She wasn’t a cyclist. She was a person.

May 21, 2012 § 41 Comments

Suzanne Rivera is dead. Contrary to comments posted in various news articles, she didn’t die doing what she loved. She died trying to avoid a race support van that had parked in the middle of a fast, blind, downhill curve, obstructing part of the lane for no good reason at all.

Presumably, her last thoughts were “Oh my God, I’m going to hit the back of that van!” Presumably, she was frightened. I’d go so far as to say she was terrified beyond belief, like every other cyclist in the history of two wheels who, in that split second between realization and impact, knows that this may well be the last thing she ever sees.

No, she didn’t die doing what she loved. And no, it wasn’t unavoidable. And no, the fact that she was a brand new racer with brand new racer bike handling skills can’t be ruled out as a factor in her death.

Amazingly, I’m not blaming anybody

I am, however, pointing out the horror and revulsion and senselessness and loss we feel when someone dies or suffers a catastrophic injury riding a bike. We feel it because it feels an awful lot like us. Whether Jorge Alvarado on a training ride, Robert Hyndman on a challenging descent, or Suzanne Rivera in a twisty road race, these deaths shake us to our core.

The dead are young men with their entire lives ahead of them. They are mothers acting as role models for their young children by practicing fitness and engaging in healthy activity. They are retirees finding pastimes that are social and fun. They are us, and their deaths remind us that when you roll out the door, happy and excited and anticipating the fun that awaits, there is a reasonable chance that you might not return. Ever.

In Suzanne’s case, though, the horror and tragedy are compounded by something else: The unspoken rule of the road. Coming hard on the heels of a hospital visit last week, where I saw a cyclist and wonderful friend in the earliest stages of recovery from a broken neck, it has occurred to me that we must not let the secret go unspoken any longer.

We have a duty to remind people of it, especially the beginners, and even more especially the beginners who decide to pin on a number and lock horns. We have a duty to tell this secret, because it is a dirty one, a painful one, and also a universal truth.

If you’re going to ride fast, you are going to crash.

And the rule has a corollary, almost as terrible as the secret itself: You will crash not once, but many times. And the final part of the secret? The chances are fair that at least one of your crashes will leave you with a broken bone or an injury to your head or spine.

Would you still ride if you knew?

If, before purchasing that brand new bike, you were to read a list of the injured and their injuries just from the people who regularly do the local Donut Ride, would you still decide that this is the sport for you? Some would.

If, before entering your first mass start event, you were to read a list of the people who’d been hospitalized after going down in a bike race in the last twelve months, would you still pin on the number? Some people would.

Why?

Because the life they’re in pursuit of isn’t a life of comfort and safety and freedom from risk.

A beautiful life

After reading the news accounts, statements by her friends and teammates, and her obituary, one thing is clear. Suzanne Rivera lived a beautiful life. Surely she fully appreciated the risks of racing a bike. The waiver says you can get seriously injured or killed. Everyone reads it. Everyone thinks about it, however briefly, before deciding that it probably won’t happen to them. Everyone signs it.

Yet even more surely, she appreciated the feelings of power and strength and competition that are unique to bike racing.

Her life seemed to be about her husband, her children, and taking the challenging path rather than the safe one. When the gauntlet was thrown down, she picked it up at an age when most people are trying to find the easy groove, not test themselves against the relentlessness of the road.

Those of us who continue to push hard, knowing what’s likely to follow, are following in her footsteps.

Why?

For me, and probably for you, it’s because we know no other path.

With the hardness of marathons in her legs and the steel bit of the bike between her teeth, it was the only path that Suzanne knew, too. May her newfound serenity be a worthy end to such a long, hard, beautiful road.

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§ 41 Responses to She wasn’t a cyclist. She was a person.

  • the mostly reverend says:

    wonderfully written. I intend to share the hell out of this. suzanne, her family, and her friends are in my thoughts.

    • Wankmeister says:

      Thanks.

