Barely controlled chaos: The life and death of the Wolfpack Marathon Crash Race

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The Wolfpack Marathon Crash Race didn’t live a long life, but it might have been the most captivating competitive event — the most inclusive and deliciously bat-shit crazy bike race — in the history of the sport.

Imagine rolling up to a 24-hour donut shop on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles at 3:30 on a Sunday morning and seeing thousands of cyclists gathered to throw down. Some of the characters massed there in the darkness, outside Tang’s Donuts, look like the usual suspects at a bike race — squads of roadies with carbon wheels and glistening legs and perfectly matching kit — but they are not in the majority. That’s because the crowd is packed with fixie kids, some in skinny jeans and some in spandex, straddling Cinellis and Fujis, and with young guns from Compton sitting on Frankenstein fixies, exclamations of purpose-built randomness. There are women on bikes everywhere. As are suburban teens from the San Fernando Valley and Orange County, with their CAADs and Giants, and the Latino kids from Pico-Union on simple steel bikes with deep section wheels. Also present: folks with unicycles, beach cruisers, recumbents, tandems, BMX rigs, hybrids with bar ends, tall bikes, and more than a few vintage Bianchis. Basically every bike riding culture in the city of Los Angeles is there.

A bike race is about to begin, but no one has paid a cent or signed a waiver. No one needs a racing license, or a jersey with sleeves. The only requirement to be here is a desire to be part of something kind of crazy.

Right before 4am a really tall guy with a megaphone shouts some instructions to the thousands of cyclists present. Riders amassed in the back have no idea what he’s shouting but it doesn’t really matter — all you really have to do is hit the gas and try not to hurt yourself.

And then there’s that familiar sound of people clicking in, followed by lots of unfamiliar sights and sounds. The course first heads east and loops into downtown Los Angeles, with some technical turns and cobblestone stretches, and then climbs back toward Echo Park. It’s like a crit —  fast and technical and shoulder-to-shoulder— but it’s dark out and you’re riding on massively wide streets that are almost always clogged with cars. Before long, you’re on the course of a big-city marathon, with most intersections barricaded, flying down the most famous boulevards in one of the world’s great cities.

You rocket down Hollywood Boulevard — past Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Dolby Theatre, home of the Oscars — and in what seems like five minutes, you’re cruising down the Sunset Strip. You take a hard left at some point and look up to see you’re on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, going 30 miles per hour past Gucci and Hermes and Harry Winston. And then the pack spills out onto Santa Monica Boulevard, filling all six lanes with people on bikes.

It’s like a regular bike race, expect that it’s nothing like a regular bike race. The course is bathed in shadows and street lights and neon and the flashers of a cop car up ahead. Road racers and fixed-gear racers dive into high-speed corners on different lines, and the air is redolent with the smell of burning rubber as fixies skid and slide through the fast turns. Everyone is racing in the dark and the broad streets are littered with road furniture and the marathon course is surprisingly full of people setting up drink stations and unloading porta potties. There are crashes every few minutes — you see people catapulting onto sidewalks and you hear the sound of carbon fiber fracturing.

The leaders rip down Santa Monica Blvd during the 2013 Wolfpack Hustle Marathon Crash Race.

By the time the race hits the climb up San Vicente Boulevard, passing the mansions of Brentwood, only the strongest and bravest riders are still there in the lead pack. Most everyone else is still racing; they’re in some group battling it out, pushing hard to reach the ocean before the sun comes up. And behind them is a parade of sorts, people celebrating, or maybe trying to ride 25 miles for the first time.

With maybe 1200 meters to go, the course arcs left onto Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. The sun won’t rise for 15 minutes, but you can glance out at the Pacific shimmering in the early light if you’re not out of the saddle for the sprint. There will be four winners — for men and women on geared and fixed-gear bikes — and each of those riders will get a coveted dog tag draped around their neck as the sky turns pink and thousands of riders stream into the finish area. Spandex racers and fixie demons and a crowd of bike people representing every conceivable demo in America’s most diverse big city hug and high-five and otherwise commune after a cannonball run through the dark.

