Photo by Robert Burroughs
In spite of these gory occurrences Dan Gindling maintains that San Diego is a safe place to ride.
Standing on Pringle Street near Kettner Boulevard, looking up a precipitous grade of snaking asphalt, I tried to imagine Freddie Hafner's thoughts - aged 41 — one second before his death. Dressed in purple mesh tank top, gray cut-off jeans, brand XJ900 purple-and-white tennis shoes, music pumping through earphones into brain, Freddie blisters like a blur of blue on his bicycle. Then a truck. At 45 miles an hour, Freddie swerves, loses control -bam! - hits a curb, flies 35 feet. Freddie dies, impaled, chest first, on a fire hydrant.
"Father and his daughter riding their tandem in Carlsbad. Some guy from the Del Mar Fairgrounds, betting on the racing, totally blitzed, plowed into 'em at 70 miles an hour. Killed 'em."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
That such a death occurred two blocks from my apartment - as I sat, listening to soft rock and sipping a diet Dr. Pepper, blissfully contemplating a next day's adventures - bothered me. Standing on Pringle Street beside the hydrant, I felt like an ant: a hundred different times, I thought, it could've been me.
For my seventh birthday, Dad gave me my first bicycle - an ugly, orange-painted hunk of iron and rust (dented fenders, balloon tires, tattered seat) that he'd bought for five bucks.
"Then you have somebody opening up a car door, and a bicyclist runs into it. Happens all the time."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Dad put me on the seat — feet dangling above pedals - and (for whatever was goin' through his mind) sent me on my first ride.
And first crash.
"One nice route is from Pacific Beach up through Rose Canyon — one stretch has a bike path with absolutely no traffic - and into La Jolla."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
"Guess you have to wait to grow into it," he said. While waiting to do that, I first removed the fenders, eventually sanded off the orange and rust, got around to painting the bared metal luminous black, and - for the cherry - replaced the seat. In two years, I had a decent bike - Yo! - an indestructible bike. Flying off dirt jumps and concrete curbs, tumbling down the sides of steep hills (showing off), once hitting a car head on (sailing over hood 'n' roof 'n' bouncing off the trunk) -me and The Bike were seemingly impervious to hurt.
"I've been on Fiesta Island when a club was out there; it was dangerous."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Then puberty pounced, and it was a time to be cool.
Stupidly (as soon I would see) I sold The Bike. I purchased in its place (on layaway, ten bucks a month) a $60 Western Flyer from Chuck's Hardware: a metallic-red, lever-operated, 3-speed racer - the ''rad'' of its day.
Moki Martin: "I was goin' south on 75 by Coronado Cays, and I took the off-ramp. I looked down to shift. When I looked up, I saw this bike rider coming right at me, on the wrong side of the road."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
It lasted one week.
Big dumb sister wanted to take it for a spin. Never figured she didn't understand hand brakes. *'I can't stop!"
Seconds after sister disappeared over the hill, I heard the crash. Wisely, she'd taken her chances against a stopped pickup truck (instead of continuing down the long, steep road) and came out slightly bruised, scratched, and hyperventilating. But my new bike - it was totaled.
I didn't buy a bicycle again for almost ten years. By then, I was a Vietnam veteran, bored and unhappy, estranged in a surreal world of make-love-not-war phoniness. I tried all the typical thrills, but after Kill Or Be Killed, it was hard to get a rush. One day, meandering on an aimless stroll, I happened to peek inside a Goodyear tire store that sold bicycles on the side. Walking in with a checkbook, I rode out, wobbling, on a bright-brown Tour de France 10-speed. Learning to shift into multiple-gear ratios (while steering and pedaling) took a day or two; yet, I had rediscovered something wonderful and, for the times, unusual. (In 1972, kids and grad students rode bicycles; politically correct transportation was Barefoot Express or hand-painted Volkswagen minibuses.)
Up and down the high hills of my college town, I found liberation from the mundane existence of normal breathing. I pumped up the tallest, biggest hills in timed sprints, then circled at the top, like a hawk, until I’d caught my breath. The steep streets were perfectly paved, smooth and rockless, serpentine chutes down endlessly convoluted slopes. ’Cept for sneakers, shortest cut-off jeans, and battle-dressing wrapped 'round my brow - I was naked. Full strength back, I'd shoot the hill. Legs a blur of motion, back arched, I felt omnipotence surging from my heart. At 40 mph I'd take the middle of the road and slalom (using quick, rhythmic shifts of weight and angle) between tightly spaced yellow dashes.