    • foggybiker says:

      I cannot help feel bad for the driver of the van. I cannot help but wonder how far out in the road he really was, given some of the eyewitness accounts I heard from people who were there. It was a tragedy no doubt. That her spirit carries on is also no doubt. I encourage healing before blaming.

      • Wankmeister says:

        Definitely not into blaming on this one. I don’t have the facts, just news reports. The focus here is on the loss and what we can take from it, for sure, not the finger pointing. Thanks for posting.

  • El Sapo says:

    “…her newfound serenity…” Are you waxing metaphysical here? Something tells me you are more Dostoevsky’s Ivan than Zosima.

  • Mary Spies says:

    WOW. passionate writing. crytal clear. a sport with dangers. a person with a life, loved ones and a person who embraced life. for most that read this article no matter what sport..there is no other choice. its choosing to embrace life. her body is gone but what she loved in life will be stronger and louder and hopefully safer. Her death an example of living. Mary Spies

    • Wankmeister says:

      We’re all headed the same place. Fearfully, and safely trying to hang onto every possible second? Or balls out, wringing every possible drop out of the present, honoring the gift of life?

      Thanks for the comment, Mary.

  • Mark Manson says:

    Truly written from the heart. You said a lot of things people are afraid to say. R.I.P. Suzanne.

  • Wacker says:

    Wanky,

    Suzanne and I were friends… she was a fixture on the local group rides here in the anus of the Central Valley. A true competitor and athlete that felt the buzz of the cycling needle very quickly. Your words accurately describe Suzanne the wife, mother, daughter, friend, cyclist, and competitor. The news of her passing and the circumstances surrounding the accident continue to resonate through our community.

    I, like you and your readers, am one of those who know no other way and continue to push on knowing the risk and potential consequences of ingesting our drug of choice… My wife and non-cycling friends don’t understand and I don’t expect them to. Last year I was hit by a truck from behind while decending on a morning group ride at 35 mph. The results for myself and the 6 others I took down with me could have been much worse than the morning spent in the ER, time off work and 6 weeks off the bike, and yet… everyone of us is back at it week-in and week-out. You see “the gun is cocked and loaded, the barrel in our mouth, and we LOVE the taste of metal”.

    We have been dealing with the death of Suzanne each in our own way. The “rusty blade of reality” has cut through the sun baked leather exterior of the collective cycling community to expose a nasty, festering, ignored for too long, boil of truth that needs to be lanced!

    I re-posted your blog regarding the death of Robert Hyndman from Nov, 2011 shortly after I received the news about Suzanne. Your words were thoughtful, poignant, and written with a truth that most will never comprehend. This post no less brilliant and I intend to share it also. On behalf of everyone from this community looking for our next “fix”… thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    Respectfully,

    • Wankmeister says:

      Really appreciate your taking the time to write this. Very good words, eloquently spoken. Thanks.

  • Thomas Byrnes says:

    Wankmeister,

    Thank you for this beautifully written post. My thoughts and prayers are with Suzanne’s family and friends.

    • Wankmeister says:

      This is the toughest part of cycling. It’s all too common. Thanks for taking the moment to say what you said.

  • Trudi Schindler says:

    I met and raced with Suzanne at the Vlees race a few weeks earlier. She was so strong and did so well in that race. We rode much of the race together in a break until finally I couldn’t keep up with her any more. We were 4th and 5th at that point. I was surprised she got away from me on the descent. I had a feeling she was new to riding and racing and she confirmed that when I spoke to her. I could totally relate to her. She was about my age. I have also done the Mariposa Stage Race and I know how she must have felt going into the 4th stage of the race as I hear she was riding strong. I’m sure she felt a huge sense of accomplishment at this stage of her life. And this is how she chose to spend her mother’s day. I know she was probably having the time of her life that day and that I would have seen her at many more races in the future. She was like me. She reminded me of me. I feel like we would have become friends if given the chance. Her death has hit me hard. As always Seth, thanks for your writing. It always makes me think.

