Sierra, a blue-eyed eighth-grader at Pleasant Lea Junior High, played violin in her school's orchestra and sang in the choir. For her, cycling was a new hobby. The grandfather-granddaughter duo was training for the MS 150 — the annual fundraising ride to benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Gaunt had been a top fundraiser and early finisher for the past 11 years, and he hoped to complete his 12th effort with his new cycling companion.
A couple of weeks later, on the evening of August 6, the Gaunts were riding on the wide shoulder of a road circling Longview Lake. Often traveled by cyclists in training, this stretch is straight and flat. The sky was clear and the pavement dry.
A 1985 Chevy pickup approached from the south.
The driver, William Johnson, had been cited two weeks earlier for driving 95 in a 70-mph zone. Police believe that as he neared the cyclists, Johnson was driving nearly 10 miles an hour faster than the 45-mph zone allowed.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened at 6:14 p.m. Johnson told Grandview police that he saw the two cyclists on the right shoulder but, at a second's notice, one of the bikes swung into his lane. His brakes locked as he tried to stop, he said. He panicked and swerved to the right, striking one of the Gaunts from behind with his front bumper. As he skidded to a stop, he acknowledged, he hit the other cyclist.
But three witnesses told the police that the Gaunts were traveling on the shoulder — not veering into traffic — when they were hit. The investigation concluded that "Johnson's vehicle drifted off the roadway due to inattention and that Johnson overcompensated, causing the truck to skid before impact with the bicycles."
Larry Gaunt died at the scene; Sierra was rushed to Overland Park Regional Medical Center, where her organs were donated before she died. "The threads of our close-knit family have been shredded," Larry's oldest son, Brad, said in a statement.
Ten days after the crash, cyclists gathered near Longview Lake to ride the loop that Larry and Sierra Gaunt never completed. More than 600 supporters showed up, some sporting racing Spandex and breezing along on expensive road bikes, others wearing gym shorts and puffing up the hills on old 10-speeds. At the spot where Johnson's blue Chevy struck the Gaunts, members of a group called Kansas City Ghost Bikes (part of a national effort to honor fallen bikers) had tethered a white, battered old bike to a tree to serve as a wake-up call to passing drivers. The group stopped there. For several moments, the mass of hundreds stood silent, except for the soft clatter of cycling shoes being unclipped from pedals and the staggered breath of those who were crying.
Brent Hugh, director of the Missouri Bicycle Federation, told the crowd at the start of the memorial, the ride was as much about making a statement as honoring the victims.
"We have a serious traffic-safety problem in America and Kansas City," Hugh told the crowd.
As of October, four cyclists have died in the metro this year. According to the Mid-America Regional Council, 18 cyclists were killed and 1,262 injured on the area's roads from 2000 to 2006. Advocates such as Hugh acknowledge that some of those fatalities and injuries were the fault of careless cyclists. But many cyclists say they're routinely targeted and harassed on the streets.
John Knight says he has nearly been assaulted for simply riding on the road. Once, he says, just south of Volker Boulevard, a motorist got out of his car at an intersection and threatened Knight, saying, "You can't be on the road. I'll kick your ass." Terry Scruggs, an Olathe resident, once watched a driver, coming from the opposite direction, hang out the window and take careful aim in hurling a beer bottle at him. Doug Polson was fixing a flat tire at the edge of a residential lawn in Mission earlier this year when, he says, the homeowner yelled, "Get off my property — I hate you people!"
People who are hostile to cyclists don't understand that state law gives bikes the same right to the roadway as any automobile, says Capt. Rich Lockhart, spokesman for the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department. In some cases, he says, those who harass or threaten cyclists can be prosecuted for disorderly conduct or assault.
Still, Lockhart says, it's difficult to track down assailants; cyclists, he warns, must be vigilant in a hostile environment.
"People are not respectful of them [bikes and pedestrians], and you really have to watch out for yourself," he says.
Cyclists say motorists who injure or kill cyclists need more than a slap on the wrist. Last year, for example, when Susan Brewer was killed commuting to work on a bike in Liberty, the motorist faced only a $200 fine for minor traffic violations.
