Who killed Robert Hyndman? We did.

November 9, 2011 § 62 Comments

Robert Eugene Hyndman left this world on the morning of Saturday, November 5, 2011 courtesy of a powerful blow to the head. The slight rubber strips, only a few millimeters wide, that anchored his bike to the surface of the road and that anchored him to the world of the living, lost traction with the pavement. He was flung headlong into a metal guardwire, airlifted to the hospital, and died of his injuries.

Just.

Like.

That.

Everyone familiar with the treacherous, technical, terrifying descent that is Las Flores Canyon thought the same thing, and we thought it in unison: “Could have been me.”

But you know what? It wasn’t.

Why?

Hearsay comes first

If the life and death of Robert Hyndman holds any interest for you, take a moment to read the following links to news reports and cycling blogs. They’re instructive. They’re moving. And they form the basis for what I’m about to write, which may not be comforting if the rough, rusty edge of reality frightens you as it does me.

The Orange County Register reported on Robert’s death here.

The BikingLA blog reports on his death and runs a letter from his younger brother, who was on the ride, here.

The bike apparel company that promoted the ride explains what the Rapha Gentlemen’s Ride is all about here.

The SoCal cycling blog that supports local bike shops mentions the accident here.

The man who’s been riding these canyons for the better part of 30 years, and who speaks what he sees, writes his opinion here.

The bike forum that picks up the thread and critiques it here.

The man who organized the actual ride and who chose the route expresses his profound grief, regret, and sense of responsibility here.

The SoCal cycling blog that tries to put risk v. danger in perspective here.

After you’ve read all this, and if you’ve been able to digest it, it may be enough. In a lot of ways, there’s nothing more to add. In another way, though, some of the most important things have barely even been suggested, much less said. I’m going to try to say them. Don’t be surprised if I fail.

What about the facts?

None of the news reports or blog reports discusses the thing that every cyclist wants to know when they hear of a fatality: How did it happen? Hyndman’s accident is variously reported as “veering onto the wrong side of the road,” “losing control,” and “hitting a guardrail.” We know that’s bullshit because it explains nothing. Riders don’t veer onto the wrong side of the road unless something goes wrong. Cyclists don’t lose control unless some unexpected, external event disrupts them. What happened?

No one apparently saw the crash in enough detail to explain what happened, although one rider was behind him when he went down. In a conversation with one of the people who was on the ride, the closest I got to an explanation of what happened was this: Hyndman had gone into a previous turn too hot, and was cautioned by his brother, who has been cycling for thirty years. Although he wasn’t going particularly fast, as he rounded the next turn he locked the brakes and shot straight into the guardwire. He struck head first. There was, according to another person with whom I spoke, no equipment failure. Just a fast moving bike, a turn, and a guardrail.

The fact that there are no facts is instructive, because without them all we’re really doing is opining. But if the above account really is what happened, then we’ve got a scenario, and the unpleasant job of filling in that scenario with people, decisions, and consequences.

What is a Rapha “Gentlemen’s Ride”?

We’re told on their web site that a Rapha Gentlemen’s Ride is “…a ride that involves a little bit of bragging rights but it’s more about storytelling and local folklore. It’s competition but not to the exclusion of camaraderie and experience. The reality of course is that gentlemen’s riding is racing in a group. In fact, gentlemen’s riding should really be called what it is – gentlemen’s racing. Whatever the distance, whatever the route, a Gentlemen’s Ride is anything that isn’t a sanctioned race. It’s a way, in the middle of your Tuesday afternoon ride, to win a cyclo sportive, a brevet or town limit sign, even your local KOM. At the top of a climb, the group will reorganize, for on a Gentlemen’s Ride the group ends as it began, together. But along the way, when the ride is at its most challenging, the headwind at its most unobliging, all bets are off. That’s when the order of things remains to be decided. Again and again.”