That was the Crash Race. It was insane and so good and exactly what bike racing needed. It seemed destined to blow up — to first explode in popularity and then explode from popularity.

And that’s exactly what happened.

“The idea was radical inclusion”

That tall guy with the megaphone — that’s Don Ward. The second tallest cyclist I’ve ever seen (former NBA star Bill Walton has a few inches on him), Ward has played a large role in the evolution of the urban riding scene in Los Angeles.

Ward was one of eight founders of a group called Midnight Ridazz, which emerged in 2004 and helped define a certain type of riding culture in Los Angeles — something social and inclusive and intensely urban, a socially conscious party on wheels. Initially there was a mellow monthly ride, but it grew into a larger scene. All the founders had nicknames. Ward became Roadblock, honoring his ability to control intersections during big rides.

A year later, Ward started a group within the Ridazz called the Wolfpack Hustle. Fixies suddenly were everywhere, and Ward knew a bunch of people who wanted to ride hard around the city. That’s what the Wolfpack was all about. All kind of bikes, and all sorts of people, were welcome. “The Wolfpack Hustle was deliberately designed not to be elite,” Ward says, mentioning that the Monday night ride was just a group text before he started listing it on the Ridazz’ web site. All rides began at Tang’s; fittingly the Madonna del Ghisallo of LA bike racing was a Cambodian donut shop.

“The idea was radical inclusion, no judgment, just a bunch of bike nerds from all different backgrounds who had the ability and desire to pedal fast,” Ward explained.

From the start, the hard ride was diverse like LA. “There’d be kids showing up with beat-up fixies coming out of South Central and Pico Union that were real shy but they were just on the same level as anybody else,” Ward recalls. “This is LA — the LA I grew up in. We are just a mishmash of so many cultures here. And that’s what the bike scene here is made of.”

Soon Ward, who has a background in marketing and graphic design, started dreaming up and promoting a new breed of racing events. He staged drag races in downtown LA’s iconic 2nd Street Tunnel (seen in Kill Bill, the original Blade Runner, and hundreds of car commercials). One time, when LA was going bananas over the temporary closure of the 405 Freeway — locals dubbed it the Carmageddon — Ward organized a squad to challenge JetBlue to a race from Burbank to Long Beach. The cyclists beat the airline.

Racer Kapri Gonzales at the 2012 Crash Race.

One of Ward’s concoctions was this event called the All City Team Race. It was a simple concept that led to some pretty chaotic riding. Teams of five riders were tasked to ride together from Tang’s to Dockweiler State Beach, an 18-to-20-mile journey through the dense tangle of Los Angeles. The only rules were that each squad had to have at least one fixed-gear rider and that teams had to cross the finish line together—creative route-finding and aggressive riding were key to winning.

“I was designing stuff and hyping it out and all of a sudden we had 200 young people racing hard across LA.,” recalls Ward. “That’s when it hit me — this is dangerous. And I made a conscious decision to end that race before anyone got hurt.”

Ward needed a new idea for a bike race, something safer but still crazy, something that would be bigger than anything he’d ever done before. Ward needed an idea, and boy did he find one.

Change was coming to the LA Marathon. Inspired by the triumph of the marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics, Los Angeles has hosted a big marathon in the late winter since 1986. For 25 years, the event was held on a loop course, originally around the LA Coliseum and later through downtown Los Angeles. In those days, a mass-participation cycling event, known as the Acura LA Bike Tour, opened the course at 5am to thousands of cyclists in a cyclovia-like event.

