Two Wheels vs. Four

Always warm and flat as an ironing board, South Florida should be a cyclists’ paradise - but this is one of the most dangerous places in the U.S. to ride a bike. Now though, Fort Lauderdale’s diverse cycling community is fighting back.

By: 

Ashley Harrell

Published date: 

Dec. 30, 2016

When Denise Strack arrived home from work, the house was dark and the dogs were barking. It seemed odd that Ray wasn’t home, but then again, everything these days seemed odd. The couple had just moved into their newly purchased fixer-upper in Fort Lauderdale and boxes were strewn about. Ray could have been anywhere. 

Certainly there were a lot of projects to be done, and Ray Strack – a retired U.S. customs and immigration officer – was not the type to sit still. He was almost certainly somewhere on his bicycle, a $3,000 Dahon Tournado that he had purchased himself as a retirement gift. It was a handmade, lugged steel touring bike and it had been named bicycle of the year in 2009 by one of Ray’s many cycling magazines. 

No doubt about it, Strack was obsessed with cycling. He got his first bike when he was 6 years old, and hadn’t been without one since. By the time Denise and Ray started dating in 1981 in Breezy Point, New York, Ray had worked for years as a bike messenger. 

Denise had done a decent amount of cycling herself, and had the scars to prove it. When she was 16, a car ran a stop sign and sent her flying onto a Queens street. It took doctors two days to remove all the gravel from her face, and she walked away with 40 stitches, a mouth full of loose teeth and permanent scars on her chin and lower lip. Ray found those beautiful. 

The couple was married in 1985, and they spent plenty of time on their bicycles. During a five-year stint in Tokyo, they joined a club and did longer rides across Japan. As members of an online community called Warm Showers - essentially couch surfing for long-distance cyclists - they made biking friends the world over. When Ray retired and the couple moved to South Florida in 1997, they were surprised to find no cycling community whatsoever. 

“There were two kinds of cyclists, the ones in racing uniforms going fast down A1A, and the blue-collar workers,” Ray liked to say. “There was no community, no urban cycling, nothing like that.” In 2010, Ray and a friend decided to start one. They organized the area’s first Critical Mass ride – a monthly group ride and protest for cyclists’ rights on the last Friday of the month that has existed for years in many cities across the U.S.

At first the interest level was low – maybe 12 cyclists showed up? But over the next five years, the urban cycling community in Broward exploded, and soon more than a thousand people were attending Critical Mass, demanding that city and county officials take cyclists’ safety seriously. 

Ray had always been big on safety, and was equipped with all the latest gear – the mirrors, the lights, the gloves, a helmet. A towering 6' 5" with a big personality to match, Ray never gave Denise much to worry about. So back in their home that night, the first phone call didn’t immediately rattle her. 

“Have you seen Ray?” the couple’s friend Buddy asked. Denise checked every room in the house, and then the backyard. No Ray, she reported. Buddy seemed disturbed but not surprised by that news.  

“There’s been an accident,” he said. He directed Denise to the Critical Mass Facebook page, where pictures of a banged-up bicycle and discarded shoe had been posted. Denise immediately recognized the possessions as Ray’s, and she began to shake.

 

Two & danger

“If you ride, sooner or later you’re gonna get hit.” That’s Zoe Love talking. She’s the soft-spoken, va-va-voom co-owner of Two&, a bicycle shop and bar that opened on Las Olas in 2014. Zoe and her husband Elmo Love – a cantankerous bike mechanic with dyed blond, mad scientist hair – are queen and king of a progressive and convivial cycling community that has mushroomed in Fort Lauderdale, as evidenced by the well-populated group rides that take place around the city nearly every night. 

Full of custom-made bikes, eccentric art, miscellaneous antiques and burlesque props, Two& (which was named so patrons might wonder “Two and what?”) has become a second home to anyone who likes bikes, craft beer or eclectic company. Oh, and stickers. 

Patron bikers are hit by cars so frequently that they’ve founded an organization entitled “Flying Brick Club,” which is named after a guy with the last name Brick who used to get knocked off his bike a lot. Induction involves drinking beer, cursing incautious motorists and receiving a sticker that says “Flying Brick Club.” The most recent inductee is Weasel, a toothpick-thin, tatted-up 35-year-old who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Weasel is the kind of guy who almost dies a lot, but his most recent bicycle accident was by far his closest brush. 

Back in August, paramedics peeled Weasel off Sunrise Boulevard in front of the Home Depot after what was likely a hit-and-run involving a motorist. Weasel woke up in the hospital, shackled to a bed with little idea how he got there. The subdural hematoma that required 20 staples certainly didn’t help with recall. 

