From the pages of Velo: A Death in the Family
Editor’s note: As we ring out 2012, we look at 12 of our favorite stories of the year. Today, we present James Jung’s personal look at the death of Markus Bohler in Bethel, Connecticut, which originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Velo magazine and was voted by our editors as our top story of the year.
Sometimes, the sport you love can teach the hardest of lessons
When I was 14 years old, I realized you could die in a bike accident. Of course, I knew the sport had its dangers, but it wasn’t until I saw footage of Fabio Casartelli bleeding to death at the 1995 Tour de France that the grim reality sunk in. Stunned and saddened, I watched the ESPN broadcast in disbelief as the young Italian’s limp body was splayed across the Pyrenean roadside and red blood ran down the pavement in rivulets from his crushed skull.
Still, the haunting images weren’t enough to stop me from sneaking out of the house without my helmet, wearing only Euro pro necessities like my Banesto cap and a gold guardian angel pendant as protection. Irony, not to mention fashion sense (or any sense, for that matter), is lost on a cycling-obsessed teenager.
Sixteen years later, I was reminded that bike racing could have fatal consequences, only this time the accident didn’t happen an ocean away, in a race I’d never enter, but rather a few wheels behind me during a Cat. 3/4 criterium in Bethel, Connecticut, in March.
Now in my early 30s, I’d been bitten by the bike-racing bug following a long hiatus from the sport, and I came into the 2012 season with a solid winter base, hopes of earning my Cat. 2 upgrade, and, for the first time in my life, teammates — a hodgepodge of Cat. 3 and 4 and grey-haired masters who all spoke like carefree kids whenever the subject of cycling came up.
The Bethel Spring Series is one of the most popular early-season training series in the Northeast. Located 90 minutes north of Manhattan, it forms a nexus between the strong New York City and New England cycling scenes, and gives riders the opportunity to tune up for bigger objectives later in the year. Like so many amateur crits held around the country, the course itself is unremarkable: A flat, near-mile loop located in a nondescript corporate park in the middle of suburbia. But following a long winter away from competition, no one seems to ever care about the course’s lack of terrain.
Ripe for Racing
That particular day felt ripe for racing: 70 degrees and sunny, one of those unseasonably warm, late-winter afternoons that southern New England cruelly throws at cyclists before going back into hibernation until nearly June. Coasting around the parking lot, you could sense the collective excitement. Riders were happy to be off their trainers, out of their tights, and back racing again. They chatted and joked while they pinned numbers and mixed bottles, smiled and nodded as they freewheeled past each other. Everyone was in high spirits; everyone seemed to be good friends.
Everyone, that is, except me. Still relatively new to the scene, I didn’t know many of the riders. But as I sat on the rear bumper of a teammate’s car, enjoying the warm sun while I applied embrocation to my milk-white legs, a familiar figure stuck out: A broad, 6-foot-5 German man with a personality large enough to match his hulking stature. His name was Markus Bohler, an ebullient, 49-year old Cat. 4 whom I’d met briefly the previous spring during a stage race in Vermont, my first in over a decade. I remembered the way he incessantly talked at the start of the first stage, diffusing the pack’s collective pre-race jitters with his goofy jokes and genial German accent.
Today, he’d focused his attention on a mustachioed Brooklyn bike messenger, some 20 years his junior, who was kitting up behind his parked car. They seemed an odd pairing, and yet despite their apparent differences the two men had the quick, easy rapport of old buddies. I remember sitting there listening to the casual cadence of their conversation and the adolescent-like laughs that punctuated it, thinking to myself, only at a bike race would these two polar opposites be friends. It made me happy to be a part of the funny little fraternity, even if I was only a wallflower standing at the margin.
Twenty minutes later, Markus and I were zipping around the circuit, and some 30 minutes after that Markus was lying on the side of the road, his big body limply planking the pavement while blood pooled around his face. He’d gone down in a crash with a few other riders on the backstretch of the circuit. The accident happened behind me, so I only heard the unnatural scrape of bikes and bodies hitting the deck. But by all accounts it had been as unremarkable as the corporate park’s bland surroundings — a momentary lapse of concentration, a quick touch of wheels, a simple spill. Nothing you couldn’t walk away from.
“Honestly, it didn’t seem like that bad of a crash,” my teammate Darius Shekari would later point out, shaking his head in disbelief. “We weren’t even going that fast, maybe 23 or 24 mph. My fast lap time for that race is 31 mph, so comparatively it was pretty tame.”
Even Markus’ teammates on the local Pawling Cycle & Sport team didn’t think much of the accident. “It was typical Markus just being friendly,” recalled 20-year old Brandon Freyer, a once promising runner at Syracuse who’d left school with a career-ending injury, moved home, and picked up cycling. The Cat. 4 rider (who’d go on to end his season as a Cat. 1) witnessed the pile up happen only a few wheels in front of him. “He was talking to a rider on another team, and he just put his hand on the guy’s shoulder during a slow point in the race to say hello and that’s when he went down.”
