Marek Warszawski

Climb to Kaiser: Making sense of a fatal mistake

BIG CREEK — When you’re zooming past in a car, roadside memorials are pretty easy to ignore. Most of the time, you don’t even see them.

On a bike, it’s a different story. You see the crosses, the parched flowers, the ribbons, and sometimes a plastic pinwheel. Pedaling is monotonous, so your mind is free to work through the scenarios. Who died here? Was it dark? Was the road wet and slippery? Was alcohol involved?

The 200 participants in Saturday's Climb to Kaiser, the Valley's most revered endurance sports event, won't have to ask themselves those questions. They'll already know the answers.

Before the 5:30 a.m. mass start., they’ll observe a moment of silence in honor of Nicola Grossi, the 42-year-old La Mesa man who died from massive injuries he sustained in a crash during last year’s ride. Jennifer Grossi, Nicola’s wife, is scheduled to be there.

The Climb to Kaiser — 155 miles from north Clovis to the top of Kaiser Pass above Huntington Lake and back — is best known for its relentless, leg-busting climbs that top out at 9,200 feet above sea level. This year, though, equal scrutiny will be paid to one of the downhills.

Grossi died while negotiating the steep, winding descent from Shaver Lake to Big Creek. There were no eyewitnesses, but it seems apparent that he lost control of the bike, veered off the road and crashed into a tree.

One year later, a slender lodgepole pine bears a small wooden cross below a photograph of Grossi that’s been faded by the Sierra sunshine.

Last week I visited the roadside memorial, mainly out of curiosity. Having ridden that stretch of road, I wanted to know where the accident happened. I wanted to know which tree and which turn. Mostly, I wanted to know how.

The descent into Big Creek contains a couple tight, off-camber turns that must be ridden cautiously. But Grossi crashed much farther up the hill, some 2 miles from Highway 168, while coming out of a sweeping left-hander.

"It's not a spot where I thought there would be a problem," Fresno Cycling Club president Dennis Ball said. "There's a little chicane above the turn, but if you keep your speed within reason, it's not that big a deal."

The road at the turn is wide and smooth, provided you stay on it. But drift over to the shoulder, and sand coats the pavement. Apply the brakes here, and your tires instantly lose all traction.

I believe that's what happened to Grossi. A couple feet either direction, and he would've hurtled past that tree and wound up in the brush with a torn jersey and a few scrapes. But he didn't.

There have been two deaths in the Climb to Kaiser's 36-year-history, and both occurred on the same stretch of road. In 2003, Tony Fitzpatrick, a British citizen living in Tiburon, was struck and killed by an oncoming pickup on the descent into Big Creek. (Don't blame the pickup driver. CHP reports indicated Fitzpatrick was riding on the wrong side of the road.)

The Fresno Cycling Club, the group that puts on the Climb to Kaiser, responded to Fitzpatrick's death a decade ago by purchasing several Caltrans-style road signs that warn motorists about the ride as well as inform cyclists about potentially hazardous road conditions.

One of those signs, reading "Steep and Winding Descent," is placed at the top of the short climb out of Shaver Lake. Riders are also warned on course maps and during pre-ride instructions.

Last summer, in the days following Grossi's death, there was some talk that the Big Creek descent might be removed from the route. Thankfully, that didn't happen. Ball said the matter was discussed during a Board meeting but there was no support for such a change. No vote was taken.

Problem is, if organizers take out the descent into Big Creek, then they also take out the ascent from Big Creek to Huntington Lake. Which happens to be the toughest, most notorious climb on the entire course, with ramps that exceed 20% incline.

"What's the Climb to Kaiser without going up Big Creek?" asked John Craft, the event's coordinator for the past six years. "It's not the same ride."

By all accounts, Grossi was an eager, enthusiastic cyclist who had lost more than 100 pounds in the year before his death by pedaling his bike. He was also relatively inexperienced and liked to go fast downhill.

The Climb to Kaiser is not really intended for novices. A more experienced cyclist knows to sit up on downhills to reduce aerodynamics and control speed. They know how to modulate the brakes by alternating front and rear. They know how to anticipate turns by looking as far down the road as possible.

Grossi either didn’t do those things, or else suffered a momentary lapse of inattention that cost him his life.

The roadside memorial is a constant reminder.