L.A.’s Marathon Crash Race Hits an Obstacle
When organizers of the country's most famous unsanctioned bike race were told to call off the event, riders decided the show must go on.
Since it first ran in March 2010, Los Angeles’ Wolfpack Hustle Marathon Crash Race has grown into one of the most popular unsanctioned, unpermitted, and uninsured cycling events in the country.
At 4 a.m. on the morning of the L.A. Marathon, thousands of riders hammer along the city’s recently-closed streets. Racers from as far away as Japan have ridden the 26 car-free miles along what are usually the most famously gridlocked streets in the world. The event has grown exponentially each year, and in 2013 4,000 cyclists showed up in pursuit of the military-style dog tags awarded to the winners.
But five days before this year’s race, the Bureau of Street Services sent a letter to Don Ward, the head of the Wolfpack Hustle bicycle crew and organizer of the Marathon Crash, warning him that he could face up to a year in jail and potentially tens of thousands of dollars in fines and fees if he didn’t secure the proper permits, the costs of which can run into the six figures.
Ward told city officials that even if the race were officially canceled, people would still show up “and race like they did before we brought organization and police cooperation to it.” Nevertheless, by nightfall Ward blasted out cancellation notices on social media. Outrage quickly took hold within the cycling community; some participants had traveled from out of state for the event, others trained for a year with the dog tags in mind (they lend serious street cred and even more tangible benefits like sponsorship deals for the unknowns who have won in the past). Bike activists in Washington, D.C. even started a #SaveMarathonCrash photo campaign on social media.
“Everyone has known for months that the race was coming up,” The Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote, chastising the city. “And no doubt an arrangement could have been reached that would have allowed it to go forward.”
Of course, with unsanctioned races on the rise, cities (and event organizers) face real logistical and liability issues. Some, such as steep insurance bills and overtime costs for municipal employees who police and maintain public spaces, are obvious. Others aren’t: before it’s cancellation the Marathon Crash race had to move it’s finish line three blocks over—it typically ended on the same ocean-front intersection as the foot race—so that Homeland Security, prompted by the Boston Marathon bombing, wouldn’t have to perform sweeps of the area twice.
At the last minute the Mayor’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department brokered a compromise between Ward, the city’s attorneys, Los Angeles Marathon organizers, the Bureau of Street Services, and Homeland Security, allowing the event to take place as a “fun ride” according to Ward, instead of the usual race.
“Hopefully the official story is that we are working together,” Ward said. “But I feel like I am being pushed into it,” he told me before the race. At the time, he said he hoped only “ten people will show up,” given the last-minute uncertainty swirling around an already unwieldy carnival. An official in the mayor’s office said that the dispute fell on their lap with little warning, days after the city’s Bureau of Street Services sent the letter to Ward—who had never before been ordered to obtain permits for the event.
Strings came with the compromise though: riders were told not to exceed 15 miles-per-hour (they did), and stay behind a police escort (they didn’t, for long). Riding a tandem with his girlfriend, Ward, in an idle monotone, urged riders passing him and the police escort to slow down. But that appeared to be the only consequence. Some took off on quick drag races along the way, and plenty lost their way as a few participants shifted barricades at key intersections.
After the 2013 event, Velo News wrote that previously small and casual unsanctioned “street races have begun expanding into increasingly competitive and prestigious large cycling events. Lycra has replaced cut-off jeans, corporate sponsors are beginning to take notice, and the races have begun attracting some of the most competitive racers in the world—battling it out in the saddle for sometimes little more than a case of beer.”
Adding to that, every year the Crash Race’s growing numbers of participants from the upper echelons of competitive, sanctioned racing are followed by a ballooning, gonzo horde of thousands more cruising on double-decker and tandem cycles, toting flasks of whiskey or Nalgenes full of Patrón.
Although increased police presence at last week’s event and a turnout of only about 1,000 riders meant fewer crashes, after years of exponential growth, some are wondering whether the event will ever be the same.
The Marathon Crash Race’s growing pains mirror the challenges that cycling communities across the country face. The number of cyclists who want to participate in these types of races is increasing faster than cities can adapt the legal changes necessary to accommodate them. It creates an environment like last Sunday night’s. This time, the bikes won, but the chances of anarchy erupting felt much greater with the safety guidelines up in the air, barricades removed, and animosity between officials and cyclists lingering, during an event that had previously gone forward with at least a controlled, somewhat predictable level of chaos.
“Bikes are becoming more popular in cities, which are full of very creative people with skills outside of biking,” says David Trimble, organizer of the Red Hook Criterium, a closed-entry, fixed-gear race that started out un-sanctioned and un-permitted on a cobble-stoned, desolate Brooklyn waterfront area, and now receives major sponsorship deals and full permitting. Trimble explained that the Red Hook Crit lucked out by attracting major sponsors by its fourth year; they could afford to move to a more formal venue just when the New York City Police Department was getting ready to crack down on an event that started as a 26th birthday celebration (with a milk-crate podium and jar of granola for the winner) and quickly attracted thousands of spectators.
“With these kind of events, we’re not just organizing a sporting event, we’re organizing a whole atmosphere around it,” he says. “There’s a much wider range of creative people involved these days who can help promote it and legitimize it.”
This kind of support proved crucial in the Marathon Crash’s survival this year, and that’s why it’s a good bet the event will be back next year. Ward is optimistic he’ll be able to secure permitting and cooperation between the various jurisdictions and the city agencies with stakes in the matter, and the Mayor’s office and LAPD seem committed to making it happen. But can it stay true to its roots, where at no cost, anyone with two wheels and a strong cup of coffee could join in the 4 a.m. ride of a lifetime? Or will the marathon race be a crash no more?
A friend of Ward’s, Trimble added that, “It’s a miracle that it lasted as long as it did.”