Death Stalks the Peloton

When one takes up cycling, one gets more than a healthy activity, an outlet for competitive urges, an excuse to travel and a hole in one’s wallet. One can also choose to become part of the community of cyclists. There are training buddies, the team, and riders that one sees repeatedly on the road and at races. One can meet racers’ parents and spouses. At a big stage race, one can connect with riders from other states or countries. One can even develop a tenuous, albeit one-way, connection to the top athletes of the sport. With only a few degrees of separation, one becomes connected to riders and fans everywhere.

All that connection is awesome. It means rarely having to travel the road of life alone. A rider who is well established in the cycling scene will run into acquaintances, friends and friends of friends when riding, shopping or traveling, even far from home. When stuck, a rider can flag down another for a pump or patch kit. Most of us would stop to help another rider in need.

Riders identify with members of the community anywhere in the world. When something good or bad happens to a cyclist, it’s different than when it happens to just anybody. When a cyclist does something cool, we can all feeling some vicarious glory. When a bike gets stolen or a rider gets hurt, most of us feel the pain. It could just as easily be us. We are linked.

As a selfish individual, when I hear about an injured rider, I want to know how it happened. I know the same thing could happen to me. I want to learn from the misfortune and help myself and my clients and friends avoid a similar fate. When a rider wins something, I want to know how. I want to learn something to help me and my clients and friends win too.

One advantage of taking part in the cycling community is comrades ready to help. When a rider is badly hurt, the community pulls together to get him or her to the hospital and his or her bike home. Then we send get-well cards and even help pay bills when insurance doesn’t cover them. Being helpful in that way is an accepted cost, or maybe a benefit, of being part of a tight knit community. We support our comrades in part because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we know they would do the same for us.

Calamity Strikes

With connections to such a large community, it is inevitable that sooner or later each of us will know cyclists who die. Some of us will be on a team with a rider who dies from a riding error or a mechanical failure, or a car in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Unfortunately, many of us will know someone who is killed by a car, probably driven by a drunken a–hole who “never saw” the rider. We’ll feel sadness if we knew the victim, and maybe even if we didn’t. We’ll get invited to the memorial ride and we’ll be asked to be supportive of the family. We may or may not choose to attend.

Whether we knew the killed rider or not, we’ll feel anger. Maybe we’ll read about court hearings for the murderer and hope that he or she gets put away for a long time. Then we’ll probably end up watching in dismay as the murderer is put back on the street with a slap on the wrist. (Some may quibble with my use of the word “murderer”. What should we call a person who chooses to do something that they know might kill another?)

Many times, the calamity that claims the life of a rider will have nothing to do with cycling. We’ll know someone like my friend Mike, who’s doctor told him a lump was “nothing to worry about”, or like Bill who’s heart just stopped beating because of a previously unrecognized defect while he was driving home one day, or like Ed who died of pancreatic cancer, as many other cyclists and non-cyclists do. Maybe it will be someone like Kumar or Louie who radiated joy everywhere they went and rode like champions but had so many health problems for so long that it’s shocking that they managed to ride at all in the years we knew them. Maybe it will be someone like Jeff who was just minding his own business when a car crashed through a storefront and crushed him. Some of us will lose someone to something really stupid, like drinking so much that his liver rots out, getting high-centered in an SUV in the desert during a heat wave, or… it doesn’t matter really what kills them.

When one of our acquaintances dies, we’ll be sad. We’ll remember, and we’ll go on. But is that enough?

Death is stalking the peloton, waiting for one of us to slip up; waiting to catch us on a slippery patch of mountain road; waiting for the bit of tangled DNA that it can rearrange to change one of our cells into something dark and alien; waiting for just the right combination of distracted driver, and blind turn. Death wants us to pig out on fatty meats, drink more and ride less. Death wants us to ignore frayed brake cables and tire bulges. Ultimately Death comes calling for each of us, but we can do our best to delay that visit.

What can we do to put off death? First of course we can eat right, drink in moderation if at all and get plenty of exercise. We can wear sunscreen on sunny days, wear our helmets and always ride mindfully. We can encourage and support our buddies to adopt the same healthy, longevity enhancing habits that we strive to adopt. We can call our buddies out on their dangerous behaviors. We can keep reading the papers and attending the memorials, or we can fight back.

Call to Arms

Death someday comes for each of us and each of our friends, but the date is not set and in many cases it can be delayed. Let each cyclist death be a call to action. Some causes of death are beyond human interference, but in many situations we can force death to wait. There are numerous causes of death that we can eliminate or of which we can reduce the impact. No one rider can or should try to fix all of them, but if each of us chooses a cause and works for it we can change the world.

Bike racers need to be obsessed with their own racing and training. That’s required for success. We know and help other riders as riders, but the obsession sometimes keeps us from seeing them as human beings. We can’t necessarily take time out to save humanity, but we can take advantage of the riding we’d be doing anyway to do something for a bigger cause. Think about Team Novo Nordisk racing for diabetes. As I write this, I’m thinking, “Sure, race-winning pros could increase awareness for anything, but what about riders who are not going to be famous for their speed?” Okay, think about the thousands of people who had not ridden more than a few miles before they got started with a Team-in-Training cycling group, spreading awareness and raising millions of dollars to fight leukemia, lymphoma and related blood cancers. Think about the racers who have taken time out to coach those riders. Too much commitment? Everyone has time to do a one-day or weekend ride to support research and treatments for multiple sclerosis, cancer, Huntington’s disease, ALS or lung or heart disease. Taking a week off work to fight AIDS might sound like a big commitment, but what about riding a 500-mile, one-week AIDS Ride bike tour? That sounds like training camp for a cause. Charity and fund-raising rides are a good way to give back and rebuild some base at the same time.

Anyone can give a pint of blood at the beginning of the rest period in the fall. Plenty of non-cyclists donate blood that cyclists use.

When a drunk driver kills a bike rider, the murder is not usually a first offense. Often the killer has been arrested multiple times, but law enforcement doesn’t have the tools it needs to protect us from drunk drivers. The laws related to drunken driving in our country are far too weak. We can help correct that by signing petitions, joining Mothers Against Drunk Driving, attending court hearing and even organizing awareness or policy changing events.

Be a Part of Your Community

Community is a two-way street. What we get out of it depends on what we put in. Each time tragedy strikes the cycling community, we can choose to put our heads down and ride harder. We can say, “I didn’t know him. What’s the big deal?” We can ride alone, shut out the pain and ignore that we share a bond. Or we can help the victims and work to decrease the chance that a similar tragedy will be visited on us our friends. If all one can do is attend a memorial ride or observe a moment of silence for a fallen comrade, that’s what one should do, but I hope each member of the cycling community will be inspired to do more, to continue to work for a better world, even in the times between tragedies, even before he or she has known a cyclist who died. I hope each rider will, at least once per year, participate in a fundraiser, spread awareness, give blood or campaign for political change. I hope they will get involved and do what they can to improve the world for cyclists and non-cyclists alike. Doing so tightens one’s own ties to the community. One may save the life of a friend or even one’s own. When you finally get the big call up, no one should say, “I didn’t know him. What’s the big deal?” If y0u are involved, they won’t.