Friday, September 18, 2009

Racing - Rule Change Proposals on Suspensions Etc.

I started writing this post because I realized something.

I could never crash a rider on purpose. I just couldn't.

In the now defunct West Hartford Crit, in the late 80s I think, I entered the P123 race. I was a relative new racer, only 6 or 8 years of experience, but I had a lot of drill experience touching wheels, bumping, bunny hopping, picking things up off the ground, stuff like that. I could handle a bike but I was still learning about how that translated to racing.

I struggled like mad in that race. It was a fast race, with some good local pros there, lots of teams, and I was totally out of my element.

Desperate to move up, tired of the accordion effect, I made some bold moves to get to the front. I squeezed by on the inside curb on the third or fourth turn, one where the road narrowed severely.

And I almost slammed into everyone.

I barely squeezed by, coasting so my pedal wouldn't hit the high curb. As soon as I cleared it - everyone sort of made room, to be honest - I got back on the power, squeezed through another hole, and finally got to the front.

But I felt so bad about that "just squeezing by" that I decided that I didn't deserve my place. I looked to my side, pulled off, and drifted to the back of the field, all my hard work evaporated in 20 seconds of coasting.

Once again I struggled at the back of the field, the accordion effect making me jump hard out of each turn. The heat wore down on me and I ran out of water. Ironically I took a semi-feed towards the latter stages of the race. A friend, at a prior arranged signal ("I need water, NOW!!"), left a tall water bottle a foot away from the curb, on the outside of the main stretch, just after the last turn.

It took a few tries but I finally managed to pick it up at 30 mph. Sitting dead last, 10 feet off to the side of the field (on the side of the road with no officials), no one really noticed. Frankly, no one would have cared either, based on my pathetic racing that day. I tucked back into the race, thankful for the now plentiful fluids for the rest of the race. Technically I happened to find a full water bottle on the road, so technically it wasn't a feed.

That I could do without feeling bad about it, because I hadn't endangered anyone, and I wasn't going to be setting the world on fire at the finish.

I fought for position towards the end, but I lost motivation as I thought about my idiotic move up the inside early in the race. I swore that I wouldn't pull stupid stunts like that again. I sat up out of the last corner and watched someone raise his hands at the line. As I rode by the announcing booth, I heard it was Adam Myerson, winning once again.

He was one of the guys I almost took out.

Later that day I found another one of the guys in that fateful turn. I apologized to him for what I thought was my overly aggressive move. He laughed it off, said it was nothing. Then he asked if I cramped or something because I'd stopped pedaling right after I got up there.

I shook my head, left.

How do you explain what guilt feels like?

Well, although I may not be able to do stuff like chop someone's wheels and take them out, I know that there are guys who not only would, but they do it regularly.

And based on the rulebook, it seems that USAC encourages racers to crash other racers. It would be a legitimate tactic from what I can fathom, checking the rules against dirty riding.

"Waitaminute," you say. "Crash someone on purpose? Certainly that can't be legal."

Legal Schmegal

Well, it's not like the rules never change. Even the most thoughtful set of rules may omit something.

For example, until 2009, according to the rules, you could always feed your racers at a crit unless otherwise specified. USAC had no rule saying that feeding at a crit was by default illegal. In 2009 they fixed that (page 102, or page 10 of the linked document).

That means that in 2008 you could feed riders in a crit. It may not have been safe, but if you didn't break any other rules doing the feeds, you were home free.

Ironically, I took a non-feed in a race where feeding was legal, sort of, because I didn't realize that feeding was, in fact, legal. I couldn't find a rule anywhere to say it, but I figured that if there were rules on feed zones and such, then feeding in a crit probably wasn't legal.

But back to the point. How can crashing others be a legal tactic?

Because the rules don't make a provision for preventing it or punishing it in a way that would keep the racer from doing again and again.

Since it's hard to prove intent (and I'm no lawyer, but I watch some TV shows with lawyers in them), it's hard to say anyone intentionally crashed someone.

USAC has a rule applying to those that cause crashes by not holding a reasonable line. They call it making an "abrupt motion" (page 60 of the rulebook or 51 of the linked document), and the penalty for it is "up to a 20 day suspension".

