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The bull and the bike: A lawyer’s take on risk and responsibility in races

At last weekend's Rock Cobbler, four riders had a run-in with a bull on course. We ask a lawyer what he thinks.

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By now you’ve probably seen it — a bull ramming a cyclist at last weekend’s Rock Cobbler gravel race in Bakersfield, California. Race director Sam Ames said at least four riders had encounters with the bull, but no one was seriously injured. But what is the takeaway for gravel racers? (Aside from perhaps “choose your line wisely.”) And where is the line between a racer’s responsibility and a race director’s responsibility?

Miles Cooper, an avid adventure cyclist and attorney at Bicycle Law, a San Francisco-based firm, said that the concept of negligence versus gross negligence is key, should such an incident end up in court.

“There’s a reason adventure rides like the Rock Cobbler have waivers to put riders on notice about hazards on the course,” Cooper told VeloNews. “Waivers that provide notice, such as specifying that you will be on open ranch lands with livestock and unpredictable animals, are better.”

By signing an accident waiver for a race, you remove liability from the organizer for what happens to you in the event.

“As a rider, it is worth knowing that negligence can be waived but gross negligence cannot be,” Cooper said. “What’s the difference? Putting riders across a course with bulls might be negligent. Putting riders across ‘Toro’s Field,’ where the promoter knows the bull which hates bicyclists and has trampled them before, is gross negligence.”

Cooper also noted that, in a court of law, “jurors don’t like people who sue after signing a waiver. That’s part of the value of the waiver. ‘Hey Pat, you received this, that’s your signature, you signed it, and you wouldn’t sign something you didn’t have a reasonable basis to understand.’”

The Rock Cobbler has participants sign a waiver, and Ames noted that this year, one of the landowners whose property the race crosses insisted on a ‘wet signature’ rather than a virtual signing. Ames said that it’s status quo to have all the landowners and land management agencies review the waiver prior to the event.

“And we print it in 12-point font, it looks like the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “It always addresses that there will be livestock and that we move through active cattle ranching.”

Ames said that, in all of the race’s nine editions, the course has always cut through the particular slice of property home to the errant bull, and this was the first time there was a bull/cyclist interaction.

“We’ve passed countless bulls, cows, and deer,” he said. “There are all kinds of wildlife on course, and we’ve never had an issue. They’re cattle bulls, there to breed, they’re not PBR bulls, so we’ve never had an issue. They usually just walk along.”

Nevertheless, it isn’t lost on Ames that there could be an issue, which is why he’s always mentioned livestock, active ranching, and wildlife in his waiver. He is not, however, intentionally leading riders through a known danger zone. In other words, this was not a case of gross negligence.

However, Ames does take the incident seriously.

“As much as we love shenanigans this is not one we want to see repeated,” he said. “So everyone’s laughing about it, for now, sending me matador jokes, but we want to take it seriously and do the best job we can in the future.”

While Ames’ waiver in 2022 might include an ‘angry bull’ clause, or perhaps the course will steer clear of that pasture in the future, it’s also important to note the concept of inherent risk at bike races. Ames said it’s something he’s thought about not only as a promoter but as a participant, as well.

“I’ve done it, hurt myself badly in events,” he said. “And I always walk away from it thinking, as soon as I swing my leg over the bike, this is the risk I’m taking. And, I think there is a common-sense element. That you need to steer clear and not ride toward bulls.”

As a lawyer, Cooper encourages riders to understand what they’re signing when they put their signature on a waiver, and to take responsibility for their own behavior.

“I’ve tried a waiver case before, and they’re hard,” he said. “The behavior, in that case, was egregious. As a cyclist, a good citizen in the bike community, I don’t usually do that. I believe in adventure. I want promoters to be able to put these on without worrying they’re going to get tagged.”