Then again, the sprint: goal always to just hit 50 mph; any faster, the bike would go into rapid wobble, at which point, the tiniest pebble could cause the bicycle (and me) to self-destruct. My addiction to risk was pure: a fix of ultimate speed -and I was living. Cars puttering 5 over the 25 miles-per-hour speed limit were like turtles around which, at the last second, I'd zip. I was immortal. Even when I wrecked.
I'd just sprinted to the top of a half-mile of hill and was circling, sweat funneling down my back's groove, thighs swollen, battle-dressing soaked. I hit it. Pick up full speed. Pass two cars. Suddenly my bike freezes - I stop pumping - then begins to wobble. Can't brake; everything'll flip. S-curve and bottom of hill getting close; there, a stop sign - and crossing highway of barreling cars and trucks. Hands touch brakes, three quick squeezes, then full. Deceleration barely perceptible - cycle careens into the leftward curve, slides, hits the curb - and I fly. Naked and wingless, weightlessly somersaulting through hot air, I hit and roll across the back of my shoulders, ricocheting into the air, and land backwards on both feet, smack in the middle of a Union 76 station.
"Nice flip!" yells a kid in a pack of kids.
Without pause, I race to my bicycle.
"Lucky ya didn't kill y'rself," utters an old man, pumping gas into a motorhome.
Defying likelihood and expectation, my bicycle was structurally intact - a little scratched paint, slightly bent back rim - and completely rideable.
I crossed the busy highway and headed up the next hill. As cars passed me by, I noticed their passengers twisting around to look at me. I could feel sweat pouring down my back and into my cutoffs. Too much sweat. I reached back and touched the wetness. When I brought my hand back, it was covered with blood. Damn! I scraped my back off.
Thought occurred to me, leaving Pringle Street, that a lot has happened to the bicycling scene in two decades. Guys like the late Freddie Hafner - loner bikers in cutoffs goin' bonsai on city streets - are relics. Today, it seems, everybody bicycles. It’s an in thing. A social thing. Strings of neon-Lycra-wrapped bodies under bug-head-shaped helmets buzzing here, buzzing there, like warped swarms of stingerless bees. In 20 years, a whole new statement of hard-bodied fashion has evolved and, somewhere along the way, passed me by. I don't know, maybe there just got to be too many people. Too much fad. Too much elitism. Too many cars. Maybe I just don't feel immortal anymore.
Couple just got plowed up in Carlsbad. Father and his daughter riding their tandem. Some guy from the Del Mar Fairgrounds, betting on the racing, totally blitzed, plowed into 'em at 70 miles an hour. Killed 'em."
The man talking is Dan Gindling, 36-year-old founder, editor, and main writer of Bicycling San Diego, a quarterly magazine devoted to the obvious. Lanky blond of German descent, he adds passion through penetrating blue eyes to a violent contempt for drunk motorists. ("That was flat-out murder!" he recently wrote in a BSD editorial. "That driver should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. No plea-bargains, no nothing.")
Gindling agreed to talk to me and share his views on the bicycle scene in San Diego, particularly - how safe is it? (Ironically, he'd expressed concern, before the interview, that I not make "the scene” sound too dangerous.) As we sit at an oak table in his apartment, Gindling continues.
"And there was another guy - guess it was over on Pacific Highway, goin' south - who got hit in a hit 'n‘ run. Some guy hit him and drug him, I don't know, so many hundreds of yards. For a while there, it seemed somebody was getting killed once a month."
Surprisingly, in spite of these gory occurrences (which Gindling considers "breakdowns in trust" between bicyclists and motorists), he maintains that San Diego is a safe place to ride. "Overall, there seems to be an awareness here by people in cars that 'Yes, there are bicycles here, we have to watch out for 'em.' I mean, I've had brushes, but I’ve never been hit.
"I think if you know where to ride, you're relatively safe Obviously, you don't go riding down some streets that have absolutely nowhere to ride.
I do a lot of running errands and things on my bike. I'll ride downtown. The thing is, most times, the quickest way is not the best way. I see people riding places where I think, 'You gotta be nuts!' With just a little looking around, they could've found a better way of getting somewhere, a street with less traffic, maybe even a bicycle path."
Gindling moved to San Diego 12 years ago - hired as an accountant for a radio station — and took up cycling. A year later, when the station went under, he published his first magazine. "I'd started work as a promoter for the San Diego Velodrome, and they wanted to put out an annual magazine. I said, 'Sure, I can do that,' even though I'd never done anything like that before. After one issue, they didn't want to do it anymore. So, I decided to continue it myself.”