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the word “gentlemen” I think of sleazy guys getting drunk, eating greasy snacks, and watching a stripper on a pole. When I hear the word “racing” I think of full-on, full-throttle, full-testosterone, full-bore risk taking. Crazy, batshit whacko crazy, nutfuck over-the-top risks that include death and horrific injury for the potential reward of a few dollars, maybe some category upgrade points, bragging rights, and the thrill of performing under intense pressure and fear.

The Rapha blurb confirms all of this, and does so proudly. “All bets are off.” “Anything that isn’t a sanctioned race.” Most telling of all? “That’s when the order of things remains to be decided.” Ah, of course. The pecking order. The holy and beloved ranking of dicks.

I’ve been on zillions of rides like these. They are fuck-the-loser, die-for-the-sprint-sign, last-one-down’s-a-fred, let-God-sort-‘em-out killfests. The only thing they are missing are an entry fee, a waiver, race insurance, enforced safety by licensed officials, field limits, on-hand emergency medical care, and, most importantly, riders roughly sorted by ability and experience.

As crazy at it sounds, certain aspects of these rides typify the best and most appealing side of competitive cycling. They are fun. They are challenging. They test your physical and mental limits. And since the competition is all in your head, everyone’s a winner, whether your goal is finishing, hanging, or taking the city limit sign. Everybody gets a ribbon, a pecker check, and a rehash at Peet’s. Other aspects? Not so much.

So what was the ride really like?

Steve, the co-owner of BikeEffect and organizer of the ride, started a ride several years ago when he worked at Cynergy. As a boy with four sisters, he was always sensitive to women customers who would come in, buy a bike, and leave the shop with that “Now what?” look. So he began a ride that focused on skills. No hammering, no one gets dropped, everyone learns how to call out objects in the road, basic group etiquette, look out for each other and don’t go beyond your abilities.

On the morning of the ride, Steve went over with the group that everyone had to obey the rules of the road. The ethos of the ride was that “Gentlemen know when to go hard and when to go easy. You don’t need to go off the front and pull crazy hard all the time. Mellow and easy are okay; know when to go.”

The group stayed together and was mellow all the way to Topanga. Up Topanga it broke up due to the varying ability levels, but not balls out, and the same measured pace happened up Old Topanga. On the backside of Old Topanga a La Grange rider fell on what no one would call anything other than an easy and non-technical descent. She’s an experienced rider and racer but nonetheless hit the pavement, ending up with a solid hip bruise but otherwise okay.

The ride went up Mulholland and Stunt, got stretched out, and regrouped at the top of Stunt. The group was looking out for each other and at the top of Stunt it was confirmed that everyone knew the route. Some riders chose Fernwood, perhaps because Las Flores was too hairy. Yet the point also has to be made that once you’re at Stunt, unless you have a helicopter or a car, your choices back down to PCH are limited to Las Flores, Tuna, Fernwood, and Malibu Canyon. Las Flores and Tuna are tough. Fernwood is easier, but with more traffic. Malibu Canyon has lots of high speed traffic and the tunnel.

In any event, this ride wasn’t a hammerfest, and although there wasn’t a detailed description of the descent, it provided more support than the average group ride.

Who chose the course?

We learn that Steve, the co-owner of Bike Effect, chose the course. But we learn more than that. We learn that according to him, in hindsight it was a poor choice. Most importantly, we learn that Steve holds himself accountable for this choice and will carry the guilt of that with him for the rest of his days. A stream of friends, of fellow cyclists, and of the victim’s own brother seek to divest Steve of this responsibility. Robert died doing what he loved. Shit happens. Don’t blame yourself. The route wasn’t a problem. It’s senseless. You can’t carry this awesome burden. And of course, “Be careful out there.”

