Early into Saturday night’s Electric City Circuit, one of the top riders in the field, Isaac Howe, lay on the pavement, nursing a broken collarbone.
Only Howe (Kenda-5-Hour Energy) refused to leave the scene of the crash: He was waiting for police to emerge so he could give an account of a crash that he, and others, are saying was intentional.
The accused rider, Jonathan Atkins (Beck Janitorial) contends that the incident has been blown out of proportion and that the crash was accidental.
En route to the airport on Sunday, Howe recounted his story VeloNews.
The event, the next-to-last stop on the USA Crits Speed Week calendar, took place in an open field with a strong crosswind. According to Howe, riders were desperately trying to hold the wheel in front of them in the wind, and left-hand turns were forcing racers into the gutter.
According to eye witnesses, a rider trailing Howe was pinched off and forced into a field early in the race. A few laps later that rider, who Howe and others have identified as Jonathan Atkins, of Newnan, Georgia, caught up with Howe and began shaking his bike aggressively toward him, and started yelling at the 26-year-old pro. Atkins, it seems, was demanding an apology. “And then he started threatening me,” Howe said. “And then I made fun of him after that.”
Howe said a Kenda-5-Hour Energy teammate rode near him to protect him. “I thought it was all over,” Howe said. “And then, on the next lap, he came up to me and smashed my bars.” Howe recalls the accident differently than described on Twitter, where it seemed Atkins grabbed his bars or wrist and jerked Howe toward the ground. “I just remember landing on my face,” Howe said.
Howe said Atkins was still racing by the time the police arrived but that the rider later came over and said the crash wasn’t on purpose. “And I told him, ‘you better get a lawyer.’”
Reports from racers indicated that Atkins was handcuffed at the scene, but calls to both the local police and sheriff’s departments were inconclusive Sunday morning. Atkins was not arrested and said Sunday night that he spoke with police regarding the incident and that he would cooperate with officials moving forward.
Chad Thompson, the owner of the Kenda squad, said the team would push for a lifetime ban for Atkins.
“We’ve seen the bad side of the sport. But to physically grab a wrist and pull him down in front of the field is absolutely insane. It’s insane behavior, even not bike racing,” he said Sunday. Howe, he said, will press assault and battery charges.
“I think that people in races, they get angry,” Howe said. “And I’m used to that. I would be lying if I said I didn’t participate in that. But the reason why you don’t act on the people who make you angry in the race is the potential for hurting other people,” he said. “I brushed it off. I don’t have time to waste with petty apologies in a bike race… It was out of this world. It was unbelievable.”
SuperSquadra Cycling’s David Wenger, the 2011 elite national crit champion, didn’t see the wreck but did catch the buildup to it. He was paying attention to a rider in the bunch he described as “erratic.”
“I just tried getting around him,” he said. That rider, Wenger added, then had words with Howe. “I have had somebody push me around like that before,” he said. “I’ve been racing, I think this is 19 years, and I can count on two fingers the times I’ve seen or heard something like this.
“There is no room for it. There is absolutely no room for what happened. It’s inexcusable.”
Howe seemed to feel the pressure even before the race, tweeting: “I appreciate that everyone wants to do their best in these Speed Week races, but there is a point when it’s not worth the risk. Settle down!”
Howe is currently in second on the National Criterium Calendar, but those dreams are as broken as his collarbone now; the rider hopes to be back on the trainer within the week and back to racing in eight weeks’ time, according to Thompson.
David Williams won the penultimate stop on the USA Crits Speed Week calendar.
Carlos Alzate (Exergy) and Erica Allar (RideClean-Patentit.com) defended their overall leads before today’s Global Imports Sandy Springs Cycling Challenge.
Atkins, according to race results, didn’t finish the crit. He rides out of Newnan, Georgia, and was listed in 57th place as of Sunday morning in the week’s overall standings.
According to his team’s website, Atkins is a multi-state and Georgia games champion, and raced as a professional from 1998-2001.
Updated: Atkins weighs in
Atkins’ version of the story is in sharp contrast to Howe’s. When contacted Sunday night by VeloNews, the larger, senior racer said he was pushed off the road early in the race, and came back and asked Howe if he’d pushed him. The retort went something like this: Atkins was told it was a bike race and that things were aggressive. Atkins also said he was asked if he was ready to take on five riders. “And I said: Bring it,” Atkins said.
A short while later, the pack barreled into what Atkins called “turn one,” a left-hander.
“There’s two lines coming in and one coming out, and I wasn’t going to give and he wasn’t going to give,” he said. Atkins theorized that because he’s a larger cyclist (at nearly 200 pounds) that he came out wheels down. On Sunday afternoon, Atkins expressed absolute sadness over the wreck and said he did not cause the crash intentionally.
“There’s no way I could have even taken my hand off the handlebar,” he said. “I feel terrible that [Howe’s] such a good rider and he went down. I can’t tell you how upset I am.
“I held my line. You know how crit racing is… we’re bumping… we had contact. I was lucky I didn’t go down.”
In 20 years of racing, Atkins said he’d never been in a situation like this, though there had been plenty of contact in crits through the years.
“This is a young kid. I’m an old fella’. I’m just trying to survive and have a good race out there. I know those guys are racing for the top podium and I’m not going to be there,” he said. “I can’t tell you again how bad I feel, man.
“I sure hope that kid gets better quick.”