Bicycling San Diego is one of several bicyclist-oriented periodicals - California Bicyclist, Southwest Cycling, City Sports, VeloNews - available "free” in bicycles/supplies stores, comer groceries, and help-yourself street vendors. For Gindling, profits come from advertisers - enough to permit him to travel widely in pursuit of cycling. "For the past eight or nine years, I've taken a major tour in the summer, mostly to different parts of North America. I just got back from a seven-week tour in Quebec, and here shortly, I'm heading to Norway. I like to explore, get photographs and story ideas, things like that, so I can write five or six stories. I also do freelance stuff, mostly travel stories, photographs, for magazines and newspapers."
Compared with some of the world's exotic environments for bicycling, Gindling thinks San Diego is a great place to ride. "For one thing, it's a beautiful city; for another, there's a lot to see. When friends visit, I like to take 'em out on bicycles and show 'em around. Of course, there's traffic, and that's a problem. I know the Pacific Highway up north is not the most fun place to ride. It's pretty dangerous, because there's a lot of people driving fast, and on parts of it there really isn't a bicycle path. One nice route, though, is from here [Pacific Beach] up through Rose Canyon — one stretch has a bike path with absolutely no traffic - and into La Jolla, then down to La Jolla Shores. It's about 20 miles, and it's a great ride."
Since much of San Diego County is synonymous with traffic - a part of life for every bicyclist -I'm curious how Gindling deals with it.
"I ride my bike like you're supposed to drive a car. On a bicycle you have to be a little bit more aggressive and know the rules and take a lane if you have to take a lane. Use hand signals, stop at all the stop lights and stop signs — you have to anticipate a lot. Not assume things. I mean, I've had brushes where you're going down the road, some guy's stopped, you know he sees ya - then suddenly he turns right in front of you. You're goin' about 30 miles an hour and have to slam on the brakes or swerve. You have to keep your eyes open for everything. And for people who maybe haven't grown up riding in traffic, being thrown in San Diego would be, you know, crazy."
A strictly unscientific observation (I relate to Gindling) might suggest that a certain "sociopathic nature" is shared by most San Diego motorists. Does he detect any general negativity, on the part of many drivers, held toward bicyclists? His answer surprises me.
"Yes - and deservedly so. I mean, when I'm driving down the road, even when I'm riding, there's some bicyclists who just piss you off. When I see someone run a light or do something stupid -I catch up and talk to ‘em.... I don't preach, just say, 'Hey, you make us all look bad.' Bicyclists are supposed to stop at traffic lights, and when drivers see a biker run one, they think, All bicyclists are the same, they all break the law. We don't have to look out for 'em.'
"And when I'm out driving, I will see bicyclists doing stupid things - like, two or three will take up a whole lane. Being a bicyclist, I know what they're doing and kind of let it go. But I know what other motorists are thinking: ‘Another stupid bicyclist.'"
Are "stupid bicyclists" the minority?
"Sometimes you think they are," he laughs. "But then some days you go out and ride and all you see are people running lights and stop signs, and sometimes it just seems to be continual. My girlfriend once rode after a guy who ran a light, and he said, 'I should know better - J'm a cop.' And one time I talked to another guy, he said, 'Yeah, I know, I just got a ticket for that last week.' I applaud the police when they give tickets. I wish they'd pull everybody over and give 'em tickets.
"I don't know if it's stupidity or what. But when you see someone - someone all dressed up in Lycra - come to a light, looking all around, making sure there's not a cop, then run it.... I mean obviously, they know that they're not supposed to do that."
In the late '60s, one or two clubs served San Diego County bikers; today there exists an affluence of clubs. A partial list (provided by Dave Dickson of Bicycling West) includes American Youth Hostels, Torrey Pines Ski Club, Knicker bikers, Velodrome Association, San Diego Bicycle Club, Cyclovets (for over-40s), Off-Road Bicycle Club (mountain bikers), San Diego Wheelmen North County Cycle Club, and Sierra Club (Bicycle Group).
On any given day (especially weekends), thousands of San Diegans take to the streets, road ways and back-areas, pedaling individually, in pairs, and oftentimes in groups (of usually 5 to 15 cyclists). And, on most weekends, there is at least one organized "event" (officially sanctioned or not) that may involve upwards of several hundred cyclists on the same stretches of highway. I ask Gindling about this.