Far from trying to relieve Steve from responsibility, I applaud him for taking it. By holding himself accountable, by taking responsibility, he has shown the mettle of a man and of a leader. By placing the blame on his own shoulders, he has given others traumatized by this horrible accident a focal point, and by taking on the burden he has lessened the burden of others. He has also put to rest, as the man who organized the ride, the suggestion that it was a good course or a suitable one. It wasn’t. Why? Because someone died on it. End of analysis.

This of course is what leaders do, and it separates them from sheep. People who organize bike rides, who sell and promote the healthful and happy benefits of cycling, must, if they are to be people of integrity, acknowledge the other side of cycling as well. It’s the side of cycling that we have uppermost in our minds when we ride, but we shunt off into a corner of our brain and pray it never happens. The collisions, the spills, the catastrophic encounters with cars–these things are just as real, and just as likely to happen, as the camaraderie, strength, and wellness that comes from pushing the pedals. If you cycle, you are going to crash. No exceptions.

I for one am impressed and humbled at Steve’s leadership. It was his ride. His shop. His course. His buddies. He was going to own it if the ride ended as planned, and he manned up and owned it when it claimed a life. Those who would cheapen his courage by deflecting the mantle he’s elected to wear do no favors to him, to those who are grieving, or to the memory of the dead.

What were the mechanics of the accident?

If our scenario is accurate, Robert crashed because he went too fast around a turn and didn’t know how to correct without locking up his brakes. Never locked it up in a turn? Then you’ve never spent any time at all going downhill.

Robert’s brother Carl says that he had only been cycling for a couple of years, although he describes him as a licensed USCF racer. Carl also mentions that Robert had ridden many roads that are harder and more difficult than Las Flores. Patrick Brady says that Robert had “considerable skill,” but in the same breath admits he never knew or rode with him. Patrick is a friend, but I’ve never heard him praise the skills of a novice cyclist he’s never ridden with. To the contrary: Patrick is well known for keeping his distance, particularly on descents, from people in whom he doesn’t have complete confidence. He’s not necessarily a snob, he’s just been in too many situations where the less skilled make life dangerous for the skilled.

I checked USA Cycling’s web site and found no results for Robert. And although I’ll get to the difficulty of Las Flores later, for the moment let’s assume that Robert really was an avid and experienced cyclist with 2-3 years under his belt, including a lot of challenging terrain. Let’s also assume that he did have considerable skills, but with the caveat that there are only so many descending skills that a man in his late 40’s can pick up in his first three years of cycling.

We all know that descending is a skill that takes years and years of practice to become good at. Many cyclists never become comfortable going downhill, even after decades of practice. We also know that at age 51, Robert had only been learning to descend for three years at the most. Like so many other skills, the reactions and coordination required to descend are harder to learn the older you get. Even in the best case scenario, we have a talented novice making a run down a steep and twisty course.

According to his brother Carl, Robert was an enthusiastic yet cautious rider. Putting all these anecdotes together, it seems to me that he was a solid rider but perhaps much less than an expert descender. This photo of Robert that indicates, simply from the setup of his frame, that the chance is quite low that he was an expert or even a very skilled downhiller. This bike is set up with a spaced, high handlebar, and is not optimally set up for a tricky descent. Indeed, it suggests that he may have had back pain or that there is something about the lower, more tucked position of a racing/descending profile that was either uncomfortable, unnatural, or simply unappealing to him. His weight would have been on his rear wheel, and his raised shoulders would have further pushed his weight on the back, rather than distributing his weight evenly along the line from seat to bars. The even distribution is crucial in tough descents, because it allows you to make minute corrections as the road changes simply by slightly moving. When the weigh is poorly distributed, corrections require bigger, more radical movements. His center of gravity would have been high as well. This photo and a WAG from one of the people on the ride put him as perhaps six feet tall and about 170 pounds.

Anybody out there know what happens when a larger guy raises his center of gravity and also shifts his weight onto his back wheel when doing a steep descent? Exactly. You lock the rear wheel when you try to correct after hitting a turn too hot. This sounds like what happened to Robert, and it suggests that he wasn’t prepared for the descent, even though he looks slim and fit in this undated photo.

