A drive along the roads that connect Woolwich and Wellesley townships to the rest of Waterloo Region on a warm, sunny day will quickly reveal just how popular the sport of road cycling has become in southern Ontario.
And while most cyclists say that motorists give them the space and time to feel secure on the roads, every now and again we are reminded of how quickly a spring ride can turn to tragedy.
Around 4 p.m. on May 6, Waterloo resident Barrie Conrod was struck from behind by an SUV while cycling along Herrgott Road in Wellesley Township. Conrod was pronounced dead at the scene. His wife, Heather Caron, was riding in front of him and was not injured in the crash.It was a route the couple had ridden together countless times, and by Caron’s accounts her husband was a very safe and considerate rider. Couple that with the fact the collision occurred along a relatively flat section of road and in broad daylight, and it is a tragedy in the truest sense of the word.
Last Sunday, one week to the day that Conrod was killed, more than 500 cyclists from across Waterloo Region joined his friends and family in a memorial ride along Herrgott Road to the spot where he was killed.
The riders, all wearing white shirts, proceeded along the road single-file at a deliberately slow pace. The pair of police cruisers and motorcycles directing traffic gave the solemn event the feeling of a funeral procession even though the actual funeral had been held two days earlier.
“It’s like a big, warm embrace from the community,” said Caron just a few minutes before she was set to lead the pack to the site of the fateful crash. “It’s pretty overwhelming, but in a good way. It’s nice to be connected to this community and to the cyclists.
“They all came together and it’s so moving.”
Police continue to investigate the cause of the crash and have yet to lay any charges against the 31-year-old St. Clements man who hit and killed Conrod, but Caron has said she isn’t angry at him for the collision.
The memorial ride marked her first time getting back on a bicycle since the accident, and the 53-year-old admitted to being at least a little scared to get back in the saddle.
“Of course I’m nervous. Absolutely. I keep looking over my shoulder. I’m nervous walking down the street now. It just brings it home how dangerous it is to get hit by a car as a cyclist and a pedestrian.”
Organizers of the event said it was important for the cycling community to come together in an act of solidarity and show their support for a fallen member of their community. The vast majority of the riders had never even met or heard of Conrod before the accident.
“I didn’t know him. I belong to the Waterloo Cycling Club and I ride the same route,” said Mel Roman, one of the organizers. “When we opened the paper Monday morning and saw what had happened, we were just shocked.”
Almost immediately the group sought Caron’s permission for the memorial ride and to place a ghost bike at the site where he was killed. Roman said they wouldn’t have undertaken the ride without Caron’s blessing.
A ghost bike is a bicycle which is painted completely white – even the wheels – and is chained to a spot near the accident as a symbolic way of informing those passing that a cyclist lost his life there.
“You feel a camaraderie among cyclists. When you’re on the road you salute each other with a wave, and when something like this happens you feel like you’ve lost part of your own and part of the extended cycling family.”
The 500 or so cyclists gathered at Countryside Mennonite Fellowship Church in Hawkesville around 3 p.m. last Sunday and travelled about two kilometres south towards St. Clements to where Conrod died.
Once they reached the site the riders aligned themselves in a nearby driveway and faced the family and friends of Conrod as they placed flowers and said a few words in memory of him. A moment of silence was also observed.
Following the ceremony the riders dispersed, with some continuing on to St. Clements, while others returned to Hawkesville.
Many of the riders at the event said they hoped the memorial ride would help raise awareness for cyclist safety and road safety in general in the region, and others said it’s time for Ontario to make cyclist safety a priority.
“The reason you see such an outpouring of support is because cyclists feel vulnerable, they feel frightened, they feel disregarded and disrespected,” said Eleanor McMahon, founder of Share the Road, a province-wide organization aimed at making the roads a safer place for cyclists.
McMahon formed the group back in 2006 when her husband, OPP Sergeant Greg Stobbart, was killed in a very similar collision. She was invited to participate in the memorial ride but was unable to attend.
“My condolences are with his family and his wife in particular. I’ve walked in her shoes and she’s got a difficult road ahead.”
McMahon said that a combination of fewer cyclists (caused by poor infrastructure and city planning, and our societal reliance on cars to get around) has led to fewer drivers knowing how to react around cyclists. In 1971 85 per cent of Canadian children rode their bikes or walked to school; now, only 14.5 per cent of kids nation-wide walk or ride their bikes to school, McMahon said.
“You’re going to have friction on our roadways and that’s simply not necessary.”
Ontario’s chief coroner is currently preparing a probe to review cycling deaths in Ontario, and the coroner estimates that some 15 to 20 riders are killed each year from accidental collisions.
For her part, Caron said she will continue to ride despite the accident, and she hopes cyclists and motorists will continue to be more diligent in being safe while out on the roads so that others will not have to endure the loss she has had to.
“I still don’t want to stop cycling. It’s such a healthy thing to do and it’s good for me mentally and physically, so I don’t want to stop.
“But he’s going to be missed,” she added.