There's a slight mention (page 16 of the rulebook or page 7 of the linked document) of the fact that subsequent violations ought to be punished with a bit longer suspension, but no specifics.

Overall the suspensions appear a bit twisted in their priorities.

For example, if I swear at a race ("foul language"), I could be disqualified and suspended for 15 days.

If I short-cut a race (and it's done much more often than you may think), it's 30 days if I try and cross the finish line after doing so.

Fixing races? Racing under a forged license or fake identity? It's unclear what kind of penalty such riders face. "Suspension or other lessor penalties."

Note that there are almost no monetary penalties, penalties that would actually hurt a rider in the real world.


How To Crash People And Win Races Legally

Here's a great tactic you and your teammates can use for the upcoming season.

Note: If I see a hint of this at Bethel or any other race I help with, I will use the very vague rule about disqualifying a rider based on being a "dangerous rider" (page 60 of the rulebook, page 52 of the link), which can happen before, during, or after a race.

1. Get a ruthless team together of perhaps 7-10 riders. You need to have one powerful rider ("Leadout"), maybe one that can't sprint as well as others but is strong enough to consistently be 2nd or 3rd going into the last few hundred meters. If there's a turn there somewhere on the course, even better. Ideally this rider would have his own leadout in the approach to the finish.

2. The rider behind ("Sprinter") will act as if he were the protected racer. However, his real task is to sweep Leadout's wheel, literally. Sprinter should hang back just a bit, and when the first opponent starts to pass Sprinter's back wheel, Sprinter moves sideways to launch his own sprint, "accidentally" not realizing someone was there.

Justification: Leadout is leading out Sprinter, and Sprinter started his sprint just as someone happened to overlap his rear wheel. Sprinter didn't see him so it wasn't entirely his fault.

To guarantee the outcome, Sprinter should sweep sideways an extra foot or three, pretending to be affected by the rider behind him, who by now is toppling over onto the pavement at high speed. If necessary Sprinter will slow and topple or ride off the course or something that takes him out of the running. Ideally Sprinter will not finish the race in good place, making "relegation" a non-option as far as punishment goes.

3. The resulting huge stack up holds up the next 10 or 15 riders, everyone else is swerving to avoid downed bikes and bodies, and everyone sort of forgets about sprinting for a bit. Leadout goes as hard as possible to the line, unhindered, wins, and acts surprised.

At best Sprinter will get either relegated (if he doesn't sprint, who cares). At worst he'll get a "possible" 20 day suspension.

I guarantee you that there are many racers that could easily make it look totally accidental that they took out someone.

Guarantee it.

So they'd be looking at, say, a 20 day suspension at worst. Or a relegation at best.

But they'd be happy. Because Sprinter was the decoy!

See, Sprinter was never the protected rider on the team; Leader was.

And that's where USAC fails.

Because with racers with no conscience, ones that holler at their teammates telling them to show everyone who's boss, to yell at them to push with their arms, legs, thighs, knees, elbows, hands, those guys could do stuff like this (and I hope they're illiterate).

And they'd get away with it. How? Read on...

How The Rules Work On Suspensions

Take a worst case scenario and figure a 20 day suspension. The following week, the team uses another "Sprinter" ("because, you know, that first one got involved in a huge stack up last week"). Unfortunately, ahem, the same thing happens. Sprinter starts his jump to the line and wipes out the top 20 riders in the field. His exhausted Leadout man wins again.

The following week the racers switch roles again. Maybe the course isn't quite right for Leadout. He's now the Sprinter ("because, you know, he won the last two races"). And someone else takes over for Leadout.

Repeat huge crash scenario. Repeat Leadout's win.

I can hear all the stuff that team could say while hanging out after the race.

"Man, those guys around here just can't stay upright. They always go down. They really suck, don't they?"

21 days after the first Sprinter/Leadout scenario, the original Sprinter is now un-suspended. He can become the new Sprinter, again trying to jump just a touch late and causing a huge stack up.

Repeat throughout the year. Make lots of money. Reduce competition simply by crashing them so many times that they start riding less expensive replacement equipment, get a bit nervous going into finales, and start sitting up at the bell. Heck, if a bunch of them don't start because of broken bodies, all the better.

