Big group death

December 30, 2014 § 46 Comments

Some things hit really close to home, and this is one of them. Herman Shum, a 40-year-old high school principal, joined the House of Pain ride last Saturday that leaves out of Danville, CA. The group had somewhere between fifty and seventy riders. the riders were tightly packed across the single lane, and surging to position for a sprint.

rider left the pavement, and in hopping back from the shoulder he caused a crash. Three riders went down. Herman crossed the center line in the mayhem and was killed by an oncoming water utility truck.

Danville is several hundred miles away from Southern California, but it might as well be right next door. Every national holiday we have the Holiday Ride here in the South Bay, but unlike the “HOP” ride, our ride doesn’t have dozens of riders, it has hundreds. We cram onto the roads and race our way to Mandeville Canyon, where what’s left of the battered field — a “mere” 150 or so riders — surges to the fore as each rider jockeys for position on the incredibly narrow, two-lane residential road.

A few hard accelerations later and the group is whittled down to perhaps twenty riders who are still filling the whole lane, heads down, wheels inches apart, bars, bodies, and brains, on the limit for the better part of the 18-minute climb. Oncoming traffic, folks pulling out from their driveways, livid passing vehicles crossing the center line at 50 while showering us with curses … I’ve seen all that and more, including the time that the peloton almost ran over a woman pushing an infant in a pram.

I stopped doing our Holiday Ride a few years ago because the ride from Manhattan Beach to San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood had become absolutely batshit crazy. People who cannot ride a bike were mixed in with people who shouldn’t ride a bike who were mixed in with people who were trying to stay away from everyone else who were mixed in with hotshot racers drilling it at the front at 30. There is a crash almost every time, and worse — one time a knucklehead slammed on his brakes, got off his bike, and walked across the reflective dots in the pavement. Fortunately there were only about a hundred stomping maroons charging up his sphincter at the time. I’m pretty sure he always wanted a carbon enema. Campy, of course.

The HOP ride in Danville comes with a warning, and it’s the kind of warning that is going to soon become the focal point for the attorney who represents Mr. Shum’s family in the wrongful death/negligence lawsuit that will likely be filed. Here it is, from the NorCal Cycling News web site:

House of Pain (HOP)

  • Where: Peet’s Coffee Danville
  • When: Saturday Mornings
  • 8:45 HOP Line
  • 9:00 HOP Media
  • 9:15 HOP The Original HOP

“The Lowdown: There are three versions of the House of Pain (HOP) ride.  HOP, HOP Medium, and HOP Lite.  All three of them leave Peet’s in Danville on Saturday morning.  HOP – full on race ride (emphasis mine), no waiting for the weak or people with flats.  No regroups. HOP Lite – steady pace.  No attacking and there are a couple of regroups. HOP Medium – In between HOP and HOP Medium.”

The killer language? “Full on race ride.”

A lawyer’s going to want to know exactly what that means, and I suppose I could explain it to him: It’s an informal road ride where, at certain points, the riders go to their absolute max in an attempt to crack everyone else. In a “full on race ride” there are a handful of riders who are doling out the pain, and everyone else is trying to hang on. Race rides are filled with testosterone and speed, but they’re not filled with insurance, race permits, course marshals, officials, ambulances, or waivers.

The lawyer will have more questions. Who put on this ride? Who wrote this language? Who manages the (now defunct) Facebook page? And most importantly, “Who has the fuggin’ money, because that’s the person who’s in the wrong.”

But I’m not going to write about the legal merits of such a lawsuit, or the lack thereof. What I am going to write about is the concept of the “full on race ride.” These things are a part of cycling, and they entail risk. Actually, “risk” is a bad word. It’s too neutral. These rides entail death and permanent, horrific injury.

I participate in them, most notably the Thursday morning beatdown ride and the Saturday morning Donut Ride here in the South Bay. I also travel a few times a year down to San Diego to join their Holiday Ride — perversely, because in the past it has been harder and more grueling than the one we have here.

At some point, though, we’re going to have to think more carefully about the size and composition of these beatdown events. Although they are for the most part harmless, all it takes is one unlucky confluence of factors and suddenly someone’s dead. One avenue that I’ve taken is avoiding the mass events that are “race rides.” As one very experienced friend pointed out about bike racing, “The more crowded the field, the more crashes. Period.”

That’s true for “race rides” too. Three hundred idiots, as are likely to show up at Manhattan Beach on January 1, are more dangerous than 25 riders showing up at 6:35 AM at Malaga Cove.

