November 17, 2013 § 23 Comments

If you choose to write about cycling, you’re eventually going to write about death.

When I heard that Udo Heinz, a man I never met, had been run over and killed on his bicycle by a careless bus driver, I felt the worst thing that any human can feel inside.

I felt nothing.

The almost daily recitation of deaths and horrific injuries that rain down on people for the simple sin of cycling had made me numb. “Another innocent person killed,” I thought. It was as if I were reading of a battlefield casualty in a distant war.

The details trickled in, and they were terrible beyond any description. The sadness I should have felt when I learned that he left behind two young children and a lovely wife wasn’t there, only a black empty hole where my emotions should have been. This, and my recognition of it, made an awful event more awful still.

Udo’s price for riding his bike was destruction all at once. My price, apparently, had been a different kind of destruction piece by piece.

The memorial ride

By now the memorial ride has become a kind of dreaded institution in cycling. So many good and innocent people die so regularly and so violently that there is nothing strange about commemorating their lives with a ride. One of the people I admire most moved quickly to organize such a ride on Udo’s birthday, November 16.

I’d guess that about two hundred people showed up. Before we rolled out, a couple of people spoke. One talked about kindness and about how crucial it is that we care for each other, because the smallest things can harm or kill us. Another spoke of his friendship. Finally, Udo’s wife Antje spoke about the man she loved and about her unwavering commitment to continue riding her bicycle as dedication to the life that her husband had lived.

Seeing the crowd and being in the milieu, hearing the words of Udo’s friends and his wife, the emotions that I’d repressed returned. I felt the weight of the whole thing, and it was terrible, made more so by the knowledge that my feelings were as nothing compared to those of Antje and Udo’s friends.

I thumbed through a notebook in which people had left messages for their friend. They were touching and sad and powerful.

“We’ll think of you when we gaze at the starry skies.”

“Miss you forever.”

“You left us too soon.”

Unlike most other North County bike rides I’d been on, this one didn’t turn into a murderous morning of being tied to the whipping post. People rode together and talked. Much of the conversation was about Udo, and it was all oddly the same.

What kind of man he was

Udo was a German engineer, and this is shorthand for many things. It implies intellect and great rigor of thought. It implies meticulousness and command of the big picture as well as command of the details. I can’t help but think that there were things about America that must have challenged Udo, and foremost among those things would have been the inordinate sloppiness and laziness that often goes along with daily life here.

One of his friends told me about working with him for the first time on a cyclocross race, and being surprised at how exacting and precise Udo was. It was hard for the friend at first to handle, but as they worked together he came to appreciate what a skilled worker Udo was, and how the concern for details was really reflecting an underlying concern for the race itself and the people who would ride it.

The course turned out beautifully, safe yet challenging, technical but not too “mountain bikey” as Udo loved to say, brought to perfect resolution. The relationship turned out well too. Each person who spoke about Udo remarked on an initial reserve that was matched by boundless warmth and sincere friendship as time went on. His intellect and skill as an engineer were also underlain by a keen wit and subtle yet profoundly funny sense of humor.

That life is an exercise in chaotic mayhem was driven home by Udo’s death. As a cyclist he was regarded as one of the safest riders on the road. He refused to ride certain routes if he felt they were too narrow to accommodate car and bike traffic. When he was killed, he was riding safely on one of the safest stretches of road in San Diego County.

In conjunction with my own accident of a few weeks back, Udo’s memorial ride made me review again the bike riding equation.

Simple math

The way it works, at least in my confused mind, is this: I am going to die. So, since I have to die, I hope I die on my bike.

The reason for this is simple. It’s on my bike that I am most fully alive. Udo’s life was a testament to this. His good works, a lasting marriage and two wonderful children, were expressed through his bicycle. The community of people who now feel a gaping hole is a community of bicycle riders. Udo’s passion for the bicycle was truly a passion, and he passed it on.

At last Sunday’s San Diego ‘cross race, when whiny and cowardly age-graded adults moaned and complained about the muddy sandpit and how dirty and difficult it was, a young boy came charging off the lip, picked a perfect line, and ripped through the pit without ever having to dismount. The boy was, of course, Udo’s son.

