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Black Sunday.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

 

Lone rider on wet road.

We had just passed sixty miles. The ride was a gritty reality now, four tired men battling a headwind on the way to an eighty mile ride at a business-like pace.

Tom Markley’s phone began to ring in his jersey pocket. When a cyclist’s cell phone begins to ring during a ride it is either an annoyance or an emergency. This was an emergency. Tom’s wife, Lisa, was on the other line. She was frantic.

“A cyclist has been killed at Hines and Inkster…. Where are you guys?”

We were approximately ten miles west of that area on Hines just leaving Northville headed east at 20 mph. This was the beginning of Black Sunday: April 10, 2005. By the end of today, nine people, including three cyclists, would be injured in accidents in our area, one fatally. It is a stark wake-up call to the lethal and unforgiving nature of road cycling.

Earlier in the ride we were a group of eight that had been cut down to four by pace, distance and the better judgment of the four men with greater restraint than I. I was out to go hard and long, 80 miles. They wanted a shorter ride with breakfast after. As it turns out, that decision may have been made within three minutes of ending their lives.

The four men who started toward Ann Arbor with our group decided to turn right, or north, on Beck road and ride to Hines Drive where they would then loop back toward Dearborn for a late breakfast across from the bike shop.

In the odd convergence of time, chance and lethal happenstance three motorcycles, a jeep and a bicycle collided in one of the most bizarre chain reaction accidents I have ever heard of. That was only the tip of what was to occur on that deadly day. That Black Sunday.

Tom Markley’s Nextel connection was bad and the wind made it difficult to hear Lisa. We could tell by her voice that she was upset. Her words came through the static and wind noise in frantic tones. We could only pick out pieces of what she was saying.

“Cyclist…. Motorcycles…. One dead….. Paul’s wife….. “

Tom calmed her down. I told him to ask her where she got the information from. She told him Paul’s wife had phoned- that he (Paul) had just passed the accident scene and phoned her to recount it in gruesome detail. Wreckage, bodies, blood.

“Tom, hang up and call Aderhold, now…” I told Markley.

It was almost two years ago to the week that we lost our friend Michael R. Rabe in a bizarre accident. He went missing for nearly 18 hours, only to turn up as a John Doe, the victim of a drunk driver on the way home from my store on his bike. He had no identification on him. It took police nearly a day to identify his body. This was starting to feel ominously familiar.

I stood there waiting for Tom’s phone to be answered at Mike Aderhold‘s house. I wondered what would happen if his wife answered and said, innocently, that Mike had not returned from his ride yet. What would we tell her? We didn’t know anything. I had already begun my emotional damage control drill. Convincing myself that I could survive losing another best friend.

Suddenly riding a bicycle began to feel a lot like war. We were on the radio with a bad connection trying to find out who was killed. We were trying to determine the position of the accident relative to ours. We were trying to assess the threat level relative to us. We were making a plan to move to the site of the incident. What started out as a nice training ride on a beautiful morning was becoming much too serious.

Tom quickly hung up with Lisa after calming her down. Tom Markley is an experienced racer and a calm man. He knew what to say and how to say it. The moment he hung up he dialed Mike Aderhold’s phone number and I took a deep breath. The very same breath I took two years earlier after hanging up the phone with Ray Dybowski who told me, “Rabe never showed up this morning, we have a report of a cyclist killed on Warren…”

Aderhold, to my most immense relief, picked up the phone in his relaxed monotone. It felt like a freight train had been lifted off my shoulders. My concern immediately shifter to Mario.

“Hey, did Mario drive his truck to the shop this morning or ride?”

Sometimes our friend Mario rides his bike up Hines drive to the store to start a ride, other times he drives his truck to the shop with his bike in the back.