Considering the seemingly innocuous nature of the crash, we were all surprised to see Markus’ unconscious and immobile body still lying there the next time we’d made it around the loop. Officials had swarmed him. Someone ran into the road and flagged us to the other side, indicating that we should keep riding but that the race had been neutralized.
We soft-pedaled past the scene, rubbernecking to see the extent of the damage. I only caught a glimpse of Markus, but I immediately thought, “he’s dead” for the simple fact that he reminded me of Fabio Casartelli — lifeless and empty. Other riders were more optimistic, and I tried blocking any further morbid thoughts from my head.
The next two laps passed in a daze as we pedaled along, stuck in some awful procession that always ended with the same grim reminder: Markus still hadn’t moved. Seeing him lying there like that, bent and broken, cruelly exposed underneath the relentless sun of that brilliant afternoon, seemed fake. And yet everything else seemed false by comparison. Markus became the only reality. Of course this goes without saying, but bike races suddenly stop mattering when someone might be dying.
Three laps after the accident, promoter Aki Sato cancelled our field’s race. Unlike the rest of us, Sato had immediately understood the gravity of the situation. He’d been riding in our field and had stopped to check on the crash victims as soon as they’d gone down.
“When I looked down at Markus I realized immediately that he was badly hurt. He was unconscious, breathing heavily, and bleeding from his head somewhere,” Sato recounted, still deeply affected by the day six months later. “I think I was the only one who realized he was really hurt at first. I don’t think anyone else stopped other than those who crashed. I rode back and yelled to the marshal to call 911, to get the police officer at the race down to the accident, then I returned to the scene.”
While the paramedics tended to Markus on the opposite end of the circuit, our field congregated in the parking lot by the start-finish area with our heads down and our shoulders slumped, feeling deflated. Riders were whispering, speculating about the extent of Markus’ injuries. Some were even starting to wonder if he’d make it, but most clung to the idea that he’d pull through. He had to, right? Nobody dies in a Cat. 3/4 crit, in Connecticut, on a beautiful day, with spring around the corner and nothing but races and group rides stretching from now till September.
The sound of the ambulance broke through our hushed conversations as it sped up the gentle rise to the finish and then out onto the main road, leaving us silent in its wailing wake. Sato reappeared soon after, stoically pedaling up from the scene of the accident, only to break down in the presence of the stunned field. His wife of 10 years would later say she hadn’t seen such a raw reaction from her husband since the death of his mother, and that had been in private. Riders patted him on the back. It was no one’s fault, least of all his.
The Cat. 1-2-3 race, the final field of the day, went on as planned. I partook (a decision I’m not particularly proud of in retrospect), though it felt trivial and indulgent. At the finish, we still hadn’t received an update on Markus’ condition, but continued to hope for the best. By the time we were packing up and leaving, my shell-shocked teammates and I started discussing if we’d tell our wives and girlfriends about the crash. Regardless of the outcome, ‘No’ was the general consensus; best not to worry them, best to not risk getting benched by your significant other before the next race.
Markus’ own teammates, on the other hand, had to worry about more immediate matters, like his abandoned car. They gathered around the compact sedan wondering where he’d left his keys, how they would get it to him, and if he’d even need it. As I rode shotgun back to Manhattan, I couldn’t stop thinking about that empty car. I pictured it sitting there in a vacant parking lot as the sun dipped behind the still barren trees, the sky darkening and the unreal warmth draining from the day.
When I got home, I decided to tell my girlfriend what had happened after all. I needed to talk to someone, and besides, she’d find out anyway and be angry that I’d kept it from her. After I finished, she sat me down on our couch and made me promise to never race Bethel again. I considered telling her how safe and well run the series was, how the turns were always swept and the drains covered by plywood, how this could have happened anywhere to anyone else, but I decided against it.
Cycling had become a point of contention in our household. She loved seeing me happy and healthy (a far cry from my beer drinking days), but she also wondered if there was ever going to be a finish line to my obsession and a return to some form of normalcy. I didn’t have an answer for her then and still don’t now. Cycling simply makes me feel like a kid again, which is to say it makes me happy. I’m a 32-year-old man with limited ability and zero chance of turning pro, and yet bike racing fills me with a joy so pure and simple and complete that if I were to ever try to put it into words I’d betray it and feel like a fool. As dramatic as this might sound, I can’t imagine it not being a part of my life.
But I also can’t imagine dying because of it. I doubt Markus could have either. The only difference between the two of us is that he did. I found out the next morning when I got into my office and logged onto Facebook. My newsfeed had been flooded with updates: Markus had succumbed to head injuries during the night, having never regained consciousness after crashing. I sat in front of my computer feeling shocked but unsurprised, sad but numb. Aside from one quick conversation, I didn’t know Markus that well, and yet he’d died in a bike race I’d competed in, participating in a sport we both loved. I felt compelled to grieve but didn’t know how, and so I just spent the day refreshing his team’s Facebook page, over and over, watching it fill up with hundreds of comments from other racers.
