Grief on Wheels
Remembering Randonneurs We Have Lost
Two of the most difficult moments of my life have come on randonneuring events. Both involved the death of a fellow randonneur.
The first was during a particularly groggy and sleep-deprived stretch of Paris Brest Paris in 2011, when I came upon a number of emergency vehicles in the outskirts of a village. I saw an abandoned bicycle under a truck, but I did not stop to figure out what had happened, partly because I did not want to get in the way, and partly because I did not then want to know the details. I knew in my bones that something bad had happened.
As I continued the ride, the information that came to me about the incident was fragmentary and confusing. Eventually, I did get word that a rider had died. For a while, I thought that two riders had been killed.
In my confused and exhausted state, I thought that the death of a rider would surely mean the end of PBP for that year. “How could we continue after the tragic death of a rider?” I asked myself over and over again, in the obsessive way one does on a long ride. I was surprised, then, when I arrived at the next control, and found that it was functioning as usual, with no talk about closing down the ride. Eventually, I, too, returned to normal, and stopped obsessing about the disturbing scene I had witnessed.
Only after I finished did I learn that Thai Pham of the DC Randonneurs had tragically died on the ride at the age of 58.
These painful memories of three years ago came flooding back to me during a 200K in Ohio in March of this year. As I approached the turn-around point in Troy, Ohio, I came upon a stretch of road that was closed off, with police cruisers, a fire truck and ambulances blocking the way.
This time, there was no doubt about what had happened. Joe Giampapa, a 56-year-old cyclist from Columbus had been struck by a minivan and killed. His body lay along the side of the road, covered by a blanket, and his mangled bicycle was some distance away. The windshield of the van was shattered, and its driver sat in a police vehicle writing his report.
To be at this site was to feel deep loss. Beyond the mere fact of Joe’s untimely death was the fact that there was no way of explaining it. He was killed in the late morning, when there was plenty of light and no glaring sun on the horizon. The road was straight, with no chuckholes or other barriers to dodge. The driver was not impaired in any obvious way. The bitter cruelty of Joe’s death was evident to everyone who was there. A very kind sheriff explained to the six of us who had come to the site what had happened, and he could not hold back the tears as he did so.
Eventually, the sheriff told us that we could continue on our ride. As on PBP, I was unsure about what to do after the death of a fellow randonneur. Should we stop the ride to honor Joe? David Roderick, the Ohio Randonneurs RBA, had arrived at the site, and, after some deliberation, he said that we should decide for ourselves what to do. The ride would continue, but everyone would understand if we decided to withdraw.
Some riders did withdraw. But because I had driven three hours to get to the event, I did not have an easy way to return to my car. And it seemed that the safest way to return to the starting point was to follow the brevet route. I and the riders with me decided to continue.
We walked our bikes past Joe’s body. It was unbelievably sad. I could not think of any way to pay tribute to Joe except to remove my helmet. It seemed a woefully inadequate gesture.
Unfortunately, this scene was played out again on August 9th of this year, when Matthew O’Neill, a 33-year-old cyclist from Chula Vista, was killed on the California Central Coast 1200K. As was the case with Joe Giampapa, there is no good explanation for what happened to Matthew O’Neill. He was killed at 7:30 p.m. on a summer evening by a 16-year-old who was driving a truck hauling a horse trailer on a straight road. There was nothing about the weather, the state of the road, or the behavior of O’Neill that would explain this inexplicable accident.
This was obviously a tragedy for Matthew O’Neill’s family and many friends. But it must also have been a terrible thing for those on the ride with him and for the organizers of the event. I feel deep sympathy for them.
With the help of Mark Thomas, I have been able to identify four other riders, in addition to Joe Giampapa and Matthew O’Neill, who have been killed on RUSA events during the 15-year history of the organization.
Gustavo A. Antonini, aged 66, and his stepson William W. Cupples, aged 44, were killed while riding in a bike lane on February 8, 2004 on a 300K brevet outside of Gainesville. The driver left the scene of the accident, but flipped his truck over about three miles down the road. The driver was sentenced to 15 years for DUI manslaughter, and was spared a longer sentence after the family of the victims wrote a letter expressing forgiveness and asking for leniency in his sentencing.
Stan Oldak, a 60-year-old randonneur from New York City, was hit by a truck and killed while riding a 400K near Columbus, Texas, on May 6, 2007. Oldak had been president of the New York Cycle Club, and had come to Texas for the 400K in order to qualify for Paris Brest Paris. The driver of the truck that hit him left the scene of the accident, and, so nearly as I can tell, was never apprehended.
James Swartzman, aged 46 from Encino, California, was hit and killed early on the morning of April 10, 2011, while riding a 600K near Leucadia State Beach. The motorist left the scene of the accident, but was later apprehended and sentenced to two years for hit and run manslaughter.
