They Went Out for a Bike Ride. They Never Came Home.
Nearly 700 people on bikes have been killed by drivers this year. This is who we lost.
In 2020, Outside is tracking every cyclist who was killed by a driver. As the end of the year nears, the death toll is at 675—despite less car traffic due to the pandemic. But the victims are more than just statistics. They were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, husbands, wives, coworkers. They were riding for fitness, for fun, for transportation. They were loved, and they are missed.
Here we remember nine of their stories, in the spirit of honoring them all.
Robin Ames, 37
Hometown: Bruceton Mills, West Virginia
Date of Collision: February 17
Robin Ames always sought a challenge, says his wife, Karrah. Ames worked as an engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy, but in his spare time, he threw himself into mountaineering, art, skiing, and multiple disciplines of cycling: road, gravel, and mountain biking. As he did, he lifted others along with him. “He could convince you that you can do things that you didn’t think you could do,” says his close friend and adventure partner, Quentin Berg. During hard rides and races, Ames would be at Berg’s side, telling him to keep moving his legs.
Ames loved teaching his two daughters to ride. Looking through his phone after his death, Karrah found several group chats her husband had belonged to, all fathers of daughters teaching their kids to ride a bike, she says. Before the crash, he and Berg had spent months figuring out how to bring their oldest daughters mountain biking, obsessing over their setups. “I got my daughter out on singletrack shortly after Robin passed,” says Berg. “It was very bittersweet. I was so excited, and the first person I wanted to call was him.”
This summer, Karrah and Berg brought their daughters to a trail system near Karrah’s house. It was Karrah’s first time mountain biking, and her oldest daughter’s as well, and to her the ride represented a kind of memorial to her husband’s life. “I’m trying to channel his strength,” she says. “It’s so important for me to let them see that although their dad isn’t physically here anymore, everything he lived for still very much is.”
“That’s the way we connect with their dad,” Karrah says. “We know he’d be right there with us, pushing us along.”
On February 17, Ames was returning home from a gravel ride. He had just turned onto a country highway a mile and a half from his house. While climbing a hill, he was hit from behind by Tara Evans, who admitted to officers that she’d been looking at her phone. Evans pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, reckless driving, and prohibited use of a cell phone. The offenses are misdemeanors. Evans’s sentencing hearing was held on November 20. —Philip Kiefer
Ben Sonntag, 39
Hometown: Durango, Colorado
Date of Collision: March 4
As a professional mountain biker, Ben Sonntag competed all over the world. But Sonntag’s girlfriend, Sarah Alsgaard, 32, says that off the bike, the German-born cross-country racer “appreciated a simple life.”
“He was known for his bright, inclusive personality, his love of his cats—Karen and Hansi—and his prized espresso machine,” she says.
Sonntag rode most recently for the Clif Pro Team. He was especially proud of his win at La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a stage race in Costa Rica, in 2010. Sonntag’s friend and competitor, Payson McElveen, recalled hosting Sonntag at his parents’ house in Austin, Texas, for a race once. “My parents loved having him because, unlike other athletes they hosted, Ben would just hang out in the living room and talk to them for hours about anything,” McElveen says. “He was really friendly.”
“I couldn’t help but fall in love with Ben when we met in 2018,” says Alsgaard. “His spontaneous and adventurous personality seamlessly fit with mine.” A month after they met, Ben booked her an international flight to Cyprus, so they wouldn’t be apart while he was racing there. “After that trip, we were basically inseparable until the day he died,” she says.
Alsgaard says her boyfriend never took life too seriously. Unlike many of his weight-weenie competitors, Sonntag didn’t worry about what he ate. He loved good coffee and bakery stops. “I’ll never forget seeing Ben on his bike, riding toward home with a big grin and, at first glance, a humpback,” she recalls. “With a second take, I could see he had just been to his favorite bakery, and the humpback was a loaf of ciabatta stuffed in his jersey. I still can’t help but look for Ben on his bike when I’m around that side of town.”
On March 4, Sonntag was on a training ride, traveling north on a country road outside Durango, when he was struck head-on by a driver in a pickup truck going “nearly twice” the speed limit, according to the arrest affidavit. Sonntag died at the scene. Twenty-year-old Cordell Schneider was charged with vehicular homicide and reckless driving. On July 17, he pleaded not guilty. A jury trial is scheduled for March 22, 2021. —Micah Ling
Bobette “Bobbi” Wilhelm, 40
Hometown: Pocatello, Idaho
Date of Collision: March 13
Bobbi Wilhelm was a cyclist, hiker, and skier. She was also passionate about social issues, speaking out in support of green power (she was an analyst for the local energy-utility company), LGBTQ rights, and the #MeToo movement. One issue that was especially close to Wilhelm’s heart was homelessness. “I think a lot of her work on social issues stemmed from the fact that she had experienced things that most people hadn’t,” says Bud Cranor, a coworker and friend.
