Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Ghost Bike of Magilligan

Magilligan Ghost Bike
The shortcut to the beach is hidden along the main road, just before the big bend leading into Benone. Sun-drenched and shelterless, this stretch of road is like a child's drawing of a sunny day: blue skies, white clouds, yellow fields; the colours oversaturated; the edges unnaturally crisp. Veering away from all this, the shortcut plunges into leafy shade as it winds through parcels of forest all the way to the strand. The tiny lane is easy to miss if you don't know where to look. But if you do know, it is unmissable: Just watch for the handpainted stark white bicycle, chained to the caravan park fence.

Magilligan Ghost Bike
No matter how often I pass it, the sight of the Ghost Bike rattles me. Perhaps it is the location. I am accustomed to seeing these monuments to fallen cyclists in cities. But this one is jarringly out of place on a rural coastal road. In this unexpected environment, the ghost bike is more noticeable, more striking. Isolated and uncamouflaged by urban clutter, it refuses to blend with its surroundings; it is unignorable.

As the eye wanders from the bike to the sharp bend in the road, the imagination engages, activating a sequence of horrible stills. How did it happen? Who did it happen to? The plaque attached to the top tube names Gareth, aged 16. I know that I can ask around and learn the whole story in great, terrible detail. But I don't. Once I pedal past the bike and turn into the shaded backroad, I try to put it out of my mind. Because when I ride to the beach on a beautiful summer day, I do not want to think about ghost bikes.

Magilligan Ghost Bike
I do not want to wonder, for instance, whether the bike in front of me was the boy's actual bike. The very bike that got hit and… I close my mind's eye before the sequence is finished.

Benone
Smelling heavily of pines and, more faintly, of seaweed, the road to the beach disorients with its un-Irish feel. It is more like Maine, or Croatia. The sun filters through dense pine needles and the shapes dance on the rough pavement. The beach is not visible, but its presence is felt beyond the pines, and at any moment you expect to glimpse it around the next bend. It is the kind of road where, even before you've gone where it wants to take you, you are gripped by a pre-emptive nostalgia for the experience you're about to have.

Benone
And when I feel this, I do not want to think about ghost bikes. I do not want to think about death, or injury, when the sun is on my face and the waves of the ocean beckon. The ghost bike intrudes, but I shake it off as I would a fallen leaf tangled in my hair.

Benone
Through the pine needle shadows, past the caravan park and the holiday homes, a steady stream of kids makes its way to the Strand. They throw their bikes down in haste and run to the water.

Benone
Past the too-vibrant bunting that delineates the entrance and exit points, more kids pedal.

Benone
By the water, a father teaches his son to ride a tiny two-wheeler. The boys falters and tumbles into the soft sand, unhurt and undeterred. They laugh and try again. The sun shines.

Benone
I try to relax, to enjoy myself, to swim. But the children on bikes are all around me. As I watch, I catch myself wondering about the parents of the boy for whom the ghost bike was put up. Are they resentful when they watch such scenes? Are they merely sad? Or, are they happy for these other children, feeling the sun and the water on their healthy, intact bodies?

Magilligan Ghost Bike
I try to shake these thoughts off, so at odds they are with this beautiful summer day. But as I pass the ghost bike on my return, I stop and something compels me to sit on the grass beside it. I look again at the bend in the road, and I read the plaque, and I take it all in without trying to push the imagery away, as I run my fingers through the buttercups and the Queen Anne's lace that flourish around the scuffed white tires. The bike will be here every time I ride to the beach. Perhaps I'll grow immune to it over time. Or perhaps not, and every time I see it my mood will darken and these thoughts will haunt me. And maybe that is as it should be. I just hope the motorists driving past feel a least a trace of the same reaction. 

