Officer Rupp, Living Legend
By Les Earnest
Protecting the roads against cyclists is a tough job, but Rupp does it
Originally published in Cyclops USA, August 1988
Officer Dean Rupp of the California Highway Patrol lives in Sierraville, a small community about 25 miles North of Lake Tahoe. If you ride a bicycle near there, be very careful. You see, Officer Rupp has a thing about cyclists. Dean Rupp talks and acts like the stereotypical “redneck cop.” That doesn't prove that he is one, of course, but his neck actually is rather red. He is a living example of the CHP's sporadic failure to maintain discipline in the ranks, especially in rural areas.
Sierraville is a crossroads town
built around a T-intersection on the road North from
The other little valley holds a dinky airport and a
disintegrating hotel that was built as a spa at the turn of the century and has
been operated recently by a group of congenial, aging hippies who are into
Rebirthing. Its bathing facilities include a swimming pool and a very large
concrete hot tub out in the woods that is fed by
The large valley is unusual in one respect: if you drill a hole in the ground almost anywhere, you get an artesian well producing very hot water. Many of the ranchers have done that and let the water cool for watering sheep and cattle. If you ride through the valley on a chilly morning, you see plumes of steam rising all about where the wells have been drilled. In addition to ranching, there is quite a bit of logging in the surrounding mountains.
The valley is unusual in another respect: it has relatively flat roads for a distance of about 14 miles at an altitude above 5,000 feet, which makes it an excellent cycling time trial course. Because of the altitude, air drag is reduced, which has enabled cyclists to repeatedly set national records here. The only thing wrong with this idyllic spot is that there is a spider in the middle of it.
The rise of stage racing
While the Tour de France and other major stage races
continued to flourish in
The next try was in 1974 when Larry Glickfeld
put together a 7 day race through the
The following year, a former
The bike racing community owes Moe Siegel and Celestial Seasonings a debt of gratitude -- they consistently supported the Red Zinger through the period when it was not generating enough publicity to justify their investment. After running the race himself for three years, Moe saw the need to professionalize the event and, in 1978, recruited former disc jockey Mike Aisner to work as a full time promoter. A few years later, when the race grew beyond what the tea company could afford, Moe was generous enough to let it go to a larger sponsor. Thus it became the Coors International Bicycle Classic.
Tour of the Sierra
In 1974, the year before the Red Zinger started, one stage of the ill-fated Tour of the Sierra went through Sierraville, giving Officer Rupp an opportunity to demonstrate his concern for public safety. This race drew many of the top riders in the country and the climbs over scenic Sierra passes provided an excellent test. It was eventually won by National Team rider and former Olympian Mike Neel.
One of the sprint prizes was a night in
There were a number of operating glitches, including Officer
Rupp. Sports Illustrated  observed
that “Officer Rupp was beefy, burr-headed and proprietary toward his stretch of
the road.” The San Francisco Examiner
reported the following encounter on
“With a single bold move, officer Dean Rupp of the California Highway Patrol brought
He ran a few riders off the road in the process. The Examiner continued,
“Officer Rupp held his ground, feet planted in a wide stance and thumbs looped through his belt loops. `You people probably think I'm against bicycling, but I'm not ... heck, I've even got a couple of Schwinns in my garage. I'm just doing my job and thinking of your own safety. Besides, what the heck kind of race is this, where everybody rides in one big pack. I've never seen a race like this before.”
Cyclenews, which subsequently changed its name to Velo-news, then VeloNews, heard the following remarks.
“You guys think I'm just a hard-nosed cop,” Rupp drawled, “but I'm not. I just don't want to see anyone killed in my district. . . . You can't tell me these guys are trying to win, riding in a pack like that, blocking traffic. This isn't a race.”
Competitive Cycling reported:
“Rupp also added that he thought this was going to be a race where everyone rode single file along the edge of the road with no passing. When [chief referee] Rich Holder informed him that that would not be a race, Rupp inquired `What's a race?’ . . .
“Some fast talking by Holder, aided by the power of the press, resolved the issue after a 45 minute wait in Sierraville. It was amazing to see how the all-powerful law enforcement officers were suddenly intimidated at the sight of TV cameras and newspaper reporters surrounding them.”