After graduate school at the University of Idaho, where she earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics, Wilhelm couldn’t find a job and spent several months without permanent housing and on food assistance. She often talked about homelessness being a reality for well-educated people, too, as a way of busting stereotypes. In a talk she gave at a university, she told students, “I still carry around my food-stamp card, even though I haven’t used it in 13 years. I give money to people holding signs on the side of the road. It’s none of my business what they spend money on, but it is my business if they go hungry because I failed to act.” Right up until her death, Wilhelm worked tirelessly to facilitate the opening of a homeless shelter in the 55,000-person mountain town of Pocatello. Cranor remembers her as someone who cared about everyone she encountered. “She wanted to help. She wanted to make a difference. She wanted everyone to be happy and just be better.”
Wilhelm was riding her road bike on Buckskin Road, a rural and rolling paved road in Bannock County, between 6 P.M. and 7 P.M. on a Friday, when investigators suspect a driver struck her with a green GMC pickup truck. The driver fled the scene. Wilhelm’s body was found the following Monday morning by an off-duty officer in a ravine by the side of the road. Tyler D. Carter, 38, pleaded not guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of leaving the scene of an injury accident, both felonies. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and/or a $15,000 fine. The trial is scheduled for April 6, 2021. —M.L.
Jayden Arias, 15
Hometown: Porterville, California
Date of Collision: May 5
To many of his friends and family members, Jayden Arias was one of the most naturally talented athletes they knew. He’d recently hit a growth spurt and excelled at just about any sport he picked up, from football to track to basketball. Arias spent much of his time outdoors on his bike, riding around town with friends or taking his fixed-gear rig on quick runs to the store. “There was something so freeing about biking for him,” says Casey Rangel, Arias’s seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, who stayed in touch with her former student even after he went to high school. “It energized him.”
People gravitated toward Arias’s vibrant personality, sense of humor, and kind heart. His mother, Jessica Anthony, says that her son had a friend whose mother wasn’t always home, so he would go to their house in the mornings and help get the younger siblings ready for school. Arias loved his three brothers and two stepsisters, too; Anthony says that aside from learning how to do a standing backflip (after first mastering a front flip off a pool diving board), being a big brother was his proudest accomplishment.
Arias knew he wanted to become a car mechanic when he grew up and already had a strong sense of self that was unusual for a teenager. “Jayden was one of the most authentic people you would have ever met,” said Rangel. “I worked hard to earn his respect and form a relationship with him that I thought would be something that would impact his life. In return, he did that for me.”
Jayden Arias was biking to play basketball with friends less than a block from his home when he was struck by a driver in a car at the intersection of Olive and Westwood, two arterial roads in Porterville. The driver fled the scene. Harvey Jacobo, 24, has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including second-degree murder, vehicular manslaughter, driving with a suspended license, and driving under the influence while on probation for a prior DUI offense. A trial is set to begin March 9, 2021. —Maura Fox
Jerrie Gavalchin, 64
Hometown: Groton, New York
Date of Collision: May 3
When veterinarian Alexander Thomson recalls the people he met at Cornell University, the late Jerrie Gavalchin, a professor in the department of animal science, is at the top of the list. Thomson, who took his first class with Gavalchin as an undergraduate in 2013, remembers her as a “deeply caring person” who “went above and beyond for her students.” Gavalchin taught at both Cornell and the State University of New York’s Health Science Center in Syracuse, yet she made the time to hold resume workshops for students and review their veterinary-school applications.
Gavalchin got to know her students well, perhaps in part because she understood what they were going through—her daughter was a student at Cornell, and her husband also teaches there. For Thomson, Gavalchin’s personalized approach to teaching was a welcome antidote to the university’s “cutthroat and competitive” academic environment. She wanted to make sure each student got what they needed from the course. For example, Gavalchin would often distribute individualized homework exercises to each student or give them different grading options to suit their various learning styles. Thomson was in Gavalchin’s courses as both an undergraduate and graduate student and was delighted, though unsurprised, when Gavalchin remembered his name years after his first courses with her.
“She wasn’t teaching for the sake of checking a box on her tenure requirement,” he says. “She was truly invested in making us understand and engage with what she was teaching.”
On May 3 around 6:30 P.M., Gavalchin was walking her bike near Lick Street and Stevens Road in rural Groton when prosecutors allege she was hit and killed by an intoxicated driver in a pickup truck. The driver fled the scene. Jeffrey Skinner, 43, has pleaded not guilty to felony first-degree vehicular manslaughter, felony DWI for having a previous conviction in the past ten years, and leaving the scene of a personal-injury vehicle crash. —M.F.
Coleen Huling, 29, and Melissa Williamson, 25
Hometown: Ypsilanti, Michigan
Date of Collision: June 26
Coleen Huling and Melissa Williamson loved the outdoors, especially camping, hiking, kayaking, and cycling. Huling was originally from Whittaker, Michigan, and Williamson from Cleveland. They both ended up in the Ann Arbor area of Michigan for work and school and met through mutual friends. When they weren’t exploring rivers and trails near their home, the couple often visited the Cedar Point theme park in Ohio, which bills itself as “the roller coaster capital of the world.” “They went as many weekends as possible,” Kelly Huling, Coleen’s mother, says. “With three other friends, they called themselves the Coaster Crew.” The Coaster Crew was so dedicated that when Cedar Point offered the opportunity to purchase an engraved brick that would become part of a walkway to the roller coasters, the five friends went in on one together.