But in 2010, a few years after the marathon had been purchased by a large race promotion company, a decision was made to transform the nature of the LA Marathon. Like classic marathon courses in Boston and New York, organizers created a point-to-point route—this one would dispatch runners from Dodger Stadium, down many of the most iconic boulevards in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, before ending along the ocean in Santa Monica. Given the sprawling nature of the “Stadium to Sea” course, officials decided to eliminate the cycling component of the race weekend.

That decision opened the door for Don Ward. And he barreled through it.

“Street racing is like punk rock on bicycles”

The alarm went off around 3am and John Gabriel wasn’t sure if he wanted to get out of bed. It was very early on March 21, 2010, and Gabriel was in the middle of a stage race. The previous day, he’d done a time trial and a road circuit at the San Dimas Stage Race, and he had a crit to ride later that afternoon. To put it simply, he was tired.

“I had a real day job, so doing four races in a weekend seemed like a bit much,” he says. “But I knew the Crash Race was going to be exciting, so I rallied. I think you could say I was a little obsessed with the lifestyle at the time.”

Gabriel was a guy who rode in two different worlds. He was a Cat. 1 competitor with a white-collar job and a $10,000 road bike, and he was a street racer who liked to rip around Los Angeles after midnight. For several years, he’d been riding with the Wolfpack Hustle, going hard on Monday nights. The previous year he’d been on the five-person squad that won the All-City Race; he already had a set of dog tags.

Most of the regulars got nicknames. People called him John the Roadie. He liked the thrill of unsanctioned nighttime racing, but that wasn’t his favorite thing about the Wolfpack rides.

“The mix of people was so enjoyable,” he says. “We had this ideal community where ethnicity, socioeconomic level, and education level didn’t matter — we had people from lower income neighborhoods on bikes that cost very little hanging out with people who were state champions, or attorneys, by day. Obviously, there’s all sorts of segregation and racism in Los Angeles, but it was like on those nights when we rode together we got to pretend like this is what it’s like when everyone comes together and there are no problems in the world.”

John Gabriel (left), three-time Crash Race winner.

He dragged himself out to the start line near Tang’s and was among the roughly 400-person field. Gabriel’s morning didn’t exactly start as planned. “Maybe 30 seconds into the race, I got pinched in and crashed into one of those temporary pylon barriers,” he recalls. “So the race isn’t a minute old and I’m lying on the ground next to my Tarmac and just thinking, ‘This sucks.'”

But it was four in the morning and he didn’t wake up to sulk on Santa Monica Boulevard. “I jumped back up and pedaled my ass off and eventually got up to the lead group,” he says. Gabriel is an attacking sort of rider, not the kind who likes to sit in, but he’d burned a lot of matches just to chase back on. “I just tried to hang on, hoping that no one would attack me.”

It worked out. Almost exactly an hour after he’d picked himself off the pavement, Gabriel launched an attack as the lead group hit Ocean Avenue. The road was shrouded in fog and the sky was still dark. He got enough of a gap that he could coast across the line with his arms aloft.

Gabriel and other riders who came out a year later didn’t get ideal racing weather. “The second year it was raining, and I didn’t think anyone was going to show up,” recalls Ward, noting that the field more than doubled in size nonetheless, with some of the dog tags going to out-of-state competitors. “I was pretty shocked.”

Gabriel was a repeat winner in the men’s geared division in 2011, giving him a third set of dog tags. Work took him out of LA after that.

The 2011 event was captured in a striking video and edited by filmmaker Warren Kommers. That video helped expose the raw energy of the event to cyclists around the world. People watched the videos on Vimeo and suddenly the Crash Race was on their bucket list.

But now, seven years after his second victory was immortalized in a stylish video with a hard-driving soundtrack, Gabriel is more interested to talk about the energy at the start line than the triumph at the finish line.

“I’ve had a multitude of racing experiences but I have to say that my two Crash Races were by far the most beautiful and interesting racing experiences I have ever had,” he says. “If you go to the start of a sanctioned race, there’s this nervous energy there, like you’re at work or something  —it’s so serious. Everybody is looking at each other, but it’s not a happy thing. But at the start line of the Crash Race, it felt like a rock concert, some really cool rock concert. The intensity of the racing was just as intense as a Cat 1 race, but there was this undeniable energetic party element, too.”