Mikey said he clearly remembered Mario’s truck not being at the shop. He had rode his bike to the shop. That meant he rode it home. Tom asked Aderhold if Mario made it home OK and Aderhold said, “Yeah, we had already passed the accident…”

Satisfied that all the members of our team were accounted for we remounted and started to ride to the accident scene. It was on our route home along Hines Drive. What we didn’t know was that all our numbers really weren’t accounted for, and before the day was over we would suffer another tragic loss in the local cycling community and nearly lose another.

The first thing we saw was a fire truck. Then wreckage. Lots of wreckage.

Small pieces of jagged plastic and metal were flung for hundreds of feet around the pavement. The road was closed. Yellow accident tape wiggled in the breeze. To the left, a motorcycle, or the largest fragment of a motorcycle, was lodged nearly upright in what remained of a wooden fence. A pile of wreckage lay in the center of the road surrounded by a gruesome stain on the pavement. The remnants of hasty medical aid blew in the wind. As we rode closer and jumped across the grass to the bike path we saw the pile of wreckage was roughly half of a motorcycle. The back half. The front had disintegrated. On the shoulder was the contorted, tortured cadaver of a road bicycle, completely mangled, one wheel entirely gone with tattered spokes hanging from the hub in a mangled rear triangle, the other wheel still clamped to the broken fork and bent at wild angles. In a field a hundred yards away was a black Jeep Liberty. The front left tire was gone, the floor board of the driver’s side was exploded inward and upward, both axles were broken and the remaining wheels tilted at random cambers. The vehicle appeared to be deposited randomly in the field, as though the explosion had lifted it up and set it down in the field.

The scene had the look and feel of a war zone. Shattered glass, mangled vehicles, crackling radios on Policeman’s hips, blood on the pavement, and most of all, confusion. I spoke briefly with a polite Sheriff who told me the cyclist had survived but likely had two broken ankles. He said he thought the guy on the first motorcycle “Probably didn’t make it”. I recognized the bicycle. It belonged to one of our customers. It was in the shop just a week ago for a tune-up. His family was there. He had called them on his cell phone immediately after the accident and they drove to the scene. I spoke with them briefly. He was transported, along with the other victims, to an emergency medical facility.

We remounted our bikes and in under two minutes were back to our smooth but tired rotating pace line at 20 mph into a stiff headwind.

Predictably, the accident has been the subject of much conversation today, the day after. It was on the news, and conflicting reports suggest one person died, some say no one died. Yahoo! News carried the story and reported seven victims injured in the accident. It said three motorcycles, a Jeep and a bicycle were involved. The report was lean on details.

I spoke with a number of people who saw the accident scene. Everybody has their own version of what happened. One version says a man on a motorcycle had a heart attack and veered into oncoming traffic. Another said that the driver of the Jeep had a heart attack. The Sheriff told me the driver of the Jeep said the sun was in their eyes. There was no certainty over what caused the accident or even how it unfolded- who hit who, what happened when.

In the ensuing conversation about the accident Mike Aderhold, Mario and Pierre said they arrived at the scene between 3 and 5 minutes after they thought the accident may have occurred. Emergency services had not yet arrived, but they heard sirens in the distance. Mario narrated what he saw:

“It was a mass scene of motorcycles everywhere just crashed to smithereens. There was a guy laying down- he was covered with a blanket. His foot was pretty much off, just hanging by a little piece. Then I noticed a road bike- totally f*****g smashed.”

Mario is a realist. He tells it like he sees it, and his narrative suggested a chilling, morbidly journalistic recounting of the scene.

“The rider was 30 feet from his bike. I don’t know if he was thrown up there or crawled up there. There was some lady patting him on the back.”

Later that day Pierre stopped in the shop. Monday was our rest day so we didn’t ride that morning. He came in to check on the next day’s ride. When I ask him about the accident his face got serious:

“They were just there at the wrong time. We just missed it. The first motorcycle… It was bad. The foot peg was all the way back to the bridge. The one guy from the motorcycle… I didn’t even want to go there. I was afraid for the worst. I didn’t want to see. The cyclist, he was laying face down. He didn’t look good. Then we saw his body moving. It looked like he had a couple broken ankles…”

Pierre did a tour in Vietnam as an interpreter and probably has some sense that this is not the kind of thing you want to see very well for risk of remembering it.

