The shocking death of professional cyclist Benjamin Sonntag on Wednesday sent a wave of heartbreak across the Durango cycling community. It also had those within that circle evaluating the dangers of sharing the road with motorists.
Sonntag, 39, was killed shortly after noon Wednesday while riding his Specialized Tarmac bicycle on County Road 105 west of Marvel in southwest La Plata County. He was heading north when he was struck by a teenage driver in a 1991 Ford Ranger pickup truck. Sonntag was pronounced dead at the scene.
“It’s a risk we take, whether it’s on road or gravel,” said Fort Lewis College cycling director Dave Hagen, who saw Sonntag win three collegiate mountain bike national championships for the Skyhawks in 2007 and 2008. “It happens, and it feels like it happens more frequently when we feel like we do right now because of this. You hope it never happens in your community, but you know it is going to sometime. There’s no way to prepare for it.”
Many of Durango’s professional cyclists have had close calls. It was only last summer pro mountain biker Payson McElveen was hit by a driver while traveling east on 32nd Street. A driver turned right off 32nd and into McElveen, who cracked his helmet in the incident.
“Fortunately, it wasn’t too serious,” McElveen said. “It’s always on your mind a bit. When something absolutely terrible happens, it makes it so you really can’t ignore it. The really scary part is, I feel like we take a lot of good precautions. It’s pretty sobering when it happens to one of the best bikers in the country like (Sonntag), an incredibly proficient bike handler.”
Sonntag’s death comes in a time of increased fatalities among bicyclists on roads in Colorado. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, 22 bicyclists were killed in 2018 and another 19 in 2019. Colorado has seen double-digit fatalities to cyclists every year since 2011. In 2003, there were only three.
“What’s crazy about that is Lance (Armstrong) was winning the (Tour de France) in ’03 and tons of people were out riding their bikes,” McElveen said. “The number of cyclists isn’t the variable, it’s the number of people looking at their phones. We know the impact cellphones have on driving and car wrecks. Blinking lights don’t help if a driver is not looking at the road.”
While Sonntag’s death was shocking, what concerned many was the location the incident occurred. It was on a gravel county road cyclists said they rarely see a motorist driving when they ride.
“I’ve ridden that section of Cherry Creek road and that dirt road and haven’t seen any cars,” said Durango’s Todd Wells, a three-time mountain bike Olympian. “A busy ride, you would see maybe four or five cars. I can think of probably 1,000 places I’d guess someone would get hit riding a bike around here, and that wouldn’t even come into the circle of possibilities.
“Where he was riding and got struck, just to access that dirt road you have to ride U.S. Highway 160, Wildcat Canyon and La Plata Highway. All of these places with narrow roads. There is a shoulder, and people give you room, but it just takes a moment, one second. I imagine that was the only car he had come in contact with that day on the particular road. He probably didn’t even see another rider. It’s just sad.”
It was a wakeup call for cyclists who have pushed further out onto county roads and pursued gravel cycling. It gets riders further away from high-traffic areas. After Sonnntag’s accident, McElveen said he wondered where he can ride. The lone answer he has come up with is mountain bike trails.
“We’re all seeking more dirt. We call it gravel, but it’s basically dirt roads. We go because of the dangers of riding with cars, and there’s less traffic on roads further out in the county,” said 1990 mountain bike world champion and Durango cycling icon Ned Overend. “It’s unusual to have an accident like that without traffic. And a head-on accident, that’s kind of odd, obviously. Something like this you expect on a crowded road with no shoulder.”
McElveen met with several prominent Durango cyclists at Bread bakery in Durango on Thursday. It wasn’t organized, but several had arrived to a place Sonntag had often held court over the years. As the group talked, it became clear there was a very real fear amongst them. Pro mountain biker Stephan Davoust was set to leave his house that morning for a ride but stopped at the door. He called teammate Cole Paton to see if he would ride with him because he didn’t want to be on the road alone.
Professional cyclist and FLC alumna Sarah Sturm has seen Durango grow in the last 12 years. With that comes more traffic. She remembered driving up to Edgemont Ranch on County Road 240 while on a visit to FLC while still in high school and seeing the road loaded with cyclists.