"I ride by myself 95 percent of the time; or I may go out with my girlfriend. The problem with group riding is there's a group mentality. In a group it's easy not to obey the laws. They're gonna act stupid and they're gonna ride two and three abreast when they shouldn't be doing that. I mean, riding two or three abreast in an area where there's not a lot of traffic is fine. But when it's a busy street and you're blocking a lane, boy, you're just getting a lot of people agitated. I see it all the time.
"I don't ride with any clubs. My girlfriend Kimberly used to, but she just got tired of where one guy runs it and then everybody else just rolls right through. I've been on Fiesta Island when a club was out there; it was dangerous. You've got one guy riding on one side of the street, one guy riding on the other, they're swerving in and out, cars are trying to get through. The way they were riding - it was just stupid."
"My older brother Peter can certainly tell you about the wider subculture," offers Allan Kendal, employee, AYH store, corner of Beech and State. "He just got back from the High Sierra Trip - seven and a half days of riding."
Allan is a reluctant subject, but I squeeze out a bit: 44 years old, he bought his first 10-speed in 1959, when, he explained, many young people in San Diego actively participated in "tours" (organized bicycle rides). Today, that is not the case.
"We [American Youth Hostels] don’t get many young people. I think the average age of bikers we deal with is probably 37. Personally, I think that’s because riding a bicycle isn’t as nice as it used to be. It can almost be unpleasant. The older people are really out for the health aspect. The younger people probably’d rather do something else than put up with the basic physical situation of San Diego."
Allan, talking as he adjusts the straps on a cycling helmet, extrapolates. "Overall, I think bicycling is leveling off. It can only explode so much. Sales in this store have certainly leveled off. Of course, there's more competition than there was ten years ago. I can remember living in La Jolla, when the closest bike store was in Pacific Beach on Garnet Avenue. Now, everybody has a store on the comer."
Borrowing the helmet, I try it on. Feels funny.
"I’m very careful fitting helmets in this store,” he says. "You see all these girls wearing their helmets up like this - " Allan tilts the helmet back on my head, kind of a fashion statement. Well, hitting on the side of the forehead is a very common accident - that's the most common place to hit. If their helmet's above that area and they hit, you can talk fashion statement... they won’t look very good dead.”
"Guy’s bicycle seat came off and the pole went right up his - you know..." Sitting in a small office on the 19th floor of the Chamber Building, I listen to Scott E. Shaffman (of Shaffman, Iler, Palkowitz & Doft -Attorneys At Law) describe the kinds of cases they handle.
"Interestingly,’’ he says, "we had one magazine that wouldn’t take our ad. They were getting a lot of heat from bicycle manufacturers who also advertise in their magazine. One of the manufacturers called ’em up and said, 'Look, we’re gonna pull our ads if you have these bicycle lawyers or any lawyers in your magazine.' They didn't want people thinking they can get hurt riding bicycles. And if someone did get hurt, they didn't want it advertised that they could be sued."
Most of the bicycle magazines I flipped through did advertise lawyers; in fact, it was a "When They Don't See You ... Come See Us!!” ad in California Bicyclist that prompted me to call "239-BIKE" (a 24-hour number) and end up here. Impeccably dressed, Shaffman - slight of build, black hair, flawless beard - sits to my left. Across from me, behind a desk, sits Gary W. Justice, one of three legal administrators in the firm. He continues the story.
"We'd been advertising in this magazine for quite a while when they called us up. First they didn't tell us who they were; they just asked, 'Do you sue bicycle manufacturers?' Well, that's sort of an open-ended question, but we answered, 'Yeah, we could.' And they said, 'Well, sorry, we're going to pull your ad. We don't want it in there anymore.'
"And that's not the way it should be. Defective products need to be corrected. And half the time when you file these lawsuits, it's not that you're just getting money for the client, you're getting a dangerous product off the market. Or you're getting the defect in the product corrected."
"So, product liability is a big thing," Shaffman finishes. "And the rest of our cases are basically negligence actions. And here, I think, there is a big distinction between the adult bicycle rider and the child bicycle rider. With children, often you will get cases where there's some fault on your client's part. You'll have a six-year-old riding her bicycle, being stupid the way six-year-olds are - say, maybe riding on the wrong side of the street or something. And then along comes the driver, who’s speeding and not being as careful as he should — those kinds of cases.