23 comments:

  1. We had a teenage girl die near here last year -- she was crossing a highway and, apparently, misread the lights -- bicycled past a stopped line of cars into an active traffic lane. That's what I think happened, anyway, based on the news reports. It was the second child the parents had lost to a tragic incident.
    The ghost bike is still there, and I cycled past it one night earlier this year, on the way back from a brevet. It is a difficult experience, coming on a ghost bike in the night, unexpectedly, when you are tired from a long ride and from having experienced sketchy interactions with motorists late on a Saturday night, and knowing the sad story it marks, the end of a young life because of a moment's mistake.

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  2. I've said this many times before: it's not if but when you have an accident. The severity is up to the gods.

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    1. Depressing, but true. I hope my next one is very far in the future and very minor.

      - nemarra

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  3. living in a fairly rural county, it's not unusual to see these out on back roads, or near the edge of town. i see them as a constant reminder to stay vigilant, especially when riding on narrow, country roads. the top 2 sources of tourist revenue here is wine, followed by cycling. they rarely make a good combo, unless you're doing both.

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  4. After a lull of a couple of years, my buddies have had to put up three this year alone here in New Orleans. One of them at the exact same site and under the same preventable circumstances as ten years ago and all at locations I pass on a very regular, if not daily basis. Two in bike lanes and one on the edge of a very lightly traveled road out on the edge of the Bayou Sauvage swamp. That case is being prosecuted only after enormous public outrage when the driver was allowed to leave the scene and go home for the night even when his license had been suspended and there was an existing warrant for his arrest. New Orleans is rarely recognized as one of the bike commuting capitals of North America but it is certainly that and unlike many places, our bike community is extremely diverse, rich and poor, black and white and a much higher percentage of female riders than I regularly see anywhere in the States. Our bike infrastructure was nonexistent until after Katrina and still completely insufficient. All of this has our entire bike community in an uproar and the rest of the city scratching their heads and wondering why we are complaining. Sorry to vent on your blog, but I know exactly where you are coming from and the way you express your feelings hits close to home.

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  5. Not to take away from this story, but Benone or Magilligan?

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    1. Many use Magilligan as a synonym for the village of Bellarena. But technically it is the name of the peninsula, which includes Duncrun, parts of Benone, Ballyhacket, and other little bits. Lengthwise, the boundaries are the Roe and the Umbra as far as I know.

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  6. Yes, a ghost bike in the middle of nowhere makes a bigger impact. In cities they have become like sculptures, street art, and people maybe do not stop to think what they mean. Since two years, a ghost bike stands on the road from my house to the post office and when I see it I think many of the same thoughts as you. After many trips I am not "immune"..... and I hope I never will be immune.

    Do the Irish call the beach "Strand" or is it your German coming through?

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    1. They use the word in Ireland and UK, especially in official names of beaches.

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  7. I found my first one of these a short time ago. I haven't seen another one where I live yet, so I haven't grown immune to it yet, and my thoughts and feelings are very similar to what you've described here, though my surroundings are very different.

    I remember reading in Le Metier that racers fear crashing, but suppress those fears in order to cope. I was surprised that I read that, because I had assumed that racers were daredevils that never even worried about crashing. I guess we all have something in common, no matter how different we are.

    - nemarra

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  8. Nice writing.
    Great that you stopped. I think passing by will be different now.
    I like the idea of putting plaques on the bike - some information. Doesn't seem to be the custom here in NM.
    Two cyclists were ushered to the other side here in Santa Fe this Spring/Summer - each hit by the fairly slow moving commuter train as they rode in front of it, across the tracks. As GR Jim says, it's apparently "up to the gods"!

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  9. I doubt most motorists would know what a ghost bike is

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    1. sad but true. i was once with a friend who pointed to a ghost bike and said she could not figure out why such a nice white bike was left out in the rain for months. plastic flowers on the side of the road are the more recognizable statement for non bikey people

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  10. When you moved to NI, I almost dropped reading your blog because it had lost focus. Lately, though, you have found a new voice that is better than it ever was. I truly enjoy how your words pry open pictures to the imagination.

