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Racing Will Resume Tonight in Encino After New USOC Fund Provides Insurance for Cyclists : Velodrome Back on Track

Times Staff Writer

For a lot of people--at least those who think bicycle racing is for granola-munching, earthy folks--the fact the Encino Velodrome opens its 1986 racing season tonight at 7:30 won’t cause a surge of excitement and whip up a mad rush for tickets.

But for Encino racers and their hearty little pack of followers, opening night has been a long time coming.

In December, two months after the ’85 season ended, cyclists were wondering if there would ever be an ’86. The 25-year-old velodrome was shut down because the U.S. Cycling Federation, which had provided insurance for races and training sessions at the track in past years, had difficulty renewing its liability coverage.

USCF officials said insurance companies were reluctant to insure the federation because of liability risks.

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In January, David Prouty, executive director of the USCF, said: “There are so many suits now. Legal fees have been building up to big numbers. It’s impossible to say what the exact amounts are, but the claims have gone up in recent years. There have been more claims and more exposure.”

The track has had its problems. In September, cyclist Rod Ballard of Brentwood suffered fatal head injuries during a race. Although track director Paul Shecter said the Ballard family has not filed suit, such incidents make potential insurers hesitant.

“People sign a waiver before they enter events, but they are suing anyway,” said Barry Wolfe, a member of the cycling federation. “It’s affecting all amateur sports.

“Two years ago, Barbara Buchan crashed and her medical bills have exceeded $2 million.”

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After Buchan crashed in a road race in the Santa Monica Mountains, she filed suit against several parties, including the USCF, according to Steve Ball, a federation official.

“It’s a ridiculous situation,” said Bob Ross, president of the North Hollywood Wheelmen, a cycling club that races at Encino. “As soon as anyone falls off a bike, they go suing everyone--even the guys who built the road they were riding on.”

Said USCF official Alex Baum: “No one was willing to insure us. At any price. We didn’t mind if it was expensive. But it wasn’t a question of money. It was a matter of getting it at all.”

Prouty and the cycling federation turned to the U.S. Olympic Committee for help.

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The USCF’s insurance policy ran out Jan. 15. But after a series of meetings with National Union, an insurance company in the American International Group that had been providing coverage for the USCF and other national governing bodies, the Olympic Committee negotiated a three-month extension.

The cycling federation wasn’t the only national governing body under the Olympic Committee struggling to gain liability coverage. Therefore, the USOC decided to set up its own insurance fund. But it had to move quickly because the extension expired April 15.

Under the USOC plan, each of the participating governing bodies will pay into a pool which will in turn be used as an insurance reserve. That fund will insure a federation up to $250,000. John Hancock Insurance will then provide a “second layer” of insurance for an additional $750,000 with a limit of $5 million for all the governing bodies combined.

According to George Miller, secretary-general of the U.S. Olympic Committee, 17 governing bodies have expressed an interest in joining “Panol"--the name of the new company.

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“And there are 13 more that have insurance policies that expire during the next six months,” Miller said.

Besides cycling, other Olympic sports involved include boxing, wrestling, track and field, figure skating and soccer.

While Miller admitted that there are financial risks involved, he said the market left the USOC little choice but to self-insure.

“In some cases, we had no alternative. Insurance just wasn’t available. I’d prefer not to have to be in the insurance business, but I’m satisfied because we’ve done the best we can,” he said.

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Said Prouty of the USCF: “At least we know we have coverage. We won’t have to sit and bite our nails worrying.”

But Prouty added that the plan is expensive.

“People think self-insurance will save us money,” he said. “That isn’t necessarily the case. I’ve been told our premium from April to April next year will be $193,000. It was $21,500 last year. The good old days are over. And that number is just general liability. The combined insurance costs will be around $300,000.”

Other problems remain unsolved. The cycling federation’s insurance will cover racing events only. Tracks such as Encino must find additional insurance to remain open for training sessions.

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“We don’t control the training of clubs,” Prouty said. “It’s a loose area. We hope to be able to cover training, but it’s uncertain right now.”

Prouty said the lack of coverage for training, which would limit practice time for racers, could result in less-safe racing.

“There’s the problem that the less-trained racers will be involved in more accidents,” he said.

Although the Encino Velodrome racing season starts today, it remains closed for training. Shecter said insurance has been found that will allow training to begin within two weeks.

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But Ian Whalley, president of the Southern Calif. Cycling Federation, which operates the velodrome, said racers who want to train at Encino still have no coverage.

“We will have a meeting Saturday to decide whether we will pursue training coverage,” he said.

Whalley said the SCCF may hold mid-week races at the track in addition to its Saturday night racing. The mid-week races would act as a training session and be covered under the USCF’s coverage.

“We’d have a training session and then have a race at the end of the night,” said Matt Rayner, a racer and board member of the SCCF.

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Either way, with all the off-the-track hubbub that’s transpired since October, the cyclists are looking forward to racing again--finally.

“It’s been a long off-season,” Rayner said. “We’re anxious to get going. For a while, I thought I was going to have to get a job.”

Instead, he’ll be racing Saturday nights from now until October.


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