The Ride of Silence – Chris Phelan Shares The Ultimate Goals of The Ride

 

Thousands of cyclists are massacred and killed every year. More than 700 are massacred and killed in the United States alone and it sometimes seem like it’s never going to get better.

The Ride of Silence honors the many cyclists who have been killed or injured while cycling.

The ride started in 2003 after endurance cyclist Larry Schwartz was killed by a passing bus. Today the ride is a worldwide event that attracts thousands of cyclists and helps us all honor and mourn our many dead and injured cyclist friends.

It was Chris Phelan who organized the first Ride of Silence and he is still the main figure behind the ride.

In this interview Chris explains how the Ride of Silence has developed and what the ultimate goals of the ride are:

Ride of Silence prayer

Why did the first ride gather so many supporters?

I think the first ride was very easy because the cycling atmosphere was ripe. I think it would have happened eventually by someone, under a different name. But it would have happened anyway because the ride touched a nerve.

More and more people are biking, and at the same time, more and more people are being senselessly killed without retribution in the courts and jury of our “peers,” people who don’t ride a bike.

Ride of Silence tshirt

How did the Ride of Silence spread far and wide?

As is written in my account, the ride spread through word-of-mouth.

This was before we had a web site, so one can’t attribute the growth to that. I believe it was one person contacting another person through email.

That would account for the spread of the ride into some very obscure locations. I mean, Israel and Lebanon? That’s just wild!

And again, I believe it hit a nerve with cyclists world-wide. But no one thought the problem of drivers running over cyclists was anything but local.

Instead, we found out first hand through The Ride of Silence that the problem wasn’t local, but world-wide. No state or country can claim they have the worst drivers against cyclists because ALL are equally bad.

We have well over 300 locations in over 20 countries spread across the globe and are looking at continued growth, unfortunately. As long as motorists keep killing us, it appears we will have a Ride Of Silence each year. …It’s a shame.

Ride of Silence cross

What do you want cyclists and motorists to get from the Ride of Silence?

What we want (and wanted), and what has happened are two different things.

We want those cyclists killed, memorialized. We want to keep the huge number of cyclists killed each and every year in front of the public. We want cyclists to bond over this point that doesn’t discriminate. (Thankfully, that seems to have already happened to some extent.)

What has also happened is the impact the ride has had, totally by accident (Oops!) from us.

The reaction from cyclists was to be expected. The great majority are licensed motorists themselves and sees the problem from both sides. As a result, they have welcomed it for what it is.

A very few small places in the northwest have thought it to be part of some bigger government conspiracy and constantly disparage the ride. Actually, I hear they’re jealous because they didn’t think of it first.

From the motorists,…most are good with it. Most see the problem. The problem is the few who are not because they cause large scale problems with half-ton pick-ups.

I’ve been hit three times and run off the road numerous times.

And just for the record, this has happened while cycling across the U.S. (3600 miles, 30 days). So no one state is worse than the other. They are all bad. Look at the YouTube videos.

Ride of Silence start

Why do you demand that the participants wear helmets?

There is no demand to wear helmets. It is written on our web site because it was recommended to us by legal experts. We could have been held liable if something went wrong with a rider if we didn’t have the helmet suggestion in writing.

I have yet to know of a person who was kept from riding in the event because they didn’t wear a helmet.

As for the maximum speed, that is to show respect for those we have lost, much like a funeral procession. At the same time, it was also an idea to fly in the face of every ride being related to speed.

I think ours was the first to counter that ethos. Go slow. Be different. At the same time, I wanted to attract as many people as possible. A slower speed does that, makes the event available to all. Inclusive instead of exclusive.

The length of the ride was chosen due to available sunlight at that time of year. Although we’d like everyone to finish in the light, the reality is some finish in the dark due to their location on the earth.

But the 12 mile maximum also makes the ride doable to those who don’t ride as much.

Ride of Silence escort

How are your relations with the police and other authorities?

The police’s position on The Ride Of Silence depends upon the location. I don’t know for sure because not every location tells us, but I think most PD’s are wonderful to work with.

I know of some that are not. These are the minority.

Most PD’s easily understand the link of what we’re trying to do and the death rate for cyclists because they are in the trenches. They see the carnage first hand.

