Ghost Riders

In Houston, bicycling is known as a killer sport.

Today, a bike painted white hangs from a fence near where Rios died. Wurth placed it there — the first such "ghost bike" memorial in Houston. It wouldn't be the last.

According to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Houston is almost always the most dangerous place in Texas to ride a bike. The NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System — a breakdown of every fatal accident reported from every police jurisdiction each year — tells a forbidding story. From 1994 to 2008, with the exceptions of 2004 and 2006, Houston's cycling fatality numbers — on average, about 15 deaths a year — equal or exceed those of all other surveyed Texas municipalities combined.

There is also lots of anecdotal evidence. Veteran bike messengers will show you their scars, and it's hard to find a cycling commuter with several years on the roads who hasn't had a run-in or two with a car or dangerous pothole. All of them will tell you that drivers here are at best inattentive and at worst aggressive, and that it gets worse the farther from the city's core you go. Longtime cycling activist Dan Lundeen frequently rides from downtown to Fulshear and Richmond. He says the city's ring roads correspond to levels of danger for cyclists, with the Inner Loop being the safest, inside the Beltway a step down and beyond Highway 6/FM 1960 the worst.

Ahmad Cherry finds bitter irony in the fact that his newly abstemious friend Rios was killed by a beer van.
Chris Curry
Ahmad Cherry finds bitter irony in the fact that his newly abstemious friend Rios was killed by a beer van.
Cisco Rios was one of Matt Wurth's favorite customers at his I Cycle bike shop in the Heights area. His death spurred Wurth into activism.
Chris Curry
Cisco Rios was one of Matt Wurth's favorite customers at his I Cycle bike shop in the Heights area. His death spurred Wurth into activism.

A map compiled by suburban bike commuter Peter Wang, admittedly drawn from incomplete data, would seem to bear out Lundeen's premise. Wang's data comes from the In Memoriam section of the message boards at the Web site of local advocacy group BikeHouston, to which locals send news clippings of every fatal accident covered in local media.

Only ten of the 44 fatal ­incidents took place inside the Loop.

Cycle shop owners will tell you that the number one factor stopping more people from biking in Houston is simple fear. This is a city built for cars, and the residents are hardwired to the rhythms of the internal combustion engine. "Some people are afraid of cars, justified or not," Wurth says. "I tell them I ride bikes down North Main and they tell me I'm crazy."

And yet Houston, this reputedly hideous, inarguably sprawling and sweltering behemoth of a no-zoning, car-happy subtropical metropolis, could very easily be a cycling paradise. In some ways it already is, as Lundeen points out over a bowl of pho at a Midtown Vietnamese noodle house. "It's a great city for cycling of all kinds," he says, citing Houston's many cycling clubs for every type of bike, from hipster-friendly fixed-gear jobs to rugged mountain bikes. Lundeen himself was once a bicycle commuter. Now that he has eliminated his commute by working from home, he's a racer and rural rider.

And with both the MS-150 and the Moonlight Ramble, Houston has two marquee cycling events each year, not to mention a dozen or so MS-150 training rides on consecutive weekends leading up to the big race to Austin each April. No other city has as many, and, according to U.S. Census figures, there are already about 60,000 people in the city proper who ride bikes for transportation purposes. (That number is questionable, points out Gina Mitteco of the Houston-Galveston Area Council, because the Census lumps bicycles in with "other" transportation, and only counts those who ride to work, not those who ride for pleasure or to run errands. Mitteco says estimating the real number of cyclists in the Houston area is a very labor-intensive task that has stymied her organization's efforts more than once over the years.)

"We have pretty mild weather," says Wurth, whose definition of mild might be different from yours. "You can cycle year-round here and it's flat. It's not hard. You don't have to be a super-athlete to get around. The road network is pretty good." Wurth thinks a little signage — to educate motorists that cyclists do have a right to be there — would go a long way.

"The streets are laid out like a giant waffle," says Butch Klotz, a former bike messenger/car-less cyclist here who now resides in hilly Charlottesville, Virginia. Klotz — who was also the lead singer in noted local punk band 30footFALL — learned to appreciate Houston as a cycling town from his Virginia mountain redoubt, where he discovered cycling as primary transport was both more grueling and more dangerous than it is here. "If you don't want to ride on a busy street [in Houston], there are always quieter and safer ones running parallel to them," he says. "You can get pretty much anywhere you want to go on backstreets here." The trick is to learn them. Like most Houstonians, who tend to learn only the freeway spaghetti bowls and major-road grid, Klotz didn't know the maze of interconnecting back roads. Learning them was the key to his happy cycling life.

"I never felt as self-sufficient as I did once I became confident on my bike," says Klotz. "I got a good bike bag so I could carry stuff around, a hand pump and flat-fix kit, and I felt like I could go anywhere. Once you figure out how to navigate from West Dallas Street down to the Bike Barn on Kirby in the Village, all on back roads, you can go anywhere."

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