Posted on

Thoughts on the passing of an icon

A couple Fridays ago, I got a call from a friend in the middle of the day. I thought the timing odd given his busy work schedule, but because I was participating in a webinar, I let the call go to voice mail and sent him a text message asking what was up. The words that popped up on my cell phone screen sent a chill down my spine.

“My aunt was biking this morning and a motorist hit her and killed her,” he wrote.

It was a sad introduction to a phenomenal woman I will never have the opportunity to meet.

It turns out my friend’s aunt wasn’t just anyone out for a leisurely ride when the worst possible thing happened. Her name was Karen McKeachie, and she was an internationally-acclaimed triathlete who throughout her 63 years challenged just about every preconception related to gender, age, and the limitations of the human body.

Karen McKeachie, photo: USA Triathlon
Karen McKeachie, photo: USA Triathlon

McKeachie’s professional racing career included six world championships, nine Ironman triathlons in Kona, Hawaii (among them an 8th place finish among women), and 15 age-group national championships.

At 58, she beat out competitors half her age to win the overall title in a major triathlon, becoming what is believed to be the oldest athlete to accomplish such a feat.

Two years ago, she was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.

And her contributions to the sport extend beyond her personal athletic endeavors.

With her husband and fellow triathlete Lew Kidder, she founded the magazine Triathlon Today!, the precursor to Inside Triathlon. She spent decades directing marathons, triathlons, and other races. She started what may have been the very first triathlon equipment mail-order business. And she coached athletes including Olympian Sheila Taormina.

Oh yeah, she was also an inventor. Fed up by the existing options at the time, McKeachie, an engineer by trade, is credited with creating the first women’s bicycle saddle in her basement using a saw and duct tape for the prototype. Her friend, journalist, and fellow triathlete Tom Demerly calls her “one of the greatest endurance athletes in all of history,” writing in a remembrance on his blog:

“She never appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, never wore an Olympic Gold Medal around her neck – but she did collect stacks of world and national championship medals, overall race wins, age group victories and accolades and more importantly, did the heavy lifting of getting other women into the sport, and the sport into the Olympics.”

Karen McKeachie, photo: Tom Demerly
Karen McKeachie, photo: Tom Demerly

McKeachie first discovered the triathlon almost accidentally in 1982 when she took her husband’s spot in a race after he opted not to compete because he feared the water was too cold. She placed third among women in that race and was hooked.

Her athleticism was evident from a young age. In a radio interview last year, McKeachie described growing up in rural Michigan where “there weren’t any sports for girls,” so she played football with the boys in her neighborhood. This would become a running theme in her life – playing with, and often beating, boys at sports, and early on at least, frustratingly few available outlets into which to channel her athletic interest and ability.

In high school in the late 1960s, she wanted to join the track team and bested all but two of the boys in a practice race. The coach agreed to let her join if the rest of the team was ok with it, but the boys she beat out refused to let her on, her husband told the Detroit Free Press.

At the University of Michigan in the mid-1970s, McKeachie’s competitive spirit again ran up against a wall when the university athletic director said she couldn’t represent the school in a cross country event. Undeterred, she had her mother sew an M onto a yellow jersey and ran anyway, placing 8th overall. Her homemade jersey now hangs in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, according to Kidder.

Throughout her too-short life, McKeachie continued to train hard and compete, biking as many as 300 miles each week until the very end.

She was out on a training ride near her hometown of Ann Arbor August 26th when she was hit by a Chevrolet Avalanche driven by a 70-year-old man police said veered into McKeachie’s lane while trying to pass the car in front of him. The two women McKeachie was riding with careened into a nearby ditch and survived.

Like most people who ride bikes, hearing of someone killed while biking feels very personal in a way that many other tragedies do not. I think the collective anguish and outrage we feel over these types of incidents is fueled by the knowledge that it very well could have been us in the bike saddle or, perhaps more horrifically, on the receiving end of a phone call none of us ever wants to get.

The news of McKeachie’s death has shaken me more than most bike-related tragedies. If someone of such caliber and skill, who no doubt was doing everything right, who knew how to handle herself on a bike, was not immune from the dangers of the road, certainly none of us are.

It has left me as a new, highly-sensitized and somewhat paranoid parent questioning the responsibility of getting into the bike saddle in a country that continues to sacrifice the safety of its people to the convenience of moving them quickly in cars. It reminds me that we aren’t the only ones responsible for our own safety and that we have to do more as a society to promote defensive driving, better enforcement of the rules of the road, and a built environment that accounts for the safety of all road users.

I’m still not sure how to reconcile the very real risks of riding my bike with the many benefits of doing so. But this past weekend, I strapped my infant son into a bike trailer and took him on his very first bike ride. Quite consciously, my husband and I staged this auspicious event on a protected trail in the suburbs rather than on the city streets where we would normally ride.

I thought about Karen.

Author Emilie Bahr takes her infant son on his first bike ride.
Author Emilie Bahr takes her infant son on his first bike ride.

