Isaac Howe (Kenda/5-Hour Energy Pro Cycling) entered the fourth event of USA Cycling's National Criterium Calendar (NCC), the latter three rounds of USA CRITS Speed Week, on a high as he held second overall in the standings following his victory in Anniston, Alabama's Sunny King Criterium. Last Saturday afternoon, however, the 26-year-old pro crashed heavily in the early laps of Anderson, South Carolina's Electric City Circuit, fracturing his collarbone, in an incident he and his team claim was a deliberate take down by a competitor.
The rider accused of causing the crash is Jonathan Atkins (Beck Janitorial), a 48-year-old Georgia resident and former pro now competing as an amateur. Atkins, however, has a far different account of the incident which he insists was an accident and not an intentional act.
The Electric City Circuit took place on a course within the confines of Whitehall Park and the men's pro-am race was comprised of 50 laps of a wide open circuit on which the pavement transitioned into grass on both sides of the road. A tail wind propelling the riders down the start/finishing straight became a strong crosswind after the racers made the first turn, a 90-degree left hander, and it was along this stretch of the course after the first turn that several encounters between Atkins and Howe took place, culminating with Howe's crash.
Only several laps into the race, as riders jockeyed for position along the right side of the road to seek shelter from the crosswind, Atkins was forced off the road into the field along the course.
"All the riders were trying to half wheel the wheel in front of them to the right hand side of it to get into the draft and what was happening was everyone was getting guttered," Howe told Cyclingnews. "What he got angry with me about I had nothing to do with. I was to the right side of the wheel in front of me and I was mere inches from the edge of the road. And the guy behind me was even closer and Atkins was trying to pass the rider behind me."
Atkins stayed upright in his off-road foray, took a free lap and several laps later Howe and Atkins had a verbal confrontation, once again in the crosswind section.
"I came up to him and asked him if he ran me off the road and he said 'yes' and he proceeded to go off," Atkins told Cyclingnews. "He's a young kid, he's aggressive and he was definitely adamant about me not deserving to be at the front.
"He went on for a little bit and started making fun of me saying stuff like I was a big oaf. I said 'that doesn't sound like an apology' and he said 'you're not getting an apology'. I said 'that's fine, if you want to ride aggressive then I can ride aggressive' and he said 'are you ready to take on five guys' and I was like 'yeah, bring it'."
"He was trying to get me to confess to being the guy who ran him off the road where the truth is I never even touched him," said Howe. "He was demanding that I apologize to him, he was cursing at me the whole time and his direct quote was 'If you don't apologize then I will f***ing kill you'."
Howe admitted to Cyclingnews that he used his own share of profanity in response.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with that because it happens every day in bike racing," said Howe. "You're breathing hard, you're sweating, it's 95 degrees out and I don't want to waste my energy with the intricate details of why it's necessary for him to leave me alone.
"I didn't laugh at him. I was trying to make light of the situation My intentions weren't to blow him off or to pick fun of him or act like I was bigger than he was because I was a pro. It had nothing to do with that. It was just I didn't have time or energy to waste on such a ridiculous claim."
A teammate of Howe noticed the argument and came to his assistance first by speaking to Atkins and then by riding next to Howe as protection. Howe thought that was the end of it and proceeded to make his way towards the front of the peloton. One lap later on the same crosswind section, however, Howe crashed head first onto the pavement in what he described as a deliberate take down by Atkins.
"He came from behind me, on the back, left hand side, in the wind and hit me," said Howe. "I flipped over my bars, landed on my face and then I saw him as I was going down to the ground.
"I was accusing him the entire time that he used his arm to manipulate my bars and that's supported by other people's claims and witness testimonies. But myself, I can't say definitively that I saw his arm come off the bars, but I felt flesh on my elbow. The only way to surgically knock someone off their bike was to have done that. It wasn't like he just put his hip into me, it was quick and deliberate."
Atkins, however, insists the crash was purely accidental, a result of riders on two lines through the turn merging into a single file line on the straight. He was adamant that his hands never left the bars.
"I did not take my hands off the handlebars, I would never do that," said Atkins. "I was on the inside, he was on the outside and when we went through the turn it started single-filing. It was really windy and the two lines came together. I had them (his hands) real tight [on the bars] because I was directly beside him, and I knew his teammate was there too, and I was expecting to get sandwiched or slammed. I was ready for contact and when it happened, I'm a big guy, he went down."
As Howe was on the tarmac after the crash he requested that police be called to the scene.
"The guy threatened me beforehand and I knew what the guy had done was not only worthy of punishment from USA Cycling, but it was actually assault. He tried to kill me. I landed on my head going 30mph. The first thing they did when I got to the hospital wasn't to check my collarbone, they checked my brain because my helmet was shattered."
Atkins withdrew from the race several laps later after seeing that Howe was still on the tarmac and stopped at the accident scene.
"I stopped because I knew we were having a confrontation and I didn't want to see anybody hurt. He was livid with me and started going off," said Atkins. "I told him I didn't do it on purpose, I'm sorry and I didn't want this to happen and then I rode off."
Atkins spoke to officials about his account of the incident and then gave a statement to local police at the scene. Atkins told Cyclingnews that, contrary to early accounts, he was never handcuffed or taken into custody by police. Atkins also stated that since the incident occurred on Saturday he has not been contacted by the police or USA Cycling in regard to Howe's crash.
"I've been upset since. I surely don't want a good rider to go down on my account and be hurt and miss anything," said Atkins. "I'm sorry this kid is hurt, but I did not do anything on purpose."
"This is one of the craziest things that's ever happened to us," said Chad Thompson, owner of Kenda/5-Hour Energy Pro Cycling.
Thompson told Cyclingnews that in addition to Howe seeking to file charges against Atkins, the team is weighing its legal options as well. Also, Thompson has been in communication with USA Cycling regarding their investigation of the incident.
"I don't think there should be second chances for anyone like this," said Thompson. "We don't want this in our sport. We work too hard to overcome doping stories alone, let alone this type of crap, so we're pursuing a lifetime ban. I won't be happy with a suspension, I won't be happy with anything but a lifetime ban."
Howe, back in his home base of Burlington, Vermont, will undergo surgery for the broken collarbone and he may be out of competition for eight weeks.
"The energy I would spend towards training right now I'm going to spend to make sure justice is had," said Howe. "I'm eager to see where this goes but I'm also eager to get it behind me."
While his ambitions for winning USA Cycling's inaugural National Criterium Calendar series are dashed, Howe is now focused on earning a national championship.
"This guy took away the biggest opportunity that I ever had. I've never been going this good in my life. The only thing I want to do is come back for crit nationals, be charged and ready to go, and finally get that top step. This mini-vacation that I get right now is going to put me in a good position to build the fitness that I need to win that race."