"As opposed to, say, the typical cases involving adult riders. Here, I think the biggest single cause of accidents is that the rider is simply not seen. An adult will be riding his bicycle in a perfectly lawful manner, maybe even in a marked bicycle lane, and the motorist riding right next to him will make a right turn. Just doesn't see the rider. Or you get the motorist driving in the opposite direction who makes a left turn - bam! Again, just doesn't see the rider."
"We see a lot of those," adds Justice. "And we also see police officers who don't know what the laws are. For example, in California you are supposed to ride your bicycle as close to the right curb line as you can. It's a vehicle code. We have a case right now where our client's riding his bicycle along the right curb line, a lady comes up behind him, sees a parking space, and turns right in front of him. He runs into her. The police officer puts him down as the main cause of the accident, because he wasn't riding his bicycle in the middle of the road with the other vehicles. Says it right in this police report: 'This client should not have been riding his bicycle on the right side of the road. He should have been in the middle of the road.'"
There's my old girlfriend," Peter Kendal says, pointing to a picture of a scratched and bloodied face. (Peter and I are flipping through his photo album.) Girl looks ticked. "That’s a very interesting story," he continues. We were on the Christmas trip, coming back from Borrego, and there's this one corner that's really bad. I said to her, Hanna — watch out for this corner.' She kinda gave me the finger, called me a chicken blank, and moved up to the back of the six riders in front of us. There was a space-line going around the corner, warning to keep away from a railing and the edge of a cliff. The whole group lost it goin’ around, and they all went over the white line, each person crashing closer and closer to the cliff. Hanna toppled over the guy in front of her, went over the railing, and was sliding down the edge of the cliff.
"I was about 50 feet behind her when she toppled, and I jumped off my bike while it was still moving, jumped over the railing, and ran down the side of the cliff and caught her. If she'd slid a little further, she'd’ve fallen off and been killed. I was very upset, of course, and I held her for a while, before we dragged her out.”
I'd finally tracked Kendal down, after several days trying (he rides a lot), in his large apartment in a semi-lavish Chula Vista complex. "This place was pictured in a garden magazine," he says. "Plants never die around here — just people die. One day I smelled this really bad odor and was going to tell somebody, but nobody was in the office. So I didn’t bother. About two weeks later they found him. It was pretty bad - guess flies completely covered the apartment. Then some lady on the other side just died. And my next-door neighbor died. Also the people just a few doors away - the woman there was found in the bathtub with a knife in her heart."
Purchasing his first 10-speed in 1956 at the age of 14, Kendal's mother enrolled him in the then-fledgling AYH bicycling program. He speaks reverently — almost mystically — of a now-deceased physician, Dr. Clifford Graves. "Dr. Graves was my mentor. I looked up to him very highly. I would say he was my best friend. His idea was to get kids active in the program - and we had a lot of kids in those days. His whole life was bicycling.”
Remaining a bicycle tourist until the age of 17, Kendal then got hooked into bike racing and co-joined the San Diego Bicycle Club. He remained active in racing - almost making the '68 Olympic Team - until 1980. During that time, he had taken over for Dr. Graves in planning AYH's year-round programs. Starting the AYH store in 1982, Kendal says he was terminated by the administration this year. Why? ”! don't know. I built it up; we did $385,000 worth of business last year. I'd built up a pretty good salary. When the board hired this guy from the national organization, he said I could stay if I took a third less pay. So I got run out. This happened a few months ago, and right now I'm just riding."
By "just riding," Kendal refers to the 7500 miles he's logged in seven months (recorded by the computers he uses on each of his seven bicycles). "I don't have a philosophy in life,” he explains. "Bicycling is my life.”
With all those miles, what about accidents? "If you ride a lot, you're going to fall down about every 4500 miles. That's what I’ve heard is the average. I usually have one every 16,000 miles — that could be two years, that could be one year. The way things are going this year, it’s going to be one year. My first accident was in 1961: I hit a dog in the fog and woke up in the hospital at three in the morning. I was in the hospital for three days and it cost $250. Things have changed.” What does he regard as the most dangerous aspect of bicycling? “Cars, probably, although I really haven't had that much trouble with them myself. I did have a head-on with a Volkswagen in England. I rode on the right — in England you don't do that — and this guy coming around the corner. I flew into the bushes. It cost me $70 dollars to buy him a new light and fender.”
Helmets, Kendal now believes, have kept him alive. He's had five head injuries, he says, without a helmet on. Since then, he's had two crashes where a helmet may have saved his life and a third where it saved his face.