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    1. I don't think this blog ever had a focus other than a very general one. I've never been able to force a theme, so I write for myself and if people choose to read and small companies wish to advertise that's grand. If not, not. Thanks for visiting.

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  11. Perhaps you should find out the circumstances, Velouria. It would let you understand how the boy died and ride past the scene with a clearer head. We can’t turn the clock back or bring back the dead, we can only learn.

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  12. Bicycles are safe. Very safe. Bicycles are extraordinarily and unusually safe. My opinion after 400,000 miles and a lifetime.

    If you get out of bed in the morning you incur risk. If you step out the door you face a lot of risk. Stepping out the door on a bike is less risky than walking or driving.

    Bikes have magnificent visibility. Bikes are marvellously maneuverable. Better maneuverability than any other vehicle on the road. Inherent speed gives opportunity for accident evasion pedestrians do not have.

    The notion that cyclists must simply submit to Fate is wrong. Accidents do happen. Most bicycle crashes are not accidents, they are operator error. Even after an accident is fated a cyclist will often have opportunities to reduce harm. Sitting ducks who believe in Fate get hurt. Active agents get hurt much less. I've been in "crashes" with 20 riders on the ground all around me while I remained upright. It's not hard to do. It's much easier than being injured.

    Bikes are phenomenally stable. Trust your bike to be stable. Let your bike be stable. Saddle down, gear down, tire pressure down.

    I got hit by another bike a week ago. While I was on a bike. I was entirely unhurt, the other rider a mess. He was going the wrong way on a oneway. Saddle 3 or 4 inches too high. Pushing 100" of fixed gear. No brakes. Dove into an intersection where he could not see oncoming. Was that an accident?

    If you think you are taking your life in your hands every time you mount a bike then do us all a favor and don't mount up.

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    1. Bicycle safety is a function of many, many factors - including active agency, and also including "fate," as there is certainly a degree of chance involved. Anecdotal evidence of one's personal safety record is just that - anecdotal.

      Your statement about remaining upright being not that hard reminds me of what my father used to say when anyone would express concern about a potential outcome of failure or injury in some activity.

      "Dad but I don't want to fall..."
      "So don't fall."

      Duh!

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    2. Brilliant. My Dad used to say something similar.

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  13. Sadly, rural roads are disproportionately lethal (at least in Scotland, I imagine NI is rather similar) - regardless of your means of transport. Collisions are fewer, but when they happen they are often very nasty indeed, whether it's a cyclist, pedestrian, horserider or driver. Very sad.

    FWIW, I imagine that won't be the bike involved, but just a bike someone had handy to be put up as a ghost bike.

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    1. I know usually it's not the bike involved, and in this case in particular they've put up the bike 20+ years after the incident (on the boy's birthday), so it's unlikely. But looking at the bike, I noticed it's from the same era, and about the right size for his age, so it got me thinking in that direction.

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  14. The second half makes for a tough emotional read for anyone with kids. Thank you for sharing.

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  15. My Brooklyn / Manhattan commute can take me by 7 or 8 of these. Some places the danger is very clear, some places it's unthinkable (Eric Ng on the West Side separated BIKE PATH at 33rd Street). I give each a little thought as I go by. I try to keep a little more focused on my ride, inherently dangerous or not. A site with more info is ghostbikes dot org.

    When I was 12 or 13 I was hit by a car while I was on a bike and broke my left femur, knee, right ankle, had concussion, scratches, etc. Cops come to the house, everyone there is in various stages of chores and routine stuff and totally not expecting the news.

    I love riding all the various bikes I have but with a tempered sense of invincibility. I am pretty non-aggressive in traffic compared to a lot. I use a rearview mirror. My grandfather, who drove subway trains and buses used to say "accidents don't happen, they're caused".

    And by the way Ms. V, do us all a favor and stay on your bike as long as possible sharing your wisdom.

    My most poignant take aways from here are remembering to try to spin at a higher cadence and shellacing the velox tape on my rando bike with a good result. With lots of other intangibles as well.

    vsk

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