In addition to group size, there’s another factor, the ease of the ride. The South Bay Holiday Ride is a true wankfest, where anyone with reasonable fitness can hang on for a huge chunk of the ride. The roaring, swelling, swaying pack of idiots tears through Santa Monica, a dense urban landscape clogged with cagers, pedestrians, and tourists like a cloud of locusts.

Not so with the Donut Ride. By the ten minute mark many have been dropped. By the thirty minute mark the group is fractured, and those who remain are riding single file. Once the climb starts at 35 minutes, and for the rest of the day, it’s a pretty small group, and with only a few small route changes the group could be split to pieces even earlier.

That’s not to say that these rides don’t have the potential for accidents, but maybe we’ve reached an era where bigger really isn’t better, at least for the “race ride” or the “beatdown event.” Maybe a little discretion will go a long way to avoiding the kind of accident that led to Herman’s senseless and needless death last Saturday. Maybe.



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§ 46 Responses to Big group death

  • KC says:

    Not that it will make much difference in what will happen with the lawyers but from a facebook posting of a friend who was on the ride this incident happened on the 9:00 am version of the HOP ride not the full out race version of the ride.

    • fsethd says:

      A description by one of the riders who saw the whole thing happen indicated that there was indeed a surge/jockeying for the sprunt. Not that it makes much difference — the B rides are often crazier than the A rides.

  • Brian Gaskey says:

    Thank you for this article, I had just read about the plethora of accidents that happened over the Xmas holiday before reading your post. I have helped a friend of mine take a group of some new, some more experienced riders out for the last 10 years, teaching them how to use their gears, ride in a group, paying attention, etc. basically how to ride a bike and everything that entails. Always stressing safety. They may end up racing at some point and some do but we realize that we could be liable and we certainly stress that especially when we get someone who has a wild hair and wants to get their ya ya’s out. There are so many new people out on bikes who have no experience it’s a bit frightening. Anyway, sorry for the long response ( rant) but wanted to thank you for this and other post in the past.

    • fsethd says:

      You’re welcome. It’s a conundrum. The older riders don’t want to ride with the newer riders because there are so many of them and they’re so bad. So the new riders don’t get to learn. Big props to you and anyone else who’s on the teaching end. Our star in that category is Greg Seyranian, who truly teaches.

      • Brian Gaskey says:

        Yes, agreed, I think new people getting into cycling don’t realize how dangerous it can be( and of course exhilarating) even for the most experienced among us.

        • fsethd says:

          And with more riders in urban areas it’s even hairier. Three SoCal cyclists have died in the last four days.

  • Michelle Landes says:

    Seth this one really hit home ! I’ve seen so many close calls lately in big groups. I feel the sport is growing so fast here in the southbay . I feel so lucky to be a part of Big O both Greg’s looking out constantly for our safety and schooling the new . My heart goes out to His family 🙏💛

    • fsethd says:

      It’s becoming even more important to choose carefully who you ride with. Greg Seyranian’s efforts are worth their weight in gold.

  • dan martin says:

    I’ve lived the “it would never happen to me” and recently “now shits goin real bad real quick to me”. Now I live the “anything can happen at anytime”.
    Why?….why not?…because it does.

  • A-Trav says:

    Just assume every bike’s going to take you out, and every car’s going to run you over- and you’ll be OK. If you’re lucky. Bigger is def not better. That whole division of responsibility thing…

    • fsethd says:

      Not to mention the fact that you don’t really start to realize the risk until your first big crash.

  • LesB says:

    When I talk to new roadies I say first off, “It’s a lot about safety”.
    Experienced riders who are still alive think safety as a matter of course and sometimes take safety for granted since they have it so ingrained. Up to us to realize newbies and stupid people don’t yet have this ingrained and we must indoctrinate them like members of the politiburo, and basically scare them straight.

    • channel_zero says:

      1. And yet, how many refuse to learn?

      2. We all know the deal with those accelerations. They shake out the slow folks (like me BTW) and some slow folks hang on as long as they can starting with the head sagging which leads to staring at the wheel ahead, which leads to… disaster.

      Can you convince these geniuses to break up and sort themselves out by fitness for their own safety? No.

      As much as another loss of life on a bicycle is terrible, this is a case where *all* competitive riders need to agree there is a collective responsibility to a group ride. And they don’t. And people die. And the ride happens the same a month later.

      That’s why I don’t ride road.

      • fsethd says:

        Add to that the fact that there really isn’t collective responsibility. Each person fends for himself, and those who don’t fend well get hurt.

