

There are a number of cases involving sports activities in which the court found a primary assumption of risk. Snow skiing, water skiing, ouch football, collegiate baseball, off-roading, skateboarding, golf, lifeguard training, tubing behind a motorboat, wrestling, gymnastics stunt during cheerleading, little league baseball, cattle roundup, sport fishing, ice skating, football practice drill, judo, rock climbing, river rafting, and sailing have all been found to be activities where the assumption of risk applies.

Now I know what you’re thinking, and I am, too: “GOLF IS NOT A SPORT.” But the judge says it is.

In some other recreational activities, courts have held that there was no primary assumption of risk. Boating passenger and recreational dancing cases in California allowed the whiny plaintiff’s case to proceed, but it’s my opinion that the embarrassment of having to admit that you’re a recreational dancer totally negated the value of any money awarded in the litigation.

Primary assumption of risk applies to competitive sports and to noncompetitive recreational activities as well, such as a ski boat driver towing a water skier. Like competitive sports, vigorous participation in noncompetitive sports would likely be chilled and the nature of the sport altered if liability were to be imposed for ordinary careless conduct. This has particular meaning for your informal group ride beatdown, which may not technically be a sporting race (especially given all the wheelsuckers who will cut the course).

An activity falls within the meaning of “sport” if the activity is done for enjoyment or thrill, requires physical exertion as well as elements of skill, and involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury. So, not ballroom dancing, but yes, the Thursday ride. You can get whacked by a car. By a co-wanker. You can slide out on the wet spot on the descent on the golf course. Hit a peacock. Slam into the curb while ogling the hot chick in front of you. Thrill, physical exertion, and risk of injury are all present.

Although bicycle riding, like driving an automobile, can be a means of transportation, “organized, long-distance bicycle rides on public highways with large numbers of riders involve physical exertion and athletic risks not generally associated with automobile driving or individual bicycle riding on public streets or on bicycle lanes or paths. Bicycle rides of the nature engaged in by the parties here are activities done for enjoyment and a physical challenge․ In view of these considerations, the organized, long-distance, group bicycle ride qualifies as a ‘sport’ for purposes of the application of the primary assumption of risk doctrine.” The court in Moser basically said that big, organized group rides are a sport. Incredible, but true.

But before you get too happy, recall that you’re not allowed to do anything to increase the risks inherent in the activity. Although defendants do not have a duty to protect the plaintiff from risks inherent in the activity, they do have a duty not to increase the risk of harm beyond what is inherent in the activity. Analyzing the liability of other than co-participants requires defining “the risks inherent in the sport not only by virtue of the nature of the sport itself, but also by reference to the steps the sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.”

In other words, you can’t take the tackle out of tackle football, but neither can you let people play it with handguns.

But a defendant may not increase the likelihood of injury above that which is inherent, and conduct is not inherent in the sport if that conduct is “totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport [and] if the prohibition of that conduct would neither deter vigorous participation in the sport nor otherwise fundamentally alter the nature of the sport.” A participant injured in a sporting activity by another participant may recover from that coparticipant for intentional infliction of injury or tortious behavior “so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport” but not for mere negligence.

In the group ride context, you can’t intentionally take someone out, but you can apparently be a wanker. Certain activities have been held not to be inherent in a sport and thus not subject to the primary assumption of risk doctrine. For example, drinking alcoholic beverages is not an activity inherent in the sport of skiing. So if you’re showing up for the 6:30 AM ride completely soused, and you accidentally push a pal into oncoming traffic, expect a lawsuit.

But what about cyclocross, which ordinarily can’t be properly done without beer? The Supreme Court of California has yet to rule on such a thorny issue.

Going too fast, making sharp turns, not taking certain precautions, or proceeding beyond one’s abilities are actions held not to be totally outside the range of ordinary activities involved in those sports. The analogies derived from the risks in other sports suggest that one cyclist riding alongside another cyclist and swerving into the latter is a risk that is inherent in a long-distance, recreational group bicycle ride.

I’d argue that it’s inherent in your local group beatdown, too, but to be safe you should take the time to mention it.

So what does it all mean? In general, people who participate in informal group rides appear to be protected in California by the doctrine of assumption of the risk. This doesn’t mean you won’t get sued, it just means you have a fairly solid leg to stand on when you have to defend.

*Key cases: Knight v. Jewitt, Moser v. Ratinoff, Amezcua v. Los Angeles Harley-Davidson.

Disclaimer: This isn’t legal advice for you or your case or your upcoming ride. It’s general legal advice. No attorney-client relationship has been created between us without a signed retainer agreement.

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The ones who persevere

November 12, 2014 § 4 Comments

I respect people who’ve volunteered — yeah, volunteered — to work for the government, whether in its war corps, its Peace Corps, or its bureaucratic corps. The USA only works when good people enter the machinery and help it run smoother, cheaper, smarter, better.

In a broader sense, whether they’re working for the Air Force or the company that makes Air Jordan, I admire people who persevere. I was privileged to be part of Major Bob Frank’s retirement ceremony on Monday night. Bob served as a major, unrelated to Major Major Major Major, in the USAF. The only mistakes he made in his 20-year career were having an open mic at his retirement ceremony, and letting me speak.

Through a befuddled haze in which we drank every single bottle of IPA at the VFW Post in Redondo Beach (note to self: drinking all the beer in a VFW post indicates a drinking problem), it was a wonderful evening where Major Bob’s cycling friends could show their support for him by drinking the military attendees under the table. We are skinny, but we have a bigger substance abuse problem than they do.

The next morning, let’s just say that the 6:30 AM ride from Malaga Cove was “sparsely” attended, as in “three people showed up.” Bull, Dan K. and I rolled out at 6:30 sharp.

Dan K. is one of those people who has been transformed by cycling. He’s shed 60 or 70 pounds over the last couple of years. “I’ll ride along with you guys until I get dropped,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” said Bull. “It won’t be one of those rides.”

I wondered what he was talking about. With Bull it’s always one of those rides; he’s the guy who goes until he blows, recovers, and goes again. And again. And again. We descended and then climbed the Malaga wall back up to PV Drive. My legs were stone cold, and Bull pushed the pace. Dan K. kept the pace and Bull fell off. We regrouped and reloaded at the top, and Bull came pounding by again.

Going up the short climb at Lunada Bay, Dan K. punched it and Bull and I got kind of dizzy. Then we climbed the alleyway, fractured again, and regrouped in time to drop down by the seaside and climb the Millionaire’s Wall back up to Hawthorne and PV Drive. This time there was more fracturing than a North Dakota oil well, and with big gaps. Bull rolled up. We could see Dan K. toiling away behind us. We didn’t hammer, but we didn’t exactly wait for him, either.

He latched back on.

In Portuguese Bend things broke up again, and Dan K. caught up to us at the light on the other side of the Switchbacks. My legs ached; Bull’s did, too. Dan K. might have been tired, but he didn’t show it. We separated again, and Dan K. caught us again, this time in Redondo Beach, completing what was essentially a 1:15 time trial, and a very hilly one at that.

“Good job, man,” I said, gassed.

“Thanks for letting me tag along,” he said, not appearing to be very tired.

Funny thing, perseverance.

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