L.A. Marathon: Cyclists win a reprieve

L.A. Marathon: Cyclists win a reprieve
Don Ward, second from left, organizer of WolfPack, leads a group of cyclists on a night ride through the streets of Los Angeles in 2012. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

The Marathon Crash Race is officially canceled.

But the "fun ride" is on.


"The city really, really, really, really wanted me to get a permit," said Don Ward, organizer of the bicycling group Wolfpack Hustle and the annual Marathon Crash Race. "So they worked really hard to get a permit – and as of Friday night at 8 p.m. they got me permit."

Ward credited officials from the Los Angeles Police Department, the city attorney’s office and the mayor’s office as key players in helping to obtain a permit to make Sunday's ride a reality. Ward announced the cancelation of the popular predawn race along the Los Angeles Marathon route earlier this week because of a lack of proper permits.

Yusef Robb, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s spokesman, confirmed that the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services had issued the new permit. He declined further comment.

Participants in Sunday's so-called fun ride will still be able to trace the 26.2-mile route, which stretches from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica, but there will be no racing competition this year, Ward said. The city permit allows for riders to go 10 to 15 mph., he said.

Ward said said that with such a quick turnaround there was no time to set up the infrastructure necessary to support  high-speed racing. Such racing would require additional safety measures.

The Marathon Crash Race has been an L.A. Marathon staple since 2009. Cyclists typically gather along Sunset Boulevard in Silverlake, wait for road closures to take effect along the route, and barrel toward the race's finish line in Santa Monica, wrapping up about 6 a.m. As many as 2,000 cyclists have participated in the past.

But Ward, who runs local bicycle group Wolfpack Hustle, said he cancelled this year's crash race after the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services recently sent a cease-and-desist letter that threatened fines and up to a year in county jail if the event were held without proper permits.

Several city agencies -- including the Department of Transportation and chief legislative analyst -- felt a permit was necessary because of public safety concerns, according to a bureau statement.

"To threaten criminal prosecution 5 days prior to the event taking place comes as a shock and disappointment," read the announcement on Wolfpack Hustle's Facebook page. "The city is now demanding permits and payments where it has never done so in the past."

Cyclist Erick Huerta, who has ridden the Marathon Crash race since 2009, said participation has been growing, and it was clear the city had to do something.

"It was a little bit surprising, but it was more kind of expected," Huerta said of the action. "I've been doing the ride for so long that every year you see it get bigger and bigger ... it was about time because the ride was just getting too big for its own good."

The Marathon Crash Race is widely considered the largest unsanctioned bike race in the country and draws cyclists from as far away as China and the United Arab Emirates. Last year, an estimated 2,000 people participated.

Despite lacking a permit, organizers had developed good working relationships with the city and the Los Angeles Police Department, Ward said. Squad cars have in recent years driven the route with flashing lights to separate the cyclists from car traffic.

Even after Ward cancelled this year's event, many cyclists insisted they would still be taking to the streets anyway. Without a central organizer like Ward, the city was faced with potentially many hundreds of riders on the street without the same safety infrastructure as in previous years, he said.

Ward says there are typically over 100 volunteers manning major intersections and motor bikes that run along the front of the pack with the police vehicles.

"The city realized … 'How do we get a permit and get Don back and involved and try to tame this thing?'" Ward said.

Before the announcement of the fun ride permit, Huerta said that plenty of cyclists were still planning unofficially to gather as they have done for five years and ride the marathon route.

Huerta said a contingent of riders on the east side, from Boyle Heights, Highland Park, Lincoln Heights and the San Gabriel Valley, will probably meet up at Mariachi Plaza early Sunday to ride up as a group. In previous years, 20 to 30 people in their east side group alone would have showed up to ride, he said.

The only real difference this year is that "we're going to stick together as a group as opposed to getting lost in the ocean of cyclists – and be very mindful of traffic and police," Huerta said.

The Marathon Crash Race is one of the L.A. events most anticipated by cyclists, along with CicLAvia, the car-free events that close down major roadways for pedestrians and cyclists. Each of those events costs more than $300,000, including salaries for officers who staff the road closures.

Ward said that obtaining permits for the Marathon Crash Race would cost more than $100,000 and obtaining them would be a logistical nightmare because the route crosses through three cities and a section of federal property. He said he has tried to keep entry fees for the race low so teenagers can participate. Supporters say one of the ride's biggest draws is that it encourages teenagers to exercise in the company of older, more experienced cyclists.

Ward said he was calling the revamped event the "Finish the Marathon Crash Ride" in honor of a cyclist named Damian Kevitt, who lost his leg after being dragged in a hit-and-run with a motorist onto the 5 Freeway. Ward said Kevitt, who now has a prosthetic leg, would help lead the 'fun ride' and that he hoped people would heed the advice to "relax and don't race."

"I'm hoping zero people come out tonight … because it's really a huge liability," Ward said. "I don't have the kind of resources in place that I had a week ago when we were right in the middle of planning for it when it got cancelled … so I'm scrambling to get volunteers back on board."