When bunch rides go bad
When bunch rides go bad, things get ugly. Sometimes, real ugly.
Last weekend in Melbourne, the Hell Ride put 6 (depending on what you read, could be 3) people in hospital, and had others hitting the deck. It’s not the first time people have been hospitalized by this monster of a ride. There was a period here in Adelaide a couple of years ago where there would be someone leaving a bunch ride before it was over in the back of an ambulance what seemed like every few weeks.
Wade Wallace, of CyclingTips fame, weighed in on the issue of the Hell Ride, and that got me thinking.
When is a bunch ride too big for it’s own britches?
Obviously, there is no simple answer. Not one that has to do with any particular number, anyway. Bunch rides are bad when they become dangerous, not just inherently, but particularly. Any ride can become dangerous if one or more participants tries to perform beyond their ability.
Riding in a bunch always carries with it an inherent danger due to the extremely close proximity that the riders find themselves in. In order for the group to gain any advantage over riding as individuals, the individuals need to ride in the slipstream of the rider in front, which can reduce your effort by up to 30%. That’s how you can achieve speeds of up to 124kph, or higher.
Now, as the video explains, this can be quite dangerous. It can go wrong when there are no other external factors present, the cyclists are all on the same professional team, with even the highest level of cycling experience and personal knowledge of each other.
It is far more dangerous when this is done on public roads, with parked cars, opening doors, pedestrians, vehicle traffic, and other cyclists.
It is even more dangerous when, in this scenario, the bunch ride contains riders of questionable talent and/or irresponsible intentions, but who still think they are the next Cancellara. This is the problem regarding the Hell Ride and others like it found in every city you find a community of road cycling enthusiasts.
As I’ve mentioned before and will surely do again, road cycling has the peculiar ability to make a hubbard feel like a hero. Put on the full team kit and mount your team replica bike, and you might just get a top ten in that local bunch ride sprint before being popped off the back of the bunch at the 30km mark.
There is a reason why some clubs specifically steer members away from these rides: they are dangerous because they attract the neo-pro hubbards who confuse a training ride with all the glory of Paris-Roubaix. The fast bunch ride is a brightly coloured trinket to the cyclist who doesn’t quite have the talent but wants to mix it up with those who do. No licence required, no entry fee, no need to make it to the end in order to brag to your peers about how you beat Mr A grader, who probably wasn’t really trying in the first place. The bunch ride is like a safe haven for wankers.
That is, until it’s not so safe anymore. The Hell Ride has been going for decades, and has been a hot topic of discussion both within the cycling community and throughout the wider community and general media. The most recent event has brought the situation into sharp focus yet again, and it presents a particularly difficult problem to solve, but solving is definitely required.
These bunch rides can be safe, but it depends on each individual member. One bad apple can spoil the bunch (ride). With the Hell Ride, it is sometimes a larger number of bad apples, and when the number of participants expands, group-think becomes rampant among participants. Someone enters the oncoming lane to try to win the sprint and ten others follow. Because it is a hard ride, there is greater glory for staying at the front and rubbing shoulders with top-tier riders. This makes it more dangerous, but any group ride can be dangerous if at least one participant gets a little over-excited.
Here in Adelaide there is a particular ride that tends to attract the cowboys. I have been in it occasionally but now make a point to steer clear of it. The last one I was on saw a very similar thing happen, where the bunch of probably ~50 riders encountered a small bunch of recreational cyclists doing half the speed, at the entrance to a single-lane roundabout, sending the small group of 4 or 5 cyclists into the kerb while the large and fast bunch flew by. Very poor form. There are usually about 6-10 A-graders that keep the pace to around 45-55kph, and the rest just sit in or hang on, as the case may be. Like bunch rides everywhere, some participants like to say they ride with the big boys, but aren’t so much riding with them, as riding behind them. Like the Hell Ride, it is the bunch of cyclists that really need to be a bit more capable in terms of fitness and skill that cause the problems… usually. Like the last ride I was on, the leaders proceeded through the tight roundabout when they should have waited, but that might sometimes be easier said than done when there are 50+ riders right on your wheel.
Given that these rides are open to the public and take place on public roads, the only way to regulate them is to a) self-regulate, or b) get the law involved.
This can work, but it’s not a fail safe. It can make a dangerous undertaking less dangerous, but there are always risks involved when running a bunch ride on open roads. If the group is small enough in numbers, or the ratio of respected, responsible riders is sufficient enough, then the ride can be controlled. If anyone steps out of line, they need to be sternly dealt with immediately, perhaps being banned from the ride. Social shaming, basically.
Once numbers swell, this becomes impossible to manage. If you have a smaller group of friends, as in, it is a somewhat closed group, that is entirely different. The rides that become an institution, like shop rides or any other public bunch ride where anyone can turn up and has a different idea of what is expected, are the rides that become a liability. There needs to be an expectation of behaviour that the bunch must follow, made known in advance, with consequences of breaking the rules followed through on.
If the ride has formal representation, i.e. someone that is ultimately responsible for the actions of the group, then there is at least some recourse for participants misbehaving. This isn’t really a viable solution though, because public space is public space. A shop cannot possibly be responsible for members of the general public once they are outside of their doors. If, like the Hell Ride, it has properly become an entity all of it’s own, then there is no one to be accountable to… other than the law.
Bring in the fuzz
If a ride has shown that it cannot conduct itself in a responsible manner, on open roads, and members of the public are being placed in danger or hospitalized, as in the Hell Ride case (repeatedly), then I would say that a higher authority needs to step in.
How this would look in reality, I couldn’t say. Perhaps a local bylaw limiting the number of cyclists per group. Perhaps they simply put police at select points along the route on the days that it takes place to bust errant cyclists and issue fines. Maybe they could even put a fit bike cop or two with on-bike cameras on duty in the bunch and enforce the law from within. I kind of like that one.
In the case of the Hell Ride, a police presence is already in place, apparently with unmarked cars, police motorcycles, and police blockades making an appearance.
Whatever happens with the Hell Ride, there will always be bunch rides, and there will always be cowboys riding beyond their ability, the ability of those around them, at safe speeds given the environment around them, or outside the limits of the law.
Like with most things in life, as an individual, it all starts with you. Don’t be a wanker. If you want to race, man up, get a license, and do some proper racing. Prove yourself where it actually matters. If you want a hard bunch ride, form a smaller one or join a responsible pace-line and actually pull turns on the front, two by two, instead of hanging onto the back, or, lift the pace at the front. If you want to be a bad-ass, get a fixie and some tats, watch some Lucas Brunelle videos, practice your stupid skids, and then go play Russian roulette in traffic (actually, don’t – you’ll probably just end up hurting someone else). Regular cyclists are trying to improve the public image of cycling. If you’re not, and are only interested in yourself and fancy yourself a bit of a hero, we don’t need you around. You are the problem.
You don’t jump in front of your work colleges with your elbows out if they are heading for the same door as you, or cut them off in the car-park if you are leaving at the same time, or run down the corridor at full speed with your head down, because that would be really, really stupid and immature in anyone’s books. Why would you do it in a bunch ride? Oh, right, because your pride is at stake.
If you are unable to control yourself, then someone else has to. I have no problem getting the police involved in these matters. If you are an adult, you should be able to act in an appropriate manner, especially when participating in an activity that comes pre-wrapped with potential danger.
We love cycling. Treat it, and those around you, with the respect that it deserves. Don’t take part in dangerous bunch rides, or, if you choose to, choose also to set a good example and tell those who don’t to wind their necks in.
Header image: source