    • fsethd says:

      Yes, and many of the people who do have safe skills employ them by not riding with large groups.

  • channel_zero says:

    BTW, as someone that sees roadie groups riding up and down Mandeville, there’s going to be more cycling tragedy on that road.

    My favorite is riders “slowing down” in the big chainring, down the hill, for the stop signs and then yelling “clear!” at 25KmH+ so others can roll through the intersection.

    Is this the year a rider is hit blowing stop signs on Mandeville on the New Years day ride?

    Rant over.

    • fsethd says:

      I think the big accident on Mandeville will happen in a small group or singly. The residents there are pretty watchful for the big groups. Scratches on Ferraris are expensive to buff out.

  • pvannuys says:

    Death paints us cyclists equally in the media. Every tragedy for us is another collective wag of the finger by self-righteous public egged on by the “tisk-tisk” of the media. If the a-hole wannabe racers don’t self police there will be– already is– backlash by the public at large. Police don’t cite DUIs as felonies, DAs don’t prosecute cagers who kill as the murderers they are because our motor-dominated culture increasingly believes “cyclists deserve what they get.” So go on, you morons who blow red lights and jam two-abreast down those “Class 1” bike paths– you insist on riding lawlessly you are assuring that the laws will trivialize your death when it comes.

    • fsethd says:

      It’s funny you mention the bike path. Several years ago I noticed that when we got off PCH coming back from Malibu, people continued on the bike path at 22+ mph, going about as fast as the path could physically handle.

      After numerous near-misses it *finally* occurred to me to ease up and let the knuckleheads ride on. No amount of “slow down” works with people who don’t want to slow down. The only law they eventually follow are the ones laid down by physics.

  • Tom says:

    Our local Donut ride through the Portugese Bend landslide section can get sketchy. The roadway literally changes overnight, with new 3″ gaps, ridges, and ripples appearing. There are always a few who will take a hand off the bars, to reach a water bottle or whatever, or will overlap wheels. I watch carefully and stay away from those riders.

    Earlier this year, 2 riders ahead of me on the returning Donut collided, and one of them flipped and landed in the oncoming lane of traffic. Had that happened mere seconds earlier or later, he would be dead, run over by one of the oncoming vehicles. He was “lucky”, I think he “only” suffered a broken shoulder blade.

    • fsethd says:

      There were two such accidents. One occurred when Sam’s hands were jerked off the bars because he wasn’t holding on tightly enough, and the other was Jack, who did break a shoulder and a collarbone.

      There are new giant cracks on the last bump heading towards the glass church that weren’t there on Saturday. This is also the place where Taylor hit a bump and was thrown.

  • Jim Bangs says:

    Whoa, your last couple of posts reinforce the fact that I do not have either the skills or physical ability to ride in group rides or race rides. I will be just happy to stay by myself on gravel roads on my fat bike. But, that is what is great about cycling, bikes and styles that can fit everybody and their passions for riding. So sorry that anybody has to die riding a bike. It is supposed to be fun.

    • fsethd says:

      Well, I don’t have the skills either, and I think that the point is that once groups reach a certain size and speed, no one does. We’re all hanging out there hoping we don’t get unlucky.

      The skills and physical requirements drop along with the group size and the aggressiveness of the ride. It makes sense to think about that before embarking on a ride. I’ve been on way too many “casual” rides that are full-on beatdowns.

      And you so right about people dying riding bikes. It really is supposed to be fun.

  • Alebert Lakes says:

    Heard about this yesterday from a riding buddy who went down on the Montrose ride earlier in the year. He broke his collarbone, both wrists and a few fingers. Probably the worst injuries on that ride in 2014. As you know Seth, Montrose is the biggest group ride outside of Simi. According to an Old-Timer, it’s the only large group ride in the country which hasn’t had a fatality. Who knows where he got that factoid. In any case, my buddy sent me a link to this:

    He knows my enthusiasm for Late Montrose (race speed!) and I think he wants me to join him in his retirement (hater!). Well, the thing that struck me about the Velonews report was the following:

    “Another tragedy occurred Saturday when Dyke, who helped create the Dirty Kanza 200 race, slipped off a ladder while climbing to the loft in his garage workshop, and died from his injuries. Dyke, 48, lived in Kansas City with his wife, Michelle Davis, and their young son.”

    I don’t want to start a debate on statistics and mortality rates (I’m no statistician); however, big group ride accidents always make me reflect on the central thesis of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More.

