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Death Prompts Questions about Cyclist Website

A cyclist bikes up South Park Drive in Berkeley’s Tilden Park on Thursday, July 1, 2010. Kim Flint was killed on June 19 while cycling down the street.
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A cyclist bikes up South Park Drive in Berkeley’s Tilden Park on Thursday, July 1, 2010. Kim Flint was killed on June 19 while cycling down the street.
 
Online speed competition may encourage risk-taking

After Jack Backus, an Oakland cyclist, sped down a hill in Joaquin Miller Park recently, he raced home to upload information about the ride to a Web site called Strava.

Once Backus’s GPS had sent statistics to the site, he could see his average speed and compare his performance to others on the same stretch.

Backus, an architect, is one of scores of bicyclists in the Bay Area who are flocking to Strava, a virtual cycling club started in April 2009. It lets members record their rides, create routes using computerized maps and ride in virtual competitions.

“It’s kind of an interesting way to connect with other cyclists and to have a little bit of a competitive thing going,” Backus said.

But the recent death of a cyclist who was racing down a hill in Tilden Park to recapture a speed record he had briefly held has sparked a debate about whether Strava may inadvertently encourage cyclists to take risks.

The cyclist, Kim Flint, 40, of Oakland, was killed June 19 when he hit a car while racing down South Park Drive. Thirteen days earlier, he had sped down that same stretch of road in 2 minutes 7 seconds, reaching a top speed of 49.3 miles per hour. (The speed limit on South Park Drive is 30 m.p.h.) After he uploaded those statistics on Strava, he was designated a “KOM” or “King of the Mountain.”

But on June 15, another rider bested his time by four seconds, prompting Flint to ride that stretch again four days later.

Some of Flint’s friends said his obsession with Strava led to his death. They support posting endurance records but think that posting speed records encourages risky behavior.

“Strava should not, even inadvertently, enable this kind of downhill dive bombing for time on open roads,” said Patrick Gordis, who had gone on three lengthy rides with Flint in the past month.

The police from the East Bay Regional Park District, who have jurisdiction over Tilden Park, did not know about Strava before Flint’s death, but now they are concerned.

“Strava may be advocating unsafe practices,” Lt. Dave Dubowy said. “We need to address that.”

Strava, based in Palo Alto and in Hanover, N.H., said in an e-mail message it would not comment for this article “out of respect for Kim’s family.” On June 30, it used the company blog to announce changes to its downhill KOM records — members can now flag a ride segment as “hazardous,” which will prompt Strava to remove all comparison ratings on that ride.

“Today we are releasing measures that we hope will continue to help our users remember that safety should always be their first priority whenever they are on the road or trail,” Michael Horvath, one of Strava’s co-founders, posted on the blog.

Strava has already marked South Hill Drive as hazardous and removed those speed statistics. But statistics remain for other road segments on which Flint held a KOM ranking.

Gordis would prefer that Strava eliminate virtual competitions for any steep descent, but he thinks the current change is a positive step.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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