After the Gaunts were killed, cyclists pushed Jackson County officials to send a message by prosecuting Johnson. On September 29, he was charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter; The Pitch was unable to reach Johnson for comment.
While bike advocates follow Johnson's trial, there's little justice for the hundreds of cyclists who are knocked around on city streets. Over the past few weeks, The Pitch has spoken with dozens of riders. These 10 disturbing stories aren't that unusual.
set on fire
Stats: Milford took up cycling after he graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute and moved to New York City in 1998. Back in Kansas City for the past five years, he commutes by bike from his home in the Valentine neighborhood to his furniture-making business in the Crossroads.
Incident: Early this past summer, on a brisk Saturday morning, Milford was cycling up Broadway to his workshop. Near the intersection of Broadway and Westport Road, two people in a white hatchback started driving alongside him, taunting Milford as he rode. He couldn't tell what they were shouting. He also didn't know that the driver and passenger had flicked cigarettes at him. About a block after the car pulled away, Milford felt his neck burning and realized his shirt was on fire. "As I was trying to swat it out, I turned into the curb and went head over handlebars," he says. One of the cigarettes had landed in his black hoodie. The stop-drop-and-roll method extinguished the fire, but Milford's outrage flared. "I got up on my bike and took off as fast I could in the direction I saw them going," he says of the hatchback. "I was going to put my lock through their window. I was that angry." Milford didn't catch up with the car.
Legal action: None. If there is no physical contact with the vehicle and the cyclist has no license-plate number to report, he has little recourse.
Stats: A cyclist since college, Davis dislikes driving and commutes by bike from her home in the Northeast neighborhood to work at City Hall in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
Assault: Davis had already taken some tough knocks on the night of June 27, 2006. Trying her moxie at mountain biking on the Blue River Parkway Trails, she'd tumbled a few times and was eager to head home. About two blocks from her house, she spotted a group of kids congregated around a pile of debris on the curb. As she wheeled by, they took aim. "One happened to have a computer keyboard in his hands and clubbed me upside the head with it," she says. The blow was hard enough to dent her helmet, but Davis kept riding. That is, until another assailant tackled her. At that point, she figured they were intending to mug what they assumed was a helpless cyclist. "I jumped up, infuriated, and cussed them all out," she says. "They were so surprised their intended target was fighting back, they scattered. I grabbed the keyboard and waved it around at them a bit, until they thoroughly dispersed."
Injuries: A roughed-up elbow and a minced knee.
Legal action: None. Davis called the Kansas City Police Department, and officers took a report at the scene, but Davis says they weren't able to track down her assailants. She did keep the key piece of evidence, though — the keyboard. She says she's planning to pry off the letters B-O-L-G-N-A for an art project.
Stats: Carroll competes in a couple of mountain-bike races every year, but for the most part, he's a bike commuter. For the past three years, he has ridden from his home near West 39th Street to his job at the Kansas City Health Department at 24th Street and Troost.
Crash: Carroll was returning to work after riding home for his lunch break on July 17. Just before one o'clock, he was pedaling down Linwood in the left lane, preparing to turn north onto Harrison. With no oncoming traffic, he stuck out his left arm, signaling his intent to turn. He heard brakes squealing behind him. A second later, the front bumper of a maroon Mercury Grand Marquis collided with his rear wheel, flinging him into the air. "The bike swung out in front of me, and I landed on my feet, running," he says. Traffic at the intersection stopped as Carroll retrieved his damaged Schwinn Le-Tour and the driver, Robert Allee, rushed up to him. "His first response was, 'Man, are you OK?' And his second sentence was, 'You shouldn't have been riding in that lane,'" Carroll says. "I didn't respond to that at all. I just asked him for a pen to start writing down his information." After a friendly stranger offered him a spare tire, Carroll was able to ride the rest of the way to work.