Gabriel misses that crazy energy. “With regular bike racing, there are so many rules; it’s all very prim and proper,” he says. “I know they’re trying to reinvent the whole thing these days and make it edgy, but the reality is that bike racing is kind of an old-school traditional sort of sport. There are rules and gentleman agreements and these sorts of things.”

Talking about the Crash Race has made its first winner nostalgic. “Street racing is like punk rock on bicycles,” he says. “I wear a suit to work and I’m what people perceive as a conservative guy, but that’s only on the outside. Deep down I’m a rebellious teenager.”

“It was dark and dirty and dangerous”

The second year that John the Roadie won the Crash Race, Robbie Miranda finished a few seconds behind, in fifth. That name might ring a bell for many readers; a decade earlier, Miranda was a dominant BMX rider, winning an X Games title in the era before the discipline had Olympic credentials.

Miranda came to road biking fairly late. “I was never into road bikes, Honestly, I thought it was for guys wearing spandex,” he says before explaining how he got into street racing. “A couple of my friends said let’s go do this thing —  it’s raw and it’s crazy and it’s in the middle of night in LA.”

So one night, years before the Crash Race existed, Miranda drove up to LA from his home in Orange County, and rode with the Wolfpack Hustle. “I went up there and I got my butt kicked,” he laughs. “I was with these kids on all types of bikes, good bikes and bad bikes, and we went from Tang’s all the way down to San Pedro, 20 miles straight through all these cities in South LA I’ve never ridden through. I made it down there but when they turned around, I got dropped. I was riding through Gardenia all by myself at one in the morning and stray dogs were running around and homeless people were walking in the street and people were driving around looking like I was crazy. I was scared to death but I was also like, this is so exciting. The scary part was fun.”

Robbie Miranda at the front of the 2013 Crash Race.

Miranda was hooked. “It was a group of cyclists I’ve never seen before,” he says. “I’ll tell you, some of these city kids are the best cyclists in LA. By far. These were really fast guys who didn’t race, and they didn’t care about how good their bikes were or what kinds of parts they were running or what shoes they were wearing. There was no materialistic part about it. Everyone just wanted to ride at night because there was no traffic. You could do whatever you want. You could blast through the city and there was no one there to stop you.”

Miranda got so passionate about the scene that he started making a weekly pilgrimage up to LA for a night of hard riding, and he also started racing sanctioned criteriums to hone his tactical acumen as a roadie. He already had the engine and the bike-handling skills and the risk-taking gene. In the span of two years he went from being a Cat. 5 to a Cat. 2 and started mixing it up in sprints against nationally known SoCal fastmen like Cory Williams and Charon Smith.

Miranda competed in the Crash Race three times, and won it once, in 2012. That year, more than 2,000 people showed up.

Miranda’s voice gets animated as he describes the scene that early morning before the madness began. “It was unbelievable,” he recalls. “I pulled up to Tang’s and the street was jammed. It was foggy and raining and there was an LAPD helicopter circling overhead. It was just so raw, a crazy mass of people ready to take over the streets.”

Part of what he found so amazing was the mix of riders present, a rare moment when all the subcultures in cycling culture could ride and race together. “It was this crazy mix of road-bike people and fixed-gear people, There were road racers like me riding shoulder to shoulder with kids on fixed gear bikes with no helmets. Riders who probably would never hang out on a normal day. But at the Crash Race, we were all there for the same reason.”

Miranda remembers diving into corners on rain-slicked cobblestone streets downtown — “people were just sliding out and crashing into curbs” — and he put his BMX skills to use. “It was dark and I really didn’t know or remember the course and we were riding as hard as any crit,” he says. “It was mentally and physically taxing, but it felt like something important was on the line.”