That’s why the minority of police that do not stand up and support this is such an outcry of misplaced priorities, especially when you consider the aftermath, the results that statistics don’t lie.

There are some departments, again the minority, whose hands are tied by another governmental agency. Here in Dallas, our main adversary is the Dallas Parks & Rec Department.

Though the ride originated here and has been ridden in the same place for 13 years (White Rock Lake), in the past they have been a sharp thorn in our side, almost debilitating, to the point of cyclists, volunteers, and even myself getting fed up with the entire event.

But as they say, don’t throw out all the apples just because of one bad one.

This year was the best it’s ever been for Dallas. The lady that headed up Parks & Rec retired. We weren’t harassed about being charged for each rider that shows up on their volition. We weren’t harangued for forms, cones, police protection, etc, etc for a simple SLOW bike ride with friends.

In fact, they did absolutely nothing as if they finally “got it.”

There are places through the world where the city and the police jump in with both feet. It’s amazing to see those police cruisers leading the procession of bikes. Just amazing!

…I wish it were like that everywhere. Someday. …Maybe someday.

To date, I haven’t gotten any hate mail,…directly. I read the reaction motorists have had to cyclists getting injured, or worse, killed and am embarrassed to be part of the human race.

Some people are mercilessly cold. As I said, I don’t,…haven’t received any hate mail directly, but I see these comments as an indictment on what we’re doing specifically and overall in our society today. In a word: sad!

The letters of support I suppose you’re asking about are the proclamations from cities. Yes, that has been nice, too, giving the ride and therefore the cyclists, their due respect.

I have letters from the office of George Bush, Jr, and Michelle Obama, as well as a few senators. It’s nice to see and receive that support because, frankly, I wonder if we make a difference at all, that we’re spinning our tires going nowhere.

Motorists are even more outraged and haven’t changed their behavior. The courts still don’t side with the victims of car-bike accidents (I’ve sat in on cases and watched in horror how the cyclist is treated).

There are still police who question why bikes are even allowed on the road (I’ve talked to them) or worse, believe the cyclist assumes the responsibility of being hit the moment they straddle a bike.

Insurance companies still don’t know the value of today’s bicycle and in some cases want to rape the cyclist after being injured.

So… what’s changed? From my vantage point, nothing.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. NOPE! I believe it will take two generations for a change to occur. I just have to live long enough or get this ride so rooted in the cycling culture that it lasts that long.

So, keep those cards and letters coming!!!

Ghost bike transport

Do you have any relation to the ghost bikes?

YES! We have come alongside the founders of Ghost Bikes (they have no formal organization) and include them whenever and where ever possible.

Likewise from their side. They are very supportive of The Ride Of Silence and are glad we’re partnering with them.

I can still remember when I saw my first Ghost Bike and was immediately consumed by its meaning and its message. I think it is one of the best and most recognizable symbols or icons in our culture today.

Unfortunately, some municipalities don’t allow them, considering them a nuisance and too blatant. They are taken down immediately. Again, sad. That is the climate where I ride.

Ride of Silence prayer

What has been the biggest success and the biggest failure for the Ride of Silence?

Good questions.

I’d say our biggest success is how far we’ve reached and continue to reach, every year. Rides in Israel and Lebanon? Rides in Serbia, Bonsia, Croatia, and Kosovo? Antarctica? Yes to all.

We’ve accomplished with volunteers and without income what large companies couldn’t. Avon, Budweiser, and Nike attempted to host simultaneous events around the world but were only able to last one season with only a few locations.

We have 376 and have been doing it for 13 years…without a paid staff or a cash stream. That’s pretty big.

Our greatest failure? Hmmm… Though we’ve given people a place to grieve and list their loved one on the memoriam page of our web site (we’ve become a clearing house of sorts by default, no one else does it), I’m not convinced we have instituted any change of behavior as I wrote above.

There’s been no new legislation, for example. But on the good side, an awareness and dialogue seems to be taking place. In order to start a fire, you need a spark. I think we’re the spark many have been waiting for.

Ghost bike

What are the future plans for the Ride of Silence?

From Tim Potter, Board Member, web master:

“I really believe we (RoS) need to figure out a way to offer hope and a possible solution to this endemic problem that is so painfully obvious to all of us.