Inasmuch as the California Highway Patrol had known about the race for over six months in advance, it is a bit hard to understand how the Rupp fiasco happened. It appeared that Rupp considered himself to be the sole arbiter of what is permissible in Sierraville. Thus ended the first Battle of Sierraville, with few casualties on either side.
1978 Time Trial Championships
Officer Rupp's interest in cycling apparently continued unabated after his national press exposure during the Tour of the Sierra. There were rumors that he harassed bicycle tourists who happened to go through Sierraville, but I heard no first-hand reports. My first visit to Sierraville was in 1978 when I agreed to be chief timer at the district time trial championships that were to be held just North of town. Beginning shortly after dawn, so as to take advantage of the still air, we sent riders off at one minute intervals for their out-and-back 25 mile rides. It turned out to be a bittersweet day.
Local ranchers occasionally drove herds of sheep down the road, which brought all traffic to a halt. Luckily, they didn't do that during this time trial. The course was essentially flat and had very little traffic, so there was almost no place where riders could get into trouble. Somehow, one rider found a way.
There were only two culverts under the road course, but a rider somehow managed to overextend himself and pass out at precisely the right moment so that he went off the road and into one of them. As soon as district representative Ralph Kornahrens heard about the accident, he rushed there and discovered that the rider was seriously injured -- it was later determined that he had a broken pelvis. Kornahrens called for an ambulance, which was dispatched by radio. Officer Rupp apparently heard that message and made a high speed run to the site. When he got there, he reportedly just stood and watched.
After the ambulance came and picked up the fallen rider, it was necessary for it to turn around on the narrow road. Rupp still offered no assistance. Finally, Kornahrens stepped out into the road so that he could flag down any riders or oncoming traffic while the ambulance turned around. At that point, Rupp started yelling and threatened to arrest him for interfering with traffic. Nice fellow.
The ambulance somehow managed to get turned around and headed back. Rupp then made a tour of the course, apparently to see if he could catch any riders blocking the road, but since it was an individual time trial, there were no crowds on the course and the good officer went home without getting a chance to nail anyone. Thus, this skirmish ended in a stalemate.
A local bike club provided several timers for this event, but they were using first-generation electronic watches with LED displays that depleted their batteries in a few hours. As the morning wore on, I soon discovered that my LCD watch was the only one still working. An outstanding rider named Eric Allen managed to smash the national men's record that day, but I had to give him the bad news that since there was only one valid watch, his record would not be recognized by the USCF. I suggested to Eric that he try again next year. I promised to make sure that adequate watches would be provided.
Unfortunately, Eric never got a chance to do that. Two months
later, while on a training ride, he died under the wheels of a truck that was
passing him. There were no witnesses and no charges. Eric's many friends set up
the Eric Allen Memorial Fund, which provides interest-free travel loans to bike
I arrived at the starting area just north of Interstate 80 at about and reviewed the race structure with the promoter. He told me that he had the informed consent of the county authorities, including the Sheriff and the California Highway Patrol. When I asked if Officer Rupp had been informed, he said, “Don't worry. We checked and found that this is his day off.”
Five races were scheduled to start at intervals so that they would be well separated on the road. Each group was to be followed by a support vehicle with a referee to ensure that the riders complied with the rules of the road. People in the follow vehicle were to keep track of passing opportunities and wave overtaking cars around when it was safe to pass.
I assigned an official to each follow vehicle and left my wife in charge of the judges at the start/finish area. I decided to follow the Junior riders, who most often needed supervision. As it turned out, they were very well behaved that day -- there was not a single centerline violation in the 40 miles or so that I followed them.
The race proceeded without incident at speeds ranging from 20 to 50 mph over the mountains to Sierraville. There wasn't much traffic overtaking us and none of it was substantially delayed by the caravan. I noticed that there was a race marshal with a flag at the T-intersection in Sierraville to ensure that all riders stopped at the stop sign there. They did.
The caravan rolled north on Route 89 through the hamlets of Sattley and Calpine, then looped back to Sierraville. The lead group of Juniors was down to about 12 riders by this time. As they approached the intersection in Sierraville I noticed that there were some spectators gathered there to watch the race go through. I didn't see the marshal with the flag this time. Suddenly, a man in a blue jumpsuit leaped out from in front of the corner saloon and began shouting at the riders and waving his arms. He was not wearing a uniform, but he did appear to be carrying a gun. The riders responded by stopping or circling back.