How can you punish these riders? What are they doing wrong? You're suspending them, but they have other teammates. 20 days. Maybe the next one, 25 days. Maybe 60.

Maybe even, get this, 20.5 days. Because there's nothing anywhere in the rulebook that talks about a concrete suspension for flagrant unsportsmanlike violations. There are just murmurs of possible this, maybe that.

What can USAC do about this?

They can prevent this from happening by making it hurt. You make it hurt in their pockets, in their riding.

Penalty Escalation Defined

First, they need to have a defined escalation schedule for punishment.

Second, since you need to keep track of history, you have to, well, keep track of history. I figure it's fair to keep a record for as long as say a state keeps a driver's record, so 5 to 7 years.

For each subsequent violation, you ratchet up the penalty, by the book.

The first offense should be not a weak "up to" or "possible". It should be a rock solid suspension, mitigated perhaps by some phrase about experience or skill. So a rider that has crashes due to someone else (like me, on August 11) won't get penalized for an abrupt motion. Because, hell yeah, I made an abrupt motion when I hit the deck.

Likewise, if the rider that makes the abrupt motion is a lessor skilled rider, a new racer perhaps, there needs to be a clause in there about warnings or "doesn't count if it doesn't happen in the next 60 days" or stuff like that. Because even with DUI you get a first chance.

However, if it's a more experienced rider, maybe a multi-year Cat 4, and definitely anyone from Cat 1-3, then there's no question. Bang, you're out, 20 days.

Figure half the riders will get away with a DQ instead, because they'll be able to fake that they didn't mean to do it (as illustrated above). Some of them would legitimately have made an error, especially in the less experienced Cat 5s, so they would just be DQed or otherwise let off easy.

So, in my example of an "abrupt motion" for a more experienced rider (Cat 3 for sure, Cat 4 maybe), it's 20 days suspension, rock solid, no arguing.

The escalation schedule would read something innocuous like 1x, 10x, 50x, 150x.

That means the first violation would result in a 20 day suspension, or 1 x 20.

The second, 20 x 10 or 200 days.

The third, 20 x 50 or 1000 days.

The fourth, and any subsequent violations, 20 x 150 or 3000 days.

Each violation of that same rule.

What? Am I nuts? 3000 days? Am I off my flicking rocker?

No way.

I'm the one sitting here who can't ride a bike because I have a twice broken pelvis. I'm the one who has to use his left hand to reach for my wallet because I can't pull my wallet out of my right pocket with my right arm.

I haven't caused a crash in forever. I literally cannot remember causing a crash. And yes, that means I invite folks to respond and say, "Hey Jerkface, you totally caused this 60 rider crash at your own race so shut up about not causing crashes loser." Well, hopefully more politely than that.

I mean, yeah, I remember almost causing two crashes in West Hartford, and I was so ashamed, felt so guilty, that the images of that day are drilled into my brain.

I crashed a few years ago when I loosened my SPD-Rs, pedals notorious for being difficult to release. I was hitting my shoes with my fists to get them out, so I loosened them up, literally just before the race. Then, on a bumpy exit in a corner in some crit, sprinting out of the saddle, I unclipped and fell.

Fortunately I only took myself out, and suffered no great damage except some road rash and a gouge in a frame that I now consider "disposable".

Before that, I fell mainly in rain, when riders skated into me because I slowed for a turn and they didn't. I guess they thought they could go faster on a manhole cover or white line or whatever it was to my inside. They'd sweep my tires off the road and I'd land right next to them, sliding over to the curb. I remember a few crashes like that, including a doozy at Danbury where guys kept piling into the curb where I lay. For the EMTs it was like fishing by holding a net over the water and the fish just jumped in.

The last dry pavement crash before the SPD-R one was in 1992, when I had a series of crashes in the May/June season of crits. All of them were caused by maniacal riders moving up the inside and promptly sliding out. All of them were reasonably high prestige races, and in all of them I was in the top part of the field. I would add that all of them were in the closing laps of the race. Two were P123 races, two were 3s, and in the big P123 stack up, I was sitting 4th or 5th behind one of the Carney brothers with only 400 meters left in the race.