It seems like people look to us for more than just a place to register names of people deceased and as organizers of an annual global event; they’re coming to us for hope, for possible answers or solutions to these horrible injustices that happen every day around the country.

We all know the League of American Bicyclists isn’t helping in these cases. Their state bike organizations aren’t. Their police agencies aren’t; the courts aren’t, but I think we can, in some way, offer some hope, that something will change, someday.

What that will be I really don’t know but I feel like that’s our challenge and should be our mission.”

From Mike Keel, Special Projects:

“We ARE going to do something about it. We are going to engage the media around the country in getting the message out about what is really happening out there on the roadways – the lack of charges being brought – the meaningless wrist slapping and the lack of accountability within the court system – and the need for education/enforcement to generate safe roads.

Within the year, we will be just the type of agency that you describe – one that can recruit people to join our activities and help change the dynamic.”

True, true.

When this got started in 2003 after Larry Schwartz’s senseless death, and the ideology of the The Ride Of Silence began to spread from town to town, then state to state, and eventually country to country, I had a secret wish that one day there would be a Ride Of Silence in every town, much like the Memorial Day parade.

I have a hope, not just thinking of the U.S. here but other countries too, that a ride to remember the staggering number of cyclists killed each and every year takes place as a solemn event in every town, city, municipality across the country, on the same day, at the same time.

All 50 states are represented already. It’s just a matter of spreading the word.

That said, there are two U.S. states that we always have problems with getting on board. You’d think there wasn’t a bicyclist or bike shop in the entire state.

I’ve mentioned this before but one gets the feeling these two states think The Ride Of Silence is part of a government takeover.

If they only knew how grassroots this organization really is. (Occasionally, I get phone calls from people who think we’re in a glass building downtown with secretaries and limos. Instead, it’s me on a lap top in my bedroom with a library of books, a pair of hockey skates, running shoes, swimming goggles, and a Fender Telecaster leaning up against a black faced twin reverb with the “Exile On Main Street” LP on the turntable. Oh, and there’s a Ride Of Silence poster on the wall from 2006. That’s the “office” I’m writing from.)

Ride of Silence speech

How did you get into cycling yourself?

As most people of my era, their dad sat them on a bike usually too big without training wheels, and gave it a push. It had to be one of the hardest things parents did back then, watching their child fall to the pavement.

But usually within an afternoon, that child had discovered freedom and was off riding with his friends through puddles in the street, worn neighborhood paths, and generally raising hell. All because they felt the exhilaration of movement and self-generated speed.

For me, it was around the age of 5 or 6 when I started cycling the neighborhood outside of Boston. In general, the bikes my parents bought were NOT new and for a couple of real good reasons.

First, I was only 5 or 6 and was going to tear up anything I got anyway, riding it into the ground as fast and far as I could.

Second, they didn’t have the income for new bikes for me and my brother (older) and sister (younger). (I’m the middle child. …Go figure!)

I distinctly remember getting an “English Racer” bike that had a three gear shifter tab on the right hand side. And it was fast! But then, I thought all my bikes were fast.

One of my favorites was a Sting Ray with a banana seat, ape handle bars and a very tall sissy bar. Loved that bike! It was on that one that I started traversing between towns.

Next up: taking my dad’s bike, a 10-speed from the local department store, and riding up into New Hampshire while he was at work. That should have been a sign.

Today I have five bikes. But mainly ride two. The Specialize Roubaix is a Cadillac of comfort with its Zerts. I rode it across the state of Texas first (I’m the first to criss-cross the state on a bike.), and then took it across country (3600 miles in 30 days).

The other bike is a tricked out triathlon bike. It is so stiff I can tell the difference between riding over a $5 bill and a $10 bill. It’s a Quintana Roo Santos. In essence, it’s a Light Speed Titanium for racing triathlons. Nice.

Another is a fine looking parade bike with The Ride Of Silence splashed on it. All white, it’s a beauty. It was a gift from a gentleman in Hong Kong for organizing the event.

Then there’s the bike on my trainer set up in the garage, and last is a mountain bike that gets little use.

Share the road signs

What would you like to be done to improve cycling safety?