“Three years ago I was riding into San Clemente with a group of about 30 people. This kid was riding about 20 feet in front of us and stopped at a yellow light. I crashed and landed directly on my forehead where my helmet was protecting. My neck was stiff for a month, and my bike was destroyed - but I was all right.”
Turning to the back of the photo album, Kendal shows me a picture of another bloody face, a face bruised, swollen, stitched. "My mother took that picture. I was still unconscious. It was a year ago May. I was riding along on a pathway and hit a big pothole. You can see the stitches in my face. And one of the things they did was paralyze me. That was very hard on me. They do that, you know — they paralyze you and put you on a respirator. I don't remember much about it, except trying to push them away. I think if they'd left me alone, I'd've pulled myself together and would've been all right. It was a rough time. I was airlifted and had about $16,000 worth of medical bills."
Then this May, Kendal was riding over the railroad tracks near Harbor Drive, when he was distracted by a rider beside him. "He was doing some weird stuff. I flipped. You can see my knee. I slid on my knee and my shoulder and was actually sliding on the side of my helmet. My eyes were wide open, watching the road slide in front of me. I thought, 'God, I'm going to be torn to pieces when I get up.' Surprisingly, I was riding again in five minutes."
In spite of his recent "termination" from the AYH store, Kendal voluntarily plans the bicycling program. "I don't get paid. I have sort of a moral obligation to Dr. Graves.” The rides he plans - and in many cases leads - are designed to meet different levels of experience. "Basically, riders want to try and build to higher and higher levels. We have a 'D' ride that's just for beginners. The *C ride is more so-so, for people who can ride 25 miles. B' ride is usually 50 miles and rolls along at a good dip. And the 'A' is a 75-mile ride. You worry, on the longer rides, about someone un-suited. I have one trip, a five-day trip — I call it 'Bicycle Hell1' - where I try to interview people before they go I don't want anyone on it who rides less than 150 miles a week.”
Kendal is tall for a bicyclist (6'2”) and weighs a lean 178. Although his full mustache shows flecks of gray, he possesses the cardiovascular endurance of a top-quality athlete. "I'm comfortable riding 70 or 80 alone. When your brain talks to you. I wouldn't think twice about riding 100 miles. If you’re mild, you feel pretty good, if you're satisfied with your innermost thoughts, you can ride alone. If you’re a nervous-type person, you can't handle being alone. Lotta people can't ride alone.” Before leaving, Kendal shows me around his apartment. The walls are covered with tastefully framed "family" photos - childhood photos of his long-dead relatives. "That one's of my great-grandmother," be says. In the den: large black-and-white of Kendal cycling to victory in the '68 California Championships; beside it, Dr. Graves, in tweed jacket and cap, returns a smile through glinting glass.
"Let me show you my closet of spare bikes," he says, and opens a door. "See - there's three. And there's a mountain bike back in the other room. So, if I have a bad accident, I'll have a new bike. I've had 33 bicycles in my life. I hate to wreck a bike."
The velodrome in Balboa Park looks like the sun-bleached jaws of a leviathan shark, spread open flat, like a trap. A perfect place for racers to train, with its steeply banked concrete curves, its course an elongated oval. In the distance, the voice of Dave Grylls barks instructions and commands to teenage boys (with shaved legs) and girls (with unusual courage).
"James!" Grylls yells, “Dan's makin' a fatal flaw - he's too low!.... Ian! No rhythm! Do it sporadically... don’t look back rhythmically ... sporadically!” On the track, three cyclists remind me of lions in hunt, stalking - a game of instinct and survival. In the center, like vultures, the others circle.
The three racers are playing cat and mouse — trying to get the jump, the advantage - right move, right time. It's a race of three laps - the first two are slow. Sometimes they almost stop, twisting their front tires for balance, moving inches. Suddenly one drops from the top, hits the sprint, cuts oft the others. "Hammer it, James!" screams Grylls. The last lap is on, a streak of cycles, a blur of pumping legs, a soft hum of hot rubber on concrete. They cross the line in a tight string - one, two, three - with James first.
They are the Mount Helix Bicycle Club, 70 members strong and one of the top youth-development programs in the United States. Grylls, a coach, is a two-time Olympian, winning a silver medal in 1984. Retired from competitive racing, his purpose now is to share what he knows. Following the practice, I got together with Grylls and three of his young racers to talk a little about the sport.
