NASCAR cycling advocates ride in memory of Nicky Hayden

Stars of the motorsports world, such as Jimmie Johnson, gather for a memorial ride to honor Nicky Hayden who died in Italy after being hit by a car.

Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, the local crew headed out for a long morning ride. It was a perfect spring spin — conversational pace, sunny skies, no wind, and lots of green in the trees. The group cruised a rolling loop out toward Albemarle and back. But there was a certain sadness. There always is when a group rides in memory of a fallen friend.

Former cyclocross pro Tim Johnson summed it up succinctly: “It was a terrible reason to have a beautiful ride.”

Charlotte’s NASCAR circle invited Johnson to take part in Friday’s ride to celebrate the life of MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden. Nicknamed “The Kentucky Kid,” the Owensboro resident was like many world-class motorsports stars that ride bikes for both fitness and for the simple enjoyment two wheels can offer.

On May 17, a driver hit Hayden while he was riding his bike along the Rimini coast in Italy. He died five days later at 35.

Only about one month prior, Astana rider Michele Scarponi died on April 22. He was out on a training ride when the driver of a van hit and killed him near his home in central Italy.

Johnson says the losses are senseless and tragic, but he is grateful to have a platform to raise awareness for safety issues, alongside a collection of motorsports stars. As a spokesperson for PeopleForBikes, Johnson says activism is one thing that can help make a positive difference in light of tragedies like this.

“Being involved in this through Jimmie [Johnson] means a lot for a group like PeopleForBikes,” Tim Johnson said. “They try to represent bike advocacy for everyone, but the fact is, there are a lot of people there working hard to make conditions safer for all of us, and still fun. Just because we’re pro-bike doesn’t mean we’re anti-anything, like anti-car. We’re all on board with the same message, It’s about putting your hand up and joining this grassroots army.”

Tim Johnson flew from his Massachusetts home to join Hayden’s motorsports friends. The group included a notable NASCAR contingent: reigning and seven-time Monster Energy Cup Series champion and cycling advocate Jimmie Johnson was joined by fellow Cup car drivers Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Daniel Suarez, as well as Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff and Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief. Supercross star Justin Brayton and retired Tour de France rider Christian Vande Velde also joined.

“We had a minute to talk before the ride, to talk about why we were there,” Tim Johnson said. “Jimmie turned it over to me, and what I wanted to tell everyone there is that it’s everyone’s worst fear to know someone, whether a family member, a friend, a teammate, even someone you’ve never talked to on a ride, pass away. It’s a tragedy, but there are things we can do to try to avoid things like this in the future.

As for the ride, there was a sadness on a sunny day, but a lot of stories, and smiles.

“The motorsports community is so small, our paths always crossed. Our local motorsports and cycling community wanted to get together and ride 69 miles for Nicky Hayden,” Jimmie Johnson said. Hayden’s racing number was 69. “He left such a mark on the folks the cycling in the cycling and motorsports communities worldwide, we felt it would be appropriate to ride 69 miles and honor him, as well as provide a little bit of awareness through the ride.

“More than anything else, we just wanted to smile and think of him., he added. “The bond of cycling is what’s brought us all here. We all hear the stories and we know it does happen, but this one hit home.”

“I know the Bostrom brothers [Ben and Eric, both former motorcycle races that have taken to cycling] are heartbroken, as they lost one of their own. But it’s amazing that the bike, it really has tied us all together. I mean, I met Nicky at, of all things, a bike race,” Tim Johnson recalls. “We were at the Tour of California before the start of a stage. I recognized him, rolled over and said, ‘Hey, my name is Tim, I’m a big fan of yours … and what are you doing here?’ He said aw, just hanging out, ready to watch you guys race!’ This was two years off becoming the MotoGP world champion.

“The Hayden family has moto racing in their blood, and it carried into cycling. We’re so happy to celebrate him in this way today,” Johnson added. “The connections we all share, regardless of background, it all comes back to the bicycle.”