In a recent poll done by the League of American Cyclists, I believe, something like 90% of all cyclists have a license and drive. I have a license and currently drive. I’ve driven in every large U.S. city. I have driven, biked, hitched, ran, flown, and trained in every state. So I’ve seen traffic from a full vantage point.

I don’t believe in banning motorists anywhere. There’s recreation and commerce taking place. HOWEVER, I do strongly believe bicycles belong on the road as the law in every state says.

What needs to be done? Awareness. Why is it a gentleman riding horseback along the road is given a wide berth and cars slow down when a cyclist is the same width?

Why is it farm equipment traveling down a road is not beeped at or harassed when a cyclist goes no slower, and in fact faster, than the farmer?

Why is it the motorcyclist is allowed all the rights and responsibilities of driving without anger being spewed at him when a cyclist is no taller and no wider, and in fact thinner, for a better line of sight?

Somewhere people and our culture needs a reset button. It’s flat out not right when the only person able to fill out a police report from a car on bike collision is the motorist because the cyclist was killed through no fault of his own.

City engineers and planners need to re-think traffic flow, lights, parking, curbs, and crossings. And that’s the point: cyclists, though a meaningful part of the equation, have been left out.

Left out of input, studies, and consideration. This CAN NOT continue. Can NOT. Justice is not served when you have 700+ cyclists killed year after year after year.

Courts need to wake up and realize the deck is stacked against us. When we have a jury of our “peers,” that means people who probably DON’T ride bikes.

Well then, of course, they’re going to side with the driver. All the jury members are drivers. This is NOT justice.

Don’t believe me? Look through all the court records across this country. If you’re sober and don’t leave the scene of the accident, you’ll get a fine, maybe. That’s fact.

Look it up in Bob Mionske’s book, “Bicycling & the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist.” Mionske is a two-time U.S. Olympic racing cyclist and U.S. National Champion. His book is incinerating for anyone who wonders if cyclists are getting a fair shake in accidents.

We ask that people in the US, and around the world, allow us our right to ride without the worry of harm or death, to make it as safe from motorists as pedestrians walk ways are, and at the very least, with the same legal ramifications when a motorist does hit a cyclist.

My RofS “I have a dream” speech:

“Someday, I visualize a world when motorists will know beyond a doubt that they will encounter two-wheeled people.

When cyclists will ride in safety, at any time of day, and not worry for their lives, but rather in pursuit of their own wellbeing, and their own dream, uncompromised, and untarnished.

I have a dream!” – With acknowledgements to Martin Lurther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

It’s our hope we can change our laws, courts, and the perceptions of our legal right to the roads, and motorists’ legal responsibility to share the road.

The more cyclists we can encourage to come to events of this nature, that highlight the inequalities of cyclist justice on the road, the more our society won’t be able to look away, or sweep us under the rug.

The Controlling The Lane Concept:

I’m totally in favor of it,…to a point. I was taught in college by my roommate who was an alternate Olympic cyclist, Bob Rubey, how to ride in the right tire track of the road. That is safe and clean.

But for a single cyclist to wander all over the lane, no. Stay to the right, cyclist, and be considerate of the half ton of metal right behind you.

When there’s multiple cyclists and two or more lanes, yes, take up the whole lane. But be aware of the motorists around you, always.

Car with Ride of Silence sign

How can people support the Ride of Silence?

First, attend the ride. Whatever you have to do to be there, either on a bike or volunteering. Be there. Show solidarity to the point where officials and leaders can’t turn their heads away.

Second, become part of the dialogue. Chances are you already know someone, or know someone who does know someone, who was killed. All of, …ALL OF US are equal in the eyes of a car bumper.

There is no club, team, helmet, light, or bike that will save you when that motorist comes along who isn’t paying attention or doesn’t appreciate cyclists. We are all vulnerable. Every day. Every time. You ride.

Third, donate to a bike organization. Yes, it would be nice if you donated to The Ride Of Silence, but if you help somewhere, that will help too.

Armbands

What do the arm bands mean?

The arm bands are for solidarity. Everyone who rides should wear a black one. That’s a show of standing together and mourning those who have been killed.

If you’ve been hit and injured, you deserve the right to wear a red arm band, too. It just lets others, cyclists and the public, know you know what it’s like to not be seen or considered while riding.

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