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Pre-marathon bike race poses public safety threat, LAPD says

Los Angeles police say the city ramped up restrictions on a popular nighttime bicycle race along the Los Angeles Marathon route because it posed a danger to public safety. 

Since 2009, hundreds of cyclists have gathered in the dark along Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, waiting for road closures to begin along the marathon route, which stretches from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica.

Organizer Don Ward canceled this year's Marathon Crash Race, scheduled for Sunday morning, after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the city of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services. The letter threatened fines and up to a year in county jail if the event was held without proper permits. Ward said he requested an expedited permit and was denied. 

"The bottom line is we are trying to keep people safe,” Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Bill Scott said. "When you have an event with a lot of people and it's not permitted, there is a lot more problems.

"Nobody wants someone to get hurt," he said. 

Even with street closures, bike races can be dangerous. But Scott said in this case, cyclists often hit the streets before the roads are fully closed, sometimes running traffic lights and stop signs, he said.

Because organizers did not obtain a permit, Scott said it is difficult for the LAPD to plan ahead and determine how to deploy officers.

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.

Some cyclists have said they plan to bike the marathon route anyway. 

Scott declined to say how LAPD might handle that scenario, but said cyclists could face citations. 

"We are trying to keep people safe. Sometimes that involves enforcement,” he said.

The Marathon Crash Race isn't strictly legal. But in past years, Ward's local bicycle group Wolfpack Hustle has worked to build support inside City Hall and with the Los Angeles Police Department. For the past three years, squad cars have cruised alongside cyclists, lights flashing, to separate bicycle and car traffic. Ward had also arranged for event insurance to cover up to $10,000 of medical expenses for uninsured cyclists. They have never been required to obtain a permit, Ward said. 

"I’m not sure why everything fell apart the way it did," Ward said in an interview. "I guess the city just decided this year to bring the hammer down."

The Bureau of Street Services emphasized that the event was not canceled by the city. Several agencies -- including the city attorney, Los Angeles Police Department, Department of Transportation and Chief Legislative Analyst -- felt a permit was necessary due to public safety concerns, according to the statement.

Ward said 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 and more experienced cyclists.

"It’s just not meant for weekend warrior roadies," Ward said. "It’s meant for youngsters who are not necessarily the most privileged people.”

The Marathon Crash Race has always attracted strong riders from outside California, and 26-year-old Scott Piercefield, who lives in Denver, was planning to come to L.A. again this year with a group from his cycling team.

"It's definitely a huge bummer, especially seeing the progression of how far this race has come," Piercefield said. "I think it was going to happen sooner or later, that it was going to get too big that they wouldn't be able to have the city respect" it.

"The city doesn't want responsibility for it and that's what it comes down to, they don't want any risk involved," he said, adding that he believes any criticism of the Marathon Crash Race organizers is unwarranted, because he says they have been trying diligently to legitimize the race and make the event happen.

"He's trying to create a deeper evolution of what the bicycle scene is in Los Angeles," Piercefield said of Ward.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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