This is hardly a swipe at Robert. Expert descending is almost always the result of a witches’ brew of skill and brains and balls and falls and reactions and lots and lots of miles and racing and testing and practicing and training and group rides and comparing notes and pushing envelopes and course memory and tires and ambient humidity and road temperature and frame setup and instinct and the ability to see, just a tiny bit, around blind corners, which is another way of saying “luck.”

The chances are good that Robert was out of his league in the sense that at the time he crashed he didn’t know the road, that the bike got going too fast, that he didn’t have the skills or experience or setup to bring it back under control, and that his difficulties happened in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

How tough is the Las Flores descent?

I have to take issue with the description of this road given by Robert’s brother. He says “The terrain wasn’t unusual, too risky or unfamiliar. We had ridden this kind of terrain and far harder many times before.” Yet we know this was Robert’s first time down Las Flores, therefore it was, by definition, completely unfamiliar. More than simply unfamiliar, for a first-timer, regardless of skill, Las Flores is an alien deathscape laden with traps and tricks. Even the statement that they had ridden “this kind of terrain and far harder many times before” speaks volumes about their skills. Every descent is different, and no skilled descender assumes that a downhill even one road away is similar to the current one.

In my experience there’s no such thing as “far harder” than Las Flores. I’ve ridden in Colorado, in Europe, and throughout the mountains of Japan, and after thirty years of going up and going down, I’ve run across a handful of descents as beastly as this one. There are descents that are harder in that they are longer, or they have tighter turns, or they are on narrower roads, or because it’s your first time down. But “far harder” than Las Flores? It is a white-knuckle descent no matter how many times you go down it, and it demands all your ability every single time. No exceptions.

Various people have posted or blogged that Las Flores is pretty ordinary for a descent, or that they go down it all the time and it’s NBD, or have suggested that there was nothing questionable or unsuitable about this downhill. That’s crazy.

My best descent on Las Flores is 29.6 mph, good enough for 11th place on Strava, and I can tell you that even at much slower speeds it’s always dicey. The first hard right turn before you drop off into the trees is off camber, incredibly tight, and comes after a series of gentler turns with a short, straight drop that instantly ramps up your speed. It’s a shocker and a hard corner to handle every single time.

The twists en route to Hume are treacherous because the road is spiked with debris, with steep ramps, more off camber turns, insufficient room for oncoming traffic, narrow lanes, and speed, speed, speed. When you get to PCH and touch your rims after a Las Flores descent they are so hot they burn your fingers. I’ve seen good riders who know the descent intimately spill it on this downhill.

Patrick Brady’s blog describes it as “a challenging descent.” He also points out that the previous ride descended Tuna, an even harder descent, without incident. Patrick is one of the best descenders in the Santa Monica Mountains. He knows every inch of the pavement of every single descent. He gives descending lessons at local bike shops. It took me three years of assiduous practice just to get where I could keep him in sight on descents like Las Flores.

If it’s “challenging” for Patrick, that means one thing and one thing only to novices, or first-timers: It’s dangerous as hell.

So I don’t believe that Robert was in his element. To the contrary, I believe that he was out of it. All of us have been there before, and will be there again. It’s no disgrace and no dishonor to be sliding sideways on Las Flores Canyon Road. But is that really all it was? Tough road, inexperienced rider, and some bad luck?

Risk v. Danger, or bad judgment?

The most cogent apology put forth for what happened is this: First, by calling the ride “too dangerous” we dishonor a skilled cyclist. Second, we denigrate a spectacular land formation and discourage people from enjoying what it has to offer.

