Little Red Riding Hood, along with being a little girl who gets herself into big trouble, is the name of a 100-mile all-female cycling event that wends through Utah’s Cache Valley each June. This year, two Las Vegas riding mates and I joined forces with a Salt Lake City crew and formed a pace lane, riding single file down narrow lanes, keeping close together and switching leaders at regular intervals. We were all old hands at this sort of thing, but we decided to let some young, inexperienced riders join us. It turned out to be a bad idea. As I led the line of 15 cyclists through a small farming town at 20 mph, one of the newcomers got spooked, ran into the woman in front of her, and set off a chain reaction. One rider’s bike was totaled, and she wound up with a concussion. From that day, my friends and I decided that we’d keep our pace lines to ourselves.
This commitment, though, was soon called into question when I considered whether to register for Las Vegas’ biggest cycling event—the Regional Transportation Commission’s Viva Bike Vegas on Sept. 22. Viva has suffered from the same safety issues that led to our group wipeout in Utah. With 2,500 riders of all levels, the anxious question remains: What happens when serious riders collide (perhaps literally) with recreational ones? The good news is, Viva organizers are aware of the problem and taking steps to solve it.
Last year, Viva began pre-dawn, inviting a couple thousand people on two wheels to flood the northbound lanes of the Strip from Town Square to downtown. My group and I saw people on mountain bikes and cruisers, a few families with kids, and even two ladies on foot-propelled scooters. A handful of people nearly ran into me, and I eventually gave up the standard practice of calling out “On your left!” because nobody could move anyway. Forget hand signals; you could’ve put someone’s eye out. Once we turned west on Bonneville Avenue and headed out Alta Drive on the downtown-to-Red Rock route, the cluster thinned out. But the start was a little sketchy.
Both the challenge and the charm of Viva Bike Vegas reflect RTC’s campaign to spread the gospel of cycling to every Las Vegan, regardless of age or ability. This general determination manifests at Viva Bike Vegas specifically as multiple rides folded into one event. This year you can go a leisurely 17 miles—pretty much just up and down the Strip—or a sportier 122 that encompass Red Rock and Hoover Dam in a huge, hilly circle.
This challenging scenic route attracts scores of regular riders—from those, like me, who log 50 to 100 miles a week, to competitive racers who quadruple that. The serious rider quotient may increase this year, because Viva is a month earlier and coincides with Interbike, the retail bicycle industry’s biggest annual trade show. Interbike closes Sept. 21, the day before Viva, which is advertised on the show’s website. Although Angela Torres, spokeswoman for RTC, says the organizers are not actively promoting this year’s ride through Interbike, they did persuade five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain and a couple of teammates of 2012 Tour champ Bradley Wiggins to participate, and the ride has sponsors who are also involved in the show.
The likelihood of Interbike attendees flooding Viva notwithstanding, ride organizers have made tweaks geared toward buffering the pro/novice overlap zone. The most important is staggered start times. RTC transit mobility supervisor Joe Shampoe, himself a competitive cyclist, says participants will be grouped by the distances they’re riding and their skill level. They’ll go out in waves of 300 to 350, fastest and farthest-traveling first, with a 5:30 a.m. kickoff VIP heat featuring the celeb cyclists. The most leisurely riders will have the latest start.
It’s a change that local cycling safety instructor Jack Glaze welcomes. Having covered, he estimates, 100,000 miles on a bike, including rides with as many as 7,000 people, Glaze sees no reasonable alternative other than staggered start times for this kind of ride. Ideally, it would also have a closed course, he says, but when that’s impractical, you have to rely on traffic cops, well-marked routes and abundant volunteers at critical junctures—all of which Viva has. Organizers have also increased the closed portion of the route to 20 miles this year.
A new safety issue, due to the earlier, hotter date, will be thirst. RTC has increased the number of support-and-gear vehicles and rest stops where water is available, and says it will publicize warnings about dehydration in its race materials and on race day.
Shampoe says RTC and its ride producer, Vector Media, are doing everything they can to ensure rider safety, but he notes that it’s also the responsibility of the cyclists and motorists to be smart on the road. And that’s the biggest problem. “It’s the riders,” Glaze says. “You can’t teach the riders, I don’t care what you do. When [organizers] accept a registration form, they don’t know who they’re accepting it from.”
Katharine Nohr agrees. As the Hawaii-based attorney, who does triathlons and consults with event organizers on risk management, ticks off the stupid things people do that can potentially harm others, I see a slideshow in my mind of idiots I’ve met on the road: people with the wrong equipment, or equipment they use improperly; people who don’t know how to take a drink and ride in a straight line, or how to put their bottle back in its holder while moving; people who pass on the wrong side, or don’t let you know they’re coming; who don’t know how or when to shift gears; who don’t signal or point out obstructions; who generally “ride squirrelly,” as Nohr puts it. Add this to the myriad environmental hazards, from the dark to the heat, and it can make a girl think she’s crazy for getting on a bike at all, let alone on the Las Vegas Strip.
Nohr says one way to mitigate the risk of participant ignorance is pre-event orientation. For instance, before picking up packets with their numbers, maps and other materials, this year’s Viva riders have to sit in on a 10-minute talk going over the route and risks.
According to Nohr’s broad risk-assessment criteria, Viva organizers seem to have made the right moves. They take most of the recommended precautions—from event insurance to warnings in rider materials—and use most of the standard procedures, such as requiring helmets and providing plenty of free water. (Unlike the organizers of last year’s Zappos.com Rock and Roll Las Vegas Marathon and Half Marathon, they will not be distributing water from garbage cans.)
Still, there will be some intermingling of speed demons and rookies. Some beginners won’t understand the staggered start system; some pros will sleep in after tying one on at Mandalay Bay. Shampoe says riders will self-select the levels that determine which wave they go into. Thus, human arrogance and error enter the system.
This is where personally assumed risk comes into play. In addition to counting on organizers to promote safety, Nohr says riders can take steps to make the day less treacherous. She says she and her friends sometimes register for rides, then meet somewhere other than the official starting line. They link up with the ride at a point where the cluster is thinned out and they can enjoy themselves more.
And it’s not just debutants that cause trouble. If they’re going to participate in a ride like Viva, serious cyclists also have to make some concessions. Hearing weekend warriors complain about being surrounded by novices makes me feel a little like I used to when guys on $5,000 bikes would pass me rollerblading on the paved path at Venice Beach and yell at me to get out of the way. Really, dude? If you were a serious cyclist, you wouldn’t be here; you’d be climbing the hills up Topanga Canyon.
Nobody wants to be that guy any more than he wants to be the one who caused the pileup. Cycling is supposed to be fun, whether it’s competitive or not.
“Any ride you go into, you have a huge mix,” Shampoe says. “Here, we have professional racers, and then people who just got on a bike yesterday. We encourage people to sign up for what they can do. This is a community event to promote safe cycling.”
And, he adds, there’s never been a serious accident or injury at Viva Bike Vegas.
May that continue in 2012.