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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. Photo by Aki Sato

Unimaginable

Cycling had become a point of contention in our household. She loved seeing me happy and healthy (a far cry from my beer drinking days), but she also wondered if there was ever going to be a finish line to my obsession and a return to some form of normalcy. I didn’t have an answer for her then and still don’t now. Cycling simply makes me feel like a kid again, which is to say it makes me happy. I’m a 32-year-old man with limited ability and zero chance of turning pro, and yet bike racing fills me with a joy so pure and simple and complete that if I were to ever try to put it into words I’d betray it and feel like a fool. As dramatic as this might sound, I can’t imagine it not being a part of my life.

But I also can’t imagine dying because of it. I doubt Markus could have either. The only difference between the two of us is that he did. I found out the next morning when I got into my office and logged onto Facebook. My newsfeed had been flooded with updates: Markus had succumbed to head injuries during the night, having never regained consciousness after crashing. I sat in front of my computer feeling shocked but unsurprised, sad but numb. Aside from one quick conversation, I didn’t know Markus that well, and yet he’d died in a bike race I’d competed in, participating in a sport we both loved. I felt compelled to grieve but didn’t know how, and so I just spent the day refreshing his team’s Facebook page, over and over, watching it fill up with hundreds of comments from other racers.

Markus’ official time of death had been 4:30 a.m. Monday morning, about 15 hours after he’d crashed. But several riders had known by Sunday night that his injuries were fatal. One of which was his teammate Brandon Freyer, who had joined two other members of Pawling Cycle & Sport to visit Markus at the hospital that night. Markus, a divorcee who had lived alone in an apartment in Poughkeepsie, New York, had no family in this country, and so his teammates had concerned themselves with little things like taking care of his Cairn terrier and comforting him in the hospital. Shortly after 11 p.m., Brandon learned that continuing those little gestures wouldn’t be necessary, and said goodbye to Markus.

Aki Sato also received the tragic news Sunday night. He visited the hospital twice that evening. At 7 p.m., a tearful nurse informed him that Markus was alone in ICU and had been “gravely injured.” Later, after he’d met with the local police department to review the details of the accident, the distraught race promoter returned to learn that Markus was out of surgery and on life support but wouldn’t make it much longer. He paid his respects, then spoke with Markus’ three teammates and ex-wife, who had driven down from Rhode Island.

They each shared stories about Markus: How he’d come to this country from Germany; his equestrian background and his newfound passion for cycling; how funny he looked doting over his little dog, which resembled Toto from the Wizard of Oz; his dedication to the cycling team; how he worked with a coach and how, despite his age and less than ideal size, he still had ambitions of earning his Cat. 3 upgrade, of always progressing. They helped paint a broader picture of the man.

In the end, however, Sato remembered Markus as a cyclist, as he would remember anyone who’d ever pinned on a number in the Bethel Spring Series, a string of races he’d run every year since 1994. As he’d later tell me, “Markus was one of us and that was enough.”

It was a sentiment that was shared throughout the community. With his wife and one-week-old son at home, 90 minutes away, Sato sat in the parking lot of the Danbury hospital that night with his laptop pried open, fielding emails from fellow racers and answering his phone, which had been ceaselessly ringing. Still, despite the support, Sato considered cancelling the remainder of the races, and might have, if a chance phone call hadn’t convinced him otherwise.

Remembering that the Driveway Series in Austin, Texas, had been dealt a similar blow in 2009, Sato Googled the race’s website and emailed the promoter, Andrew Willis, seeking advice. Within minutes the two were on the phone. They spoke at length, and Willis stressed the importance of keeping Bethel alive.

“One thing that Andrew said was that the racers will need a way to grieve and if I canceled all the races they wouldn’t be able to gather as a community to show their support,” Sato recalls. “He said that he hadn’t been sure about holding his next race but he decided to do so. During and after that day he realized it was the best thing that he could have done.”

Heeding Willis’ advice, Aki didn’t end up cancelling the series, and the following Sunday racers gathered in a cold steady rain to ride in tribute of Markus. In the seven days since the accident, they’d helped raise $10,000, enough money to cover the travel expenses of his family, who’d flown in from Germany to be there.

Gracious, his parents instead insisted the money stay in this country, which their son had come to consider his home. And so today, a memorial paid for by amateur cyclists just like you, and me, and Markus, stands at the finish line of the Francis Clarke Industrial Center in Bethel. It consists of a stone patio, two park benches and a plaque embossed with the words “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up,” a quote that had been inscribed on Markus’ Road ID.

Before all this happened, however, before the memorial laps and the fundraising and the general outpouring of support that would make me proud to be part of the amateur bike racing community, I was still left sitting in front of my office computer on that strange Monday, unaware of how to feel or what to do next. I’d told a few of my coworkers when the news first broke, but they’d looked at me almost as oddly as the times I’d tell them I’d spent my weekend at a stage race.

My teammate Darius, a full-time engineering student off the bike, experienced a similar disconnect when he tried to tell a few classmates. “To an outsider who doesn’t know bike racing, it sounds like you attended an event where some random guy died,” he noted. “Or someone in the crowd at a concert you went to died. It just doesn’t compute.” So I kept the news to myself.

Finally, with nothing personal or poignant to add to the stream of eulogies, I logged out of Facebook that afternoon. But I couldn’t focus on work, and so I started to aimlessly surf the web. Typically, I’d waste time by looking for race photos or ogling Strava files, messaging a few friends about “how strong they looked” or “how good it was seeing them,” or just wishing I were on a ride instead of in the office. Anything, really, that would somehow recapture that thrilling feeling of racing my bicycle.

None of that felt appropriate under the circumstances. Neither did registering for another race, yet suddenly I found myself on BikeReg. I don’t really know why I’d typed in that address, but that’s where I landed. The Killington Stage Race, the same race I’d met Markus at the previous spring, was being promoted on the homepage, and I was surprised to see it already open for registration since it was still more than two months away. Curious as to who’d already committed, I clicked on the “Who’s Registered” link. There were only a handful of names, but sure enough Markus’ name was one of them.

I smiled. I nearly cried. Then I added my name to the start list, just a few rows below Markus Bohler.

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