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.
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.
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.