The riding was simply just way too optimistic. No one did any switching, chopping, nothing. It was just full out into a turn, lean over, slide, and crash. I just happened to be in the area when it happened.

Not only do I not remember causing crashes, I spent a long time learning skills to avoid falling. I learned to touch wheels, elbow, bump, all sorts of things. When I ride rollers I regularly use my elbow or shoulder if I stray towards the wall. I even dd shoulder exercises (lifting weights) to mitigate any potential crash damage, something my physical therapist commented on yesterday morning.

Back on topic.

So, no, I am not nuts. I am serious when I say a 4th violation should result in a 3000 day penalty for the offender.

First of all, it would force everyone to realize that you can't pull crap in races and get away with it indefinitely.

Second, it would make riders much more aware of how serious some of these offenses can be. For example, in another training race crash in a different state, about the same time I crashed, someone died.

He died.

Now, if they died because someone made an "abrupt motion" and took them out, what then? How can anyone justify taking someone out, taking the chance of literally killing them?

You can't.

If you think about what it would do to suspend me from racing, well, it would be a bummer for sure. I love racing, live for it.

But I don't make a living off of it. It's not my profession. I sometimes have bad racing years. I sometimes have bad racing multi-years. Heck, I've gone to races and lasted 2, 3, 4 minutes.

Yeah, I'm proud that I race bikes. I identify with it. But if I got suspended for a year, I'd just wait a year and start racing again.

You know what would hurt, though? And hurt right now?


Monetary Fines

Suspensions should cost money, and it should hurt. I saw some mention of $50, $75 fines in the rulebook. Helmet fines are $20.

What, is this a joke? Are you serious?

You get someone riding a $5000 bike, they're paying $60 in gas just to get to and from the race, and you think a $20 fine is significant?

It certainly is not.

Neither are the $50 or $75 dollar fines.

If you really want folks to wear a helmet, you have an escalating penalty grid defined for monetary fines too.

$20 the first time. $200 the second. $1000 the third. $3000 the fourth time.

Okay, it seems a bit stiff for helmets. But what's that, really, to a rider? How difficult is it for a rider to slap a helmet on their head.

It's a pathetic thing that someone who trains umpteen hours a week, knows a watt from a kilogram, can recite exactly what wheels in their arsenal have what tires on them, knows how to do bike stuff, can't remember to put a friggin helmet on their head.

It's like they already hit their head.

You know, without a helmet. Duh.

Like, "Um, I, um, want to protest my fine, because, like, I am such a freaking idiot that the helmet won't do me any good anymore."

It's only serious if someone dies, or gets paralyzed.

Or if they get fined $200 for not wearing a helmet. Even an idiot understands money.

I figure that after word gets out that the fine is for real, and that you can't race until you pay it, well, everyone will be extra careful to be wearing a helmet when they roll up to registration.

For suspensions? $10 per day up to 30 days, then level at that amount until you exceed it using a $1/day rate.

So a 10 day suspension, $100 fine. 20 days, $200. 30 days, $300. 40 days, still $300. Until 300 days of suspension, it would be $300.

But after that, it would go up, $1/day. 1000 days? $1000. 3000 days? $3000.

If you don't pay, you don't race.

Oh, right. How would anyone know you haven't paid your $200 or $1000 or $3000?

Online Records

Along with the escalated schedule, all riders should have their records online. All suspensions in the past, along with a special page with easy access for all currently suspended riders.

Why should racers hide their records?

It prevents promoters from helping enforce the rules. Or other racers from protesting that a particular rider is supposed to be suspended, and therefore isn't even eligible to start. Instead of informing one or two officials (at, say, the race I promote), there should be 300 riders who may have an idea of who should or shouldn't be there.

When I register people at Bethel, I have no idea if they're suspended or not. How should I know? The information should be available to the public.

Heck, Connecticut puts all their delinquent tax (non-)payers online. That's serious stuff, taxes and government and not paying their fair share and all that.

USAC should post suspended and penalized riders and make the list easy to retrieve.

