The recent death of a cyclist who was racing to regain an online speed record has sparked a debate about whether computer social networks may inadvertently encourage cyclists to take risks.
Kim Flint, 40, of Oakland, was killed June 19 when he hit a car while racing down South Park Drive in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. Flint had briefly held a “KOM” or “King of the Mountain” designation for this steep stretch of road and was trying to get it back, according to those who knew him.
While some cyclists say Flint’s death was just an accident that could happen to anyone, others believe his involvement with an online social network called Strava was a major cause. Strava, a Palo Alto company founded in April 2009, lets bicyclists upload ride data gathered from GPS units onto a central website. Riders can then see how far they traveled, how high they climbed, and how fast they went. They can also look at the times of other bikers so to “compare and compete with friends and rivals,” according to the company’s website.
“Strava should not, even inadvertently, enable this kind of downhill dive bombing for time on open roads,” said Patrick Gordis, who had gone on three lengthy rides with Flint in the past month. “It fosters a type of reckless brinkmanship.”
Flint held several KOM titles for fast descents, including one he won on June 6 for riding down South Park Drive. He rode down in two minutes and 7 seconds, and reached a speed of 49.3 miles per hour. The speed limit on South Park Drive is 30 miles per hour.
“49.3 mph, on a bike. How I find religion on Sunday morning,” Flint wrote on Twitter on June 6.
On June 15th, another rider bested Flint’s speed by 4 seconds, prompting him to ride that stretch of road again four days later.
“It seems nearly certain he was going down that hill to regain the record he had recently lost,” said Gordis.
Flint was determined to win as many KOMs as he could, according to Matthew McHugh of Oakland, another of Flint’s biking companions. McHugh wrote to Strava after Flint’s death to urge them to eliminate the speed competitions. “He talked a lot about Strava,” McHugh wrote to the company. “He loved competing with himself and others via Strava. He was pursuing descent KOM’s because the climbs had gotten too “hot.””
Police from the East Bay Regional Park District, did not know about Strava before Flint’s death. They are contacting the company to tell them of their concern that virtual racing might contribute to increased recklessness in the East Bay hills, according to Lt. Dave Dubowy.
Strava declined to comment. On June 30, Strava used the company blog to announce changes to its downhill KOM records. Members can now flag a ride segment as “hazardous,” which will automatically prompt Strava to remove all comparison ratings on that ride.
“Today we are releasing measures that we hope will continue to help our users remember that safety should always be their first priority whenever they are on the road or trail,” Michael Horvath, one of Strava’s co-founders, posted on the blog.
Strava has already marked South Hill Drive, the road Flint died on, as hazardous and removed all speed statistics for it. However, statistics remain for other segments on which Flint held a KOM ranking.
Gordis would prefer that Strava completely eliminate virtual competitions for any steep descent, but thinks this change is a positive step.
“Self-policing of this kind may have a limited effectiveness, but it does seem to provide some type of mechanism for Strava itself or some Strava users to establish some sort of “outer limit,” he said.
Another concern for some Strava critics is the on-line, semi-anonymous nature of the website. It means cyclists of wildly differing abilities are competing, and that can lead less experienced cyclists to take risks.
“They are doing it to set bragging rights on-line,” said Alfonso Estrada of Oakland. “They are chasing this record and are doing it imprudently.”
Despite Flint’s accident, members of Strava praise the site for creating a sense of community among the Bay Area’s thousands of cyclists.
“It’s kind of an interesting way to connect with other cyclists and to have a little bit of a competitive thing going on with others on routes and rides around the Bay Area,” said Jack Backus of Oakland, who also held the South Park KOM title for awhile.
Steve Zavestoski of El Cerrito contacted Flint after noticing they had similar times and rides Strava. Zavestoski, Gordis, and McHugh went out on a number of rides with Flint before his death. He is not certain how large a role Strava may have played in Flint’s accident.
“I would not say that Strava attracts the speed addicts who are really looking for ways to go out an post KOM rankings,” said Zavestoski. “Strava attracts people who want to be better at cycling, better on the climbs, better on the distance. It just so happens you can’t go up a hill without going down a hill.”