Did bicycle web site contribute to cyclist’s death?

Flint's GPS recording his speed of 49.3 mph on South Park Dr.

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.

Kim Flint

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.”

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  • OTP

    Said Zavestoski, “I would not say that Strava attracts the speed addicts who are really looking for ways to go out an post KOM rankings. 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”.

    You cannot be serious. If anyone goes out of their way to post their cycling stats online, then they are certainly simultaneously competing with their stava-friends and messaging their own fragile egos.

    If you want to be a better cyclist ride with a group, and when someone is out of bounds – call them out.

  • Stephen – NYC

    Unless somebody put a gun to his head and said barrel down the street and don’t watch where you’re going, I am going to say that he raised the odds that something bad would happen. Unfortunately, something bad did.
    I say this as a cross-country bicycle tourist. I rode the Bikecentennial route back in 1976 (Pueblo to Yorktown) and then in 1980 I rode the entire route (Portland, OR to Williamsburg). For a local road that has a speed limit of 30, flying down at over 49mph invites problems. Out on the open road (I’m recalling my ups and downs over the Rockies), sure, 45 or 50 downhill is fun and exhilarating (doing that I just took the right lane and pretty much kept up with traffic).
    Oh, to OTP, I had to read your sentence a couple of times wondering what it means to message one’s ego. Then I realized you meant massage one’s ego. And your suggestion about riding with a group is spot-on.

  • Please spare us the faux ‘outrage’. Had this been a motorist driving at 20 over the speed limit, the crash would have rated a paragraph or less. These d**k measuring contests preceded the internet.

  • tizzielish

    Seems to me that any bicyclists that want to set speed records should do what everyone in society should do: follow the rules.

    It is a great tragedy that Flint died, apparently, chasing a speed record.

    The quote from Zavestoski seems tragic also, for it displays the dissociation that lulls people into drawing meaningless, irrational distinctions to justify their own behavior. Sometimes people get very wrapped up in something that is very meaningful and important to them and they lose sight of. . . the limits.

    I have not yet been to the Strava website. Do they encourage bikers to obey speed limits?

  • Calamari

    May be the Police should use the data contained on the Strava web site to issue speeding tickets to those who break the law.

    Why do people who ride bikes think they do not have to obey the traffic laws? Just look at those people who participate in CRITIAL MASS! Idiots!

  • Paula

    Adults make their own decisions – whether dictated by common sense or folly. Having a tool like a social media app or site doesn’t make reckless people reckless, it just gives them another convenient place to brag about it.

  • ‘Did web site contribute to cyclist’s death?’ is an artful headline. The implication is that a socially networked training log helped lure an otherwise bright, creative human being to his doom. You could just as well raise questions about the man’s bike, his cycling computer, and all the other riders who on occasion like to go fast. I think it’s absurd to propose that any of those factors led to this tragedy, but yes, they all “contributed.” I think it’s important to keep in mind that the outcomes we experience while cycling are the product of a lot of factors–skills, habits, judgment, the tools we use, even emotions. (This holds true for other, seemingly less risky activities, too: As a pedestrian, do you jaywalk? Do you insist on your righht-of-way in a crosswalk without checking out the flow of traffic first?) Assigning blame to one thing or focusing on one factor misses the bigger picture.

  • “Why do people who ride bikes think they do not have to obey the traffic laws?”

    This statement is incorrect. If you restated it as “Why do some people who ride bikes think they do not have to obey the traffic laws?” you would be more accurate.

    But the same could be said of auto drivers and pedestrians.

    Watch the crosswalks in downtown Berkeley. Pedestrians will frequently cross against the light, and right-turning drivers will rarely stop at the crosswalk on a red light before checking to see if it is safe to pass through the crosswalk and pursue their legal “right turn on red.”

    All groups of road/sidewalk users have their scofflaws. There seems to be something in human nature that causes us to notice and remember infractions by members of other groups than to notice and remember those of our own group.

  • EBGuy

    Frances, Thanks for the continued followup on this story. Kudos to Berkeleyside.

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  • Superdave

    Blaming Strava is akin to blaming the road commission that designed the road and the manufacturer of the bike.  You think it took a website and GPS enabled device for people to start thrill-seeking and challenging each other.


  • Pimmoral

    That article is sad in so many ways.  I’m saddened that he died, but also because this article is another example that the expectation of self accountability is disappearing in our society.

  • ANewBike

    Agreed. Though 30 is fast on a bicycle, it’s a manageable speed to slow down from.

  • batard

    My record on South Park is 53 .. so there.

    (and I decided to quit while I was ahead).

  • Anonymouse

    Perhaps these charges could be added to the current USADA charges against Lance too? I think it’s probably at least partially his fault.