“It felt very much like the bikers’ road,” she said. “Now, it’s very much more of a commuting road. It’s really scary. It’s why I lean more toward mountain biking trails and gravel. That’s what makes this such an unsettling accident because it wasn’t the normal road accident. It’s unsettling to me and a lot of people in Durango. It will absolutely have an effect.”
Part of what has made the IHBC road race successful for so long is the fact U.S. Highway 550 is closed to vehicles when the roads get narrow on Coal Bank and Molas passes. Still, race director Gaige Sippy worries about driver-versus-cyclist conflicts each year for the 26 miles of road to Purgatory Resort in which motorists share the road with the event.
With two cycling children, Sippy also considers the safety of his children when they leave home with their bicycles.
“I worry every year in the spring when it’s Iron Horse training season and more people are out riding,” Sippy said. “If you’ve never been a cyclist and been buzzed by a car, you don’t understand what that whole thing is like. A situation like (Sonntag) drives home the point that you are so vulnerable. There’s no room for error. I breathe a sigh of relief every time my kids get back from a ride. This is a sobering reminder for the cycling community.”
Durango’s Sepp Kuss grew up a mile up the road on Florida Road (County Road 240) from where Sonntag lived. Sonntag would regularly ride the surrounding county roads, which can be quite narrow.
Kuss went to college in Boulder and sees plenty of similarities between the two communities.
“It’s a more populated area, but there’s also more rural areas where you think you’re alone. All of a sudden a truck or something may come by, and you’re not so alone anymore,” Kuss said. “Even in Boulder they say, ‘Oh, it’s a cycling paradise,’ but it doesn’t necessarily apply to drivers there. You always encounter situations on the road where it’s pretty dangerous. For me, I try to take every precaution. I’m always riding with blinking lights, always going as far right of the shoulder as possible and never riding with music. You have to be ready for when people aren’t aware of a cyclist on the road.”
Now a third-year World Tour pro road cyclist based in Europe, Kuss said he does feel safer on training rides in countries such as his new home in Andorra or in Spain.
“In Spain, the drivers are very relaxed,” Kuss said. “The roads are much smaller, too, but they seem to have a bit more awareness to the fact there might be, and a lot of times are, cyclists on the road. In Andorra, every kilometer there’s a sign that says, ‘Give two meters to cyclists,’ to bring awareness to drivers, so that helps. Laws with cellphones and everything for drivers in Europe, that certainly helps. It’s hard to say the main difference, but in Europe, drivers are more used to cyclists and maybe aren’t as distracted.”
Kuss said he feels much more in danger in Italy than at home in Colorado. Rotem Ishay, who came to Durango from Israel, had a similar sentiment about the risks riding a bike in his home country.
“There’s never been a horrible road culture in Durango,” Ishay said. “It’s much better than other cities and places around the country. I’ve never felt unsafe, especially moving from Israel where the driving culture there really sucks. I’ve always felt much safer on gravel roads away from any traffic. That makes this such a freak accident. It makes you question your priorities and if you want to be on the road.”
Despite the news this week, McElveen had two close calls with drivers while riding his bike Friday, one on U.S. Highway 160 when he had to swerve into a vehicle lane to avoid a woman turning into him from the other direction, and once more on County Road 240 after he had signaled and begun to make his turn.
“You always hear driving is the most dangerous thing you do every day. I’ve sort of had the realization that what we do for a living, we just take out the protective mechanism of being in a car,” McElveen said. “It’s pretty messed up when you think of it. I don’t know the number of fatalities per number of cyclists, but it’s gotta be one of the most dangerous things you can do. The number of pro cyclists hit and killed the last two years is ridiculous. Per 100 pros, it’s a crazy high percentage.
“I don’t know what to do about it. We all love it so much. It’s all fine and dandy when the wind is in your hair, until it’s not. It’s not going to make me stop riding my bike. It’s what I love. I understand the risks. This awful situation is kind of the ultimate reminder of what can happen.”