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.
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.