Medical bill: $350. A doctor prescribed muscle relaxers for a neck strain, back pain and a tweaked tendon in his knee. Carroll is still negotiating with Hawkeye Insurance Company, Allee's policy provider, to cover his medical expenses and the cost of missed work hours.
Legal action: Based on state law, Carroll knew he had the right to be in the left lane to make a turn like any other vehicle. According to the police report, Allee had a clear line of sight, and the collision was caused by the driver's "failure to yield" and "inattention." Even so, Carroll says, the cops seemed to take the crash lightly. "The police officer basically asked me if I wanted him to write a ticket or not, and I said, 'Well, yeah, I would think so.'" A subpoena was issued, and Allee showed up in court on October 1. He pleaded guilty and paid a $138 fine.
Stats: Denny lives downtown and rides for recreation. For the past two years, he has commuted by bike 20 miles each way to his job in Overland Park.
Crash: On an overcast morning in December 2006, Denny was traveling through Prairie Village on his way to work. It was the beginning of rush hour, about 7:30 a.m., and Denny lined up behind two other cars at the traffic light where Roe meets Tomahawk. On the other side of the intersection, Lisa Marie Bastean idled with her signal blinking, waiting to turn left onto Roe. Denny, continuing on Tomahawk, followed the other vehicles. "She yielded for the other cars, but I started to go and she didn't yield for me," he says. When Bastean spotted him crossing —
with his red helmet, red bag and flashing red light — she slammed on the brakes. But not before she struck Denny with the right edge of her Toyota Matrix, sending him barreling over the hood of the car. He clattered to the pavement with the bike still clipped to his feet. "She was out of her car so fast to check on me, it started to roll away," he says. But when police and paramedics showed up, he says, she had an excuse: "I didn't see you." Bastean tells The Pitch that she remembers the morning as "dark and misty" and says Denny didn't come into view until too late. "It was a very, very scary, startling experience," she says. "I was just thankful he was OK." Bastean says the collision has made her more mindful of cyclists.
Medical bill: Health insurance covered his doctor visits, costs for which totaled approximately $500.
Insult to injury: Denny says he tried to get Bastean's State Farm policy to cover the fees, but it was a battle to get the company to talk to him. "It was just kind of insulting," he says. "At one point, the State Farm agent said, 'Poor car. It was a brand-new car.'"
Legal action: According to the police report, the officer concluded that Bastean "failed to pay full time and attention to the roadway, causing the accident." He didn't issue her a ticket, though. That doesn't sit well with Denny. "If I had been a car, she would have gotten a ticket," he says.
Stats: Borchardt has been biking since 1999, after a fracture in her left leg sidelined her from running. She bought a road bike and has been cycling up to 5,000 miles a year.
Regular route: Just about every Monday night, Borchardt can be found at Gringos Mexican Restaurant in Olathe after a weekly ride sponsored by the Johnson County Bicycle Club.
Crash: On May 21, Borchardt left her biking buddies a little after 8 p.m. to start her solo, 6-mile ride home. It was still light outside as she was riding down Loula, just east of old downtown Olathe. She says she's the kind of nerd who wears flashing lights on her bike and a rearview mirror on her helmet, so she wasn't too concerned when she spotted a car creeping up behind her. "I was right where I was supposed to be, 8 inches off the curb, not speeding, not doing anything weird," she says. The vehicle passed her, then suddenly turned into a driveway directly in front of her. Borchardt says she was traveling at 23 miles an hour when she slammed into the front passenger door of the 1978 Dodge Magnum. "My head was within 2 feet of the rear wheel," she says of her landing. With blood dripping from a cut on her left arm, she tried to ride away, but her wrist couldn't bear the pressure on her handlebars. She called friends, who found her on the side of the road and called 911. She was taken by ambulance to Olathe Medical Center, where doctors sewed up the wound with several stitches and put a cast on her swollen wrist.
Medical bill: $3,400
Legal action: None. Driver Maverick Lafferty, 18, told police that he saw Borchardt but thought he had passed her before he turned into the driveway. (The Pitch was unable to reach Lafferty.) Sympathetic to the fact that he was young and had offered to help after the crash, Borchardt says she didn't press police to issue him a ticket.
