Sympathy and concern mix in memorial ride

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October 13, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
On another day, the near-perfect fall weather — cool temperatures and a cloudless, blue sky — might have been excuse enough for a long bicycle ride.

Instead, the group of nearly 300 that rode from St. Paul to Minneapolis Oct. 11 did so in honor of four bicyclists killed in crashes in September on metro-area streets. The number of deaths, coming so close together, was especially worrisome to regular bike commuters like Melissa Summers.

The starting point of the ride was the intersection of Summit and Snelling avenues, an intersection Summers pedaled through almost daily on her way from South Minneapolis to work in St. Paul.

“I’ve seen cars blow that stop sign,” she said, nodding toward the intersection.

Nearby was chained a white-painted bicycle, a ghost bike, to mark the spot where Virginia Heuer was struck and killed by a vehicle Sept. 27. Summers hoped it would stay there, as a caution to drivers.

“I think at least it’s going to help remind drivers of their responsibility to watch for bikers,” she said.

Summers was quick add that bikers shared that responsibility to be safe and alert, a point echoed by her husband Charles Robinson, also a long-time bike commuter.

Robinson paraphrased Rodney Dangerfield: “Bikers don’t get no respect on the road.”

“Although sometimes,” he continued “— I’ve got to be honest — sometimes they don’t earn it.”

Ride organizer Jeremy Werst, founder of the Minneapolis Bike Love online forum, emphasized that message of mutual respect before bikers set out on the 13.6-mile memorial ride.

“This is not saying that cars are bad,” Werst said. “This is not saying bikes need to get off the road. … We’re going to respect each other, we’re going to share the road, and we’re going to try to prevent this from happening [again.]”

Just before 11:30 a.m., a long, loosely connected train of bikers set off for Lake Street, their route to the second stop of the day.

Leading the procession was a bicyclist towing a ghost bike dedicated to Dale Aanenson of Blaine, who died Sept. 22 in a crash near his home. Another ride later that afternoon would deliver the bike to Aanenson’s crash site.

First, though, the rolling memorial headed to the intersection of Excelsior Boulevard and West 32nd Street, where Jimmy Nisser was killed in a hit-and-run collision Sept. 11. Police were still seeking the driver of vehicle that hit Nisser.

When bicyclists stopped at the intersection to rest and pay their respects, Joe Muldoon of Kingfield munched on an apple and reflected on the deaths. Middle-aged and a frequent bike commuter, Muldoon saw himself in some of the accident victims, calling them “old guys like me.”

“It happens so fast,” he said. “They’re not sick. They’re not anything.”

Many of the memorial ride participants said the recent spate of crashes stirred up a mix of emotions, both sympathy for the victims’ families and concern for the safety of bicyclists. City officials responded to those concerns by pointing to data indicating bicycling was getting safer in Minneapolis.

Non-Motorized Transportation Coordinator Shaun Murphy said reports of bike-vehicle crashes had dropped since the 1990s. At the same time, the number of bicyclists on city streets was going “up and up,” Murphy said.

Murphy biked in the memorial ride with David Peterson, a biking “ambassador” in the city’s Bike Walk Ambassador program.

Peterson acknowledged that positive data about bike safety trends sometimes was not as powerful as bicyclists’ perceptions of safety. He compared biking after a series of high-profile accidents to flying after a plane crash: It’s just as safe, but people worry more, anyway.

After the stop on Excelsior Boulevard, the memorial ride headed back east on Lake Street passing Lake Calhoun for a second time. All along the route, pedestrians turned to watch. Some waved or shouted. Cars honked in support.

Murphy said there were a few confrontations between riders and motorists during the ride, but they were far outnumbered by positive interactions.

The final leg of the ride took bicyclists north on Hennepin Avenue to the intersection of 5th Street and Nicollet Mall, where 18-year-old Nicholas Morton was struck and killed Sept. 23. The South High School graduate was the youngest of the four crash victims.

At the final stop, Gil Gaitan of St. Paul dismounted and walked over to the ghost bike chained to a street sign.

Gaitan said he joined the ride because he, too, was a regular bike commuter. He also had a connection with Nisser through friends who worked at the Minikhada Club, where Nisser was a cook.

“I guess he was a really nice guy,” Gaitan said. “He worked there for a long time.”

After three hours on the road with fellow cyclists, Gaitan was optimistic their show of support would have an impact.

“I know [safety] is a shared responsibility between drivers and bicyclists,” he said. “Hopefully, with events like this, people will be more aware.”