Why wouldn't you want your record online? Are you ashamed of what it would say? If you are, then you shouldn't have done whatever it was that makes you have a record. If you're ashamed of your record, you ought to have the opportunity to feel ashamed.


Why this diatribe? Why these words? Why this long soapbox thing? It's a freaking bike race, get over it, right?


I can point to two incidents from two years ago that took a good 20 riders out of circulation. Not because they died or anything like that, although a few got hurt.

They disappeared from the racing scene because they decided that it was too dangerous. The bullies had the run of the races, and they figured that if that's the way the game is played, they're not playing it.

It wasn't worth it.

They are smart folks, successful folks, folks that have a lot to lose. They help support their families, their kids, they make mortgage payments, stuff like that. At some point the risk-reward balance gets tilted too far into the risk side. When it does, a smart person backs off.

The incidents two years ago literally convinced a lot of racers I knew, despite my cajoling, pleading, begging, story-telling, everything, that crits in the area were just way too dangerous.

Their solution? Sit them out. Skip them. Don't race them.

Basically the two crashes took maybe 200, maybe 300 entries out of the year (at a conservative 10-15 races a year).

And it wasn't because the races were necessarily dangerous. It was because there were perhaps half a dozen individuals, tops, that wreaked havoc in the fields. These yahoos took out everyone from umpteen time national champions to lawyers to financial IT folks to teachers to ordinary you and me type people.

I haven't seen them in a real crit since.

And that really sucks.

It sucks for the sport because the bullies started gaining the upper hand, and the system was in such a state that it couldn't do anything.

It sucks for the sport because a bunch of intelligent, nice, kind, conscientious people gave up on the sport.

It sucks because all those people that quit made a reasonably smart decision, a logical one, and they'll tell their friends that they prefer running or swimming or tris or golf or something, anything, other than bike racing. When their friends ask them, "Yeah, but I was thinking about getting a bike, I watched the Vuelta and it looks really cool!", they'll tell them, "Okay, but don't think about racing. It's a dumb sport, for dumb people, ruled by bullies on bikes."

And we lose potential racers, potential teammates, potential friends.

It comes down to this.

Race well, race with dignity, race with a conscience.

And all of the above just won't apply to you.


Colin R said...

Posts like this make me realize how much USAC has failed at the local level. I don't know much about OBRA but they're way more "with it" in an online sense, so I bet they've at least got the online rider suspension thing covered.

crispy said...

I like your ideas, but have one suggestion - input from riders in the same race should be solicited when deciding if something is an accident or not. I know emotions will cloud this input a bit, but there's still nothing like the guy who was next to the offender saying "yeah, he looked right at me then chopped my wheel. That was no accident."

No One Line said...

Aki, with your "guarantee" in this post and your mention of your own injury, you seem to be implying something that you're not saying outright. Do you think that the move that took you down was part of a deliberate strategy?

Aki said...

Thanks all for the comments.

Colin - I bookmarked a page from the Triathlete federation because it really struck me. It's a page on Etiquette. I couldn't believe they had one, and the sport only started existing when I was around, not like bike racing. It's been very frustrating and it's really motivated me to get more involved to fix things.

crispy - There is a procedure for gathering evidence in an incident, and it includes interviewing all the affected riders. USAC seemed to do a good job. I asked if anyone else got hurt (I had no idea), and I learned that a friendly rival from a Bethel a few years ago suffered 4 broken ribs.

In my case, all the views except for two of the rider's teammates agreed. I thought that was curious because one teammate was about 50-100 meters behind the group (he pulled off and sat up). The other teammate crashed - I think he's the one that hit me since he was just to my 4 or 5 or 6 o'clock. I never saw him, even in my peripheral vision, but he was the guy being led out.

Something that really bothers me is that a recreational sports defense lawyer called me, unsolicited, and asked me if there were any video of the incident. I didn't wear my helmet cam, and there was just one photographer on the course. The lawyer was disappointed - he said that video/picture proof will prove exactly what happened. And as I thought about it, it's why they have dash cams on police cars and city buses, to illustrate what happened.

NOL - I don't think it was a deliberate strategy per se. Meaning I don't think they say, "Okay, I'll be swerving out and taking out guys just before the last turn." If it were deliberate, the designated leader would be in front of the swerver, not behind. In this case the designated leader actually crashed too.