Of course the Crash Race wasn’t the first unsanctioned race to get traction in this period. In 2008, David Trimble organized the first Red Hook Crit (where he finished second to Kacey Manderfield in a mixed-gender field). And a year later, Rapha held its first Gentlemen’s Race in the northern Rockies. Alley cats and DIY cross races and mountain events like the Tour Divide race were catching on, too. But what distinguished the Crash Race from the broader phenomenon was how it seemed to belong to the masses, refusing to be tamed or constrained or commercialized. And that’s why it blew up.

There always were bikes going down at the Crash Race, but in 2012 — with the wet, foggy conditions and so many hungry racers — things slightly more out of hand.

“I remember at one point, a car got on the course,” Miranda says. “And as soon as people started passing that car, the driver just locked up his brakes. At least one person crashed hard and I remember hitting my shoulder really hard on the car. I was thinking, ‘Holy shit, I’m hitting cars while I’m racing.’ Honestly, it made it super exciting. It was dark and dirty and dangerous, unpredictable in a way that was really fun.”

Miranda, who’s not the petite climber type, hung with the leaders on the only steep little grade on the course. All that crit racing paid off when the small lead group swung left from San Vicente Boulevard for the finale on Ocean Avenue. “Yeah, that win actually means a lot to me,” says Miranda. “I have the dog tags hanging with my BMX trophies. I think of those dog tags as highly as my X Games gold medal.”

“There were bikes exploding”

Jo Celso was pretty happy to just make it to the start line in 2012. Not so much because she and her boyfriend had driven up from San Diego the night before and woke up in time. It had more to do with the fact that she’d finished chemotherapy four months earlier.

Celso had gotten into bike racing the previous year, and right from the outset she was having fun and winning races. Getting Hodgkin’s lymphoma after half a season threw a wrench in her racing plans. She had to take a year off to kick cancer’s ass.

She wore a ski cap before the race got started. “I guess I was self-conscious because my head was shaved,” she recalls. “I’d lost most of my hair and then shaved the rest because it looked so bad. And it was starting to grow back, it was like fuzz.”

But while she was ambivalent about her buzz cut, Celso was resolute in her desire to race hard. “I was only 22 when I got diagnosed,” she says. “But I got a second chance. I made a point, partly because didn’t know how long that second choice might last, that I was going to start checking stuff off my bucket list. For me, the Crash Race was something I’d been putting off, and I remember telling myself, ‘If you’re going to do exciting stuff, the time to do it is now.’”

Jo Celso, right after winning her first Crash Race

The racing, as Celso remembers it, was distilled chaos. “The pack came around a corner and there were just a bunch of sandwich boards set out in the street,” she says. “So of course there was a crash. And then everyone just politely picked up their bike, hopped the barriers, ignored the crashed rider, and kept going.”

Celso won in 2012. And she won again in 2013, the year that the race hit peak insanity. At least 5,000 racers showed up that year. Ward had lined up sponsors like Chrome and Red Bull and Aventon. People were flying from other countries to participate. “There’s no doubt that’s the year it blew up,” says Ward. “It was getting massively hard to control. There were massive crashes and I was realizing that this was a dangerous situation.”

Celso saw the carnage with her own eyes. “I saw someone go headlong into a sign in a traffic median,” Celso says, itemizing some of the incidents she saw in two years at the Crash Race. “Another time we were going really fast and someone didn’t see a parked van and went headlong into the back of it. Another time, this woman — now she’s my friend Lindsey, but I didn’t know her at the time — she crashed and I remember being directly behind her and it was nasty. There were bikes exploding, six or seven guys went down, and she knocked out her front tooth. It was pretty crazy. They were not the kinds of things you experience in sanctioned road racing.”

But truth be told, Celso loved it. “Sure, it was total chaos, I think that’s what made it work,” she says. “It was a chaotic, exciting experience, not sterile like most mainstream races.”

