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March 19 VeloNews article

Awareness Test

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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  4/1/2008

Too Close to Home

On Sunday, March 9, a customer came into The Bicycle Outfitter and told my significant other Jim that Mt. Eden Road was closed because a Sheriff's deputy "took out two cyclists."

Come to find out it wasn't Mt. Eden, but Steven Canyon Road, where a patrol car had careened across a double yellow line and slammed into three cyclists riding in the opposite direction. Matt Peterson, 30, of San Francisco, died immediately. Kristianna Gough, 31, of Oakland, lived through a Life Flight but passed away at Stanford Hospital. Christopher Knapp, a German racer who was training with the group, suffered a broken arm and leg.

That road is just a few miles from my home. I've ridden it countless times. This accident really shook me up.

According to local press reports, here's what happened that Sunday morning:

Falling off the pace line, Daniel Brasse was the first to come on to the scene. There was no loud noise to warn him about what was around the curve near the entrance to Stevens Creek County Park. The Sheriff's car was facing the wrong way on the wrong side of the road after slamming into Brasse's three riding partners. Instead of rendering aid to the victims, Deputy James Council was walking around in a daze.

Paterson was already dead. Knapp was writhing in agony. Kristy, her leg severed and her head bleeding, was gasping for air. All Brasse could hear were screams. He ran to Gough's side to administer first aid. "She stopped breathing so many times," he told the San Jose Mercury News. "Each time I told her, 'Baby, keep breathing. You're strong.' She kept fighting."

Totally preoccupied, Brasse never spoke with Deputy Council. But Bryce Renshaw, another cyclist witness, said, "I saw the officer pacing back and forth on the roadway. He said, 'I must have fallen asleep.'" Kevin Valerio, who was riding behind the four riders, saw another deputy walk Council to her squad car as onlookers gathered. "She said, 'Don't talk to those people,' put her arm around him and took him to the car."

How, exactly, did a cop car on a routine patrol come to veer across a double-yellow line like that?

Although the media kept tabs on every wrinkle, precious little information came out during the following week. Word of mouth told of a witness who saw a Sheriff's cruiser descending the steep section of nearby Pierce Road at high speed on the wrong side of the road.

Council's lawyer told the Merc, "To be candid, I don't think my client really knows what happened." And Santa Clara county Sheriff Laurie Smith said: "I don't know if he dozed off. It's fair to say at this point that we know that we [the Sheriff's Department] caused the accident. I understand, well I believe, that we will be found at fault."

Kristy and Matt

I didn't know Kristy Gough or Matt Peterson. Those who did told us about them in the ensuing days.

Kristy had left Chabot College in Hayward to pursue her dream of becoming a pro triathlete. She switched to competitive cycling, joined the East Bay team Third Pillar Racing and won every race she entered.

According to Craig Robertson, Kristy had earned upgrade points from Cat 4 to Cat 2 in just a few weeks. "I spent my January weekends at the Early Bird Crit training series and she was there. She won the mock crits and the official Early Bird Crit in February." She also won the Cherry Pie Criterium in Napa, the Snelling Road Race, the Pine Flat Road Race, the Merced Crit, and the Merco Credit Union Road Race and Crit "(on two consecutive days!). This was a very talented woman. On the USAC site (the official US racing organization) she is undefeated."

Carole Sykes encountered Kristy at a racer's training series in January and February. "She pretty much toasted all of us, every weekend. Then I raced the Cherry Pie Criterium in February; Kristy was there and won handily. She was a phenomenal athlete, won everything she entered. She was scary strong ... ."

Matt Peterson rode with Team Roaring Mouse, out of the San Francisco shop by the same name. Team co-founder Larry Rosa remembers hearing four years ago from Matt, who said he was looking to get in shape after he hit nearly 300 pounds.

"[Matt is] one of those dudes that is always trying to do the hardest thing out there," said Roaring Mouse president David Parrish. "One of those adrenaline junkies." Peterson, who grew up in Arizona, did a 24-hour endurance mountain biking race in the pouring rain in Whistler, BC, and an Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid, NY.

