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Uneasy Riders

To be a bicyclist in Kansas City is to face fear, loathing — and death. It's just so wrong.

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Larry Gaunt was a regular customer at Chris Smedley's Bicycle Shack, just off Blue Ridge Boulevard. One day in late July, Gaunt brought in his granddaughter, 14-year-old Sierra. She was giddy over a new helmet, a pair of gloves and the chance to ride with her grandpa. Gaunt, 59, had retired from AT&T but still did some computer consulting. He was so dedicated to his sport that he had Smedley ship him a bike while he was working a job in Florida during the summer of 2006.

Sierra, a blue-eyed eighth-grader at Pleasant Lea Junior High, played violin in her school's orchestra and sang in the choir. For her, cycling was a new hobby. The grandfather-granddaughter duo was training for the MS 150 — the annual fundraising ride to benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Gaunt had been a top fundraiser and early finisher for the past 11 years, and he hoped to complete his 12th effort with his new cycling companion.

A couple of weeks later, on the evening of August 6, the Gaunts were riding on the wide shoulder of a road circling Longview Lake. Often traveled by cyclists in training, this stretch is straight and flat. The sky was clear and the pavement dry.

A 1985 Chevy pickup approached from the south.

The driver, William Johnson, had been cited two weeks earlier for driving 95 in a 70-mph zone. Police believe that as he neared the cyclists, Johnson was driving nearly 10 miles an hour faster than the 45-mph zone allowed.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened at 6:14 p.m. Johnson told Grandview police that he saw the two cyclists on the right shoulder but, at a second's notice, one of the bikes swung into his lane. His brakes locked as he tried to stop, he said. He panicked and swerved to the right, striking one of the Gaunts from behind with his front bumper. As he skidded to a stop, he acknowledged, he hit the other cyclist.

But three witnesses told the police that the Gaunts were traveling on the shoulder — not veering into traffic — when they were hit. The investigation concluded that "Johnson's vehicle drifted off the roadway due to inattention and that Johnson overcompensated, causing the truck to skid before impact with the bicycles."

Larry Gaunt died at the scene; Sierra was rushed to Overland Park Regional Medical Center, where her organs were donated before she died. "The threads of our close-knit family have been shredded," Larry's oldest son, Brad, said in a statement.

Ten days after the crash, cyclists gathered near Longview Lake to ride the loop that Larry and Sierra Gaunt never completed. More than 600 supporters showed up, some sporting racing Spandex and breezing along on expensive road bikes, others wearing gym shorts and puffing up the hills on old 10-speeds. At the spot where Johnson's blue Chevy struck the Gaunts, members of a group called Kansas City Ghost Bikes (part of a national effort to honor fallen bikers) had tethered a white, battered old bike to a tree to serve as a wake-up call to passing drivers. The group stopped there. For several moments, the mass of hundreds stood silent, except for the soft clatter of cycling shoes being unclipped from pedals and the staggered breath of those who were crying.

Brent Hugh, director of the Missouri Bicycle Federation, told the crowd at the start of the memorial, the ride was as much about making a statement as honoring the victims.

"We have a serious traffic-safety problem in America and Kansas City," Hugh told the crowd.

As of October, four cyclists have died in the metro this year. According to the Mid-America Regional Council, 18 cyclists were killed and 1,262 injured on the area's roads from 2000 to 2006. Advocates such as Hugh acknowledge that some of those fatalities and injuries were the fault of careless cyclists. But many cyclists say they're routinely targeted and harassed on the streets.

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