Risk vs. Danger

A slice of Tuna Canyon only a mile or so from Las Flores Canyon

Saturday morning on Rapha’s Gentleman’s ride in Santa Monica rider Robert Hyndman died. Robert was descending Las Flores Canyon Road when he crashed. There’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing and Monday-morning quarterbacking about this tragedy and as a result, I’ve decided to weigh in, if for no other reason than my years of experience with those canyon roads.

Let me begin by saying that I consider Slate, Jeremy, Derrick and Gerben at Rapha all friends. Double for Alison and Steven at Bike Effect, the studio at which the ride originated. What I’m about to write is as much for them as it is for anyone who has never ridden the canyon roads of the Santa Monicas.

Of the many mountain ranges around the world graced with roads suitable to cycling, the Santa Monicas are unusual in that no other range of mountains has more magazine editors within 50 miles and had less written about them. I penned the only survey of those mountains I know to have been published by a bike magazine. A few years ago I wrote “Malibu: Heaven has mountains” for Road Bike Action. And yes, I declared that the Santa Monicas were my idea of heaven. I also declared that riding the canyon roads above Malibu is far more challenging than riding in the Alps or even the Pyrenees. I believe if you can descend those canyons, you can ride anywhere, even the roads of the Chartreuse and Vercors, which are themselves more difficult than the actual Alps.

Every year the event promoter Planet Ultra puts on a ride called the Mulholland Challenge. At roughly 110 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing it is one of the hardest rides I’ve ever completed. Say what you want about La Marmotte or The Tour of the California Alps (Death Ride), hitting a kilometer-long pitch of 17 percent at the base of a 7km climb once you’ve got 75 miles in your legs can humble almost anyone. Each year more than 700 riders enter the Mulholland Challenge. The event (it sits somewhere between a gran fondo and a century) has had its share of crashes, particularly on the descent of Deer Creek Road, but no one has ever died.

My sense of empathy suggests that Steven, Alison, Slate and co. may feel some guilt over Robert’s death. It’s hard to have a heart and not feel some burden of responsibility. However, the Gentleman’s Ride was not a bad route. It was not a dangerous route, though it contained some risk.

If we conclude that the day’s route was dangerous, the logical outcome of that is all future Rapha rides in Los Angeles will head north on Pacific Coast Highway and then turn around at some pre-arranged spot for the trip south. Believe me, it can be good riding, but it’s not the same as being in the canyons.

Entering a turn on Tuna not unlike the one on Las Flores at the center of the controversy.

To be a cyclist is to live the balance between risk and danger. I define danger as something likely to end in a bad outcome. Mount Washington averages 12 percent; as a result, no one is allowed to descend it. Were you to try, the odds are that you’d crash from too much speed or blow a tire off the rim from too much braking; there’s no real room for a middle ground on that road. Risk, on the other hand, is what we face every time we go out for a ride. There’s always a chance that we could be hit by a car, wash out in a corner or encounter some other bad event. The difference is that with reasonable care we can avoid a rotten outcome most of the time.

Think of every road you’ve heard a cyclist has died on. It would be ridiculous to conclude that in each instance in which a rider encountered a mishap—nothing involving a car—that the road was too dangerous to ride on. It’s true that Las Flores is a challenging descent. It’s also true that Robert had considerable skill; the point at which he crashed he could not have reached without having previously exercised both skill and judgment. Corollary: Last year’s Gentleman’s Ride descended Tuna Canyon, easily the most difficult descent in the Santa Monicas, the most difficult descent I’ve ever encountered, the only paved descent that has ever scared me. We got down that without an inch of lost skin last year.

In criticizing the course of the Rapha Gentleman’s Ride as too difficult, as dangerous, two injustices are committed. First, we dishonor the memory of a strong and skilled cyclist. Accidents happen. I can’t say exactly what took place that day as I wasn’t there, but I’ve dropped down that road dozens of times and I can attest that there were days when I couldn’t have gone wrong and other days when I just didn’t have it and wished I was taking another route down.

The second injustice is the denigration of a spectacular land formation. If I were to define my idea of heaven with the terrain of one spot on earth, there’s no doubt that I’d choose Malibu. The views from atop its vistas rival anything I’ve seen. Better yet, I can ride there year-round. I’d hate to think that people would avoid the roads above Malibu because of one cyclist’s misfortune.

What I’ve learned of Robert’s family and friends is that they are taking solace knowing that he was engaged in the world, riding with family and friends that day, that he died doing one of his favorite things in the world. Though I never met him, the simple fact that he drove up from Orange County to do a Rapha Gentleman’s Ride means he was on the lookout for new adventures. This guy was certainly one of my peeps.

For each of us there came a point when cycling ceased to be just a way to have fun and became an expression of challenge, a way to embrace new difficulties and to elevate both skill and fitness.

A good friend of mine wrote that while people have lionized Robert for dying while doing what he loved, he thought dying on his bike was “a shit way to die.” I can’t disagree. I’m sure his parents ache for not having a chance to say goodbye. When I go, I don’t want to be on my bike; I want to be surrounded by my family. Ultimately, I think what resonates with people is that in dying while doing what he loved, his death illustrates that he tried to live his life on his terms, that he wasn’t some couch potato. The danger is that romanticizing this accident is no better than letting a fear of that road prevent us from riding it.

