Key Biscayne is perhaps the most bike-friendly town in South Florida. It's a place where pros show off their carbon fiber Colnagos and 28-mile-per-hour pace. Congestion isn't a problem on the key; intersections can be counted on one hand. In fact until recently high-speed renegades on two wheels flew through stoplights unnoticed. Then on June 5 village police started videotaping cyclists and handing out tickets.
According to Lt. Sam Ceballos, cyclists' behavior has recently gotten out of hand. "We have some complaints about [them] being rude to the public," Ceballos says. "They block both sides of the road, they're obnoxious with the residents, and they throw water bottles at them."
On the morning of August 27, this unpleasant behavior turned downright ugly. Robert Gompers, a 31-year-old union plumber on his way to work came upon 50 cyclists near the village's northern edge. Gompers claims the group hogged more than one lane on Crandon Boulevard, forced him to the roadside, pulled him from his truck, and beat him bloody. Six bikers interviewed by New Times dispute parts of the plumber's tale, but acknowledge members of their group flattened Gompers.
Cyclists' efforts to take back the streets have made national news in recent years. In the summer of 1997, members of a group called Critical Mass jammed rush-hour traffic in downtown San Francisco, demanding their right to the road. In Phoenix and London motorists have complained of aggressive bicycle riding. An infuriated driver even threw a bike at a messenger in Ottawa a few months ago.
The bikers who participated in the Gompers affair were part of a group that has been congregating for fifteen years on early weekday mornings to participate in a twice-weekly event they call the hammer ride. The high-intensity circuit is run from the intersection of Sunset Drive and Red Road to Key Biscayne.
According to the bikers, August 27 did not start out well. About twenty minutes into the ride, as the pack approached the tollbooth on Rickenbacker Causeway, someone driving a Chevy Malibu cut into the group. "It was one of the most aggressive things I've ever seen a car do," says Greg Affleck, who has been riding the hammer for eleven years.
Several minutes later, at about 7:00 a.m., Gompers and his uncle, Jerry Adler, were driving southbound on Crandon Boulevard near the corner of Harbor Drive when they came across the fast-moving throng. Gompers and Adler told police the cyclists were occupying the bike path, all of the right lane, and about three-fourths of the left lane. The hammer riders acknowledge spilling across the roadway, though not as far as Gompers told the cops.
What happened next is in dispute.
According to the cyclists, Gompers swerved around the group, then cut back toward them. Although the light had just turned green, he slammed on his brakes. "He was just a real jerk," says Mike Florit, age 30, who police tracked down later. "I mean this guy wanted to physically hurt us. He got so close to one of the cyclists that the guy got off his bike and held it against his chest to protect himself."
Gompers then rolled down his window, stuck out his head, and said, "Fuck you. Get off the fuckin' road." Then, after passing the light, cyclists contend Gompers swung his black Chevy pickup left, forcing at least five cyclists onto the median, and stopped the truck in the left lane. He exited his vehicle and said, "Come and get a piece of me."
Gompers gives a different account. He claims he was trying to avoid the riders when they suddenly surrounded his pickup and forced him to a halt. Then they started screaming: "What the hell are you doing?" and "What's your fucking problem?" The plumber denies using profanity and contends the mob surrounded his truck. Then, without provocation, the bike riders dragged him out through the window. Adler identifies Florit as the main assailant. "That's a joke," Florit asserts. "This guy gets out of his car thinking he's Tarzan. I'm five feet four. He's about six feet tall. How can I pull him out of a truck."
Both sides agree on the following: About five cyclists pounced on Gompers after he exited his truck. (None of those contacted by New Times or Key Biscayne police acknowledged participating.) Someone threw a water bottle that slashed Gompers's cheek. Then a rider still on his bike struck Gompers and knocked him down. Four others continued to hit and kick him as he lay on the pavement.
Next Adler attempted to leave the truck through the passenger side to help his nephew, but cyclists trapped him inside. "One guy slammed the door so hard the mirror fell off," Adler says. When Adler attempted to exit the other way, he contends hammer riders began striking the back of his head. He retreated and pulled in Gompers. While Adler put the truck into gear, Gompers claims cyclists slammed the door on his legs. "They were all fighting to get to me," Gompers recalls. "It looked like the kind of beating you see on TV."
At 7:15 a.m. Key Biscayne police arrived. By then all of the bikers were gone. The cops sped after the group, rounded up fifteen of them, and interrogated them for about an hour. No arrests were made.
Adler then drove Gompers to South Miami Hospital, where doctors put five stitches into his left cheek. According to police, his ribs were bruised, his left arm was swollen, and he had road rash on the right side of his back. Gompers, who spent most of Friday in the emergency room, says his eardrum was ruptured, a rib was broken, and there were cleat marks on his back.
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The hammer riders don't condone road rage, but argue that Gompers was asking for it. "When we reach the key, we're reaching the height of the ride," explains Bill Sarille, a fifteen-year hammer veteran. "People get a little aggressive. Everyone's a little excited. He picked a fight at the wrong time."