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Every time we take to the open road, we entrust our lives to a safety net of legal protection and basic human decency. That system has failed.
By David Darlington
BY ALMOST ANY MEASURE, Sonoma County should qualify as cycling heaven. Spanning more than a million acres from the Pacific coast to the Mayacamas Mountains, it has every kind of riding, from flat to steep to gently rolling, much of it on lightly traveled roads through quiet forests, farmland and vineyards-a pastoral landscape that, blessed by a balmy climate, amounts to a paradise for two-wheeled travel. That, no doubt, is why race organizers chose it for two stages of the 2007 Tour of California-the first one rolling up the coast and heading inland toward Santa Rosa on Occidental Road, the second passing through -Sonoma and Napa Valleys via Trinity Grade, an 8.2 percent slope of chaparral.
n the United States, however, cycling heaven is a qualified concept. Five years previous to the 2007 race, Ross Dillon set off on a June training ride that reversed the peloton’s eventual route. A 25-year-old Cat 3 racer who had ridden with the 2007 TOC winner Levi Leipheimer on group outings from Santa Rosa, Dillon was spending the summer at his family’s home on Trinity Road before starting his first year of law school at Boston College. Since graduating cum laude from Santa Clara University in 1999, he had moved to the East Coast with his girlfriend, Katie, also a B.C. law student, whom he was now planning to marry in August. In the meantime, having saved some money from a job as an investment clerk at Liberty Mutual, Dillon was taking the summer off to race and train, hoping to upgrade to Cat 2 with the Boston Bicycle Club in the fall.
“In races Ross would typically be third or fourth,” says his father, Rusty, who is also a cyclist, as well as a psychotherapist and Anglican minister. “He once told me that he thought he had too wholesome a family background to be a really successful racer-he wasn’t angry enough.”
“He was afraid of being hurt,” Rusty’s wife, Betsy, elaborates. “He wouldn’t go out and take risks.” Among his friends, Ross was known for a funny and disarming, if stubborn, personality. When a low-intensity training ride turned into a hammerfest, Dillon would ride resolutely off the back. If somebody in the group was acting like a jerk-being overly critical of riders, or telling everyone else what to do-Ross would pedal up alongside the authoritarian and announce how honored he was to ride with him. That sort of thing made people laugh. Everybody would loosen up.
At about 12:30 p.m. on June 3, 2002, Betsy telephoned Ross from her job tutoring children with learning disabilities. He told her that he was going to ride his Land Shark into Santa Rosa, go to the bank and the bike shop, and be home for dinner by 6:30. In between, he’d do a long ride out toward the coast, heading west from Santa Rosa on Occidental Road.
Occidental, a fast, semi-rural two-lane road, marks the geographic transition from eastern to western Sonoma County. Although the wine industry has given this area a reputation for civilized gentility, Santa Rosa (the county seat) is becoming a congested urban grid, and the region’s wooded western reaches are giving way grudgingly to different kinds of development. With the demise of dairies and orchards, wine grapes now compete for prominence with the county’s other major cash crop, cannabis sativa. As California Highway Patrol officer Eric Nelson observes: “Those back roads that are so wonderful to ride and drive on were built for farmers in agrarian times, not for the [conditions] we have today. We’re driving 2000-model vehicles on roads designed in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.”
It was a 1997 Mitsubishi Mirage that Cathie Hamer was driving at 2:45 p.m. when she turned off California 116 (the Gravenstein Highway) west onto Occidental Road. She was on her regular commute route from the town of Sebastopol, where she owned a shop called Yin Yang Clothing-a boutique that sells hemp garments, jewelry, incense and Eastern religious statuary. After stopping off at the supermarket, Hamer was headed for her home in Duncans Mills, a tourist stop on the Russian River, which was a half-hour drive away. Occidental Road isn’t the most direct or well-traveled route -between these two points, but that is the reason Hamer-and Ross Dillon-preferred it. As the road enters the coastal hills to the west, it gets twisty and more hazardous, but in the stretch where Cathie Hamer began to overtake Dillon, it is one of the least challenging sections of pavement in western Sonoma County.
“The road there is straight and the shoulder is wide,” corroborates Travis Bland, then a 16-year-old student who happened to be driving behind Hamer on his way home from Analy High School. As Bland followed a few lengths behind Hamer at 50 miles an hour, he noticed that, for no apparent reason, her car was starting to drift to the right, gradually entering the bike lane behind a cyclist up the road. “I thought maybe [Hamer] knew him and was trying to scare him,” Bland recalls. “I thought it might have been one of my classmates playing a joke on somebody.” He could clearly see, though, that if the Mirage didn’t steer back into the road right away, it was on a collision course with the bike.
At 2:50, Dale Killilea was standing on a deck at Plumfield Academy, a school a half mile to the north, when he and a few of his fellow teachers heard a “large, ugly crash.” Although there had been no screeching tires or blaring horns, they thought a significant two-car collision had occurred. “[The sound] was so loud that you could feel it even where I was standing,” Killilea says.
This “boom” also got the attention of Ken Fader, an oral surgeon who was headed east in his car on Occidental Road. Turning his eyes toward the source of the sound, Fader saw Hamer’s Mitsubishi barreling through the grass on the other side of the road, debris flying behind it, a spandex-clad bike rider tumbling in its wake. Then the car swerved back onto the pavement, heading right at Fader before correcting direction again and speeding off to the west. Fader’s first thought was that he’d witnessed an attempted murder. He likens it to a scene in a movie where an assassin runs down a victim: “It was an awful thing to see. It was bizarre-it was breathtaking. It seemed outrageous, because the cyclist was not taking any risk. He seemed to be in as safe a place as a cyclist could be.”
Thinking that the Mirage was fleeing the scene, Fader pulled a U-turn to try to get its license-plate number. Meanwhile, Bland had stopped to flag down other drivers, imploring them to call 911. He also terms the incident “unreal”-when he saw Dillon’s legs flailing above the roof of the car, Bland was “surprised at the height that he was thrown up into the air. It was like he was flying-but then when he hit the ground, he didn’t move at all.”
As Fader turned his car around to chase the Mitsubishi, he saw Dillon in a motionless heap 50 yards from the first point of impact. A trained emergency physician, Fader realized that the cyclist’s survival might be hanging in the balance. “If he’d been conscious he would have righted himself,” Fader says. “That twisted position would have been too uncomfortable.” Fader made a decision to abandon the chase and instead administer to Dillon, whom he found turning blue. Failing to detect a pulse, he repositioned the cyclist’s head to clear his airway, taking care not to worsen any cervical injuries; after he’d done this three times, Dillon coughed weakly and started drawing shallow, raspy breaths. A few minutes later, emergency technicians from local volunteer fire departments pulled up to the scene, responding to the 911 bulletin.
Unbeknownst to most of those present, Cathie Hamer had stopped her car a hundred yards up the road. When officer Nelson arrived at 3:02, he saw Hamer walking toward the spot where Fader and the firemen were attending to Dillon. Crying hysterically and holding both sides of her head with her hands, she fell to her knees as Nelson approached; when he helped her up, he felt her legs wobbling. “What happened?” she kept asking, mucous flowing from her nose.
Nelson walked Hamer back to her car and told her to wait there. He noticed that the vehicle’s right front and sides were damaged-its right windshield wiper had been torn off and the windshield was smashed, including a 10-inch “intrusion” apparently caused by Dillon’s helmet. There was jewelry hanging from the rearview mirror, a bunch of grocery bags in the back seat.
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