  • Lee Ziff says:

    Seth, Your words resonate. Two years ago I tracked my criterium crash ratio and it averaged once every 25 races. I suspect that is about normal. Its a terrible and very real part of the sport. Boxers get hit in the head and we get road rash (or worse). I often ask myself if the risk is worth it and I suppose my answer can be found pinned to the side of my jersey on most weekends.

    I never feel like I’m risking my life in Criteriums but sometimes, usually while descending some twisty canyon, I become acutely aware of my mortality….and yet, at that same instant I feel incredibly ALIVE. I try to balance the thrill with a bit of wisdom and knowledge of my limits but if some car crosses the yellow line, someone like you will probably be writing about me too.

    • Wankmeister says:

      I was fortunate to spend some time today with Doug Shapiro, one of the greatest racers in US cycling history. Third American to ever complete the TdF, lieutenant of Joop Zoetemelk on the Kwantum team, member of the 7-11 squad during its European invasion, winner of the Coors Classic…etc. Truly a giant among giants in our cycling pantheon.

      We talked a lot about crashes and accidents. The fact is, if you’re going to ride fast, you’re going to crash. The crashes are what teach you when to hold back. They instruct you, violently, about where your limits are. They also teach you, brutally, what to do the next time you’re crashing…if you’re lucky.

      This is a conversation we shy away from, not only with new riders and racers, but with ourselves. We sign the waiver but somehow gloss over the fact that it’s there because people die racing their bikes. Say that to yourself a few times, slowly, at the dinner table. People die racing their bikes. Wow. And I’m doing this why?

      As you point out, the “why” is the ALIVE part. We’re out on the edge for no other reason than to be on the edge. The edge is where everything bleeds. It’s where the pain is. It’s where the risk is. It’s where the satisfaction is. It’s where the numbing adrenaline rush is.

      Thanks for your comment. It’s truly on point.

  • Hwy. 39 says:

    WM, thanks for so eloquently helping one rider face the music.

    It’s not just racers. As Wacker reminded us of Robert Hyndman, people die riding their bikes.

    Saturday, I descended Cerro Noroeste Rd from Apache Saddle as part of the Heartbreak Hundred. I hit 49mph without even trying on a twisting mountain road that I had never descended. It had blind corners, it was open to traffic and it was loaded with riders of unknown skill levels. At the bottom, I was pumped and exhilarated; it was one of the most fun descents of my life.

    Later on, while climbing Heartbreak Hill, it dawned on me, what was I thinking descending like that under those conditions? I had even told myself before the start to take it easy on the descents because they were unfamiliar. But once the road tilted down, the speed was like a drug I was powerless to resist.

    The last ten miles of that ride were downhill and I had a chance to set a PR for a hilly century, so once again logic and reason were tossed aside for the sheer pleasure that seemingly only speed can provide.

    Yesterday, after the joy of finishing had receded, after the congratulations from family and friends had faded, after I read your columns about Suzanne and Robert, I got scared. Shaking, pit in my stomach, scared. Riding a bike is not worth death or serious injury, but at the same time nothing else even comes close to the exhilaration and sense of being ALIVE that cycling provides. A life of comfort and safety and freedom from risk is not really an option. However, I know that if I do not do a better better job of managing the risks, you, WM, are going to be writing about me someday.

    RIP Suzanne. My hearfelt condolences to your family and friends.

  • nrjetik1 says:

    Nicely written..and yes I agree. Whether you are a beginner racer or an old pro we all share the risks of crashing and death.

    I know this all to well. 9 months ago my “newlywed” husband was killed on a training ride here in Belgium. He was an accomplished cyclist and long time racer and in his case, it was clearly just being in the wrong time at the wrong place..to my knowledge it was almost an instant death and yes, I highly doubt when he saw that car come at him, he thought I am dong what I love! If he had a chance at all before the light turned out, it would be of his 3 children.

