Recreational Cycling’s Unspoken Act

Poaching, pirating, going undocumented – these are a few terms for the act of riding an organized ride that has an entry fee without paying that entry fee. It’s been happening for years and continues to happen to this day, though it’s rarely spoken about outside ride organizers’ meetings. Few who poach rides admit so to anyone but perhaps their closest friends, and even then, they’ll rationalize it with reasons or excuses such as “I can’t be paying that much for these rides,” “the roads are open to everyone,” and “it’s not hurting anyone.”

The public bike ride business is challenging these days, with many rides disappearing and that trend may increase if more cyclists ride without paying. Poachers themselves lose out on medical and liability coverage that registered riders are entitled to, but they rarely realize this or how they jeopardize a ride for others. How do unpaid riders, sometimes known as pirates, poachers, or bandits, affect a ride, the ride’s staff and volunteers, and other riders? Here, ride directors answer questions to give insight as to poaching’s impacts on their rides and recreational cycling events in general, as well as ways to discourage it.

Randy Ice, SCOR Productions, Solvang Century Ride Director

Q: Is ride poaching a problem?

RI: Yes, for the Solvang Century, bandit riders can represent up to 10 percent of total riders. Bandits never crossed my mind until we routed through Vandenberg Air Force Base in the mid-1990s. For security purposes, the military funneled all riders through a checkpoint for bib numbers so they’d have a record of everyone on base, and that revealed the bandits.

We had between 3,500 and 4,000 riders that year and more than 400 were turned around at the AFB checkpoint. Even if they don’t use my rest stops, bandits benefit from my $25,000 worth of law enforcement and traffic control which paid riders help cover. They’re also not contributing to the insurance premium and permits from several cities, Santa Barbara County, and CalTrans that cost me thousands of dollars.

Q: How do you identify bandit riders?

RI: We used bib numbers for decades, but recently we’ve switched to ID stickers on registered riders’ helmets that are recognized by electronic ID readers at our on-course photo stations. Our event photographer, Photo Crazy, issues the stickers which help riders easily find their online photos, and also help us identify unregistered riders. The stickers could also be used to monitor rest stops, with an ID reader to scan every helmet entering.

Simply telling riders this method is used keeps bandits from trying to access our rest stops – now they’re skipping the stops and just riding the course. Every rider’s photo is taken on course, though, so we end up with photos of bandits without helmet stickers.

Q: Can ride poaching be prevented?

RI: Any time you have an open course as we do, as opposed to a closed course as a race might have, there’s nothing that can be done to prevent people from riding the roads. There are multiple methods of ID for registered riders that can help protect rest stops, though. I’ve also begun a website, banditbikeriders.com, where I post the on-course photos of riders without stickers, hoping to discourage them from doing this. It’s had some effect, but not as much as I’d hoped. I welcome other ride directors who use the Photo Crazy ID stickers to post their bandit riders’ photos on the website, too.

Nancy Bischoff, Party Pardee Chair, Sacramento Bike Hikers

Q: What’s your response to riders who don’t pay, stating that anyone can ride on public roads?

NB: Those entry fees support our ride. These events are not inexpensive to put on, with permit fees from local city, county – and sometimes multiple counties if a ride crosses county lines – and law enforcement support running in the thousands of dollars. There are also hall and park fees, porta-potties, water, food, drinks, a band, etc. Any excess money raised supports the host club and/or charitable cause. Riding without paying is unfair to not only the host organization but to riders who do pay. Yes, the roads are open to everyone, but if those who choose to not pay want to ride the route, it can be ridden another day without interfering with anyone.

Q: Do unpaid riders jeopardize the ability to continue an annual ride?

NB: Riders who pirate a ride can impact permitting and support – therefore the ride’s existence. Permits and insurance are granted for a specific number of riders. If Party Pardee is sold out and additional riders take part, we’re not in compliance with the permits and insurance coverage. Additionally, if something happens to an unpaid rider, the care and support given to that person could impact someone who did pay and needs help. These rides require a liability waiver signed by every rider, and unpaid riders could open the organization up to liability issues, too.

Bonnie Powers, Administrative Services Director, Valley Spokesmen

Q: What are your thoughts on cyclists who ride your Cinderella Classic route unpaid and claim it’s reasonable because they’re not eating at your rest stops?

BP: My first thought is that, even if they’re not eating our food, they’re often filling up with our water or using our porta-potties, which we pay for, and they’re benefiting from route markings and traffic control we’ve paid for. For their own reasons, they feel they shouldn’t have to pay, yet they’re usually riding with others who have paid, and that’s not fair.

We’re required to get permits for not only rest stop locations, but also for coverage by the California Highway Patrol and various county sheriffs’ departments. Yes, they’re public roads, but this is a special ride and unpaid riders take advantage of all the work and money we put into this event, which is more than the food – it’s route markings, traffic control by law enforcement, SAG support, and porta-potties. Poachers contribute nothing to any of that.

Q: Your Valley Spokesmen website implores no ride-alongs for the Cinderella Classic. Does having it in writing help?

BP: We think it does help because we explain how ride-alongs jeopardize the ride’s existence. Our Cinderella Classic is for women only, so we wrote that to discourage men who want to ride along with girlfriends or wives. We have a limit of 2,500 riders, and if we exceed that because of ride-alongs, it jeopardizes the permits we apply for and pay for. That could cause us to lose the ride, and the same concept applies to any organization’s ride that has rider limits imposed by permits.

Curtis Fong, Event Director, Bike the West/TGFT Productions

Q: How do you identify registered riders at your America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride and Tour de Tahoe?

CF: Registered participants wear both pin-on bib numbers and adhesive paper wristbands. We used to use stretchy rubberized wristbands, but realized that those could be transferred from one wearer to another too easily. We ask that wristbands are worn on a riders’ dominant wrist so rest stop staff and volunteers can more easily identify registered riders as they reach for food.

Bib numbers are worn on the back of jerseys so our SAG drivers can recognize registered riders as they approach them from behind on course. We’ve also begun placing large signs at our rest stops stating that only riders with bibs and wristbands will be served, and have already witnessed riders encountering the signs, deliberating over entering, then moving on.

Q: Can riders be expected to police each other?

CF: Many riders would be hesitant to turn poachers in, or simply not take the time or effort to do so. However, some poachers came to light before our 2018 Tour de Tahoe when we received an anonymous letter alerting us to a group organizing through a bike shop’s online forum to ride our route without registering.

We contacted the shop and they pressured the group’s organizer to finally register, but others in her group didn’t. That prompted us to add our rest stop signs stating that wristbands and bibs are required.

Q: What’s your advice for other ride directors?

CF: Poachers can jeopardize your permits and your whole ride, but are part of the territory and we can’t keep them off the roads. Expect them and try to limit their access to your services and resources by using wristbands, bibs, and stickers. I’d advise changing colors and designs of wristbands and bibs each year, too, so poachers can’t just wear old ones. Signs at rest stops stating that only registered riders are served seem to be working, too. Train your staff and volunteers to spot poachers and that it’s okay to tell those poachers that services and resources are for only registered participants.