    As, I responded to my pal, there’s no doubt more Americans have died falling off ladders than riding like idiots with a bunch of other idiots. More than likely more Americans die falling off ladders in one year than the number of Americans who have died on Big Group Rides since the dawn of our sport. Regardless of the true odds of either, I’m convinced I’ll go down in a much more mundane manner.

    • fsethd says:

      This is a great counterpoint, at least if you spend much time on ladders, which I don’t. I don’t even have a ladder.

      Still, the “fun” of a group ride is almost certainly tied up with the risk of falling off your bike. Proximity on a bike is risky. Remember your first group ride? Terror. Anyone who denies it is lying.

      At the same time, drawn as we are to the flame, there is a continual urge to mitigate the risk of falling off the bicycle. It makes sense to look at accidents, try to deconstruct them, and see if there are rules that might make it safer. One reason is that although risk is an attraction, it is not the attraction.

      Most people doing “hard” group rides want a hard pseudo-race workout, and that entails proximity, often with idiots. So maintaining the intensity and diminishing the bonehead element appeals to me, especially as I get older and less confident of my own ability to not be the bonehead.

      With regard to Montrose, it may not have had any fatalities, but it’s had its share of very nasty accidents. That’s the nature of the beast, perhaps, but as an individual I’m coming more and more to the standpoint that choosing smaller groups — not necessarily slower ones — as the place to do most of my riding.

  • Liz says:

    “Switching to glide”. My favorite line from your old FB NPR posts.

  • 900aero says:

    Racing bikes in large groups on open roads is not that different to racing cars on open roads. Sooner or later its going to end in tears. If you’re that much of a racer, race properly; not in some half-baked group wank-fest fuelled by would-be’s and could-a-beens. The worst incidents I’ve witnessed on bikes are all related to folks who decided to turn a group ride into a race – you’ve captured many of the classics in your post Seth.

    Personally, the smaller the group the more appealing the ride. Ideal group size being two.

    • fsethd says:

      Yes, but the problem is that not everyone wants to ride in twos. And others don’t want to race — too expensive, too far, too hard, too afraid of crashing, etc.

      Once people get together on their bikes, an element of competition often ensues. Even noncompetitive types often seem to enjoy pushing themselves against the benchmark of others they’re riding with.

      Unlike street racing, bikes are too small and too slow to cause the damage of, say, 50 cars going full gas on a public road. Nor can bikes sustain max speed for long. However, competitive riding outside of a sanctioned race will, as you say, eventually result in tears — same as competitive riding in sanctioned races!

      This is the other conundrum. If you want to push yourself on a bike, whether alone or in a race, you will eventually fall off your bike. One guy I know — a bike lawyer, no less — crashed himself out in a fuggin’ time trial and broke his stupid neck. He almost died, proving that a droopy head and tired legs will take out anyone no matter if you’re alone or in a pack of 200.

  • Sr Geezer Johan says:

    Death and/or serious injury is an assumed risk when riding a bike – most notably in an urban cager setting. Nobody makes us ride – solo, in a group, as a Faux Racer, on busy unsafe roads, etc. Don’t believe for a USAC second that permitted events with insurance, course marshals, officials, ambulances, follow vehicles, motos or waivers are any safer than your the local mid-week World Championship Throw Downfest.

    We voluntarily play in the middle of the road with 4000lb cagers who don’t like us surrounded by riders with no real bike skills. Common sense not required. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict the unfortunate outcomes. It’s never been a question of if it will happen – only when and who.

    It’s human nature to look elsewhere to assign blame when bat shit happens. Sometimes looking in the mirror reveals the painful truth.

    PS Been playing this game of Russian Bike Roulette for 40 years. So either I’m pretty good at it with 40 more years to go or tomorrow will be my last ride. No matter the outcome I always keep my affairs in order, kiss my wife goodbye before every ride, skip urban group rides and most of all enjoy every minute on the bike – especially when it comes time to thin the heard… 😉

    • fsethd says:

      As you well know, I like the idea of “you swing a leg over, you own it.”

      Yet none of us, despite accepting the risk, really wants the worst to transpire, and in fact we continually try to reduce the risk. I’ve written a lot about lights, for example, and the cycling safety effect of staying home on the couch.

      It’s when bad things happen that we seek to understand whether or not the bad thing was within the purview of preventable, in which case we feel really bad, or whether it was a “your time to die” scenario, in which case we merely feel horrible.