However... I believe that this rider considers this move to be totally acceptable in the realm of bike racing. He's yet to be punished in any meaningful way for the three infractions I know of (all of them were "because someone else moved"), and I expect him to make the same moves in 2010.

Because of that, I will be wearing my helmet cam and possibly bar or frame cams in order to capture on video what happens in a race. My feeling is that USAC is not interested in the safety of their racers. Therefore I have to try and be prepared for the inevitable crash.

I also have to gather proof of what happened since it's not practical to expect USAC to video tape every bit of a race (although my expenses from this crash could have paid for 19 helmet cams and SD cards, and we could have 19 racers in each field record the race's activities). Watching a guy swerve a few feet totally unexpectedly a foot or two from the camera would be extremely illuminating to anyone trying to decide "what happened".

Although I don't think it was necessarily intentional or malicious, the rider in question happened to ask me before the race if I'd be wearing a helmet cam. I mention this because in 2007 officials asked to view my helmet cam footage in analyzing the crash that this rider caused in the final sprint. Because I didn't turn my head towards the crash, the video tape wasn't definitive. However it was very clear how the guys in front of me reacted, and how two stayed upright and one went down really hard. Ultimately the officials decided he was at fault, caused the crash, but was not suspended. He was disqualified from the race.

11 days later he caused a huge stack up, injuring a number of racers, wrecking at least one bike. If the officials had suspended him, the crash 11 days later may not have happened. Well, he may not have gotten suspended yet (due process) so it may have happened, but I have a feeling that having one suspension hanging over your head would make you think twice before making the same move a week and change later.

othermike117 said...


I am very sorry about your injuries and wish you the best and quickest recovery. In the interest of not having our Team and any other riders demonized before this goes much further I feel compelled to respond to this latest post (my first time ever replying to a blog so bear with me). I am the teammate whose testimony you question due to my "position" at the time of the crash. I can assure you I had not sat up & pulled off & was not "50 - 100 meters " behind the crash. Not sure where you got that information but in fact, I was only a hand full of bikes behind you and had to quickly change my line to pass the crash on the left and a number of the riders who stacked up on the right were likely farther back than me. No big deal, but want to set that record straight. When I gave USAC my testimony I very calmly retold it like I saw it and left it at that. Also, after clearing the crash I immediately waited for other riders to pass and then rode back to the crash to see how / if I could help. A logical thing to do for sure but in the midst of the non productive yelling, accusing and name calling that some non racers chose to engage in many more remained calm and tried to pitch in. SOC asked me to go get his cooler at his truck and I was happy to do that for him as he was assisting you. I mean, who wouldn't.

Anyway, while I want to set that little part of the record straight I also want to weigh in on the whole crime & punishment issue. I think the last thing any of us should want is the threat of lawyers in the sport judging what was an "accident" a novice move or something else. Talk about pricing the sport out of reach for many as we all end up riding around with the need for personal liability insurance for the sport. Any deliberate action to hurt another rider is reprehensible and should not be tolerated but needs to be resolved within the constraints of the Sport's governing Body. I think this incident is a also a good indication of the potential challenges associated with taking testimony from the event participants as there is likely no way to remove prior history, emotions and allegiances completely from that process. For What its worth...

ethan said...

I pretty much agree 100% with everything you've laid out. Really though, I don't understand how anyone can think that it is ok to act like that after they've already seen the damage they have previously wrought. A few years ago, I broke my collarbone because there was a guy in the field with tourette's syndrome who randomly fell onto me at 30mph while having a fit. I later found out that he did at least one race after being completely responsible for breaking my collarbone (which is permanently disfigured), despite having no way to guarantee that he wouldn't have another incident. As you said, bike racing is a great pursuit and I'd be sad to be forced to give it up, but if I was a serious risk to myself and/or others, I'd do the right thing and stop, painful though it might be.

Unfortunately, you can't expect everyone to behave appropriately so sometimes for the overall benefit of the community strict rules need to be made and enforced.

p.s. Sorry about the accident, glad to see you're on the mend, even if it is frustratingly slow.