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Why I Ride #16: To Ride in Silence

(Chris Phelan is the founder of the Ride Of Silence, occurring in communities worldwide tonight at 7 p.m.)

Chris Phelan

Larry Schwartz ambled down the road on May 4, 2003, on his bike and without a care, into history. When he died that day 10 years ago, he became the initial inspiration for The Ride Of Silence.

It was late morning and everything was normal. He was well on his way to riding another 20,000 miles that year on his bike, a number that was numbing to other cyclists who thought getting in 2,000-5,000 miles for the year was outstanding. But not Larry. This was another normal day, and ride, for him. But Larry was anything but normal to those who knew and loved him.

His wife, Judith, supported his enthusiasm and zest for life. Together they rode to many of the area rallies. Once there, he rode the longest distance that was offered (70-100 miles, many times with the pack leaders). And then rode home. It wasn’t unusual for him to log 200-300 miles per day, for consecutive days, many times. This was normal.

On May 4 that year, all was normal. It was a work day, the kids were at school, and the sun was out. It was another beautiful spring day north of Dallas. Normal, until the only other vehicle that would share the road with him, a bus, came along in the same direction as Larry, with a full view of him riding alone through the windshield. It would be Larry’s final ride.

Two days later at the funeral, I talked with movers and shakers in the community. “We should do something,” I said. “Maybe go to the lake.” (White Rock Lake was one of the places where Larry used to train and enjoyed meeting up with other cyclists.)

No one did. There was not a lot of motivation by those I looked up to. All were non-committal, probably for very good reasons. Maybe they were jaded from all the previous deaths and near-death injuries caused by motorists in the past. Maybe it was hard to shake off a funeral for a friend on a bike, only to have to attend another a month later. Everyone knew there would be another one. It was just a matter of time.

No one seemed to know what to do next, least of all, me. I was primarily a runner and therefore outside the cycling circle. Certainly being an outsider, I wasn’t the one who would band cyclists together. I was “just” an outsider. But Larry was a friend. Very humble, he rode with anyone, at any time, including me: a pseudo runner and triathlete wanna-be.

Angry that no one appeared to be doing anything to mark Larry’s senseless death, I sent out a few e-mails in defiance, stating I was going to ride around Dallas’ nine-mile rim of White Rock Lake in silence, 10 days later, on Wednesday, May 21. It was intended to be a one-time only event. “Hope you can join me,” I wrote half pleading, and half with indignation.

When the day came, May 21, 2003, my wife Janalou, and a friend Mike Keel, joined me, probably thinking no one else would. Both feared I’d be embarrassed, looking a little out of place at Dallas’ premier recreation spot for runners and cyclists, riding silently and slowly, all alone.

We rode over the final rise at T. P. (Texas Pacific) Hill, and, there were over 1,000 cyclists gathered, waiting to be led in a procession of silence, a ride of which had never occurred before. I was overwhelmed, not just emotionally, but logistically, as well. There were no plans, speeches, amenities, cones, signs, or announcing system in place. It was a community bonded together over a common cause.

During the ride, one could hear a pin drop or, at least, sniffling and sobbing. I was choked up thinking about Larry and hearing the passion of people I was riding along side. People at the park with their families just came to a stop. Even motorists dramatically slowed down and gave us room on the road. It seemed everyone KNEW something was going on, something reverent, and important. They just didn’t know what.

When the ride finished, when we came over the rise at T.P. Hill, my friend Mike Keel said to me, “Life will never be the same.” He was right.

The next day, I had e-mails, and was getting phone calls about the ride. Among other things, they asked if I could put on a Ride Of Silence in their town. At first, I had no intention of doing it again. I had closure. My vision didn’t extend beyond that first ride. Needless to say, by January 2004 I relented. By the May 2004 event back at White Rock Lake, more than 50 rides had sprung up from Hawaii to Montreal.

I was stunned.

In 2005, the number of locations hosting a ride ballooned to 120. A board was created to help organize the now International Ride Of Silence. The following year, Texas alone had 13 locations, while the total number of sites more than doubled again to 220 worldwide. As I write this (in late April), we are on course to have even more locations this year.

As The Ride Of Silence founder, it’s humbling, unbelievable, and hard to comprehend the passion others have about something I thought only affected me. Alone we are but a whisper. But, tonight, at 7 p.m., we will speak loudly through a silence that will resonate around the world. It’s our hope we can change our laws, courts, and the perceptions of our legal right to the roads, and motorists’ legal responsibility to share the road.

Michael Ortiz lost his brother on March 22, 2012 as he was riding his bike to work in San Diego. He will be organizing a Ride Of Silence in his brother’s name. He wrote me this April 16: “Three weeks ago, I had no ties to the bike community; I don’t even own a bike. Now I find myself becoming an advocate for safer conditions for bicyclists. This event continues to grow because people have been and continue to be affected adversely by tragic bicycle accidents, whether directly or indirectly. My brother was my best friend, and now he is gone. Riding in his honor next month will let his family and friends know he still has a voice and will be remembered.”

This is the 10th Ride Of Silence. Let us ride for Schwartz, Ortiz and every cyclist who’s been hit. Let us be consoled that our ride is attracting attention to the deaths of cyclists that are taking place. These cyclists did not die in vain. Let us come together to remember, and to feel what it’s like to ride a bike.

Let us ride in silence.

May is National Bike Month and this year’s theme is One Ride, Many Reasons. To highlight and celebrate the many benefits of bicycling, throughout May we’ll bring you the personal reflections and inspirations of a diverse collection of bicyclists from coast to coast with our daily 31 Days, 31 Reasons blog feature.


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