Off the Back


As late as four in the afternoon on Oct. 9, 2010, the King Ridge GranFondo was coming to a successful close. Cyclists on the return loop, having climbed one thousand feet up Coleman Valley Road, were enjoying an exhilarating descent down Graton Road.

Then, at approximately 4:15, cyclist Anoush Zebarjadian was struck by the right-side mirror of a vehicle. The blow hurtled the then 57-year old San Franciscan more than 30 yards to the side of the road. Just as fast, the vehicle disappeared around a bend, leaving Zebarjadian with critical head injuries. Thanks to the actions of a doctor on the scene, Zebarjadian survived, while a lengthy and expensive recovery disrupted his life for the better part of a year.

The good news is that Zebarjadian is returning to the race, says Greg Fisher, editor of Bike Monkey magazine and a coordinator for the GranFondo. “The guy took quite a lot,” says Fisher. “The fact that he comes back, a year later, ready to put himself back into the world—it’s an inspiration.”

The bad news is that there is no more news. The perpetrator has not been identified, let alone brought to justice. In fact, the crime under investigation is only a hit-and-run, intent not being sufficiently established to warrant a charge of assault. But numerous reports suggest little doubt: the vehicle, described as an early ’90s, maroon Ford Explorer, had intimidated cyclists for miles along the route that day before swerving sharply toward Zebarjadian.

So why is this case so cold? The answers are complex, but it’s not for lack of diligent effort by the cycling community and law enforcement.

“It happened when everyone was going on a pretty good downhill,” explains Fisher. “As a cyclist, your eyes are trained on the road. It’s hard to shift your awareness.” Given the fast pace of events, nobody could get a license plate number or identify the driver.

Sandra Lupien, outreach director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition (SCBC), says that two representatives from the sheriff’s department and the California Highway Patrol she works with are cyclists themselves, and affirms those departments’ active cooperation. To date, donors have contributed more than $6,700 for information leading to an arrest.

The CHP reviewed photographs and hours of video footage, says Sgt. Robert Mota. People called in tips, and the CHP checked them out. After receiving a report of a vehicle parked on a remote ranch, officers drove a four-wheel drive through two riverbeds and hiked in for half a hour. It wasn’t a match.

After all that, “We didn’t get much at all,” says Sgt. Mota. “We’re kind of at a wall with this one.”

Fortunately, such extreme incidents are rare, but the SCBC offers a website form where cyclists can report aggressive motorists.

“If it’s a particularly egregious incident,” says Lupien, “the police might send a letter, saying that someone who drove this car registered in your name did this, and it’s not OK.” Lupien affirms that, given a license plate number, they will follow up. “Sometimes one warning is all it takes, but as it is with speeding or DUIs, it might take a few warnings to sink in: you can’t harass folks on bikes.

“Reading through the reports, one might get the impression that it’s absolutely harrowing out there, although they’re distilled from a seven-year time frame. “I was hit in the back with a can of soda,” complains an early entry. More recently, a stocky Caucasian male drove a truck through Alexander Valley, “screaming, ‘all people on bikes should die.'”

White males driving trucks hold no monopoly. A middle-aged blonde female driving a Ford Excursion chased cyclists down Fountaingrove Parkway, honking and flipping them off, stopping to “yell at us and tell us to get off the road.”

Although resolution to isolated instances of rage is clearly the exception, one poster relates a story of swift justice dealt by the Sheriff’s department after occupants of a Subaru fired rifle shots toward him: “Hallelujah! I ride up to the blockade to see all four guys handcuffed and sitting in the ditch.”

Lupien is charitable regarding the origins of motorist rage. “I give people the benefit of the doubt. People feel afraid—they’re worried that they will hurt someone. But . . . they blame the cyclist.” Sometimes, motorists will even vent their feelings on foot, when the SCBC holds a table at events, asking, “Why are you on the road?”

Sgt. Mota says that the law is perfectly clear on that point, citing Section 21202(a) of the California Vehicle Code: “Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.” The roadway, Sgt. Mota emphasizes, means the most-traveled part of the road—between the center line and the white line.

This month, the state Assembly passed Senate Bill 910, which, if signed by Governor Brown, would require that motorists pass bicyclists with a three-foot clearance at a safe speed.

Meanwhile, this year’s GranFondo has grown to include 7,500 riders. For their part, the CHP plans to enhance its presence—at a cost of $45,000, paid for by the GranFondo. “The goal is for people to see us out there, and to be able to respond in a timely manner—not that I think there will be a reason,” says Sgt. Mota.

With Zebarjadian back on the road, and the GranFondo going stronger than ever, there may be only one person who has not yet demonstrated their inner strength in the past year. As Lupien says, “I feel sad for the person who knows, but is not coming forward.”

Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge GranFondo kicks off with events Thursday, September 29. The race begins on Saturday, Oct.1, leaving from Finley Park in Santa Rosa at 8am. Anyone with information regarding last year’s hit-and-run incident can contact the CHP at 707.588.1400.