We stopped our vehicle and I got out to determine what was going on. I was wearing the standard black-and-white striped shirt with a USCF emblem. I approached the man in the jumpsuit, who was still yelling and waving his hands and was by this time surrounded by a puzzled-looking group of cyclists. Despite his odd attire and behavior, I guessed that he was some kind of policeman.
I asked him what the problem was. He muttered something about an “illegal bicycle race.” I asked him what was illegal about it. He yelled that cyclists must ride single file at all times on the road. I said “That is not what the law says.” He responded by grabbing me by the wrists and moving up so that we were belly-to-belly. I politely asked him to let go of my wrists. He then shouted “Don't interfere or I will arrest you!” I just looked at him and said “What would you arrest me for?”
He responded by trying to jerk me around. It appeared to me that he was trying to induce me to struggle with him. I was thinking rather quickly while this was going on. I had made no physical or verbal threats toward this man -- indeed, I had not even raised my voice. Nevertheless, I was in his grasp and he seemed to be emotionally out of control.
I decided that the best thing to do was to stand still, so I attempted to do so. While his belly was a tad larger than mine, I was about four inches taller and perhaps 40 pounds heavier than he, so the net effect was that we didn't move much. That was apparently too much for him. He yelled, “You're under arrest!” Assessing the rapidly deteriorating situation, I asked him what he wanted me to do. He told me to go across the street and stand next to his pickup truck, which had CHP markings. I said “Okay” and did as he instructed.
After telling me that I was under arrest, the policeman
spent the next several minutes shepherding the cyclists across the street into
the parking lot in front of a bar/cafe. The cyclists were all well behaved and
followed his instructions, but he continued to behave in a very agitated
manner. He then approached me again and took out his handcuffs, placing one on
my left wrist. I made no move to resist, but I did look at him in about the
same way that I would a cockroach that had just gone swimming in my soup. This seemed to make him even more
apprehensive -- he yelled to a man
standing on the steps of the nearby bar “
The officer put on the other handcuff, then tightened both of them so that they were indenting my wrists. He pushed me into the right seat of his pickup truck and strapped me in, then went back to issuing citations to the riders. While this was going on, some of the spectators came over to the truck, one at a time, to chat with me. Several mentioned that they had witnessed the incident and would be willing to testify. I suggested that they continue to keep their eyes open inasmuch as this fellow still seemed to be out of control.
I learned that the reason the marshal was not at the intersection was that he had been seen by this policeman waving his flag at another group of cyclists, all but one of whom had stopped. Instead of going after that rider, the policeman had cited the marshal for illegally directing traffic!
After issuing citations to only about half of the riders in the group, apparently selecting them at random, the policeman returned to his truck. I pointed out that the cuffs were on too tight and that the circulation was cut off at my left wrist. He refused to do anything about it. “I'm taking you the jail in Downieville,” he remarked.
Meanwhile, other members of the race caravan had continued back to the finish line and told my wife that I had been arrested and handcuffed and was being taken off to jail. She knew that she had the car, but had the good sense to stay there to finish judging the race. As she told the other worried members of the race staff, she figured that I could take care of myself until she found a way to get me out.
Out of control
There I was, sitting handcuffed in a pickup truck with an
emotionally disturbed fellow who claimed to be cop. He said that he was taking
me to Downieville, which was in the Mother Lode country
about 30 miles away over
He started his truck and went after them anyway, taking me along, naturally. As we overtook them, he suddenly said to me, “This situation is getting out of control. I need your help.” I responded, “You've got to be kidding! I'm under arrest and handcuffed and you want me to help you?” “Here,” he said, pushing a microphone toward me, “Tell them to stop. They'll listen to you!”
I thought about this for a moment and decided that cooperation was still the best tactic in dealing with this distraught fellow. I picked up the microphone in both hands, given that my wrists were connected, then pushed the button and said, “Gentlemen, please stop at the next intersection.” A rider who was alongside us at that point yelled through the open window, “Hey Les! What's going on?” I simply held up the handcuffs so that he could see.