And, she says, she felt accepted and supported as a female racer in a way that she had never felt at sanctioned races.

“For women, racing is kind of a crazy scene,” she says. “Fixed-gear and urban events like the Crash Race were where the excitement was. We had a lot more support. and you didn’t have this history of it being a male-dominated sport in the same way as it is with road racing. With Don, it was just so obvious how he was really into the idea of supporting the underdog and getting marginalized people riding more and participating more.”

Celso would go on to become a Cat. 1 racer, with wins at Red Hook Crit and many Pro-1-2 crits. She points to her first win at the Crash Race as the moment things really took off.

She vividly remembers the scene at the finish line the second year she won. “I’ve never had a podium experience like that,” she says. “It’s 5am and we’re standing above the ocean in Santa Monica and the sun is rising and more people just keep rolling in — people who are just so stoked to be on bikes. That whole scene is just something you don’t really get in road racing.”

“It was barely controlled chaos”

In this strange tale, the Oscar for the best supporting actor goes to a cop. His name is Gordon Helper, and he’s a sergeant with the LAPD’s Central Division.

Helper calls himself a “bike guy.” He used to be a cycling instructor for the LAPD. He also used to mountain bike a lot and even jumped into an occasional crit.

About 15 years ago, Helper was a senior officer in Koreatown, and was out there on patrol when the fixed-gear and street racing scene blew up in LA.

“I saw all those fixies on the streets and they really got my attention — I remember thinking, these bikes are really cool and they’re cheap to have,” he says, detailing how alley cats and illegal street racing quickly grew popular. “I went to some of those early races — more as a spectator than a cop — and it was a cool scene. I even participated in a few events; I think a lot of people didn’t realize I was a police officer.”

His outreach to the urban riding community got more explicit a decade ago after tensions over Critical Mass were soaring. Soon after that, he met Ward and got involved with Wolfpack Hustle events. When the Wolfpack ran unsanctioned drag races in the 2nd Street tunnel, for instance, Helper lent a hand to keep things as safe as possible.

Helper laughs when he’s asked when he found about the Crash Race. That’s because he saw it fly by that first night in 2010. “I was working early that morning to help secure the LA Marathon course, and I saw these guys fly by,” he says. “All I could think was. ‘Oh my God, this is so cool!’ After that, I started thinking about how it could be a little more safe, so I reached out to Don.”

The next year, he was there at Tang’s at 4am. “I was there in a police car,” Helper recalls. “I got permission to be there from the department chain of command. I wasn’t there to lead the race; I was there to make sure this thing got from point A to point B safely, and everyone was off the course by 6am.”

Helper knows more than enough about street racing to know that getting all those people to point B safely was not a given. “My job was to notify the public that people were coming down the street quickly,” he says. “My goal was to stay in front of the race and make sure people knew what was coming. There was this huge misconception among many riders that the course was closed, but it definitely was not closed. There were people setting up the course and vehicles driving or parked on the course. There was a lot going on, actually.”

So Helper just drove like mad, cutting corners with lights flashing, to let people know that a large peloton was barreling through the dark toward them. “It was fun and it was hectic,” he says. “It was barely controlled chaos.”

Gordon Helper, crossing Sunset Blvd right before the start of the 2013 Crash Race.

Helper had a front row seat for some of the biggest crashes in Crash Race history. “I saw one guy crash into the back of a van that was parked on the course,” he recalls. “The guy went right through the back windshield—  crazy.”

And the scope of such incidents just grew as the field swelled. “The year it was huge [2013], I saw this crash in West LA right off my right front quarter panel,” Helper says. “I’d say 20 riders in the lead group went down — there were bodies, water bottles, computers, and bike lights everywhere. Somehow everyone got up from that one; they definitely were out of the race for dog tags, but somehow they all were okay.”

But despite all the pileups he saw, Helper insists he understands and loved the chaos of the Crash Race.