This year Matt's goal was to win the Merco Credit race in Merced. On March 1 he won his division. "That was a pretty incredible moment," Parrish said. "It felt a little bit like a movie or a fairy tale."

"You couldn't have a leisurely ride with Matt," said Seth Berling, a fellow Roaring Mouse rider. "It turned into a hammer fest. Matt's driving the pace and everyone else is just hanging on."

Hundreds ride in memory

Saturday, March 15, Kristy and Matt's teams sponsored a memorial ride from Foothill College to the crash site on Stevens Canyon Road. The Sheriff's Department provided a motor escort and closed Steven's Canyon Road while the riders paid their respects.

There was tons of press coverage, like this story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Helicopters hovered overhead to capture live coverage.

Corinne Winter, executive director of SVBC described her experience: "A fellow cyclist kindly gave me a packet of poppy seeds to sprinkle over the hillside where hundreds of flowers were lined up in a touching display of solidarity. As I stood there quietly taking in the scene, tears ran down my face. . . .My tears were born not only from observing the intense grieving. . .but even more out of my intense frustration with a system that views these types of deaths as the unavoidable consequence of an efficient transportation system."

Carole Sykes wrote: "It was very amazing to see the cycling community come out in full support. I know we are very vulnerable out there on the roads but this was a statement to all who saw - we care. We care about pursuing passion, we care about living in a way that makes us feel alive, we care about poor judgment, we care about the sorrow that comes to our friends, we care about tragedy, we care about police that fall asleep at the wheel and how they will have to live with that agony. It was quite humbling . . . .

The fallout

The reaction of the cycling community has been subdued. Said David Parrish, "Our team and cyclists we know have expressed little anger. . . Instead, there's a call for understanding. If cyclists are angry or resentful, it's because we bear the burden of responsibility for safety. For us, a crash is a matter of life and death."

Robert Orcutt of AltoVelo/Webcor told us: "We've gained scars that will stay with us forever. . . . we need to care for those that have lost so much and we all need to continue to practice safe ways on our highways, roads and streets......we each need to step back just for a moment and take stock of what we have, who we love, and what we do...we are each connected in some way and we each impact the lives of so many. . ."

Still, many feel that our trust has been betrayed. Gary Weeks told Mercury News columnist Patty Fisher that we're constantly on the alert for "thoughtless, careless, stupid and sometimes malicious" drivers. But we don't commonly fear that kind of behavior from police officers. "They are not only there to protect, but also to set an example. They have been specially trained (I hope) in driving and are paid to do this, thus I contend they are not the same as others, but should in fact be held to the highest standards." Added Fisher, "We do expect more from the police than we do from everyone else out on the road. And we deserve more. Careful driving is our responsibility, but it's their job."

"We currently live in a culture where the deaths of cyclists encourage fear of cycling," said Corinne Winter. "This needs to change-I believe we can change it. As a society, we need to adopt a worldview where road safety is not just one goal among competing values but is the core value."

There are still some who feel that media coverage remains couched in "blame the victim" mentality, reflected in Bob Mionke's March 19 VeloNews article. We have yet to hear from the CHP people who are (hopefully) investigating. But I believe neither the press nor the cycling community is going to let this one fade away.

Personally, I've been sad, depressed, and scared. I question the role of Sheriff's deputies in our county and my home town, which has no local police force but pays the Sheriff's Department to patrol. These are the people who are paid to protect us.

The following Sunday, I turned a corner and saw a Sheriff's patrol car making a left turn right in front of me. "Just what I didn't need to see today," I thought.

The day I started writing this column, a driver backing out of his driveway missed me by inches on a steep downhill. I screamed bloody murder but he just kept backing up. I cried all the way down the hill, my fears redoubled.

Please, let's all -- drivers, cops, cyclists, lawyers, judges, reporters, publishers, producers -- everyone take this Awareness Test and take its final words to heart.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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