The riders all stopped as requested. After the cop had rounded them up, he came to my side of the truck, let me out, and took off the handcuffs, saying that he appreciated my help in that difficult situation. He then started handing out citations to the riders. After awhile, he yelled to one of the local bystanders, “You know, one of the problems with bicycles is that they get in the way of logging trucks. Isn't that right?'' His buddy dutifully confirmed, “Yup, sometimes on this road I just can't get around them.”
I thought about the several times that I had been run off the road by logging trucks and what I would have liked to have done to the drivers. Instead of pursuing that issue, however, I pointed out that logging trucks with a full load often slow down following traffic and asked, “Why should logging trucks be permitted to do that if cyclists can't?” The cop explained that “Cars and trucks pay gas taxes, so they have a right to use the roads. None of these cyclists is paying taxes, so they have to stay out of the way.”
Up until that point, I still wasn't sure who I was dealing with, but his bizarre legal theories seemed to fit the old accounts of Officer Rupp. About that time another highway patrolman and a sheriff's deputy appeared and began assisting in the massive issuance of citations. I asked the deputy if the man in the jumpsuit was Officer Rupp. “Yup, that's Dean Rupp,” he replied. This made the situation clear -- Officer Rupp apparently hadn't learned anything about the law since he stopped the Tour of the Sierra in 1974.
I later learned that even though it was Rupp's day off, one of his buddies at the bar in Sierraville had seen the race go through and, knowing of Rupp's interest in such activities, had telephoned him at home. Rupp had not been told about the race by his CHP superiors because it was supposed to be his day off. Responding to the call of duty, he had managed to get there by the time we came back through town on our return trip.
Like many cyclists, I was quite familiar with the California Vehicle Code, which says in Section 21202(a):
“Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at such time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:
(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.
(2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.
(3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a `substandard width lane’ is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.”
The key phrase here is in the first sentence where it says “at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction.” For both the group that I was following and the next group that he stopped there was no traffic going the same direction other than race vehicles, so there was no obligation for the riders to keep to the right and certainly no justification for issuing citations.
Rupp's remarks to me began to sound as though he was changing his mind about arresting me. I suspected that he had begun to realize that his false arrest had been witnessed by at least two dozen people, half of them riders and the other half spectators, and that his story would not hold up in court. While I was standing there watching more citations being issued, a spectator came up to me, introduced himself, and said that he was a member of the bike club that organized the race. He also said that he was a lawyer and that he would be happy to provide legal assistance if I needed it. I thanked him and said that I would likely need his help soon.
After issuing citations to the second group of cyclists for about ten minutes, Officer Rupp came back and said that he would like to talk to me alone -- that he was willing to consider releasing me. He even put his arm around my shoulder to guide me away from the others for a private chat. I shrugged it off and introduced him to my newly-acquired attorney, saying that I would like him to be present during our discussion. Rupp began sputtering and shouted that I had no right to have an attorney present. He frothed for a minute or so, then stalked off.
Rupp came back awhile later with another patrolman and said that he was willing to consider releasing me, even though I “had interfered with him earlier,” in view of the fact that I “had helped him out of a difficult situation.” He then gave me a form to sign. I read the form carefully and noticed that it said that I was acknowledging that I had never been arrested. I refused to sign it, saying, “You told me that I was under arrest and you handcuffed me, even though I did not interfere with you in any way. I recommend that you do whatever you have to do.”
Rupp again went away in a huff, then
came back a few minutes later saying that he was going to release me anyway,
but he needed another form that was being brought from
On the way back to
I told Humphries that the cycling community wanted to cooperate with the CHP and other authorities and to run races that do not substantially interfere with highway utilization by others. I described how the Colorado Troopers ran rolling road closures for the Coors race that seldom delayed drivers more than about three minutes.
Humphries' response to that was to brag about personally
prohibiting a bike race at
Two months after making that claim, the same CHP office approved a rolling road closure on some of the same roads around Tahoe so that a large magnet could be transported through the there to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. I saved a copy of the newspaper accounts so that the next time the CHP tried to make that claim we could politely threaten them with a lawsuit. I decided not to discuss any of this with Sgt. Humphries, however.