In the country's sixth-largest city, Mount Helix is the only club for racers younger than 18. Says 14-year-old James Hannibal, "Only one other person in my school belongs to this club." And for Jason Johannesen (also 14), "Maybe .3 percent ride bikes.” Only Crystal Waters (15) attends a school where both hands (maybe) are needed to count racers. "Probably about five or six kids ride," she says. "And all the guys that are racers in my school, they always wear pants 'cause they don't want anyone to see their shaved legs. Personally, I think it looks better on guys to have shaved legs. 'Course, I've gotta hang around 'em all the time - it’s all I'm used to."
"A lot of people just don't understand how fast you can make a bike go" explains Jason, "and how bad you get scratched up (with hairy legs] when you crash. They're still thinking the old myth that we do it to go faster - just kind of mixed us up with the swimmers. We do it so scrapes heal faster."
"That, yes, and at the national-team level you get massaged, and it makes it a lot easier on the masseuse," adds Grylls. "And besides, it does looks better."
Both James and Jason are on the small side but have athletic builds. They could easily pass as wrestlers. I ask James, who has been racing a little over a year, about his training schedule. "It's gonna get tougher, 'cause I just moved up an age category, and most of the guys are in their second year in this group." He speaks in a slow, controlled manner, which reminds me of a young Marlon Brando. "There’s quite a bit of pain involved. You have to work to get up to the fitness level. I try to do 150 to 200 miles a week. Most of that's fast-paced rides, intervals, with every few minutes a sprint. The idea is to increase my oxygen intake and my blood flow. I train from April to September."
With a competitive season that spans the tourist season, and since most of their training is on the highways, how do they minimize the dangers? Crystal responds, "I think it's more like time out there and becoming aware; in the beginning, you're not aware of traffic, not as quick to notice things. But after you're out there for miles and miles, you notice things. And we ride in groups - in groups it's easier for cars to see you."
"The problem when we train in a big group, though, is that one inexperienced rider can make it infinitely more dangerous for everybody," says Grylls. "It's not necessarily that they can't handle their bike or that they might fall down or something else and everybody else falls over 'em. It's that they aren't as comfortable being in the group. They'll tend to ride farther out in the road and aren't aware of the group dynamic. They tend to get in trouble and they make life much tougher.
"Coaching cycling is not like coaching Little League baseball, where, if you've got a kid who's not very good, the worst thing that happens is a dropped fly in right field. In cycling, someone who isn’t fitting in can potentially cause grievous harm to the rest of the group And it happens. We've been very lucky on our club rides. There have only been one or two really bad accidents."
Moki Martin, 48, joined the Navy when he was 17, put in four years on a destroyer, went to Underwater Demolition Teams at 22, and eventually became a SEAL. He was a natural.
Born and raised on the island of Maui - where, in Hawaiian, "Moki" means "shark" — his entire childhood was skin diving and spearfishing. "I used to swim where there were a lot of sharks," Martin tells me, "so people were afraid to go in the water with me; they kept callin' me 'Brother Moki' - and the name kinda stuck through my Navy days." *
Serving six tours in Vietnam - from '65 to '74 — Martin survived without harm. "I never got officially wounded over there; every once in a while a booby trap or a grenade would go off and I'd get bits of shrapnel... but nothing to which I actually received medical attention. A Purple Heart - you have to bleed to get one of those. It's a very underrated ribbon. Some people have to get killed to get one of those."
Good fortune did not follow Martin into peacetime. He sits across from me in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down, and tells me his story.
"After one of my last trips to Vietnam, I ended up on Okinawa. Ten-speeds were starting to get hot, so I bought one, you know, just for training. Then, back in the States, I would ride from my house in Southeast San Diego all the way to the amphib base, here on Coronado, and then back. I did it mainly to stay in shape but also to save money on gas. I'm talking 1974 - gas crunch. So I rode my bicycle quite a bit, and the more I rode, the more I enjoyed it.
"About the same time, I started to get into competitive running. I also did a few ocean swims over in Imperial Beach and in Mission Bay. And then I ran across a real wild-eyed group that were doing this new thing called 'triathlons.' It sounded great, so I did one. And I really liked it, because it mirrored the multifaceted training we do in SEAL Tam. In SEALs, you gotta be able to climb cliffs, be able to run well, and of course swim. "framing has always been, you know, get out o' water and go run five. For me, triathlons were perfect.