Stats: When his car needed repairs in September 2006, Olathe resident Dunker bought a bike instead. Since then, he has commuted by bike to the bus stop or for the 30 miles round trip to and from his IT job.
Accident: It's tough to miss Dunker, who wears a lime-colored reflective vest and rides a bike with two rear flashing lights. In March, though, at 6:30 a.m., the sun was coming up as Dunker began his commute down Strang Line Road in Olathe. As he approached the intersection of 119th Street, cruising at 20 miles an hour in the right lane, the light was red and a couple of cars were waiting in the left lane. The signal turned green just as Dunker came up to the line of cars and, from behind him, a black Chevy pickup with tinted windows darted into the right lane to avoid slowing down for the two-car line in the left. The pickup came within inches of Dunker, who had to make a split-second choice between two bad alternatives: "Get bumped by the pickup and possibly sucked under the rear wheel or run into the curb," he says. "I opted for the curb and was flung ass-over-teakettle into the pavement, face first." The driver didn't stop, and neither did anyone else. Too dizzy to stand, Dunker crawled off the road, dragging his bike onto the sidewalk. He called his wife but got no answer, so he rode three miles back home before she rushed him to the emergency room. There, doctors told him that he had fractured the maxilla bone in his face in two spots.
Medical bill: $1,500. The bulk of the hospital tests and a visit to a specialist were covered by Dunker's insurance, but he had to pay $500 in dental costs to replace two shattered teeth.
Legal action: Dunker filed an online complaint with the Olathe Police Department, and an officer got in touch with him promptly. Because he didn't get the pickup's license-plate number, though, he couldn't file a report.
Stats: A racer for the Cycle City team in the Northland, Hershey started cycling and competing in 2000.
Accident: On December 13, 2006, Hershey and three others were biking back to Cycle City after a group training ride. At 8:15 p.m. it was dark, but Hershey was wearing a headlamp and was in the middle of the small band of cyclists. As they passed a strip mall at 81st Street and Prairie View, Hershey saw a pickup truck pull up to the edge of the parking lot. "I kind of thought the stop sign would make them stop. Not so much," he says. The vehicle pulled directly into the street — and into the rear wheel of Hershey's bike. The surprised cyclist swerved to the right to avoid the collision, but his bike fishtailed beneath him. "I lost control and ended up on the opposite shoulder from where I had been riding," he says. He watched as the truck continued to creep down the darkened street. "I was on the ground, and when I got up, they didn't stop," he says. "They were just making sure I wasn't dead." With the shock wearing off, Hershey realized that his left arm wasn't moving as it should. He'd broken his scapula, the edge of his shoulder bone, an injury that would require two surgeries to insert and remove a metal plate and several screws.
Medical bill: $20,000
Legal action: None. Hershey was too disoriented to jot down the license plate, and his companions didn't catch it before the hit-and-run driver left the scene.
Epilogue: With the help of the Missouri Bicycle Federation, Hershey pressed the police department about its response. When he called 911 at the scene, the dispatcher told him that he should come to the station if he wanted to file a report. Hershey was upset that the KCPD didn't send an officer to the scene of a hit-and-run. An investigation at the behest of former City Councilman John Fairfield found that the police had acted according to procedure because Hershey had said he didn't need an ambulance.
Stats: Boyles, a Shawnee resident, rides 5,000 miles a year and competes in races as long as 100 miles.
Crash: On Sunday, July 23, 2006, Boyles was cooling down from a 60-mile training ride, cruising down Oak Grove Road in Kansas City, Kansas. At 4:15 p.m., there was little traffic on the road. Boyles was wearing a bright-yellow jersey. As he was coming down the hill, he spotted a maroon sedan driving toward him in the opposite lane. Suddenly, without signaling, the vehicle turned into a driveway in front of him. Boyles slammed into the front passenger side of the car, tumbled across the windshield and flipped over the car and onto the pavement. The driver stopped, but Boyles says he was in too much pain to talk to the motorist. "I was yelling obscenities so much, he didn't have much of a chance to talk to me," Boyles says. A Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department unit arrived within five minutes, and Boyles was rushed from the scene by ambulance. At the University of Kansas Hospital, doctors treated a crushed lung and several fractured ribs as well as a broken knee, wrist and hip. He has spent nearly a year undergoing physical and occupational therapy.