Huling and Williamson had just signed a lease to move in together starting in July. “They both had big dreams together, for their careers and their lives,” says Kelly Huling. “They both talked about how they had found the person they wanted to spend the rest of their life with.”
This year, Williamson, her younger brother, and her father were training to do the virtual Pan Ohio Hope Ride, 328 miles from Cleveland to Cincinnati in July, to raise money for the American Cancer Society. This would have been Williamson’s third time doing the ride. Huling was going to ride part of it with them, so the couple were on their bikes as often as possible leading up to the event.
On a Friday afternoon, Huling and Williamson were riding their bikes from Huling’s parents’ home, where they had been pet-sitting, into town to get some food, when prosecutors allege a reckless driver in a Mercury SUV hit them, then fled the scene. According to Kath and John Roos, owners of RoosRoast, where Huling worked in Ann Arbor, witnesses said both women were struck with such force that they were propelled from their bikes. Ryan Miettinen, 22, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of reckless driving causing death, a felony, among other offenses. A trial has not yet been held. —M.L.
Kristopher Cotton, 36
Hometown: Saranac Lake, New York
Date of Collision: August 31
Kristopher Cotton was always on the move. He sought thrills like skydiving and snowboarding and loved anything with wheels—bikes, motorcycles, old fixer-upper cars. No scheme was too ambitious for him. “I always knew when he was going to get into trouble, because he had these beautiful blue eyes, and they would sparkle when he was planning something,” says his mother, Jenda Cotton. When he was 29 years old, for example, Cotton set out to walk across the country. He made it from Oregon to Illinois on foot, then got a bike and rode the rest of the way to New York.
Cotton didn’t adventure alone. Ava, his Labrador–pit bull mix, was by his side for the last seven years. He found her abandoned as a puppy on the side of an Arizona road, and they balanced each other perfectly: Cotton was an introvert who spent more time observing than speaking, while Ava served as the pair’s “ambassador” when they encountered other people, Jenda Cotton told the Coastland Times. Ava was her son’s sidekick on that cross-country journey; when Cotton switched from walking to cycling, he pulled her in a trailer behind his bike.
In May, Cotton wanted to do one more big ride before Ava got too old. But he also had his own reasons for the trip: a bone disease that had been dormant in his body for years recently started to affect him again, and he worried that his days of pain-free cycling would soon be over. So he and Ava set out from his home state of New York for Florida on the East Coast Greenway, camping and meeting new people along the way.
According to the sheriff’s office, on August 31, while riding on a rural highway near Charleston, South Carolina, on their trip, Cotton and Ava were struck by a driver in an SUV. Cotton died at the scene. Ava suffered critical injuries but was saved by a team at the Charleston Animal Society. The sheriff’s report says that the driver was cited for driving too fast for the conditions. Jenda Cotton says she hopes her son’s death will lead to improvements on this stretch of highway, which currently has no bike lane. “I don't want another family to have to feel this,” she says. —M.F.
Clara Kang, 31
Hometown: Queens, New York
Date of Collision: October 3
Clara Kang started as a nurse practitioner at New York University’s Langone Hospital in Brooklyn earlier this year and served on the front lines of New York City’s spring COVID-19 outbreak. Within weeks, her entire ward was converted to COVID care. “In the beginning of it, she had to fight for masks,” says Diaphel Thompson, her partner of three years. “I remember biking all around New York, texting friends to get N95’s. Every single day there were shortages.” Kang, Thompson says, cared deeply for others. “She would give up her holidays and sick days if there was a coworker who really needed to take care of her kids,” he says.
Kang loved nursing—she felt particularly satisfied after days when she’d been able to use her Spanish to guide someone through their health care options. But she eventually wanted to work in health care policy or even open a clinic. Thompson says she kept what seemed like an entire library at home and was buried in books, especially about racism and injustice. “The tack she was taking was through health care, but her interests stemmed from righting inequality, full stop,” says Thompson.
Kristine Kang, Clara’s sister, wants people to remember Clara as “a really good daughter and a great sister.” Their father had passed away two years before, and even as Clara worked night shifts, “she made sure to call my mom every day.”
Clara Kang was passionate about travel, constantly adding to a set of Google Docs with plans for herself and Thompson. Some of her ideas were for things to do near home—bike rides, runs, bookstores to visit. Others were farther afield. They’d started planning a yearlong stay in Hawaii, “but it was always a year away,” says Thompson. She wanted more experience in her job before leaving. “She was supposed to do so much,” he says.
The morning of October 3, Kang had finished a 12-hour overnight shift at the hospital—her third overnight shift in a row. A little after 7 A.M., she started her hourlong bike ride from Brooklyn back to Queens. As she rode under a raised expressway just a few blocks from work, she was struck by a motorcyclist. The motorcyclist was also hospitalized and has not been charged. Kang was killed on Third Avenue, a major street in Brooklyn, which according to NYC Crash Mapper saw 24 walkers and cyclists hit by cars the year before. —P.K.