The first apology I’ve tried to deal with above. Robert wasn’t skilled enough to handle this tricky descent, and it’s no dishonor to point out that he got in over his head, even though eyewitness accounts have him descending with caution, and even though he’s described as a careful guy. That’s of little consequence, though, because we’ve all gotten in trouble going downhill at one time or another. The second apology doesn’t work, either. No one is suggesting that Las Flores be off limits, or that novice riders shouldn’t have a go. My suggestion is something different, and not dissimilar to the Speedbloggen post: before we rope new riders into new and challenging terrain on big group rides where they are left to sink or swim, we have an obligation to educate, hand hold, and care for them. Who among us does that? Who among us did that for Robert?

And even if Robert was warned, and knew what he was doing, and was just a victim of bad luck, the fact that he’s dead means that we need to look at the bigger picture, i.e., what happens when someone new shows up on YOUR ride?

The old ways no longer work

In 1982, when I joined my first group ride, I was the new face. Singular. The Freewheeling group rides in Austin on Saturday and Sunday had a new rider every year or so, maybe two in a big year. Everyone else was a veteran. There was no shortage of advice. I was treated like a newbie wanker, but I was also educated. Cycling was a fringe activity and it grew slowly. New faces were easily spotted and dealt with and absorbed. People took the time to tell me what was coming up and what to expect, which was generally an ass beating.

Those days are dead and gone. Most big rides have numerous riders with three years’ experience or less. There’s no trail boss. There’s no cadre of surly, weathered, hardened, experienced bastards who’ll shout instructions or pull you over. To the contrary: the old hands either split the field and ride off on their own, or they hide from the new crowds. The old guard rides form in the wee hours, the riders trade emails among themselves, and they avoid the big groups like the plague because so few of the new cyclists know anything about cycling. It’s elitist and snobbery, but if you like riding with people whose abilities you know and trust, there’s little other choice.

And on their precious Saturdays and Sundays, the old school doesn’t particularly want to spend its time giving riding lessons. They want to ride, talk, and enjoy themselves.

With the swell of interest in the sport, it’s utterly common to see beginners in LA County with $8,000 rigs. They have the accoutrements of speed but they don’t have the intimate knowledge of the route or the skills to match the rig. And there will be thousands and thousands more of them before there are less. We can’t expect them to learn by assimilation or by trial-and-error, unless we’re comfortable with an ongoing roll call of the dead and catastrophically injured.

How we all failed Robert Hyndman

As the Speedbloggen post points out, riding is fun, but at its core it’s pretty serious business. It’s serious because the potential for injury and death is great when things go wrong. Even as we try to get more people involved in this thing that consumes so many of our waking hours, we forget that the responsibility for bringing people into the circle is an awesome one. In this sense, Steve is a man among men for being the grown-up in the room when we reflect on what happened.

In another sense, though, Steve’s got no responsibility for what happened. Nor does Robert, his brother, Rapha, or Las Flores Canyon Road. We cyclists have created and encouraged a group ride culture of speed and competition without first doing the basics: checking with the new faces, explaining to first-timers the details of the ride, posting information ahead of time so that people know what to expect, and most of all, letting everyone know that it’s okay to be the last one down the hill.

We get so caught up in the unsanctioned racing of the group ride that we leave newcomers to figure it out the way we did: by getting shelled, by sliding out in the corner, or by hanging on through God’s grace and the sheer luck of the dumb. With so many people on the road, and so many cars, and so many new faces, this approach no longer works. The old hands and the good descenders know that the most dangerous place on a hairy descent is proximity to a poor descender–we shoot off ahead and leave them to their own devices. Several of my friends who were on that ride admit to doing just that.

Each one of us can honor Robert by taking note of the guy or the gal we’ve not seen before and sharing what we know with them. Whether they’re new to the sport or just new to the neighborhood, it’s time we did what others did for us back in the day: reach out, share, include. Knowledge in this case isn’t power. It’s the difference between life and death.

My heart goes out to Robert’s family, to his friends, to those who were with him on the ride, and to Steve. Nothing will change what happened or really make sense of it, but thanks to Robert Hyndman, maybe we can be better riders, and much more importantly, be better people as well.

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