It was a month before Weasel could speak properly again, and two before he could get back on his bicycle. Well, not the prized 1970s French Motobecane he had been riding at the time of the accident. That one got bent up like a pretzel and disappeared. So did his helmet, which probably saved his life. 

What happened to Weasel is not a freak accident or an exception – it is commonplace. Between 2010 and 2015, nearly 10,000 bicyclists and pedestrians were struck on Broward’s streets, and 381 of those died. According to a 2014 report published by Smart Growth America, Florida ranked worst in the nation for bicycle and pedestrian wellbeing. Broward and Miami-Dade were named among the least safe counties in the country. 

Part of the problem is South Florida’s infrastructure, which was developed almost entirely after World War II, when the area’s population boom began. Urban South Florida wasn’t built until cars were the dominant form of transportation. Florida’s wide roads and their high speed limits catered specifically to people driving cars – and nobody else. 

That might have worked better if it weren’t for the fact that South Florida’s weather is fantastic year-round, and so eventually a whole lot of people decided to get some bicycles and ride them around. “It’s not like Cleveland, where for six months you aren’t thinking about a bicycle,” says Mark Hassell, who works full time as a bicycle accident investigator for the Bill Bone Law Firm, which specializes in bicycle and pedestrian accident cases. 

Hassel spends a lot of his time finding ways to help his clients get reimbursed for their medical care. Many of the cases he sees involve drivers that are texting or talking on their phones, or otherwise distracted. Sometimes cyclists blend in with the background and are not easily seen. In the most appalling instances, cyclists complain that drivers do see them, then purposely harass them or run them off the road.  

“People come in the store talking about getting objects thrown at them on their bikes,” says Karen Hew, a cyclist and long-time employee at Big Wheel bicycle shop in Fort Lauderdale. Hew has been yelled at and called names more times than she can count. In once instance, at 5:30 a.m. on a nearly empty road, a woman rolled down the car window just to curse at Hew. “What the hell is this all about?” she remembers thinking.  

Over at Two&, Elmo Love sums it up like this: “If you’re white and you want to know what it’s like to be black in this country, ride a bike. You immediately become a second-class citizen, and they rationalize why you deserve to die.”

 

“It doesn’t look good”

On Jan. 2, 2014, Ray Strack was doing everything right.

He had just come from Whole Foods, where he picked up a loaf of bread and some fresh cheese to make Caprese sandwiches for himself and his wife, and was pedaling east toward the Oakland Park Bridge. He was in the right lane, about a third of the way over, which is a common practice for cyclists who want to be sure cars see them. 

Just before the bridge, a truck pulled up behind Ray, put on a blinker, and moved into the left lane to pass him. Ray reached his right arm across his body and gave the thumbs up, then a peace sign, which he did every time a motorist safely passed him. What Ray didn’t realize was that a Mazda 3 was directly behind the truck, and its driver didn’t see the bicycle until it was too late.  

Right after the truck moved into the left lane, the Mazda’s driver shifted and accelerated, careening into Ray’s bicycle. He was tossed backwards into the air in retrograde motion, his feet ripped from their cleats as his body hit the windshield and bounced over the car. Ray landed on his head, crushing his skull and fracturing his T9 vertebrae, a shoulder, a hip and a knee.

The situation looked grim, as is often the case when a cyclist is hit from behind and when the speed differential between the car and the bicycle is considerable. A rescue worker on the scene recognized Ray and phoned Ray’s son in California, as a courtesy. “It doesn’t look good,” the worker said. Meanwhile, Denise had just viewed the photos of her husband’s belongings on Facebook. When her phone rang again, it was her son calling. He relayed the rescue worker’s message, and Denise got in her car and drove straight to Broward Health Medical Center. Her body shook the whole way. 

When she arrived, about 50 cyclists who regularly attended Critical Mass were already there, having seen the photos posted on Facebook. Denise waited for what felt like an eternity for information on her husband’s condition, and eventually she was shown to his room. He had injuries from head to foot, ripped muscles, dangling limbs, a crushed skull, and road rash across his back and hips. But somehow – against the odds – Ray Strack was alive. 

Denise nearly passed out.

 

Building roads for everyone

In Broward County, a somewhat complex network of government bodies has a hand in trying to keep cyclists like Ray safe. There is of course the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), a body that builds, maintains and regulates public transport. Then there’s the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (BMPO), a federally mandated agency that creates policy on local transportation issues and allocates federal money for projects in the county. Finally there’s Broward’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), which advises the county commissioners on all matters cycling and walking.   