Medical bill: Nearly $1 million
Insult to injury: His $2,500 bike was totaled.
Legal action: Driver David Hiatt acknowledged at the scene that he hit Boyles. (He declined to comment to The Pitch.) Police cited him for failing to yield and properly signal his turn. The two fines amounted to $130. Boyles says that wasn't enough: "It was completely unnecessary to ruin my body like that. He should be in jail."
Stats: Hammond lived just east of Benton Boulevard. One of his main modes of transportation was a red-and-black Huffy Canyon.
Fatal accident: On July 14, Hammond was pedaling south on Brooklyn. When the road intersected Independence Avenue, he continued across the crosswalk. My Hanh Tran saw the cyclist coming as she drove west on Independence in her white Toyota Sequoia. She told police that the light was green and her SUV was traveling at 35 miles an hour — too fast to make a quick stop. She hit Hammond with her front bumper. The impact tossed him from his seat, and his body skidded 60 feet. His bike was mangled under the tires of the Sequoia. The accident occurred at 2:22 p.m., but police didn't arrive until 45 minutes later. Witnesses gave conflicting accounts of who had the green light and who was at fault. By that time, Hammond was dying in an ambulance bound for Truman Medical Center.
Legal action: A ccording to the police investigation, Tran's SUV may have been going as fast as 44 miles an hour at the time of the collision. (The Pitch was unable to reach Tran for comment.) Because there were no skid marks at the scene, police determined that she didn't slam on her brakes; her momentum carried her more than 80 feet after she struck Hammond. The KCPD's vehicular-crimes section was unable to determine which vehicle had the right-of-way. Tran was not issued a ticket.
Stats: Triggs had ridden 17,000 miles across the United States and biked through half the countries in Europe. Because he was on his bike so often and knew he was at risk of suffering an accident, Triggs wrote his own obituary, citing his 20 years as an advertising writer and his love of gardening. The father of two was a native Kansas Citian but in recent years had moved to Texas and was in town caring for a sick friend.
Fatal accident: On June 9, 2006, Triggs took a quick ride to the downtown library to pick up a book and send a few e-mails. On his way home, Triggs stopped on the sidewalk at the intersection of Grand and 12th Street. Next to him, straddling both lanes, was a fully loaded cement mixer from Fordyce Concrete Company waiting to turn right. But Triggs couldn't have known that. According to court documents, the truck failed to signal. When the light turned green, Triggs started across the street. Driver Jason Driskell told police that he didn't see Triggs and didn't notice when he hit the cyclist, knocking him off his bike and under the truck's rear tires. "He [Driskell] drug his [Triggs'] body down the road for a block and a half, before people started running behind him, screaming at him," says Denise Henning, the family's attorney. The police found Triggs' crushed red-and-silver Jamis bicycle and two shoes just south of the intersection. Pieces of his shattered helmet littered the street. Triggs died within minutes, but it took several days for a fingerprint match to officially identify him.
Legal action: Driskell faced no criminal charges and wasn't issued a traffic ticket. In April 2007, Triggs' wife and two sons filed a wrongful-death claim against Driskell and Fordyce Concrete Company. "The family was upset at what they believe to be a lack of attention to bicyclists in Kansas City," Henning says. "I think the officers at the scene didn't take it seriously, and there was no follow-up. I've noticed that in some other bike cases. They always assume the bicyclist is the one in the wrong." According to court documents, Driskell and Fordyce argue that Triggs was negligent in riding in a careless manner and initiating contact with the truck. Driskell did not return The Pitch's phone calls. Triggs' family alleges that Driskell was inattentive and failed to yield the right-of-way in a crosswalk. The case is set for trial next summer.