    Funny thing is this does not stop me from riding my bike, however I certainly have heightened awareness of traffic and other obstacles.
    And yes heartfelt condolences to the families…I can tell you they have a challenging road ahead..

    • Wankmeister says:

      So sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing. It’s odd that we continue despite the risks, but we continue anyway. I can’t make any sense of it. Very best of luck to you and your children; yours is such a tough and sad story. Thanks again for writing.

  • Sandy says:

    There is something undervalued by deaths of people on bicycles, almost like the “she was asking for it, dressed like that” mentality, as we ask others to please consider sharing the road with us by moving their hands 2″ to give us a little room to ride our narrow little bikes. “a cyclist died …” – oh, too bad, on to the next story.
    It’s true, we’re little, it’s hard to judge our speed, etc, but the fault never seems to lie with the person who kills us. When I was very young, my family lived in France, and we understood that hitting a cyclist would mean BIG trouble.
    I think those who cause our death need to at least serve a traffic remediation or something, even it was completely innocent. Other it’s just another “accident”. Oh, too bad.
    Nice writing and excellent points.

    • Wankmeister says:

      One of the (many) problems is that it’s cyclists v. motorists. We aren’t cyclists. They aren’t motorists. We are people. They are people. People shouldn’t kill people. Cloaked in our labels of “biker” and “motorist” and “cop” and “lawyer” we mask our humanity and make it easier to rationalize these horrible things that are beyond the pale of rational. You’re so right. Thanks for this comment.

      • nrjetik1 says:

        Dear Sandy,
        I am living in Belgium which is also a very cyclist oriented country. In addition to cycling getting full respect as a sport the bike is a major transportation source and children in schools must take exams learning about how to ride etc. Most (not all) drivers do ride a bike.. Ongevalen (accidents) occur and I am in the process of seeing what will happen to the man responsible for killing my husband. I must wait for the court date which is not set..At this point, he (23 year old male) is free to drive and I am curious to find out what will be his penance, After all, his mistake caused 3 children the loss of their father, made a widow out of me. I am hoping his driving rights are taken away, period.
        However I must wait,

  • Bill says:

    Every senseless loss of life is a tragedy. Thank you for your commentary on cycling and life.

  • dot says:

    Sad indeed for Suzanne’s loss of life. On one hand bicycle racing can be considered an inherently dangerous sport. On the other hand, I feel not enough is being done to ensure safety of riders at many cycling events. Sure racers crashing is part of the sport, but vehicle and bicycle interaction should be prevented at all costs and never happen, yet so often you hear about it. Let’s hope whatever happened here can help future incidents like this from happening again.

    • Wankmeister says:

      It’s incredibly difficult driving a car on a race course with the racers on it. Passing, following, pulling over, slowing down…all are potentially catastrophic for the racers.

  • Anne says:

    thank you for such an eloquent post. I was at the race that weekend, spectating, and was devastated by Suzanne’s death. I would have been racing with her in the 4s if I were not taking this year off. I agree with your sentiment that she did not die “doing what she loved.” I have even told people, should some tragedy happen, to not say that about me but to say I died fighting for every chance to go on living. My heart goes out to her family. I can’t imagine the heart ache they must be feeling. I am so sorry.

    For reasons you discuss, I also do not generally recommend road racing to people without discussing that there is a likelihood of injury at some point. I had an early introduction to serious injury and came back, like so many others; and then I came back after a second serious injury. I can’t tell you why except that it fills me with joy in a way that I have not found in other sports.

  • BikingBrian says:

    Good post. Though I’m curious as to the context of USA Cycling spokesman’s statement about there being only “handful” of cycling deaths a year. I don’t think it’s an attempt to trivialize this or any other cycling death, though I could see how it could come across that way. Rather, I see it as an attempt to put the risks of cycling in perspective. Sure, cycling has its risks, but is it SO risky that we’re making a reckless decision every time we get on our bike? The benefit versus risk tolerance is different for everyone: I’ll pass on racing myself, but I consider the road riding I do – while not risk free – to be a reasonably safe activity. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less when we lose one of our own.

