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LA incident rallies cycling community

By Patrick Brady

The rear window of the car.

The rear window of the car.

Photo: Chris Roberts

When Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr heard the honking behind them, they knew the routine — get single file. “As we singled up, the driver came up on us, told us to ride single file and then started yelling,” Peterson recalled.

The two cyclists were part of a Fourth of July ride that had climbed Mandeville Canyon Road, a popular cycling destination in Los Angeles’ affluent suburb of Brentwood. They had stayed behind the rest of the group to care for another cyclist who had fallen, and once he had been picked up by paramedics, began the descent together. Peterson, for his part, says he yelled back, but neither cyclist was prepared for what they said happened next: The driver pulled ahead of them as they descended the canyon road and slammed on his brakes.

Peterson went through the back window of Dr. Christopher Thompson’s burgundy Infinity sedan. Stoehr attempted to steer around the car but clipped the bumper and went over the bars, landing in the road in oncoming traffic. Thompson, a former emergency room physician, got out of the car, but rather than render aid, he continued to berate the two cyclists, according to witnesses.

Stoehr had a separated shoulder. Peterson’s nose was broken and nearly severed from his face. At the hospital he would require more than 90 stitches to reattach his nose after the broken bone was set. Both will go under the knife for corrective surgery in the future.

Thompson was arrested at the scene and charged with suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. He is free on $30,000 bail. Attorney Peter Swarth, who said he was representing Thompson, told the Associated Press that the incident has been mischaracterized.

“We deny there was any road rage incident,” Swarth told the AP. “It was a very unfortunate accident.”

Word spread rapidly through the local cycling community thanks to e-mail lists maintained by Cynergy Cycling (for which Peterson and Stoehr race) and Velo Club La Grange, a Los Angeles-area cycling club with more than 400 members. Gruesome photos of Peterson and Stoehr gave the e-mails a gross-out factor that added to their rapid spread.

As the cycling community traded notes, people began to question if Dr. Thompson was the same motorist who had a run-in with two cyclists in Mandeville Canyon in March. A member of both clubs forwarded Patrick Watson’s account of his experience to Peterson. The vanity plate, “TCH MDX,” matched, as did the description of the car. The experience was almost identical.

In the March incident, the driver sped ahead of the cyclists then slammed on his brakes. Watson rode into someone’s yard while teammate Josh Crosby veered into oncoming traffic; Watson said the driver made a second effort to hit them and then sped away.

Related articles:

Oct. 30, 2009: Closing arguments
Oct. 28, 2009: Dr. Thompson takes the stand
Oct. 26, 2009: Prosecution rests
Oct. 22, 2009: ‘I wanted to teach them a lesson’
Oct. 20, 2009: Defense suggests cyclists were looking for a fight
Oct. 19, 2009: Road-rage trial begins
Oct. 12, 2009: California road-rage case heads for court
Dec. 24, 2008: Mionske: Mandeville incident inspires Cyclists Bill of Rights
Aug. 15, 2008: Mionske: Bikes v. cars
Aug. 8, 2008: Mionske: Where’s the justice?
July 14, 2008: Mailbag: Readers sound off
July 13, 2008: Doctor charged
July 10, 2008: LA incident rallies cyclists

“I had a gut reaction to get the guy’s license number and entered his license number into my phone,” said Watson.

Neither rider was injured. Despite pressure from La Grange’s Public Policy Director, Jeffrey Courion, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley declined to prosecute the case; Watson was told it wasn’t a winner. “I’m a little bitter because this happened before, but no one took it seriously.”

La Grange created the Public Policy Director position so that the club could more effectively lobby public officials. Courion and others have been effective in working with city officials and CalTrans to note road hazards and other issues. Attorney Charles Mostov often assists Courion with advocacy issues. Mostov said, “It provides an opportunity to put the issue in font of public officials … to educate them on the rights of cyclists and lobby for safer roads and more bike lanes.”

Motivated by their outrage for the situation, local cyclists inundated the local media outlets with the story.

“People are coming out of the woodwork to show their support,” said Peterson. “It’s not just the cyclists but their support networks reaching out as well.”

Mostov, the attorney, said, “What I’m trying to do is be a clearinghouse of information and a calming influence. If we can speak with one voice then it’s going to be more effective than if everyone vents their frustration and anger that these sorts of events keep happening.”