Monday, June 12, 2017

It's not a safe sport

Note: I wrote this the evening of June 16, 2007 when I got home from the race, and haven't edited it since then. 

Crystal City Criterium, Arlington, VA
June 16, 2007

All to frequently we hear about death in cycling. We probably even knew someone who died in competition. Today, those stories touched me personally: I saw a man die right in front of me in a race.

We lined up this morning for the first Crystal City Criterium in Arlington, just north of National Airport. The entry fee was high, but so was the prize money. The course was exciting, and after the Master 35+ race, we could stay to watch the pros race after lunch.

The fifty-rider field contained most of the usual MABRA heavy-hitter masters: Superdave, Ramon B, etc.  The course was shaped like a backwards "6."  The top of the six went under the overhang of an apartment building, around a 180, a 90 and then down a 600m straight through the finish. 

I spent the beginning of the race groveling. I could ride in the field, fifteen guys back, but I couldn't imagine leaving the safety of the group. The pack dynamic wasn't particularly nervous, although my teammate did knock my bars once. The businesslike dynamic is one of the benefits of masters racing. We all know each other, and we've all raced for years: no surprises.

Little moves went all through the race, but nothing got more than a few seconds. With eight laps to go, coming out of the second turn, I'm trying to move up. I'm on Keith Mitchell's wheel. It's neither a good nor a bad wheel. He's a 50+ rider, riding way down in age today. Despite his slight build, he often pushes a huge gear. He doesn't tend to crash, but sometimes he goes through holes that I don't care to follow him through.

Suddenly, Keith looks to his left at the ground just in front of his bike. His bike starts to slide to the right, as he continues to look at the ground. There was no contact, and even if he had overlapped a wheel, I would have expected him to keep it up. I'm not panicking yet. But he's not straightening it out. The bike continues to the right as he goes to the left. I realize that he's going down. Now I'm panicking. There is no exit right or left--I'm right up on him and I'm full on the brakes. He slams into the ground right in front of me. Still no exit appears, and I'm frantically trying to figure out if I can ride over him and not crash.  Fortunately for me, the coefficient of friction between him and the ground matches the one between my brake pads and my Zipps, and I screech to a halt up against his bike. I unclip to avoid tipping over.

He's lying on the ground, like so many other guys after a crash, but he's not moving. Spectators are running up. What should I do? It's just a crash, I think, like so many other crashes I've watched, both from the sidelines and from saddle. I clip back in and bury it to try to catch back on. Before the next turn I see Keith's teammate Grant
Soma circling around and heading back to the crash site. But I'm already lost in an anaerobic fog trying to close the gap before the straightaway. I fail to complete the mission, and soon I can see the finish line. The group is receding into the distance. I think about giving up, but then I realize that the officials will undoubtedly neutralize the race, so I redouble my efforts.

Sure enough, I catch back on just before the second turn before the crash spot. I realize that the situation is bad. Keith is lying face down on the pavement, in exactly the same position he was in when I almost ran over him. Emergency personnel ring his prostrate body. I try to think the best, "He hit his head on the way down, and he's just unconscious." But as we roll past, a darker thought comes to mind: his crash was the symptom, and not the cause.

At the start/finish the officials neutralize us. Rumors circulate through the peloton. Twenty minutes later, the officials restart us with four laps to go. The quick restart is not a good sign. Serious accidents take much longer to clear, because the EMTs want to stabilize the patient. 

We finish our race. I never made it back to the front and chose to sit up in the sprint.

Keith Mitchell died of a heart attack. Apparently, the EMT's never found a pulse. 

I have raced against Keith for as long as I can remember. He was an enigmatic figure, for whom I had a grudging admiration. He could be a reckless rider, and he was more frequently on the wrong side of the rules than suited me. But we had a friendship of the sort that comes from competition. 

We tried to look at this sad occurrence positively. At some level, don't we all wish we could die doing what we loved? Better to leave this world coming out of the second turn in a $1000 criterium, than to have a massive heart attack sitting on the toilet, or stuck in traffic, or yelling at your kids.  

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