A couple of times as we passed cyclists and follow vehicles
during the trip back to
The media had a good time with the 1982 Rupp incident, helped along by false statements from Sgt. Humphries, and it appeared that nobody learned anything from this incident. An article in the Reno Gazette-Journal the day after my half-arrest showed that Sgt. Humphries had no better understanding of the law than did Officer Rupp. The article reported:
“About a dozen citations were issued to bicyclists for not riding single file,” CHP Sgt. Stan Humphries said.
Of course, there is no such law. Sgt. Humphries evidently got his legal advice from Officer Rupp. The article continued:
“The race's chief referee, Les
Earnest, an official of the U.S. Cycling Federation from
I thought that was an interesting remark, given that
Humphries had driven some 50 miles to bring me a form that claimed I had never
been arrested and then had given me a ride back to
I continued to receive inquiries from newspaper and
television reporters in the Tahoe and
Nevertheless, one of the witnesses filed a complaint with
the California Highway Patrol on my behalf and, after a month and a half “investigation,”
the Commander in Truckee issued a whitewash statement. After that, a group of
I do not wish to imply that a majority of CHP officers are as ignorant as Officer Rupp and Sgt. Humphries, though I have met a number of them who are. For some reason, these petty tyrants seem to be found more often in rural areas than around cities. The thing that worried me the most about my false arrest was not the ignorance of the CHP officers involved but his emotional instability. The CHP should not let men like that go running around enforcing their legal fantasies with guns strapped on their sides. My guess was that if Rupp ever does meet with provocation he is likely to shoot someone.
That incident was not the last we heard of Officer Rupp.
The road North of Sierraville that had been used for time trials was repaved in early 1983, which obliterated the survey marks that had been painted on the road edge to indicate the various distances. Larry Glickfeld, who lived nearby and who had earlier organized the Tour of the Sierra, volunteered to resurvey and remark the course. Somehow Officer Rupp caught Glickfeld surveying the course and cited him for repainting the small white marks on the edge of the road. Glickfeld generously mentioned that he was doing this for a promoter named Bob Leibold, so Rupp issued him a citation for good measure, even though he was about 500 miles away at the time. Leibold managed to beat the rap, but Glickfeld had to pay a substantial fine.
In 1984, I came back to Sierraville to again run the district time trial championships. A rule change that I initiated late the preceding year had the effect of changing the length of the time trial from 25 miles to the slightly shorter distance of 40 km., which made it necessary to resurvey the course for the second year in a row, alas. The surveying was successfully carried out somehow, but the local authorities subsequently painted over the survey marks and required the promoter to post a $500 bond to ensure that their rustic road would not be defaced again. I was worried that we would not be able to determine the start, finish, and turnaround points exactly, but it turned out that the black paint that they used to paint over the survey markings was much blacker than the pavement, so the reference points were still visible.
Officer Rupp showed up for the time trial and drove up and
down the course while it was going on, but behaved himself. I noticed that a
second officer had been assigned to his car that day, which may have had an
inhibiting effect on him. That turned out to be an ideal day for racing -- cool
and calm. Rider Judy Layton of
Out and back
I haven't been back to Sierraville since 1984, but I heard in 1985 that Officer Rupp had left town. In 1987, he reportedly returned and again now defends the roads against the connivances of wily cyclists. Much to everyone's surprise, for the 1988 district time trial championships, Rupp insisted that a segment of the road be closed to traffic for the benefit of the cyclists. Not only that, but he gave a ticket to a local resident who insisted on driving through anyway! Maybe he has reformed, but I wouldn't bet on it.
If you decide to bike through the scenic valley that contains Sierraville some day, you are likely to meet Dean Rupp. If you do see him, please say “Hello” for me. Also, I suggest that you bring your lawyer, just in case.
 Roy Blount Jr., “An Ace came out of the Pack,” Sports Illustrated,
 Owen Mulholland & Pig Pen,
 Ed Jacoubowski, “Mike Neel dominates Tour of Sierra,'” Cyclenews, Vol. 3, No. 6,
 “Highway patrol `busts' bike race,” Reno Gazette-Journal, page C-1,
Officer Rupp later retired and reportedly has since passed away. However more of his kind still lurk on back roads, especially in small towns where cycling is uncommon and there is only one cop in charge.