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.
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.
July 10, 2013 § 2 Comments
Aaron “Hair” Wimberley reached down into his shorts and pulled out a big, honking win in the Cat 2 race at the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix. Not bad for a guy who, a couple of years ago, told me that he was “a Cat 3-level rider in terms of threshold power.”
Aaron’s now been booted upstairs to Cat 1, and he won this race with style, speed, caginess, courage, and flat out skills. It’s terrible talking to Aaron after a race (or before one, for that matter) because it’s like listening to a physics professor describe why a ball drops when you let go.
“Great race, Aaron!” I innocently said.
“The other guys in the race were singing your praises.”
“Well, on the last corner you had to know the line and understand that the barriers were going to be on the lateral twice-removed plane of motion that would give you the acceleration at about ninety degrees, and given my weight and the wheels I was running and the rotation of the Earth plus those farts that the Surf City dude was blowing, you could figure that acceleration times mass plus the torque on the lateral angle of spin would put me about eighteen degrees under the first guy’s wheel, and … “
I dozed off, and woke up just at the point where he was explaining how the moon’s tidal pull had moved enough of his voluminous, luxurious hair to the inside of the curve and given him enough kick for the win.
“Wow,” I said, wondering when I could ask for five bucks to buy a beer.
There’s not a lot you need to say when someone pulls out a signature win at one of the biggest races in America, but there’s a shit-ton you need to say when they pull out (another) win at the least-known race in SoCal, the TELO training crit.
Aaron wins this thing almost every week, and he wins it after attacking into the wind, dropping the field, riding breakaways for the entire race and beating his breakaway companions or, if caught, winning the field sprint. He’s amazing.
On Saturdays, the chubby dude who used to come unhitched at Trump is not twenty pounds lighter and wins the Switchbacks, out-climbs the climbers, and pokes a stick in your eye when you’re on the rivet by saying, “Why so serious, Wanker?” On the NPR he smokes the sprint, rolls with breaks, and hits the front at speeds designed to crack your spirit, which it does.
Unlike other SoCal fastmen, Aaron doesn’t have a huge team to help him. His supporting cast usually includes one or two guys, which sounds kind of thin until you learn that his wingman is usually Derek Brauch, a canny, lethal weapon who usually makes the split or who can be counted on to excel in road races and hard, challenging crits.
I’d congratulate the bastard in person, but since he’s already pretty sure he’s awesome, why bother? Saying it here on the Interwebs is enough. You rock, wankstar.
July 9, 2013 § 20 Comments
I went to the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix yesterday to do a bike race. It’s the first time in ages that I’ve gone to a bike race to spectate, and I was shocked to see how many people had no fucking idea whatsoever about how to do a bike race. As a public service, here’s Wankmeister’s Ten or Eleven or Thereabouts Commandments on How to Do a Bike Race.
1. Thou shalt not fucking scurry around. I was amazed to see how many people, especially racers, went to the bike race just to race their bike. That’s crazypants stuff, like going to a rock concert just to listen to music. Yo, wankers! A bike race is a place to go spend the entire day, not get there ten minutes early, race around in circles, then rush back home to mow thy lawn or beat off on thy couch. The race itself, if thou art a racer, is a brief chance to punish thyself for a fee. The rest of the time thou art supposed to chill, mix, rub shoulders with the little people, and drink beer. Wives/husbands/significant others who don’t race: This is thy opportunity to find out who’s fucking thy wife/husband/significant other on the side.
2. Thou shalt fucking bring a tent. Bike races without tents are like sex without condoms. They are risky, messy, and leave thee all red and blistered. The tent protects thee from the hot sun. It also provides the little space under which thou canst sit on the grass and chat, for hours, over beer and bread. A long time ago, before iPhones, people sat around all day and chatted. That’s how they became friends, or at least learned the details about who wast fucking thy husband on the side.
3. Thou shalt not fold up thy tent after thy fucking race. Some people who think they are pro have these elaborate tent get-ups with rollers, trainers, massage tables, and other shit to help them prepare for the race. That’s fine. But after thy race, clear all thy shit out, break out thy lawn chairs, crack open thy cooler, and relax. We only got to see thy sorry ass go by ten times, and each time thou wert a tiny speck in a mob of a hundred other idiots. Now’s the time thou canst regale us with how hard it was, how much bumping there was in the turns, how thou wert fifth wheel going into the last turn except for that dude who drove thee wide and thou hadst to decide to go down or slow down and thou art too old to die for 3rd place in some master’s crit, etc.
4. Thou shalt scream like thy balls wast in a vice. Get thy sorry fucking ass up to the barriers and scream, for dog’s sake. Charon’s pretending he don’t hear thee, but he does. They all do. Scream so fucking hard thy throat starts to bleed. Why? Because the only proven way to stop a throat hemorrhage is with beer.