Markus’ official time of death had been 4:30 a.m. Monday morning, about 15 hours after he’d crashed. But several riders had known by Sunday night that his injuries were fatal. One of which was his teammate Brandon Freyer, who had joined two other members of Pawling Cycle & Sport to visit Markus at the hospital that night. Markus, a divorcee who had lived alone in an apartment in Poughkeepsie, New York, had no family in this country, and so his teammates had concerned themselves with little things like taking care of his Cairn terrier and comforting him in the hospital. Shortly after 11 p.m., Brandon learned that continuing those little gestures wouldn’t be necessary, and said goodbye to Markus.
Aki Sato also received the tragic news Sunday night. He visited the hospital twice that evening. At 7 p.m., a tearful nurse informed him that Markus was alone in ICU and had been “gravely injured.” Later, after he’d met with the local police department to review the details of the accident, the distraught race promoter returned to learn that Markus was out of surgery and on life support but wouldn’t make it much longer. He paid his respects, then spoke with Markus’ three teammates and ex-wife, who had driven down from Rhode Island.
They each shared stories about Markus: How he’d come to this country from Germany; his equestrian background and his newfound passion for cycling; how funny he looked doting over his little dog, which resembled Toto from the Wizard of Oz; his dedication to the cycling team; how he worked with a coach and how, despite his age and less than ideal size, he still had ambitions of earning his Cat. 3 upgrade, of always progressing. They helped paint a broader picture of the man.
In the end, however, Sato remembered Markus as a cyclist, as he would remember anyone who’d ever pinned on a number in the Bethel Spring Series, a string of races he’d run every year since 1994. As he’d later tell me, “Markus was one of us and that was enough.”
It was a sentiment that was shared throughout the community. With his wife and one-week-old son at home, 90 minutes away, Sato sat in the parking lot of the Danbury hospital that night with his laptop pried open, fielding emails from fellow racers and answering his phone, which had been ceaselessly ringing. Still, despite the support, Sato considered cancelling the remainder of the races, and might have, if a chance phone call hadn’t convinced him otherwise.
Remembering that the Driveway Series in Austin, Texas, had been dealt a similar blow in 2009, Sato Googled the race’s website and emailed the promoter, Andrew Willis, seeking advice. Within minutes the two were on the phone. They spoke at length, and Willis stressed the importance of keeping Bethel alive.
“One thing that Andrew said was that the racers will need a way to grieve and if I canceled all the races they wouldn’t be able to gather as a community to show their support,” Sato recalls. “He said that he hadn’t been sure about holding his next race but he decided to do so. During and after that day he realized it was the best thing that he could have done.”
Heeding Willis’ advice, Aki didn’t end up cancelling the series, and the following Sunday racers gathered in a cold steady rain to ride in tribute of Markus. In the seven days since the accident, they’d helped raise $10,000, enough money to cover the travel expenses of his family, who’d flown in from Germany to be there.
Gracious, his parents instead insisted the money stay in this country, which their son had come to consider his home. And so today, a memorial paid for by amateur cyclists just like you, and me, and Markus, stands at the finish line of the Francis Clarke Industrial Center in Bethel. It consists of a stone patio, two park benches and a plaque embossed with the words “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up,” a quote that had been inscribed on Markus’ Road ID.
Before all this happened, however, before the memorial laps and the fundraising and the general outpouring of support that would make me proud to be part of the amateur bike racing community, I was still left sitting in front of my office computer on that strange Monday, unaware of how to feel or what to do next. I’d told a few of my coworkers when the news first broke, but they’d looked at me almost as oddly as the times I’d tell them I’d spent my weekend at a stage race.
My teammate Darius, a full-time engineering student off the bike, experienced a similar disconnect when he tried to tell a few classmates. “To an outsider who doesn’t know bike racing, it sounds like you attended an event where some random guy died,” he noted. “Or someone in the crowd at a concert you went to died. It just doesn’t compute.” So I kept the news to myself.
Finally, with nothing personal or poignant to add to the stream of eulogies, I logged out of Facebook that afternoon. But I couldn’t focus on work, and so I started to aimlessly surf the web. Typically, I’d waste time by looking for race photos or ogling Strava files, messaging a few friends about “how strong they looked” or “how good it was seeing them,” or just wishing I were on a ride instead of in the office. Anything, really, that would somehow recapture that thrilling feeling of racing my bicycle.
None of that felt appropriate under the circumstances. Neither did registering for another race, yet suddenly I found myself on BikeReg. I don’t really know why I’d typed in that address, but that’s where I landed. The Killington Stage Race, the same race I’d met Markus at the previous spring, was being promoted on the homepage, and I was surprised to see it already open for registration since it was still more than two months away. Curious as to who’d already committed, I clicked on the “Who’s Registered” link. There were only a handful of names, but sure enough Markus’ name was one of them.
I smiled. I nearly cried. Then I added my name to the start list, just a few rows below Markus Bohler.