I’ve made mistakes before and crashed. I’ll make mistakes again. The last thing in the world I’d want my error to do is cause people to avoid exciting roads. I can’t speak for Robert or his family, but the example of his life suggests that he would endorse getting on with the business of living by putting ourselves out there and we achieve that electric thrill no one will ever get from the TV.

The greatest service we can do our fellow riders is to remember them accurately, to ride with the care that will keep us out there, to remain clear on the difference between danger and risk, and to keep that sense of adventure alive.

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  1. Pete

    I’ve loved all of your posts, but this one was really something else. I think you did a great job with this post, and you’re right, it would suck to die on your bike. But this has also inspired me to do what I love to do while I still can. So thank you, Padraig.

  2. LD

    kiss your wife one more time, hug your children until they’re embarrassed, call your parents more often, smile at a stranger, drop an extra quarter in the cup, go outside, close your eyes, feel the sun on your skin and take a deep breath, inhale the sky and listen.

  3. Pingback: Risk vs. Danger : Red Kite Prayer « turnings :: daniel berlinger

  4. dave

    FWIW, I would never take a riding buddy down Las Flores for their first time without giving them a very serious warning beforehand. I am a good descender but take it very easy down that road.

    1. Author

      Dave: Last year, when we were at the intersection of Stunt and Saddle Peak, there was an announcement to everyone present that we were about to go down a very technical descent. I don’t recall the exact words used, but the need to exercise some caution was communicated to riders. I reiterate that I believe Robert possessed considerable skill, more than some give him credit for as he was following other riders on the descent. Most of us, when presented with a good wheel to follow, can negotiate a descent at speed greater than we’d attempt were we alone. He’d gotten around a number of very tough turns, including the two tight right-hand switchbacks earlier on the descent.

  5. Pingback: Who killed Robert Hyndman? We did. « Cycling in the South Bay

  6. Chromatic Dramatic

    Death, especially in circumstances like this is always tragic, and I can’t help but feel sorry for his friends and family.

    Having lost my Father while he was doing something he loved, you do take some solace from it, but that sudden, unexpected death unfortunately finds you ill prepared, and if you’re like me many many many years later still dealing with its consequences.

    But having seen friends who have gone through the slow death of their parents (typically cancer) and how painful that is for the sufferer…

    So give me a long and healthy life, but one that if I’m taken off this world before my time should be up, I can say I lived it to the maximum.


  7. Chris

    When I got to the bottom of Las Flores that afternoon, very very slowly, the first thing I did was call my wife. In my emotional state, even before we knew the Robert would not make it, I promised her that I’d never ride Las Flores again.

    There was nothing extraordinary about that descent that morning. Nothing wrong with the road, or the choice to include that road in the route. We all know that any number of alternatives existed (in fact, some groups formed to ride them instead of continuing on with the main group) and we all know any of those other descents could’ve yielded the same result.

    Despite not being a cyclist herself, my wife understands the risks of what I do. Deep down, she also gets that by not riding on one particular road I’m not any safer. However, logic would dictate that because a man died there, that is the most dangerous road. Therefore, if I’m riding it, I’m in more danger. So, if choosing a different route eases her worry even one bit while I’m out of touch on a ride, then I plan to keep that promise.

    I’ll just have to get really good at Tuna.

    1. Author

      Chris: Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I’m sorry that you had to be a witness to such a tragedy. However, I can’t agree that logic dictates that a road a rider died on is the most dangerous road. That just doesn’t follow. By any objective measure Tuna Canyon is a more treacherous descent, though to an inexperienced rider, the difference between the two is probably negligible. I could see how you might swear off all the south-facing descents except, perhaps, Encinal. But to determine that Las Flores is the most dangerous road as a result of a death doesn’t add up. What of the other roads people have died on? Especially the flat ones. How do you calculate their relative level of danger?

      The pingback above to the post “Who Killed Robert Hyndman” was written by a friend of mine who disagrees with the conclusions I draw. While I stand by what I wrote, he has a point that we, as a community, failed Robert by not offering him greater guidance.

  8. Chris

    I’m sorry Padraig, that was poorly worded on my part. For my point, let’s put the word logic in quotes, so that would then read that “logic” would dictate. It isn’t logical, but rather emotion disguised in “logic.”

  9. jorgensen

    My old club has lost an unfortunate number of riders along PCH.
    In its current state between Santa Monica and Malibu, I would not ride it. Quick and dirty landslide repair has rendered the shoulder useless in too many places. Traffic over the decades has increased. It was one of my favorite ways to access the canyons. I would not have feared this route, but would have feared the guy next to me. Elitist? I guess so. The behavior I see on larger club rides leads me to think that interest in or capability of learning or teaching good bike skills is not happening right now.

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  11. Les Borean

    I’m tuning in to this sad article a year and a half after the fact.

    Any experienced cyclist knows the risk. We choose to ride anyway, each for his/her own reasons. We have close calls and occasionally, wipe-outs to remind us of the risk. And we keep riding.

    Doing a web search, I see that there have been no Rapha Gentlamen’s rides in Santa Monica since then. I hope it’s not because of Mr. Hindman’s unfortunate crash — that would not be a good epitaph for a cyclist.

    Yet I understand how people can be fraught with guilt. But it’s the RIDE.

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