“Where you stand depends on where you sit,” says Dave Marshall, long-time cyclist and vice chair of BPAC. It’s a clever way of saying that whether a governmental organization sees roads as being for motorists or for everybody depends on the size and mission of the organization.

What that’s meant for South Florida, where many critical roads were designed and built by FDOT planners whose thinking was dominated by motor vehicle considerations, is that bicyclists and pedestrians are often forced to cross highways, railroad tracks and canals not built for them, Marshall says. 

In recent years, BMPO and BPAC – in some instances in partnership with FDOT – have scrambled to install more buffers, bike paths, bike lanes, greenways and sharrows (or shared lane markings) to get Broward’s cyclists and pedestrians from A to B without risking their lives. In many cases, though, cyclists and pedestrians encounter perilous gaps among the safe passageways.   

“What’s really critical for us as planners is to connect all these bike facilities,” says Maribel Feliciano, BPAC’s assistant director for planning and development management. “That’s a key priority.” 

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To that end, the BMPO and its partners applied recently for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, federal funding that rewards innovative thinking and collaborative solutions to dangerous transportation problems. 

Through its Complete Street Initiative, BMPO proposed to construct 9.2 miles of bicycle and pedestrian paths and lanes with illuminated reflectors to improve visibility. They requested $11,443,371 in TIGER funds, which would be supplemented by non-federal matching funds of $7,730,517. 

 The money would help fill in five gaps in areas where bicycle paths and lanes abruptly end, leaving those on two wheels on their own to navigate major thoroughfares, where cars routinely travel upwards of 60 miles an hour, according to the grant application. Out of 585 applications the Department of Transportation received from across the United States in 2016, 40 recipients were chosen. One of those was the BMPO. 

When those projects are completed in 2019, the BMPO’s Complete Streets Initiative will have added a total of 100 miles of bicycles facilities and 40 miles of sidewalk improvements to Broward’s transportation system. The county holds its 2017 Safe Street Summit this month in Sunrise, and as part of that summit, attendants will get on bikes to ride along one of the county’s greenways, experiencing the gaps for themselves and hearing about the coming changes. 

Ray Strack likes that idea, although he’s got a better one. He believes that the only way to make the roads safer for bicyclists and pedestrians here is for motorists get a better understanding of the other side of things. 

“Make people getting a driver’s license bike 20 hours on the road,” he says. “Walk a mile in my shoes.”

 

“A new normal”

When asked if she is willing to talk about Ray’s accident and recovery, Denise Strack starts to cry. “It was an extremely emotional time,” she says. “We don’t talk about it too much.” For seven days after the accident, Denise took trips back and forth to see Ray in the hospital, and most of the time he was doped up on morphine. When Denise was finally able to bring him back to their new home, Ray was unable to move on his own. Denise ordered a hospital-style bed for their home, but it took a week for it to arrive, and so she had to lift him in and out of bed each day. 

“If I touched him anywhere, it hurt,” she says. “He was oozing and bleeding, and getting stuck to the sheets.” 

Ray had always been active and independent, and Denise found herself worrying about what his life would be like now. Would he recover? How would he deal with it? 

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, heavy rains fell and the roof of the couple’s new home sprung a leak. By day, Denise remained strong, tended to Ray, and did whatever she could to solve problems. At night, she drank wine and cried. 

Eventually, Denise began to notice something off about her husband, something not quite right. She told the doctors that the way he was speaking and thinking seemed strange, and upon further examination, they discovered that Ray had a closed-skull brain injury – a dead spot in his brain – that had left him less to filter his thoughts. “I was more of a diplomat than I am now,” Ray says, chuckling. 

As it turned out, Denise had no reason to worry about how Ray would deal with his injuries. He was a fighter, and he aspired to what he liked to call “a new normal.” He worked his way back to sitting up, walking and eventually even riding a bike. On his first ride over the bridge where he was hit – a Critical Mass event attended by more than 1,000 people – the group had a run-in with the cops. A police officer dragged him off his bicycle and arrested him. (Ray filed a lawsuit against the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which is still pending.) 

After that, things calmed down considerably. Despite the fact that Ray’s backbone looked like a gnarled tree and his brain injury was permanent, he considers himself “the luckiest guy you ever met.”

“It changes you forever,” Denise says. “Your perspective, how you go through your day, and how you treat other people … We are much more cautious now. We appreciate the second chance that he’s got.”