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Silent tribute ride holds special meaning in Kalamazoo, almost one year after tragedy

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Many riders wore shirts commemorating friends they lost in the June 7th crash.

It’s been almost a year since one of the nation’s worst bicycling accidents. A pickup truck driver struck nine people riding just north of Kalamazoo on June 7. Five of the friends in the “chain gang” were killed.

Shelia Jeske suffered many injuries in the crash. Broken hips, ankles, ribs and teeth. Her lung collapsed and she got poison ivy from being hurled into a ditch on the rural road.

“All the first responders except one had poison ivy. We were just thrown into the weeds,” Jeske said, “They described it like a snowplow going by and just pushing us up against the fence.”

But last night, she got on her brand new bike and got back on the road; the first time since the crash.

“On my bike, I feel good. I feel a lot better on my bike than I do walking, getting out of the bed in the morning, going to (physical therapy). But it is what it is,” Jeske says with a shrug. “It’s my new reality, I guess. So I just do what I gotta do.”

It helped, Jeske said, to have so much support. About 100 bicyclists made the ride of silence in Kalamazoo last night. The ride is part of a larger, nationwide event.

“Awareness that we have the right to be on the road is huge. I mean I heard last summer, when people were riding, cars were making a conscious effort to go way around them after this. But then I also heard stories from people that like stopped and yelled at them and said, ‘didn’t you learn your lesson by what happened?’ I mean, like really?”

Federal safety regulators recently closed their investigation of the crash, pinning the cause on a driver impaired by drugs. He faces murder charges and plans to plead insanity. Other events to mark the tragedy are scheduled in the coming weeks.

After a senseless tragedy, a community comes together. Again.

Anne Couture, a friend and neighbor of Jeske’s, was disappointed that, even during a tribute ride, a diesel truck was trying to intimidate the group, nearly running them off the road, Couture said.

“But there was no, I think, message to the drivers who were going by us,” Couture said, wishing the ride had a full on police escort. “They didn’t really know what they were seeing and so I guess it really exemplified the problem we have riding on the roads which is why I’ve started riding mostly on the trails.”

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ben Brown rides his unicycle in the silent ride in Kalamazoo on May 17th, 2017.

Couture says better and more bikes lanes would make her feel more comfortable biking on the road again but she says many drivers are simply uneducated about the rights cyclists have.

Deb Stevenson, of Plainwell, says she’d love to make the 20-mile trip to work on her road bike.

“I’m just not comfortable. Even if you do everything right; I just don’t want to take the risk,” Stevenson said.

Kalamazoo resident Ben Brown, who rode his unicycle for the ride, would like to see more infrastructure built around the biking community; bike lanes and bike locks.

“Maybe it is impractical, but most people commute less than 8 miles. I can even do that, and this is not even a true commuting unicycle,”

“If you build it, people do come,” Brown said.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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