"So in 1982, while I was training for a triathlon — and also heading to work — I had my accident. It was about 6:25 in the morning, October 20th. I was goin' south on 75 by Coronado Cays, and I took the off-ramp — you know, that heads into the Cays — and then up the on-ramp back onto 75. Just as you get back on, there’s a slight turn right. It was still a little dark, a little foggy, but light enough to see. As I went around the corner, I looked down to shift. When I looked up, I saw this bike rider coming right at me, on the wrong side of the road.
"We hit head-on. My head snapped back, I flipped over, and my injury occurred then. At first it was confusing: that sharp electrical flash of pain, this bright flash - and everything went. I couldn't move my arms, and I had this tremendous pain. My shoulders were really hurting; I thought I'd broken both my arms. That's all I was worried about. I didn't know why I couldn't get up; I didn't know why my voice was soft - see, I lost my diaphragm.
"And he was laying there moaning too - he'd dislocated his shoulder - the both of us just layin' there moaning. He swears he never saw me. He was just some 17-year-old kid on a beach cruiser, head up, lookin' at the surf, lookin' where to go surfin' - ridin' against the traffic."
"I see bike injuries virtually every week in my I office. The last time we looked at it in emergency-room settings, bike accidents were the leading sports-related cause of visits to San Diego emergency rooms."
Dr. Mark D. Bracker (UCSD Medical Group, Family Practice) strikes an uncanny resemblance to actor William Hurt. Young, handsome, articulate - he appears the embodiment of.health. (On the wall behind him, a color shot of Bracker on a board - “ridin' the big wave” — attests to natural athleticism.)
"You can die from a variety of sources anytime you hit something hard enough - internal injuries, head injuries. Most people who die in bike accidents die from head and spine injuries, if they're going to die. Just like football," jokes Bracker. "It's a collision sport."
He lists the most common injuries as minor abrasions, lacerations, fractures, broken noses, broken chins, and dislocations. "The worst thing I've seen this year, aside from patients who died, happened about six months ago. A woman was riding up to Cabrillo National Monument and pulled up to a stop sign. A truck pulled up next to her with a dog in the back; the dog wasn't leashed down, and it jumped on her. She broke her hip, her arm, she was bit all over the place. That was a bad one.
"Then you have somebody opening up a car door, and a bicyclist runs into it. Happens all the time. The chance of you walking away from that accident is pretty slim. I don't see too much of that, because usually those people end up in emergency rooms - they're seriously injured. The big-league injuries, the lady with the hip, the necks, the heads, those end up in the hospitals. I see ’em incidentally, or I'll hear about it a week later — 'Oh, your patient, Mrs. Jones, is in the neurosurgery suite with a subderal hematoma.'
"In a bike accident, the biker is the loser, no matter who's at fault. Most accidents are kind of freak accidents; very few of them are really preventable, from my standpoint, unless you just don't go cycling. Some accidents happen when somebody is just standing there and another person runs into 'em. You know, they're standing on their bike and a skateboarder crashes into ’em. I've seen all of that stuff. And unfortunately, it's really a matter of how much you ride. If you ride long enough — just like with a motorcycle - you probably have 100 percent odds of having an injury."
Bracker makes the point that biking has changed and that there are more types of bikes to choose from. "You've got small-wheeled bikes - where kids stand on the handlebars and spin around -10-speeds, tandems, mountain bikes. Off-road riding is a whole different type of subpopulation. The safety of biking has certainly not improved commensurate with the sport at all. The technology has improved, but the safety factor has probably gotten worse, because of crowding and other things.
"What I'd like to encourage is for the city to try and incorporate bike lanes into the street system here. It accomplishes a couple of things: it encourages people to ride their bikes, which cuts down on pollution and everything else, traffic congestions; and, at the same time, it allows them to get regular exercise. But we need to do it in a safe fashion. The way it is set up in the United States is dangerous.
"In San Diego, there's really not bicycle lanes. There's areas for scenic routes and bike routes — but they're not designated biking areas, where cars aren't parked and things like that. In Holland, for example, in the cities, you often see a sidewalk for pedestrians, a bike path for bicyclists, and a road for cars - side by side. It's easy to put this system in when you're building a neighborhood, but it's very difficult to go back and put it in later. When new communities are being built, that's when you do it.
"Quite honestly, because of the risk, I don't do nearly as much bicycling as I'd like to do. And it's kind of a dilemma for us, at least in primary-care medicine, because here we are, on the one hand, telling and encouraging people to exercise more for their health, and we encourage biking as good aerobic exercise. Yet, when we do that in San Diego, we realize that, actually, we may be encouraging them to engage in a very dangerous sport."