By Becky Furuta
My wheels whistled and pieces of dirt pelted my face in the hot crosswinds. I took a long gulp of stale water from my bottle, more to moisten the dryness in my mouth than to satisfy my thirst. I’d set out in the freezing pre-dawn darkness, and was now riding into searing afternoon heat with my bike pointed in the direction of nothing at all. Long stretches of empty tarmac somewhere in California.
I paused along the side of the road to glance at my cell phone, which had been vibrating for hours. Amy Dombroski was dead. She was 26, loved blueberries and was killed while training in Belgium when a truck hit her during a speed workout. I rolled numbly along for a few more miles until I decided amid the sadness and the shock to head back to my hotel.
We all ride knowing the risks we take, but if cyclists dwelled on those possibilities too long, the fear of all the “what ifs” would become paralyzing. For those of us who have counted lifetimes in pedal strokes as much as in days, riding a bike is a basic human need. For me, the bike has been a way of escaping a world in which I don’t walk through comfortably. For Amy, it was a place where she seemed more than human. She had a remarkable rise to the top in cyclocross, and was a member of the US National Team at the time of her death. Amy was her best self when she was riding – strong and ambitious and happy.
I sat on the terrace of my hotel that night, sipping a beer and coming to terms not only with the tragic loss, but with the realization that no matter whom you are and how adeptly you handle a bicycle, your life can be snuffed out in a second by carelessness.
As cyclists, we feel these losses viscerally. While those around us see the death of a cyclist as a kind of commonplace tragedy – the consequence of living in an era where mechanized conveniences have created an auto-centric society – we see nothing “commonplace” about someone driving a 3000 pound missile into the exposed body of a human being and scrubbing out their life in a matter of seconds.
I was sitting on my sofa, recovering from my morning training ride and a race one day earlier when I got the call that Gwen Inglis had been killed. Gwen was my longtime competitor and my good friend. One time, Gwen and I were early into a road race when I boldly went off the front, attacking the field and making a wrong turn in the process. Gwen glanced over, yelled at me to turn back, and slowed the field in the process. She believed in the ladies’ etiquette of the sport, in fairness of competition, in the integrity of winning on talent and not on the misfortune of another. Gwen’s strength never came from someone else’s weakness.
Another time, a group of bike racers found us stranded in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport late into the night amid a series of flight delays. After three consecutive days of racing Intelligentsia Cup, we were exhausted and desperate for food and sleep. Everything in the airport was closed save a few vending machines, and we were lined up on the cold cement floor trying to sleep on gear bags and balled-up sweatshirts.
Gwen’s husband, Mike, came striding up to us with his huge grin. That’s Mike – even when everyone else is knee-deep in “this sucks,” he’s finding fun. That ability to convert suffering to joy was what made both he and Gwen such incredible bike racers. They made everything seem easy, and they made the toughest stuff some kind of grand adventure.
“Have you ever been to the USO? They’ve got food and snacks and we can sleep in reclining chairs,” he offered.
My teammate Clark quipped, “Mike, I’ve always been grateful for your service, but never more so than right now.” We exited the terminal, and followed Mike to the USO where we ate and napped and realized far too late that security had closed for the night. We could not get back to our terminal, and we would miss our flight.
Mike laughed, and Gwen rolled her eyes. There were no available flights for us the next day, either. Our quest for Oreos and ramen and a comfy chair would mean spending another day in Chicago. Instead, I managed to find seats on an early flight out of Milwaukee. “But how are we going to get there,” Mike asked. “Uber,” Gwen replied.
And so it was that five of us piled into an Uber bound for Wisconsin at 3:00am, laughing through exhaustion and cracking jokes about the absurdity of it all. There was never a hint of annoyance or irritation. Everyone is at their best when the road ahead is smooth, but you really see people when nothing is going the way it’s supposed to. Gwen and Mike were open to whatever circumstances brought them, treating every moment as an opportunity to laugh and be together and find some unexpected good times. They brought the rest of us with them.
How could that light be dimmed so easily?
I sat there, digesting tragedy and choking on sadness, with the empty space Gwen filled hovering around me. A driver with drugs and alcohol in his system – with prior DUI charges – had veered into the bike lane where she was riding and smashed into her body as Mike helplessly watched from behind. She had been pronounced dead at the hospital.
In my mind, Gwen was still out there, pedaling a long stretch of road with a smile and climbing the hardest hills because she could. She would have hated leaving that ride unfinished.
I don’t know how we shock drivers out of complacency. I don’t know how we keep the names of victims from fading away, or how we amplify the hypocrisy of a public that condemns people for driving under the influence, but treats the death of a cyclist as some intrinsic casualty of being on the road in the first place. It’s not just about changes to infrastructure or stiffer penalties for impaired and reckless drivers, but a fundamental shift in cultural attitudes.
I do know that I still feel the call of road cycling. I’ve had a few days to process the loss of my friend, and the sadness of it all spreads over me like a warm blanket. But still, I want to ride my bike. It’s who I am. The bike remains the only place in the world where I feel truly at home and in love. I believe that the health benefits still outweigh the risks, and I know that the more people who ride, the safer it becomes.
Amy and Gwen knew that, too. They knew that cycling involves a certain amount of danger, but so does walking or skiing. They knew that most of the time, the bicycle isn’t a death sentence, but a new lease on life. My hope is that bike advocacy will continue, but without inducing the kind of fear that moves people away from the sport. It would be a tragedy of another sort if well-intentioned outrage becomes another voice saying that bikes are “just too dangerous.”
This isn’t to suggest that we should allow victim-blaming and the rationalization of horror, either. Exactly the opposite. We should acquaint ourselves with those who have died on their bicycles, with the awfulness of their final moments, and we should contemplate the decisions of the drivers who killed them. Instead of fear, we should find collective outrage in the notion that with every pedal stroke, death rides with us.