The wheels on the bike go crash, crash, crash

Prefer using your bike rather than a car? In Reno, that’s a dangerous decision.

Kurstin Graham says his life is finding a new normal after being hit by a Suburban last August while he was on his bike.

Kurstin Graham says his life is finding a new normal after being hit by a Suburban last August while he was on his bike.

Photo By David Robert

Kurstin Graham’s memories of Aug. 7, 2003, are blotchy. He remembers putting on his colorful look-at-me biking clothes and spending the morning grinding rubber on rocks and jumping over logs in a demonstration for an ultimate bike-riding class at UNR. He remembers discussing the best methods for constructing a downhill racing bike with his cousin. He even remembers planning a night of watching bike videos and eating pizza—standard practice for this intense yet laid-back sportsman. After that, events blur.

There’s a snapshot recollection of being sprawled in the street, looking up at Arlington Towers and looking down at a grossly disfigured leg. What Graham doesn’t remember is the Suburban that hit him from behind knocking him to the ground. He doesn’t remember the vehicle driving over him, crushing two leg bones, demolishing his bike, then speeding away. He doesn’t remember much of being rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation.

“It wasn’t until later they told me he [the driver] actually went over the top of me,” Graham says with a slightly nervous laugh as though he still cannot fully grasp the notion. “That’s a horrid idea. It’s less common that a motorist actually runs over the victim.”

Although Graham never got a decent look as the Suburban that smashed him, he has since had the chance to fully study it. That’s because the driver lives only a few streets down from Graham. Police identified the vehicle and the driver, thanks to a witness who took the license plate number. Although the legal process was long and drawn out, the driver is serving a five-year probation sentence after his conviction of a felony for leaving the scene of the accident.

“I never saw the car [when I was hit],” Graham says. “I went down and looked at the vehicle. It was an older, dark Suburban. I thought, ‘That’s the vehicle that ran me over and ran over my bike.'”

Graham endured a long and painful recovery that began with a four-month confinement to his couch—an excruciating sentence for an outdoor enthusiast. Graham has since begun to cycle and participate in other outdoor sports, but he’s still battling the injury. He can’t walk or bike without feeling a throbbing pain. Sitting down for too long makes standing back up difficult. He certainly hasn’t returned to his life of biking, rock climbing, ice-pick climbing and foraging wilderness with his adventure-racing team for hours on end.

“People ask how close I am back to normal,” Graham says. “I say I’ve come back to a new normal.”

Graham continues to lead an enthusiastic biking life. He cycles almost everywhere and works at local bike shop, Bicycle Warehouse. He still prefers his bike to his car.

The Suburban that hit Graham resides just a few blocks away from Graham’s own home. The driver is now serving five years probation.

Photo By David Robert

“I really don’t enjoy driving,” Graham says. “After the accident, I enjoy it less. Sometimes I have second thoughts when a car is too close, but I feel most comfortable on my bike.”

However, Graham has become more aware of the serious safety issues when it comes to the relationship between motorists and cyclists.

“Any time a car collides with a cyclist, it’s not going to be skinned arms and knees,” Graham says. “It’s going to be shattered bones and shattered lives.”

Graham’s accident on Arlington and First streets was one of 87 reported car-bike collisions in Washoe County from Jan. 1 to Oct. 1, 2003. His story is one of an even bigger collection of near-hits and unreported minor collisions that almost every longtime cyclist shares.

Mike Damon and Chris Fields, president and vice-president of the local cyclist racing team RenoWheelmen, have spent a lot of time together in the bike lane. They chuckle when asked if they’ve had run-ins with cars. Fields looks at his leg, which still gives him trouble after an accident last year, and Damon recounts a story of being driven off the road only the night before.

Although this doesn’t keep them from cycling, it has made them aware of the danger cars present.

"[Car drivers] just don’t seem to understand our needs,” Damon says. “Bicycling is a mode of transportation like any other, but drivers see us as an inconvenience.”

Damon and Fields admit to experiencing intimidation at the hands of drivers, including vulgar gestures, obscene comments and being pelted by plastic bottles and trash.

“We really are at a disadvantage,” Damon explains. “The driver can use the car as the weapon itself. Even when we get off our bikes, we have cleats on, so we can’t really run away. I usually just say, ‘Sorry, have a nice day.’ It’s not worth fighting about. We just want to ride.”

Confinement to his couch for four months was a devastating sentence for Kurstin Graham, an avid bike rider and outdoor enthusiast

Photo By David Robert

Fields and Damon acknowledge that cyclists often contribute to their own accidents by not following traffic rules. And they believe there are also extra rules cyclists should follow to promote their own safety.

One is to wear helmets and to become as aware as possible of immediate surroundings. Another is to be especially alert at intersections, where cars often speed up to get around bikers. They also suggest selecting routes with less traffic and avoiding streets lined with parked cars.

Even after following all the rules, they still think the cyclist’s biggest threat is from unaware drivers.

“There are two types of drivers,” Damon says. “There are those who are careless and unaware, and [there are] the vengeful ones. The vengeful ones we can’t change, but the first kind we can change. We need to do something to make them aware.”

Fields and Young think the city should erect more bike signs and add bike lanes and routes to certain roads.

Cliff Young, a lawyer and bike enthusiast, is trying to do just that. He is part of several bicycle committees, including the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan Update Steering Committee, which is trying to build and extend bike trails with a target of 6 percent more road sharing between cars, bikes and buses by 2030. One of the group’s focal points is the extension of the Silva Ranch Road to eliminate any cyclist travel on I-80. Another is the construction of a bike path along Mt. Rose Highway. Completed projects include a bicycle lane that runs from McCarran to Steamboat Creek, as well as alternative routes for cyclists at on-ramp and off-ramp locations along Highway 395.

Young has had his own share of accidents, two severe ones resulting in injuries, and thinks the only way to reduce the number of accidents is to educate cyclists and drivers about dangers on the road through classes and signs.

Young believes motorists often know the rules and don’t respect them—parking in bike lanes, for example. He tells the story of a cyclist friend who was riding uphill in the bike lane and, when he looked down for a second, hit an illegally parked truck. Because of the angle at which his neck hit the vehicle, the man is now a paraplegic.

Young’s biggest goal is to provide more interconnected bike routes, allowing recreational and commuter cyclists to participate easily in the activity.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue for me,” Young says. “Bicycling is a beautiful, relaxing playtime that gives you a sense of peace.”

Young is fascinated by the common motorist’s perception that bicyclists should not receive equal respect on the road. He vividly remembers being approached by an elderly man in the bathroom at a rest stop during one of his long-distance rides.

“I thought he was going to give me a pat on the back because he looked so genuine when he approached," Cliff recalls. "Instead, he says, ‘I wish you would pass the word on that when we come up with our motor homes, you’d get off the road.' He says it so friendly, it was chilling."