I find myself wondering what she would have done had she been one of the women who survived last month’s crash. Based on what I’ve learned over the past couple weeks, I doubt she would retreat for very long. Some of the people closest to her agreed.

“I think she would be back on the roads, maybe dirt roads for a while, but back nevertheless,” her sis
ter-in-law told me in an email. Already, Karen’s husband Lew has returned to the saddle, she added, biking almost daily with Karen’s friends in a most-fitting tribute to his late wife.

A quilt made of t-shirts from races in which Karen McKeachie competed. Photo: Andy Jacoby
A quilt made of t-shirts from races in which Karen McKeachie competed. Photo: Andy Jacoby

Emilie Bahr is a writer, urban planner, and healthy communities advocate living in New Orleans. She is the author of the book Urban Revolutions: A woman’s guide to two-wheeled transportation.


Posted on

My Commute Today : Wintery Mix

*Photos is from Geo in Madison, WI (not me in the south!)
*Photos is from Geo in Madison, WI (not me in the south!)

Down here in the dirty south we are receiving a winter mix of snow, sleet and ice.. While my readers up north are probably laughing, it is a big deal to the southerners to get 4-8 inches of snow in ONE season. Now we will be getting that much in a day. Schools closed early, and many businesses did as well.

Personally, I rode my bike to work this morning in the sleet and enjoyed every moment about it.. An layer of long johns under my jeans, a wool jacket, Buff for my face/neck and Gore-Tex gloves and I was golden. Even pulled out my Salsa Casseroll with a bit beefier tire and fenders to keep the salt off my feet.

How was the commute where you are?

Posted on

Rainy Day Commute

Photo Credit: SimonDBarnes (Flickr)
Photo Credit: SimonDBarnes (Flickr)

Down here, in Mooresville, North Carolina, it is raining and the first cold rain we have had since spring hit.  My commute in today involved a rain jacket and rain pants, both of which I haven’t worn together in months.  As I was riding the thought of what people across the U.S are dealing with this morning for their commute..  In Minneapolis there was snow, and in Kona it was 80 degrees.  Continue reading Rainy Day Commute

Posted on

Commute by horse

Jackie Hutton of Pleasanton, Texas south of San Antonio commutes the four miles to work on Tester, her horse. “What’s the good of making a living if you can’t live?” says Jackie. “Do what’s important.”

Read and see more KSAT 12 News. The video shows Jackie taking the lane with her horse.

Via Tomorrow Morning’s Weather and Jen in Chicago.

Posted on

Video: Three prominent cycling minds discuss how to get more people on bicycles

Below is a video from September when I had a chance to have a discussion with three prominent figures in the current push to get more people using bikes as their normal mode of transportation.

Tim Parr owner of Swobo has worked together with Sky Yaeger to bring some very unique, fun and useful bike designs to the market. We’ve talked about them in several places here and it was an honor to have him as part of the group.

Brad Quartuccio is one of the founders of the Urban Velo zine that has quickly become popular across the net.

Tim “Masi Guy” Jackson is the brand manager that has brought the famous Masi road bike back from the dead and is now breathing a whole new life into it with a line of bikes designed specifically for the commuter.

It’s a rare thing to find all these guys in one place at the same time, not to mention sit them down for a full thirty minutes and pick their brains on how each of us can change our world one bike at a time.

Three Cycling Minds at Interbike 2007

Posted on

Commuting 101: Know the dangers of cycling at night

In a recent article at the question is raised:

Night Cycling: Is it Safe?

This time of year many commuters will find themselves commuting in the dark both to and from the office, so the questions is raised… are you in more danger?

The article cites a study that is, unfortunately, almost 15 years old. However it clearly shows that more accidents happen at twilight and dark hours than other times of the day.

bike collisions at night

Also cited is this bit from the Edgewater, FL Bicycle Safety page of their website:

Nearly 60 per cent of all adult fatal bicycle accidents in Florida occur during twilight and night hours although less than three percent of bicycle use takes place at that time.
Many factors compound the danger of riding at night, such as:
-Motorists driving under the influence of drugs/alcohol.
-Motorist’s ability to see what is ahead is limited to the area illuminated by headlights. Visibility is further reduced by the glare from lights of oncoming vehicles.

The major problem occurs when the sun is already low in the sky when you head home at 5pm and the roads are at their highest peak of congestion.

Here’s a few ideas to stay safe:

  • Leave early or stay late – See if you can get permission to change up your work hours by thirty minutes to an hour. This will allow you to commute when the roads are less congested.
  • Use plenty of lights and reflective material – Buy some blinky lights. Get reflective tape. Do whatever you can to stay visible to drivers.
  • Take alternate routes – Use our guide to finding the perfect route on Google Maps and find yourself a safer route to and from the office that keeps you offer major roads.
  • Know when to say ‘no’ – There are conditions that I just won’t ride my bike in. If the traffic is congested, the weather is wet and the sun is down you may want to opt for your car or public transportation. It’s not worth your life.

What other things do you do to stay safe this time of year?