      Death touches us that way, whether we assume the risk or not. I’m re-reading All Quiet on the Western Front and it explores in a ghastly way the randomness of destruction. Most of us who’ve been doing this for decades have found a way to reduce risk, and we want to share that. It may not be possible, but we still want to do it — especially when we reflect on the common sense we learned from others.

      Assigning blame is a function of litigation. Analyzing accidents and seeking alternatives or improvements is a function of engineering. Both can make us feel better about bad events and both can reduce the chance that the same type of accident will reoccur.

      It’s terrible that this guy died on a group ride. Condolences to his family, his friends, and those who were traumatized by his death.

  • Rob says:

    Crazy. I’ll stick to my solo new years day ride. Mulholland & Cahuenga to Mulholland & Encino Hills Dr. Blast down Encino Hills to Havenhurst to Ventura Bl. Very few cagers and bikes. Lot of fun.

  • This is actually the second death on the HOP ride that I know of. The previous one was in the summer of 2006 or 2007 when a rider off the front blew through the stop sign on a left-hand turn into an oncoming truck. My group were the first responders at the scene and it’s not a sight I will ever forget.

  • glendog99 says:

    I’m a reader/non responder – until now. I got behind in my reading of the blog and am glad I caught up. Seth, your openness to all things brings things into focus like few other resources. Lot’s has happened. I cut back on my riding when 4 of us were buzzed by a cager on Vista del mar going what seemed like 80+ mph. Thoughts turn to, I should be home with our teenage daughter and giving her all the wisdom of the world.(fat chance) Or at least spending time with her because she’ll be off to college sooner than we think. Fewer holiday rides make me feel less vulnerable. Group rides with Orange make me feel more secure. This stuff can get in your head.
    Like others, I’m in a transition, and I think we all trust that the community can be there for us . It’s looking like 2015 will be even better for the blog. And hopefully for riding. You’re a great spokesman for our cycling community and I continue to look forward to reading you missives.

    • fsethd says:

      Hey, thank you, and best to you and yours in 2015.

      The bike and the usual gang of idiots will (mostly) always be there. Enjoy your family while you can.

  • BK says:

    Personally I feel safer in numbers when riding but not too many numbers. I like riding with no more tham 15-20 riders of similiar abilities. (Cat 1-3 – racer type). When I ride solo, I feel that cars buzz me more, or just plain don’t see me as well. When it comes to over 20, thats when you have to be extra careful as well. Keep up the good work Seth. Your great at what you do.

  • michael says:

    I did the HOP ride yesterday, one week afte the accident. There was no medium ride and the lite and race rides were pretty small. Odd that the riders did nothing and said nothing prior to the roll out.

  • fsethd says:

    This comment was emailed to me:

    I knew Herman from these rides, he was a really nice guy and one of the most conscientious riders, which is probably what helped get him killed. Thinking he could escape out the side door without taking someone else out. Sometimes, its just better to maintain your line and hope for the best, at least my personal crash experiences would attest. Especially, given the number of riders and your position in the pack. You know the golden rule, “never look back”, in the heat of a pack.

    I road almost every week in the HOP (medium) and Wednesday Bakery group rides for several years, but stopped riding them about a year ago, for some of the reasons you stated. Its just too dangerously expensive, all things considered.

    That stretch of road, where they crashed, is a particularly bad one with a large group of riders. Not only is the road narrow, but has a few curves. It’s also extremely challenging on this part of the ride. Having just come down a long stretch of recovering from the brutal set of rollers, just past collier canyon (or as i like to call it, “can-you?”), where many riders get dropped and are fighting their best to stay on or catch back up.

    Then the surge continues down a long stretch, up over a slight hill that turns down onto the part of the road where the jockeying for position starts to heat up, trying to get upfront. This is where the crash occurred. 9024 Highland Rd, Livermore, CA 94551 – Google Maps

    Then, on to one of the fastest sections, which ends up being a full-out sprint, that eventually dumps onto manning road. So, it gets real intense, with speeds over 30 mph. I can usually work my way up safely, by holding an inside or outside line. Rarely, do i ever take the middle in this section, its just too difficult and dangerous to get out at those speeds. So, its no surprise, if shit happens!

    Anyway, as you say, its all a needless tragedy. In my view, it will never really change, as long as humans are in/out of control. As the ole saying goes and will always hold true…its not if, but when, will it happen to me and you!

    Keep up the most interesting insight, to the plight of fighting the good fight!

  • fsethd says:

    Also, here’s a link to his memorial fund. Please give if you can.

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