5. Thou shalt not bring shitty beer unless it’s for thy own cheap ass. The bike race is the perfect place to make friends, except that bike racers are a fucked up, socially awkward bunch of dorks who can’t get through a conversation without saying “carbone” or “power meter” or “Lance.” In order to obtain semi-normal convrsation, thou must have beer, and a lot of it, and it better not be cheap shit because no one ever made friends with cheap beer unless they were from Texas. (I’m from Texas, so I will drink all of thy cheap beer, and appreciatively.) Also, don’t give me that “I’m counting my calories” bullshit. Thy fucking diet sucks, so double down on the Double IPA. It will cost thee a few extra bucks at the checkout stand but thou shalt get drunk twice as quick and people will love thy tent twice as much while they make plans to get into thy boyfriend’s trousers while thou art getting sloppy drunk, after which someone will get into thine.
6. Thou shalt not get pissy when people rub up against thy bitch. Thy old lady is smokin’ hot, we can see that, and it’s not our fault thou hast brought her to the race in hotpants and no bra. So we’re going to want to sit next to her and tell funny stories and hug on her ass when she gets up, sits down, says hello, says goodbye, etc. And thou need not be such a jealous paranoid prick. We’re not fucking her. Yet.
7. Thou shalt tell every wanker they raced great. I don’t give a shit if they wound up with their ass smeared across ten feet of asphalt and their bike is a smoking piece of melted plastic. They got their ass out there, paid their fee, pinned on a fucking number, and raced. If they got hurt, or barely managed to finish, or got kicked out the back, tell ‘em they looked good and give ‘em an extra cold one.
8. Thou shalt watch the finish. Does this need explanation? Watch the fucking finish, for dog’s sake. It’s fifteen feet away and means thou hast to stand in the heat for, like, twelve seconds. Thou canst do this.
9. Thou shalt visit every fucking booth. That sadsack dude with the new invention that’s gonna revolutionize the whole bicycling industry if he can only sell ten million of them at this bike race paid money to be here. Even if he didn’t, he took the time to drive, set up his booth, and liven the place up. What, art thou so fucking busy thou hath not the time to stop by and say hello and learn about what he’s doing? Thou mightest even find something thou must needs buy, and next thing thou knowest, the vendors may increase and pretty soon thou willst be able to buy all thy PED’s at the race itself without having to import from some shady lab in China.
10. Thou shalt cheer like a crazypants equally for everyone. That fat-ass Cat 5 dude dangling off the back? Cheer thy guts out! That spindly chick who’s going through turns with both brakes locked up? Cheer thy guts out! That mid-pack hacker who’s making his one and only appearance on the front? Cheer thy guts out! The race goes to the swiftest, but the memories go to everybody, so help make the memories great.
11. Thou shalt help the broken. When some schmo chews up a yard of pavement, he’s gonna need help. Drag his bike off the course for him; if he gets taken off in the meatwagon make sure someone is with him. Some poor flailers go to these races alone and have no one to look after them if they get hurt. Be the Good Samaritan.
12. Thou shalt cross-pollinate. Just because thou art too drunk to walk straight doesn’t mean thou must needs stay under thy tent the whole fucking day. Go stagger over and collapse under someone else’s tent, and talk to some of the other teams, if for no other reason than to check out their girlfriends/wives/eligible daughters. I was amazed at how people just hung out on their own turf, as if the other teams had cooties or something. Which they probably did.
13. Thou shalt be nice to lonely people. Every race has a few people who are there because they have nothing else to do. Canst thou imagine a life so boring and lonely that the only alternative to staying inside and watching porn is to go watch a bike race? I can’t. Anyway, when thou seest someone aimlessly wandering around or leaning by himself against the fence, call him over to thy tent, offer him a beer, and give him a reason to think that bike races are worth going to. Thou couldst be the person who encourages him to bring his whole crazypants clan with their loaded gun collection to the next race.
14. Thou shalt thank the promoter. Even if it’s Crazypants Lotts, these people deserve a “thank you.” They may also deserve a swift kick in the ass, but thou canst do that later. At the race, take a second to thank them for the thankless job of getting up at 3:00 AM, setting up the race course, and generally providing a place where thou canst go spend an afternoon with thy worthless friends. Same for the officials, even the ones who make up rules as they go along, and the announcers, no matter how clueless they are about the race.
15. Thou shalt bring thy kids. Kids know how to have fun, even if thou dost not. Learn from them.
16. Thou shalt offer tired racers a beer. And asketh them about their race. And pretendeth to be interested when they explain the complexities and difficulties and crucial differences between 16th and 17th in the Cat 4 race.
17. Thou shalt hang out with thy teammates. After thy fucking race is done, and especially if thou livest in Manhattan Beach or nearby the racecourse, thou shalt fucking hang out with thy buddies who drove up from San Diego or down from Santa Barbara or even farther away, like Burbank. At a minimum, thou shalt drop off several cases of good beer and some hearty bread.
18. Thou shalt be really fucking nice to old people.
Got it? Okay.