Collision Course

Cyclists are finding out what really lurks along those serene country roads

For the members of the Brazosport Bike Club, Saturdays typically meant a 55-mile trek along peaceful rural lanes south of Houston. It was a good three or four hours of exercise, fresh air and -- once they got out into the country -- friendly banter.

Kelton Thomson knew the routine well as he pedaled out from his home to meet his neighbor on a weekend morning in August. The 60-year-old retired Dow engineer and Jim Thomerson, 49, always rode together to the staging point, the Lake Jackson Recreation Center, to join the rest of their group for the Saturday rides.

Both were family men who loved the outdoors. Thomerson, who still worked for Dow, was especially active -- making sure to exercise for an hour a day. He liked to Rollerblade, swim, jog and lift weights. He had also spent years coaching his two daughters' soccer teams. And, ever since he discovered Thomson's fondness for bicycling, the friends would often pair up outside their homes for bike excursions.

Dr. Henry Martinez examines Thomson's blood clot 
injury, which has kept him from long rides.
Daniel Kramer
Dr. Henry Martinez examines Thomson's blood clot injury, which has kept him from long rides.
Thomson's club believes there's safety in numbers.
Daniel Kramer
Thomson's club believes there's safety in numbers.

Their three-mile jaunt to the recreation center went quickly and silently, with little more heard than the sound of the breeze and faint hum of tires racing across pavement in the relative coolness of an early morning.

The rest of the 21-cyclist group trickled into the parking lot around 8 a.m. There was the standard safety talk: the helpful reminders about properly following the lead rider, calling out approaching road hazards, staying two abreast in the pace line and -- foremost -- remaining alert on the narrow country lanes.

With the preparations completed, the ribbon of riders eased out, riding slowly from stoplight to stoplight, looking forward to getting out of the burbs and onto the open road.

As usual, they planned to head west to Brazoria and Sweeny, with a stop at the convenience store to check in on the friendly clerk inside. They still chuckled about the time they'd varied their routine for a few weeks and bypassed her store. She'd gotten worried about them, tracked down the club president's number and called just to make sure everyone was all right.

From Sweeny, the route would take them down to Jones Creek and back into Lake Jackson. On this morning, they were only a few minutes into the ride when they reached State 332, noticing that the dry pavement gave way to slick patches of dampness, the apparent residue from an earlier mild shower. A few hundred yards before two overpasses, a pair of cyclists in front of Thomson whipped ahead, disappearing behind a sharp curve and leaving him at the head of the pack.

He checked ahead and behind for vehicles, and before the group reached the first overpass, Thomson waved his hand behind his back and shouted "Single up!"-- the signal for them to merge into a single-file line.

There was no way for him to know that, around the blind curve ahead, a woman was driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck that suddenly lost control. Sliding sideways, the truck plowed into the riders ahead of Thomson and then came into his view. Thomson had no time to react to the two silver tons barreling broadside at his 18-pound bike. Fifty yards ahead. Forty.

Suddenly, impact.

Thomson sailed over the hood, landing breathless on his back in the weeds 30 or 40 feet from the road. He couldn't hear or see anything -- his eyes focused only on the sky. Soon there were faces mixing in with the clouds -- the other cyclists checking on him.

Then medics were gingerly slipping him onto a gurney. He remembers that before they loaded him in the ambulance, he was able to hear a single voice penetrate the wail of the sirens and the whirring blades of Life Flight.

They covered two bodies, the voice said.

Rushing to the hospital, Thomson lay in pain, wondering who they were.

Like many Houston-area adults, Thomson would have laughed only years earlier at any notion that he'd be suited up and in the center of a group of cyclists making an early-morning run down country roadways.

He hadn't biked since his early teens, when that was his transportation to school and on short trips through the neighborhood. His riding days abruptly ended in favor of the automobile. Thomson was too busy with work and raising a family. If he wanted recreation, there was always hunting and fishing.

At age 52, two years before Thomson's retirement, co-workers at Dow convinced him to climb back atop a bike. They were organizing a team for the MS-150, the popular fund-raising ride from Houston to Austin. Thomson liked the cause -- the event raised money for multiple sclerosis research -- and figured he'd give it a shot.

He didn't even have a road bike when he signed up -- he had to refurbish the old mountain bike his son had left behind when he went off to college. After trying it out, he dropped a few hundred bucks on a used road bike. The small investment made a dramatic difference -- Thomson completed the MS-150 and kept right on riding, with retirement affording him even more opportunities to hone his cycling skills.

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