“I thought, I was sure, that there was a fatality there. When I saw the parts of the bicycle I figured that person was…. deceased. You know Tom, you don’t want to see that. I didn’t want to look…”

The recounting of the scene went pretty much like that. It was bad, no one knew what happened, no one wanted to look.

In a bizarre twist another accident, even more horrible, unfolded hours later near 8:00 PM several miles to the west and north. A group of road cyclists including D&D Bicycles Northville Store Manager Dan Foster was struck by a Mustang traveling at high speed. Some reports indicate the vehicle had run a stop sign. Dan’s riding companion, 17-year-old Todd Schoenheide of Northville High School did not survive. Schoenheide was riding second position in a three man pace line of road cyclists when the impact occurred. Dan Foster, third in line according to reports, narrowly missed being killed and was transported to St. Mary‘s hospital with a serious hand injury.

The vehicle did not stop immediately but later lost control and went into a ditch. Deputies told reporters they had reason to believe the vehicle was traveling well in excess of posted speed limits. One news agency reported it ran a stop sign at “between 70 and 100 mph” and hit Todd Schoenheide directly and continued down the road coming to rest in a ditch. Todd likely had no idea what hit him. The passing of this young life was instantaneous. Dan Foster, a polite, quiet, poised and hard working cyclist who has been in the industry all his life and plans to be married this fall, will carry this awful experience with him from now on. I know Dan very well and have for 20 years. In the small, local road cycling community Dan and I worked together at Bob Akers’ International Bike Shop years ago. Coincidentally, Bob Akers, owner of International Bike Shop, was part of the four man group that turned early from our ride that day. Bob is one of Michigan’s most experienced riders, a top track, tandem, cyclocross and road rider with a long and versatile history in the bike industry as the owner of International Bike Shop in Garden City. In a further reminder of the close knit nature of the cycling community, Todd Schoenheide was the nephew of Bill Rehor, the area Bell Sports sales rep. Todd worked for Don Moore, the long time owner and founder of D&D Bicycles.

It is an understatement to say that Todd Schoenheide’s death is a tragedy. That is obvious. It is up to us to heed this horrific warning. Schoenheide was, in actual fact, a model young man. Fine student and athlete, excellent employee of Don Moore and Dan Foster at D&D Northville. Dan Foster once told me that the reason he enjoyed working at D&D Northville was because of his crew, including Todd. I know everyone joins me in wishing Dan a speedy recovery and whatever peace he can find in coming to grips with nearly losing his life by a bike length and still losing one of his friends.

So this past Sunday, April 10th, 2005 was a lethal reminder of how incredibly dangerous our sport is. It was a wake-up call that we, as road cyclists, are only alive to ride again by the randomness of time and chance. That this randomness can turn against us fatally in an instant, and does so with sobering regularity and indiscriminate brutality.

People often ask me if this sport is dangerous, and I never mince words. I tell them it is extremely dangerous. I have traveled to seven continents, survived parachute malfunctions, flown in rickety airplanes and helicopters and swam with sharks. I’ve climbed the highest mountains on three continents and seen avalanches that would bury a five story building and crevasses that would swallow a 747. I’ve sailed in ships on the roughest sea in the world hopelessly out of reach of rescue.

But I have never done anything as dangerous, lethal, random and defenseless as setting my tires on the pavement and clipping into my pedals. Today, Black Sunday, is a reminder of that. But truthfully, I hadn’t forgotten.

Black Sunday, April 10, 2005: One dead, eight wounded and lives inexorably altered from now on.

Please never forget Todd Schoenheide and how dangerous our sport truly is.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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