Cyclist Casey Saunders died Sunday after he crashed into metal crowd-control barriers that were not bound together, exposing a hard edge that a hurtling Saunders struck with his forehead, witnesses to the Tour of Kansas City race told The Star this week.
Before the race resumed, race workers zip-tied the barriers together, the witnesses said.
The setup of the line of metal barriers that Saunders hit — because they were not secured together and their hard edges exposed — may have been what turned a frightening crash deadly.
Saunders hit one of the barriers, knocking it backward, witnesses said, and he flew over his handlebars at the suddenly exposed hard edge of the next barrier, slamming it with his forehead.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Had the barriers initially been secured for the Tour of Kansas City Criterium race, the edge may not have been exposed.
“Everything that could’ve gone wrong did,” said Rob Deetz, a cyclist from Minneapolis who was in the crowd along 18th Street when the crash occurred near Oak Street. “But if (the fences) had been set up zip-tied together, I think it could’ve been prevented.”
Saunders, 30, from the St. Louis suburb Kirkwood, was an experienced and highly competitive racer widely regarded for his skill and cunning.
Witnesses said he was part of a pack of racers westbound on 18th Street that bunched up during a lap about a third of the way into the hour-long race as they approached the turn at Oak Street around 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
He shot out with another racer to the outside of the pack, but they tangled up and Saunders angled hard for the barriers that separated the racers from crowds watching on the sidewalk and from outdoor dining tables.
The barriers did not have rounded corners as with some styles but were sharply cornered. Some barriers have connectors built into them. Others, like the ones at Sunday’s race, are usually secured with zipped cable ties.
“It’s hard to get the scene out of my mind,” said Jarred Young of Lenexa, a cyclist who was watching from a table at the corner of 18th and Oak. “It’s the worst result I’ve ever seen.”
He estimated Saunders’ bike had been traveling at 25 to 30 mph when he catapulted into the barriers.
It’s a dangerous sport with bicycles speeding wheel-to-wheel, and cyclists expect to go down sometimes, Young said. He didn’t want to cast blame on anyone for Sunday’s deadly crash.
“Guys get banged up all the time,” he said. “But the reason this became a fatality was a matter of inches … it was a freak accident.”
Cyclist Reid Olson of Minneapolis, who was watching from 18th Street when Saunders crashed, said he was concerned to see that the barriers were not secured together. He said he spoke to officials at the site after the crash and saw workers begin securing the fences together before the race resumed.
Officials with the Tour of Kansas City had not responded to The Star’s request for an interview as of Thursday.
The race was sanctioned by USA Cycling, which sets race regulations and assigns officials, USA Cycling’s technical director Chuck Hodge said. But the local organizers determine their own vendors to set up fencing and other safety measures, he said.
USA Cycling takes crash reports from its sanctioned events and reviews them to look for ways to improve safety, he said. Fatal crashes are rare, he said, and usually occur when a rider loses control and leaves the roadway, not from hitting barriers.
With the Kansas City case, he said, “We’ll take a look.”
Hodge did not want to speculate on the safety of the barriers in the Kansas City race. But when USA Cycling sets up its barriers for championship races, the crowd barriers are secured together, he said, and they are also covered with corrugated banners or signage to overlap the gaps between the fencing edges.
A 2016 analysis on the “I Love Bicycling” website warned of the dangers of unsecured gaps and sharp edges in barriers.
“In addition to dangerous gaps with metal barriers, the edges of them at the corners and ends can be very sharp and dangerous if left uncovered,” it said. “Bannering … should be durable and secured with zip-ties and in a way to cover the tops and sharp edges.
The Tour of Kansas City has been gathering bicycling enthusiasts for 54 years to a variety of events and races. This was the second year that it had added the intensive Criterium racing in a tight course in the Crossroads.
Saunders, who worked full-time at Big Shark Bicycle Company in the St. Louis area, was an amateur racer who cyclists praised for being able to compete hard with full-time professionals while remaining one of the friendliest riders in their sport.
“Our thoughts go out to (Saunders’) family, friends, and teammates of the rider who passed after a race incident in today’s event,” the Tour of Kansas City posted on its Facebook page Sunday night. “Our hearts are heavy as we mourn the loss of a member of the cycling community.”