The Troubling Rise of the Ghost Bike
Roadside shrines marking the site of cycling tragedies are showing up everywhere, a sign of how little progress we've made in making biking safer. It's time we organize.
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Paint an old bike white and place it at the roadside scene of a cyclist’s death and you have a ghost bike. It’s a variation on the crosses that dot the West to mark fatal crash sites, except ghost bikes are nondenominational and carry a second message other than grief, a message intended for drivers: Stop killing us.
On group rides earlier this summer in Boulder, Colorado, fellow cyclists would point out ghost bikes like they would potholes and rocks, with an outstretched arm and a flash of an index finger. There’s one for the college athlete from South America who overcooked a steep corner into oncoming traffic. Here’s another for a young father with three school-age kids and a passion for road racing; he was taken out by a sunburned drunk driver with half a 32-pack of domestic swill in her system. Take a right turn and there’s a third whited-out shrine for the Ironman triathlete who was killed while she rode within the cones, according to the legal team her family hired—the police said otherwise. (The police, a lawyer friend of mine recently vented to me, seem to always side with drivers over cyclists.)
Those were three of the seven biking deaths (plus at least two near-fatal traumatic brain injuries of former pro cyclists) that occurred in Boulder County within a roughly 12-month window culminating in 2017. The deaths and injuries roiled the cycling community.
Of that count, only in one death and one traumatic brain injury (that came with a severed arm) were the cyclists unquestionably at fault, both pushing Tour de France speeds on descents with oncoming traffic. For the rest, you can blame drivers who are distracted (the cause of 72 percent of all bike and car incidents, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association), intoxicated, or just downright aggressive on ever-busier roads. And to remind you, this tally comes from Boulder, possibly the most bike-friendly and bike-aware city this side of Brussels. That same 2015 study by the GHSA estimated an additional 55 cyclists died nationwide, with the median age creeping up to 45 as more adults ride bikes for fitness and recreation.
Bike lanes and bike paths and free pancakes for commuters aren’t enough. Cyclists need to own their safety—there’s no denying that—but they also need to advocate for themselves. A new Boulder nonprofit is doing exactly that and should serve as a template for cycling towns everywhere. Cyclists 4 Community began as a fundraising enterprise to help the victims of the 2013 floods that devastated the towns of Jamestown and Lyons, popular destinations with area cyclists. The efforts were successful, with more than $250,000 raised to date. (Full disclosure: I ride with the C4C organizers and helped them develop promotional materials after the floods.)
After the towns were rebuilt, C4C found a long-term purpose in advocating for bike safety. Today, the group uses its fundraising and unifying chops to lobby local government to place lighted signs on busy cycling routes, reminding drivers and cyclists to share the road and to expect heavy traffic. One effort, says C4C’s Russ Chandler, co-owner of Boulder’s Full Cycle bike shop, is to petition the town’s transportation officials to build a short section of dedicated bike path to get road and gravel cyclists safely past a dangerous stretch of highway (two ghost bikes) and out onto the less-congested county roads. C4C also works with existing groups pushing for safe bike routes to schools. And the group has opened talks with the local mountain bike club to see how they can work together in getting mountain bikers to trailheads more safely. C4C also buys bike lights at cost or wrangles donations and hands them out for free. Even the strongest Boulder cyclists now run blinking taillights during daylight hours—a habit that was considered taboo only a few years ago. Locally, much of the credit for that belongs to C4C.
Bike lanes and bike paths and free pancakes for commuters aren’t enough.
As testament to the power of such advocacy, a lawyer running for district attorney recently scheduled a talk with the Wednesday Morning Velo crowd—a weekly sponsored group ride with deep organizational ties to C4C that sees as many as 150 participants a week—in search of their support. He was running on the promise that he’ll hold drivers accountable for accidents involving bikes. This type of outreach only happens when cyclists organize.
Such organization is changing the tenor of cycling. As with backcountry skiers discussing the snowpack, bike safety is now something that’s talked about openly. Weekenders out on group rides are opting for gravel roads where riding two or three abreast isn’t suicide. The hard-charging lunch ride that leaves from Panache cycling apparel HQ on Thursdays features dedicated throwdown (attack!) sections mapped out beforehand so the group can stay together (and safer) on busier stretches. I quit riding a twice-weekly sufferfest called the Bus Stop ride in the early aughts after a string of crashes and one particularly reckless outing had a group of 30 echeloning across rush-hour traffic to survive a crosswind. Today, Bus Stop riders will dress down a rider for attacking by coming around the group in traffic. Recently retired pro Matt Cooke—he wore the climber’s jersey in the Tour of Utah and still thumps all challengers at Wednesday Morning Velo—is quick to tell groups not to race the downhills on open roads that haven’t been swept clear of sand. “I’ve seen enough wrecks,” he says.
We’re seeing the beginnings of a movement that just might culminate in drivers being held responsible for their crimes and cyclists taking responsibility for their safety as well. To do your part, do as C4Ch has done and get organized so you can tell your local elected officials and judiciary system that cycling lives matter.
That, and ride more dirt, stay way over on pavement, don’t engage negatively with haters (the peace symbol is better than the bird), and put a light on your bike. The human eye is especially adept at seeing movement. It’s why we can spot an ant on the sidewalk from six feet up. To a driver, a blinking red light is both eye-catching and an ingrained notice to pull over.
I’m glad to see communication drive the machismo code of silence about safety from the sport, but I’m not sure how I feel about ghost bikes. As with other roadside shrines, I empathize with the mourners—I lost a friend and colleague this year, too, when Outside contributor Andrew Tilin was killed as he changed a flat beside a busy road in Texas. If they’ve helped to spur cyclists to safety, then the ghost bikes have served a greater good. But I’d rather not see our open spaces turned into cemeteries.
The goal is to paint fewer bikes white.