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From the pages of Velo: A Death in the Family

  • By James Jung
  • Published Dec. 31, 2012
  • Updated Dec. 31, 2012 at 3:53 PM EDT
Velo December 2012

Ripe for Racing

That particular day felt ripe for racing: 70 degrees and sunny, one of those unseasonably warm, late-winter afternoons that southern New England cruelly throws at cyclists before going back into hibernation until nearly June. Coasting around the parking lot, you could sense the collective excitement. Riders were happy to be off their trainers, out of their tights, and back racing again. They chatted and joked while they pinned numbers and mixed bottles, smiled and nodded as they freewheeled past each other. Everyone was in high spirits; everyone seemed to be good friends.

Everyone, that is, except me. Still relatively new to the scene, I didn’t know many of the riders. But as I sat on the rear bumper of a teammate’s car, enjoying the warm sun while I applied embrocation to my milk-white legs, a familiar figure stuck out: A broad, 6-foot-5 German man with a personality large enough to match his hulking stature. His name was Markus Bohler, an ebullient, 49-year old Cat. 4 whom I’d met briefly the previous spring during a stage race in Vermont, my first in over a decade. I remembered the way he incessantly talked at the start of the first stage, diffusing the pack’s collective pre-race jitters with his goofy jokes and genial German accent.

Today, he’d focused his attention on a mustachioed Brooklyn bike messenger, some 20 years his junior, who was kitting up behind his parked car. They seemed an odd pairing, and yet despite their apparent differences the two men had the quick, easy rapport of old buddies. I remember sitting there listening to the casual cadence of their conversation and the adolescent-like laughs that punctuated it, thinking to myself, only at a bike race would these two polar opposites be friends. It made me happy to be a part of the funny little fraternity, even if I was only a wallflower standing at the margin.

Twenty minutes later, Markus and I were zipping around the circuit, and some 30 minutes after that Markus was lying on the side of the road, his big body limply planking the pavement while blood pooled around his face. He’d gone down in a crash with a few other riders on the backstretch of the circuit. The accident happened behind me, so I only heard the unnatural scrape of bikes and bodies hitting the deck. But by all accounts it had been as unremarkable as the corporate park’s bland surroundings — a momentary lapse of concentration, a quick touch of wheels, a simple spill. Nothing you couldn’t walk away from.

“Honestly, it didn’t seem like that bad of a crash,” my teammate Darius Shekari would later point out, shaking his head in disbelief. “We weren’t even going that fast, maybe 23 or 24 mph. My fast lap time for that race is 31 mph, so comparatively it was pretty tame.”

Even Markus’ teammates on the local Pawling Cycle & Sport team didn’t think much of the accident. “It was typical Markus just being friendly,” recalled 20-year old Brandon Freyer, a once promising runner at Syracuse who’d left school with a career-ending injury, moved home, and picked up cycling. The Cat. 4 rider (who’d go on to end his season as a Cat. 1) witnessed the pile up happen only a few wheels in front of him. “He was talking to a rider on another team, and he just put his hand on the guy’s shoulder during a slow point in the race to say hello and that’s when he went down.”

Considering the seemingly innocuous nature of the crash, we were all surprised to see Markus’ unconscious and immobile body still lying there the next time we’d made it around the loop. Officials had swarmed him. Someone ran into the road and flagged us to the other side, indicating that we should keep riding but that the race had been neutralized.

We soft-pedaled past the scene, rubbernecking to see the extent of the damage. I only caught a glimpse of Markus, but I immediately thought, “he’s dead” for the simple fact that he reminded me of Fabio Casartelli — lifeless and empty. Other riders were more optimistic, and I tried blocking any further morbid thoughts from my head.

The next two laps passed in a daze as we pedaled along, stuck in some awful procession that always ended with the same grim reminder: Markus still hadn’t moved. Seeing him lying there like that, bent and broken, cruelly exposed underneath the relentless sun of that brilliant afternoon, seemed fake. And yet everything else seemed false by comparison. Markus became the only reality. Of course this goes without saying, but bike races suddenly stop mattering when someone might be dying.

Three laps after the accident, promoter Aki Sato cancelled our field’s race. Unlike the rest of us, Sato had immediately understood the gravity of the situation. He’d been riding in our field and had stopped to check on the crash victims as soon as they’d gone down.

“When I looked down at Markus I realized immediately that he was badly hurt. He was unconscious, breathing heavily, and bleeding from his head somewhere,” Sato recounted, still deeply affected by the day six months later. “I think I was the only one who realized he was really hurt at first. I don’t think anyone else stopped other than those who crashed. I rode back and yelled to the marshal to call 911, to get the police officer at the race down to the accident, then I returned to the scene.”

While the paramedics tended to Markus on the opposite end of the circuit, our field congregated in the parking lot by the start-finish area with our heads down and our shoulders slumped, feeling deflated. Riders were whispering, speculating about the extent of Markus’ injuries. Some were even starting to wonder if he’d make it, but most clung to the idea that he’d pull through. He had to, right? Nobody dies in a Cat. 3/4 crit, in Connecticut, on a beautiful day, with spring around the corner and nothing but races and group rides stretching from now till September.

The sound of the ambulance broke through our hushed conversations as it sped up the gentle rise to the finish and then out onto the main road, leaving us silent in its wailing wake. Sato reappeared soon after, stoically pedaling up from the scene of the accident, only to break down in the presence of the stunned field. His wife of 10 years would later say she hadn’t seen such a raw reaction from her husband since the death of his mother, and that had been in private. Riders patted him on the back. It was no one’s fault, least of all his.

The Cat. 1-2-3 race, the final field of the day, went on as planned. I partook (a decision I’m not particularly proud of in retrospect), though it felt trivial and indulgent. At the finish, we still hadn’t received an update on Markus’ condition, but continued to hope for the best. By the time we were packing up and leaving, my shell-shocked teammates and I started discussing if we’d tell our wives and girlfriends about the crash. Regardless of the outcome, ‘No’ was the general consensus; best not to worry them, best to not risk getting benched by your significant other before the next race.

Markus’ own teammates, on the other hand, had to worry about more immediate matters, like his abandoned car. They gathered around the compact sedan wondering where he’d left his keys, how they would get it to him, and if he’d even need it. As I rode shotgun back to Manhattan, I couldn’t stop thinking about that empty car. I pictured it sitting there in a vacant parking lot as the sun dipped behind the still barren trees, the sky darkening and the unreal warmth draining from the day.

When I got home, I decided to tell my girlfriend what had happened after all. I needed to talk to someone, and besides, she’d find out anyway and be angry that I’d kept it from her. After I finished, she sat me down on our couch and made me promise to never race Bethel again. I considered telling her how safe and well run the series was, how the turns were always swept and the drains covered by plywood, how this could have happened anywhere to anyone else, but I decided against it.

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