I am not well enough versed in the actuarial sciences to say whether six deaths over the 15-year history of an organization that has had 10,000 members mean that randonneuring in the United States is particularly dangerous. With over 30,000 highway fatalities in the US each year, I am inclined to think that most randonneurs are at greater risk when they drive to events than they are when they actually ride them. In the age of the automobile and jet plane, all forms of travel carry some risk, and I am not convinced that cycling in general, or randonneuring, in particular, are especially dangerous forms of travel.
I do know, however, that all of these deaths hurt. And I also know that 2014 has been a tough year for RUSA. Not only have we had two deaths, but, in the passing of Joe Giampapa and Matthew O’Neill, we have seen two good men snatched away, in the prime of their lives, from their friends and family. And there is simply no good explanation for either death. As cyclists, Joe and Matthew were doing everything right. And yet they were killed.
One of the questions I have found myself thinking about since riding through the site of Thai Pham’s death three years ago is this: What do we owe to fellow randonneurs who have fallen?
If you are in the middle of an event where this happens, it is hard to muster the detachment and good sense to give a reasonable answer to this question. If it had been entirely up to me, I think I would have cancelled the events in both Ohio and in France. And I think that would have been the wrong answer.
For one thing, if you are a near-witness to a death, it is all too easy to put yourself in the place of the victim. What if I had reached this place in the brevet an hour earlier? Or what if the motorist had come by an hour later? These are not merely hypothetical questions. You know in your heart that it could just as easily have been you who died that day.
Moreover, being at the site gives you a deeper sense of the loss than you would have if you had read about it afterward. For several weeks after the death of Joe Giampapa, I was in touch with two randonneurs who were thinking about quitting the sport because of what they had witnessed. It wasn’t so much that they feared their own death as they feared what their deaths would do to their wives and children. How could I put my family through that, they asked?
Ultimately, though, they both kept riding, and they both went on to finish longer RUSA rides in the course of the season. And it seems to me that this is the right answer. Curiously, we honor our dead best by continuing to do the sport that we love and that we share with them. In this, randonneuring is like life itself. Sooner or later, we must all come to grips with the death of friends, colleagues and loved ones. But we cannot stop living out of deference to the dead.
For this reason, I have been grateful for the wise and humane guidance of organizers and riders who carry on despite grievous circumstances. In Ohio, I was impressed by the quiet dignity of David Roderick, David Buzzee, and the other volunteers who made it possible to finish that ride. And, while I was not there, I understand from the accounts of others that the California Central Coast 1200K continued in a dignified and respectful way after the death of Matthew O’Neill.
At the end of the day, I think, the best we can do for fallen randonneurs is to keep riding, and to keep their memories alive.
One way to remember and honor those we have lost is to work to change the circumstances that led to their deaths. After his death, the family of Joseph Giampapa released a statement supporting a three-foot passing law, which was then before the Ohio legislature. (Unfortunately, the bill was later withdrawn.) Likewise, the family of Matthew O’Neill launched a campaign, “Remember Matthew: Change Lanes to Pass a Cyclists,” to extend and enhance California’s recently enacted three-foot passing law, and to increase awareness of cyclists on our roads. We owe it both to ourselves and to those we have lost to be the best bicycle advocates we can be in our communities.
But we can also do a lot through RUSA and through our individual clubs to remember those we have lost. One of my favorite things about randonneuring is the Société Adrian Hands, which has its own jersey and recognizes riders who achieve a time on PBP “equal to or greater than Hands' 2003 finish time of 88:55.” While the mission of the Société is somewhat jocular, it keeps Adrian Hand’s memory alive, and it perpetuates the spirit he brought to randonneuring.
Because of the Société and its distinctive tie-dyed jersey, I have had conversations about Adrian Hands with riders in various states in the US, and in England, the Netherlands and Norway, and I got to meet and ride with his son on a stretch of PBP in 2011. I was very pleased to learn afterwards that Ian had managed to match his father’s time 88:55. As I have met others who have either joined the society or aspire to do so, it is clear to me that Adrian Hands is now a living part of an international randonneuring tradition.
Likewise, when I rode the Cascade 1200 this year, I found that the ride jersey had RUSA number 2391 printed on one sleeve. In this way, I got to know about Donald Boothby, who died a premature death from cancer at the age of 61 in 2012. While I never had the chance to meet him, I learned that he was a spirited randonneur, and a much loved volunteer for Seattle International Randonneurs events. I thought that a wonderful way to remember him.
In the same way, I think we need to keep alive the memories of Mathew O’Neill, Joe Giampapa, Jim Swartzman, Stan Oldak, Gustavo Antonini, and William Cupples. In some sense, they are all still with us. We can look up their results on the RUSA website, and we can talk with people who knew and rode with them. And we can go on telling their stories, and remembering what they brought to the sport.
Let us ride on, then, no longer encumbered by their deaths, but enriched by their presence.