“I totally get it — people are drawn to the danger,” he says. “You have a road that is uncontrolled and you’re trying to control it, and there’s an adrenaline rush in that. You can’t anticipate when something gnarly is going to happen. I do it on my police bike when I’m trying to chase somebody. Plus, you have people who are trying to win something that is important to them, those dog tags, and I get that, too.”

But Helper also was aware that the risk of the event was reaching a breaking point. In 2013, with at least 5,000 people showing up, it wasn’t hard for him to imagine 10,000 people wanting to race before too long. “I tried to explain to Don how much liability he was opening himself up to — his name was all over that event,” Helper says. “We talked about how a young guy had died during a Critical Mass ride, and how that could happen here.”

Everything came to a head in 2014. Top officials in the city finally knew that this massive unsanctioned race was happening, without insurance or a license or the kinds of safety infrastructure (like barriers and hay bales) that a conventional large cycling event would have. “I was trying to help Don turn this into a sanctioned race, but the mayor’s office was insisting that he couldn’t do this race, that he couldn’t call it a race,” Helper says.

An unidentified racer gets medical attention during the 2013 Wolfpack Hustle Marathon Crash Race.

Ward remembers being called to a meeting with all the suits downtown. “I met with all the stakeholders — the Department of Homeland Security, the mayor’s office, the police, the city attorney, the LADOT,” he says. “And I was like, this is hilarious. I’m some fucking hipster sitting there in jeans and they’re trying to figure out how to control this thing and they don’t understand it. But it worked out.”

Five days before the race was scheduled, Ward and the Mayor’s office reached an agreement of sorts. A more controlled event was approved. The Crash Race was dead, and the Crash Ride was born.

Helper is glad that Ward got off the hook, and that no one got badly hurt or died on his watch, but mostly he’s happy he witnessed the pulsing, thrilling, dangerous mess up close.

“It was incredible, some of the most amazing experiences I ever had,” Helper says. “It’s hard to explain to people how fast and fun the whole thing was. I mean we’d go downtown from Tang’s on Sunset and then go to Ocean in Santa Monica in less than an hour. I mean, who does that in LA? At any other time, even in a car, it would take you four hours.”

“Everyone wants to be a renegade”

On the early morning of March 18, 2018, right as many revelers who went hard on St. Patrick’s Day were passing out, an estimated 800 to 1,000 riders gathered near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Fountain Ave. Also in attendance were two LAPD patrol cars and a handful of motorcycle cops. The police were out in force to keep the course as clear as possible, especially on a night known for heavy drinking, and to enforce an 18 to 20 mph limit on the field.

Perhaps fittingly, though the signage is still up, the Tang’s Donuts at that location has closed. Likewise, the LA legend known as the Crash Race remains shut down, too.

Still, the 2018 Crash Ride had charm and energy. Like the old days, there were crashes and BMX kids popping wheelies and a sea of bike lights as far as the eye could see on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was like a fast-paced cyclovia, a chance to be up when the city is asleep, a rare opportunity for cyclists to commune and take over streets that are the dominion of motor vehicle. The bluffs above the ocean in Santa Monica were once again filled with rider as the sun came up.

Some important piece of the Crash Race is still alive. And another important piece of the Crash Race —the absolute lunacy —is dead.

When asked to assess the legacy of his creation, Ward is proud to mention that marathon crashes now take place in Houston and Boston and Mexico. “Some piece of the idea is still alive,” he says. He is at once nostalgic for the past and thankful that the Crash Race died before a racer did.

I ask Ward why he thinks the Crash Race captured so many people’s imagination. “I think at the root of it all is that it was naughty and a kind of community that meant something to people,” he says. “I mean, why do people show up in Pamplona and risk getting gored at the running of the bulls? Why do people jump in the freezing ocean in Antarctica? People want to be outlaws. Everyone wants to be a renegade, as long as it doesn’t go too far.”

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