None of this is to deny that what happened to Udo was senseless and tragic. Of all people who ride bicycles, he should be here today. But since he isn’t, are we to now dismount like the quaking cowards around the mud pit and declare that, after all, riding a bike is too dangerous? Or are we to take a lesson from the younger Heinz, pick the best line we can, and keep on ripping?

What do you think Udo would have said?

I never knew him, but this much I know.

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§ 23 Responses to Remembrance

  • Chris Gregory says:

    A great piece Seth. Thank you.

  • ezpc1 says:

    Here in the UK, the national media have recently noted and are making noise about the fact that 8 cyclists have been killed in London in the last 2 weeks. The media, sadly, have tured this into an “us and them’ argument with cyclists commenting that new safety measures are required and quick (That is alway so…) and anti-cyclists complaining that cyclist jump red lights, disrespect other drivers, don’t obey the rules – is it any wonder they are getting hurt or killed…?

    All of which, in my mind, makes me sad and misses the point.

    The point being that each person who falls, never to rise again IS a tragedy…and that somewhere someone has that aching void and a father, brother, sister, mother, daughter or son isn’t coming home….

    Thank you for writing with honesty, dignity and candour the simple truth of the hurt and cost of each loss of life.

    As an architect in theUK, I have never known Udo, but with what you have written giving me a small glimpse, I think I would have liked to get to know him immensely and t is so sad to hear of his passing….

    • fsethd says:

      Thanks for writing this. You’re right about the “us and them.” It should just be “people, and how do we stop killing them”?

      • ezpc1 says:

        One of the national broadcasters – the BBC – aired a programme about urban cyclist messengers in London, in which they must have broken every rule in the Road Traffic Act….In a single half hour broadcast, the sweet sport of cycling took a media beating that has since then justified every single cyclist-basher ever, whenever a discussion about cycling safety ever gets raised.

        I’ve re-blogged your account in the hope that it can in some way help to re-set peoples thinking back to “this is real people and real lives we are dealing with”

        Thanks for writing with so much honesty….please keep up the good work!!

        • fsethd says:

          Thanks. Of course, if they made a documentary about cars breaking traffic laws, no one would care. “That’s just a tiny minority,” they would say.

  • ezpc1 says:

    Reblogged this on ezpcgoescycling and commented:
    With the amount of exposure in the UK media about the deaths of 8 cyclists in London in the last 2 weeks, I was extremely moved by a simple account of one man and his bike, and the impact of his death on his friends and family. I feel the blogger, Seth, writes honestly and with dignity about the true tragedy of each death on the road, and the potential cost of cycling regardless of the cause……

  • Arkansas Traveler says:

    I look forward to memorial rides for cyclists who died of natural causes.

  • Johnny French says:

    Beautifully written, thank you.

    Here in London, we have lost 5 people (not ‘mere’ cyclists, but actual people) killed on the roads in the last nine days. This despite the introduction of the much vaunted ‘Cycling Super-Highway’ bike lanes.
    As cyclists (and people) we share your sadness and hope that we too can follow the example of Udo’s son. RIP.

  • No one of consequence says:

    Brilliant. Some of your best work. You help us all to fend off that dreaded feeling of nothing. Thank you.

  • Sbbabyseal says:

    Been a while since a grown man brought tears to my eyes at 10pm. This was substantially more pleasurable. Thanks.

  • ed Kurzenski says:

    Thank you Seth – excellent!

  • Seth – As I traveled to Dallas, Texas several years ago and spoke with residents who lived through the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, they, too, are experiencing the same type of “disassociation” that you so eloquently describe. A lesser person/reporter/blogger would not have written those powerful introductory paragraphs: I am fortunate to have found this article. Thank you very much. -Clint Bradford, Jurupa Valley CA US

  • […] and gets arrested; not that he overreacted or anything. Cycling in the South Bay’s Seth Davidson rides to remember a fallen cyclist he didn’t know and writes about it movingly; word is he has a book coming out this week. New […]

  • Kevin says:

    Thank you for such a well written and touching story!

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