  • Buzz Morley says:

    One powerfully and well written take. “Yeah, he gets it totally, he goes strait to the core of cycling, being and many other things.”

  • barbara pearce says:

    This is a tragedy beyond measure. I, too, was seriously injured in a bicycle crash 3 years ago, on a descent at 38 mph and was taken down by loose dogs. I broke my clavicle, scapula, seven ribs, pelvis in three places, r hand, and had a brain contusion. Hospitalized three weeks,in a wheel chair three months. I had seven surgeries in two years following and was plated and screwed together. I first got back on the bike nine months after the accident and rode 35 easy miles. It was the thrill of my life and I needed to prove to myself that fear would not rule me. The next day I had wrist surgery. I started riding again one year ago. No one who does not enjoy the sport can ever understand the shear joy that we, as cyclists enjoy. No one understands why we would put ourselves at risk. I have seen and been to places I never would have except for riding the bike. I have met countless, wonderful people who share my passion. I have enjoyed fun and fitness on the bike all of my life. I have enjoyed the rush of competition. I was bound and determined to never give it up, to risk death doing what I love. I recently had another mishap on a mountain bike this time. It was an easy slow ride on a beautiful trail that was built for biking from an old railroad. A gate we had to go through snapped shut on me, threw me and my elbow hit a rock wall, breaking it badly. I needed surgery and wear yet another three inch screw in my elbow. Going through the pain and recovery again so soon, has made me start to wonder if it is all worth the risk. Again, I say yes, but with a little more reservation this time. I am sure once the pain is gone and I fully recover, I will ride once again; but it will never be the same. Yes, I rode from my home three years ago thinking I would be back in 2 hours. I unexpectedly did not return for three weeks, and the fact is real, I literally almost did not return at all. There is something addictive to this sport that keeps drawing us back.

    BikerBarb

    • Wankmeister says:

      Wow. It’s unbelievable how many people have been hurt yet keep riding after injury. One thing I’ve been wondering after reading all these comments is whether or not we simply ride too fast? How many of our accidents would have happened going 5mph slower?

      Sounds like you could have easily died in your first crash. Dogs on a descent? Wow. Glad you survived.

  • Deane says:

    Well said.

    I am 9 months into a recovery from going over a cliff (trying to avoid a race vehicle). The one thing I can share is that when being put into the back of the ambulance. I looked at the skid mark. It was over 60 feet long and when I went over, I went over ….fast. A bicycle travelling at speed (usually down hill) has about a quarter of the stopping power of a car. Think about it. When you hit 64 mph on a bike, you are used to doing that in a car, right? Don’t fall into the trap (I did) by thinking you can stop in the same distance as a car. You can’t.

    You are speeding down hill, and what gives you speed (hill gradient and smooth road) work against you when you need to stop.

    cheers

    Deane

    • Wankmeister says:

      Holy hell…that’s so counter-intuitive. I thought bikes stopped better and more quickly than cars. Heal up. Very sorry to hear about your accident.

  • chester says:

    It’s not about speed. My worst accident was a broken ankle from a fall at 10 mph on ice on my way to work. I found this blog while searching for some insight in how to deal with my wife’s opposition to my road racing. It’s no good to explain that racing isn’t really any more dangerous than fast group rides. I don’t race on the road a lot, but I don’t want to swear it off either. But I don’t want to make my wife crazy, even if, to me, her fear isn’t well-grounded. Still trying to figure out what to do.
    But you are certainly correct that we (I) don’t want to talk about the dangers. Virtually every cycling buddy has had at least one, and usually several accidents with broken bones or worse. But none of us would give it up. And even the death of one of our peers doesn’t do it, though it is very painful to think about it. In the end, I also feel most alive when on my bike. Even just riding to work – most days there’s nothing else I’d rather do. Very odd.

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