Lance Armstrong: Why I Went to Kalamazoo to Finish the Ride

Five ghost bikes in memory of five cycling victims are seen during the Peace-Pedal-Pray memorial ride in Kalamazoo, Mich. on Sunday, June 12, 2016. The ride honored the five cyclists killed and four injured in a hit-and-run crash on Tuesday, June 7, 2016. Credit: Chelsea Purgahn / Kalamazoo Gazette-MLive Media Group / AP

After a day in Kalamazoo spent with the survivors of the horrific crash that left five cyclists dead, Lance Armstrong details how he learned of the tragedy, his participation in an event to finish the ride that those cyclists started, and his emotions of seeing five ghost bikes for the first time: “The whole thing was just completely shocking.”

When I first heard about this, I was on the golf course in Aspen. I got a text from a friend who had seen it on Twitter. The headline was crazy: “Breaking News: Five Cyclists Killed in Kalamazoo.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a headline like that. I was like, whoa.

So I went home and started reading up on it. Only then did I realize the full severity — the calls that came into 911 before the driver even got to them, the alleged condition he was in. The whole thing was just completely shocking. To be completely mowed down from behind, to see five people losing their lives, I had never seen or heard about anything like that before. Not even close.

I went on a run the next morning and it just weighed on me. So when I got back home, I got in touch with Steve Johnson, president of the Chain Gang Club. We got on the phone, and he told me they were going to do a memorial ride at some point. We talked it through, and I said, “This is a weekly ride. When you’re a little kid and you fall of your bike, or you stumble playing baseball, the best thing you can do is get back up and keep going.”

"If you guys do the ride next week, complete the ride, I’ll be there," I said. And he immediately replied “Oh my God, I love this idea.” So from there we worked this idea of finishing the ride.

I flew to Chicago and drove to Kalamazoo yesterday. I met with all of the riders who survived the crash and were injured. Three of the four were doing good — they were very aware. One of them is already out of the hospital. Another one, the wife of the president of the Chain Gang club, she was still in the hospital but they let her out to watch our ride. There’s one gentleman who’s obviously still in the hospital because he has a shattered pelvis and femur — but he’s very alert. The last rider took a pretty good ding on the head. He’s going to need a little more time to recover.

Then I met with about 40 family members of the riders who had passed. Man, that was heavy. Really heavy. They had all come down to the hospital and we gathered in a conference room. It’s just a tough time for all of them. Before I got there, the family members got a chance to talk through the accident for the first time with Steve Johnson and his wife, who was on the ride. The families had a lot of questions — there had been talk that the riders were all over the road, or that they were two abreast — and she got to clarify that for them, which I think relieved them on some level.

Of course, these cyclists did nothing wrong. In this case, it was more like this guy used his automobile like he would have used a gun.

Anyway, at the hospital I made my introductions to everybody, and the room was just still. It was hard to talk — these people are wrecked. They’re just destroyed, having lost family members and friends. It was hard to get through that.

I told them a few things. Any road cyclist is familiar with this fear, this close interaction with a car that 99.99 percent of the time is just a scare. But this deep fear of actual contact — I can relate to that. We all can relate to that. I talked a little bit about how I got to be there in that room, my conversations with Steve, our ideas that we do the ride again, get people back out on the bike. And then finally I thanked them for letting me be there.

I told them I know I’m not for everybody, but at this point in my life, I’m liberated and freed up to do whatever is meaningful for me. I’m not in Kalamazoo to woo favor, this was a gnarly event, something that touched me in a weird way, and so I thanked them for having me there.

Then we gathered and did the ride itself. It was about a 25-mile loop, the ride that those riders set out to do last week. I’m not good at counting crowds, but I’d guess there were 500 to 700 cyclists on the ride. It was super chill. We tried to keep the pace slow and there were police on the ride. We actually had a complete rolling enclosure — every intersection was full of police or had fire engine shutting it down. Kalamazoo’s mayor was on the ride, and the riders with the Chain Gang Club led the ride with two policemen on bikes.

There was some emotion at the start, but the people on the ride were either stoic or they were super supportive. I had never been to Kalamazoo, but it was how you’d imagine what that part of America would be like. Literally 90 percent of the houses had the residents out front, the kids out there in lawn chairs in their front yard, with handmade signs — things like Kalamazoo Strong and #finishtheride. That was just next level for me.

When we got to the spot where the crash occurred, we didn’t stop — there were too many people. But the ride slowed down, the club members made an acknowledgement, and then we kept going. I saw the ghost bikes.

I’ve seen a lot of ghost bikes in my day, but they’re always one bike — you’re cruising down the road and you see a ghost bike. You don’t see five ghost bikes. It’s just a reminder of how heinous and serious this was. That was clear when we rode by the scene of the crime: This is a completely straight road, visibility is 100 percent. There’s not necessarily a bike lane, but a big shoulder.

I’ve been hit by a car while riding twice in my life. Once when I was 15 and then again in 2000. When I was 15 I was trying to squeeze through a yellow light that ended up being red; so that was my fault. And then in 2000, I was way up in the backcountry above Nice and on a super-small one-lane road. And I came around a corner and then boom, I hit the front corner of some shitty French car.

What happened in Kalamazoo was a different story. It doesn’t matter who you are, what kind of rider you are: What happened in Kalamazoo — no one gets out of that. That crash was directly over the top of them from behind. And they were single file.

I saw the pictures of their bikes afterward. There was an overhead shot of about six bikes all busted up, but there also were close-up shots of cranks and forks and wheels. I was sitting at home, looking at this photos and quickly saw that people were riding SPD pedals on the road, that some of them had triple cranks. I just knew exactly what level of riders they were. Riders like that are super respectful, the ones who always play by the rules — they’re the ones who shout out “slowing, slowing!” on a ride. You could just tell by those images that these weren’t racers; these were just people in it for camaraderie and fitness.

At the end of the ride, we finished up at this brew pub. That’s tradition. They do their ride, have a beer, and then go on their way. But this gathering was obviously a little bit bigger than normal. The prosecutor was there, and [we] talked to him a little bit. He didn’t offer us much but you can imagine what he and his team are going to figure out.

I think in the end it was good for people to get back out on their bikes and do the ride. I had multiple people say that if we hadn’t come and done the ride, they don’t know the next time they would have gotten out and ridden.

There are five funerals in Kalamazoo this week. I was just with those family members, so my overall emotion is just one of real sadness and grief. Midwestern people are traditionally very stoic, but they were beat up.

There needs to be more awareness, more conversation. The relationship between the cyclist and the motorist has always been, and probably always will be, heated, until we get to the day and age of driverless cars. In the meantime, I think both sides have to back off a little bit, but it’s not like this crime would have been prevented by a PSA. A million PSAs wouldn’t have stopped that driver from killing those riders.  

(As told to Peter Flax.)