Ghost Riders: In Houston, bicycling is known as a killer sport.

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Houston Press

Published: Oct, 8 2009

Cisco Rios lived to ride his bike. The 25-year-old waiter longed to
ditch his job and make that passion his livelihood. His buddy Matt
Wurth, owner of Heights-area bike shop I Cycle, said that Rios told him
that he wanted to take up Wurth's trade and move with his Australian
fiancée to Seattle. There the two young lovers wanted to start a new
life together in a cyclist's paradise.

But in the meantime, Rios was couch-surfing, running out the string of
his life in Houston. He often stayed at the apartment of his friend and
fellow cyclist Ricky Jiminez. Cisco's car had died, so his bike was his
sole means of transport. "He would take it on the bus with him,"
remembers his close friend and riding partner Ahmad Cherry. "Wherever
his day would take him, he went on a bike."

Often, those days would take him past Wurth's shop at West 18th and
T.C. Jester, where he got most of his repairs. Wurth says his bike
mechanics loved to see Rios come in, because Rios always insisted on
tipping them extra. His friends always loved to see him too. Ask him
how he was doing and he would tell people he was glad to be alive; his
motto was "Hakuna matata," a Swahili phrase he likely nicked from
Disney's The Lion King that translates as "There are no worries."

Cherry and Jiminez often joined Rios on adventures all over town,
often on the Terry Hershey bike trails in West Houston by day, or
night-riding from the Heights to downtown. Cherry remembers a fun night
they shared at a Denny's on Washington Avenue. "The waitress noticed we
were all on our bikes, and she asked us if we had a name for our
group," he says. "Francisco said, 'Yeah, we're the Night Rider All
Stars.' We burst into uproarious laughter. At the time, I thought it
was the dorkiest, uncoolest thing anybody had ever said. But ever since
then we've been the Night Rider All Stars."

In 2007, they took part in the annual Shipley-sponsored, 28-mile
Tour de Donut. An odd charity race that matches endurance cycling with
unhealthy eating, it offers riders as many doughnuts as they can
consume at rest stations, with time credits awarded for each pastry
consumed. Rios was highly competitive, Cherry remembers, and over the
course of the day, he consumed a huge amount of doughnuts, a dozen at
one station alone, by one account. [Cherry claims Rios ate 28 that day;
the official Tour de Donut results page has him down for a mere 15,
still enough to place him seventh out of about 400 riders.] Jiminez
recalled that Rios had brought along some milk to wash the doughnuts
down, and he made the mistake of drinking it after it had ripened in
his bike bag. "He never touched another doughnut again," chuckles

Rios was sick for about a week afterwards, Cherry recalls, and his
illness brought on an epiphany. Not only did Cisco forsake doughnuts,
but also alcohol and junk food of all kinds. His love of cycling had
squeezed out most of his vices.

But not all, as he did retain his passion for the Houston Texans.
Along with other friends, Cherry and Rios were in the habit of packing
a van full of bikes, parking off Main and then pedaling the rest of the
way up to the gates at Reliant. After the final gun, the better to
dodge parking-lot traffic, the friends would race back to their bikes,
mount up and speed off to a sports bar to catch the rest of the day's
gridiron action.

On December 30, 2007, Sunday's kickoff for the season finale against
Jacksonville came and went with no sign of Cisco. Cherry was worried —
it was not like Cisco to miss a game, ever, and his whereabouts had
been unknown since Friday evening, when he had been headed to a party.
"It was like, 'Hmm, I wonder where he is, but I know he went to the
party on Friday, so he probably met somebody cool,'" Cherry says. "But
when he wasn't at the game, I was like, 'Okay, something's wrong.'"

From the grandstands at Reliant, he called a mutual friend. Not yet
fearing the absolute worst, he asked her to check for Rios in the
hospitals and the jailhouses. She found Rios in the morgue. As Cherry
heard the devastating news, the Texans scored a touchdown. "There were
70,000 people cheering and I had just found out my best friend died and
I'm crying," Cherry says.

Friends later pieced together Cisco's last ride. That Friday night,
Rios had been en route from Jiminez's apartment to Cherry's place. From
there, he was heading out to the holiday party. At some point before
arriving at Jiminez's, he stopped in I Cycle one last time, and dropped
about $150. "His drive-train was all wore out," remembers Wurth. "He
got new sprockets, a new chain, a total tune-up, an upgrade of all his
running gear."

Rios wouldn't get to enjoy his revved-up bike for long. Pedaling
down — or near, as accounts vary — the shoulder in the 7000 block Old
Katy Road near the Hempstead Road fork at around seven in the dark
winter evening, Cisco was rear-ended by a beer delivery van. He
suffered massive head trauma and died at the scene — the 11th and last
Houston-area bicycle fatality of 2007. "It was terrible," says Wurth.
"I saw pictures of the accident scene. It threw him like several
hundred feet. He just nailed him. There wasn't much left."

Today, a bike painted white hangs from a fence near where Rios died.
Wurth placed it there — the first such "ghost bike" memorial in
Houston. It wouldn't be the last.

According to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration, Houston is almost always the most dangerous
place in Texas to ride a bike. The NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting
System — a breakdown of every fatal accident reported from every police
jurisdiction each year — tells a forbidding story. From 1994 to 2008,
with the exceptions of 2004 and 2006, Houston's cycling fatality
numbers — on average, about 15 deaths a year — equal or exceed those of
all other surveyed Texas municipalities combined.

There is also lots of anecdotal evidence. Veteran bike messengers
will show you their scars, and it's hard to find a cycling commuter
with several years on the roads who hasn't had a run-in or two with a
car or dangerous pothole. All of them will tell you that drivers here
are at best inattentive and at worst aggressive, and that it gets worse
the farther from the city's core you go. Longtime cycling activist Dan
Lundeen frequently rides from downtown to Fulshear and Richmond. He
says the city's ring roads correspond to levels of danger for cyclists,
with the Inner Loop being the safest, inside the Beltway a step down
and beyond Highway 6/FM 1960 the worst.

A map
compiled by suburban bike commuter Peter Wang, admittedly drawn from
incomplete data, would seem to bear out Lundeen's premise. Wang's data
comes from the In Memoriam section of the message boards at the Web
site of local advocacy group BikeHouston, to which locals send news
clippings of every fatal accident covered in local media.

Only ten of the 44 fatal ­incidents took place inside the Loop.

Cycle shop owners will tell you that the number one factor stopping
more people from biking in Houston is simple fear. This is a city built
for cars, and the residents are hardwired to the rhythms of the
internal combustion engine. "Some people are afraid of cars, justified
or not," Wurth says. "I tell them I ride bikes down North Main and they
tell me I'm crazy."

And yet Houston, this reputedly hideous, inarguably sprawling and
sweltering behemoth of a no-zoning, car-happy subtropical metropolis,
could very easily be a cycling paradise. In some ways it already is, as
Lundeen points out over a bowl of pho at a Midtown Vietnamese noodle
house. "It's a great city for cycling of all kinds," he says, citing
Houston's many cycling clubs for every type of bike, from
hipster-friendly fixed-gear jobs to rugged mountain bikes. Lundeen
himself was once a bicycle commuter. Now that he has eliminated his
commute by working from home, he's a racer and rural rider.

And with both the MS-150 and the Moonlight Ramble, Houston has two
marquee cycling events each year, not to mention a dozen or so MS-150
training rides on consecutive weekends leading up to the big race to
Austin each April. No other city has as many, and, according to U.S.
Census figures, there are already about 60,000 people in the city
proper who ride bikes for transportation purposes. (That number is
questionable, points out Gina Mitteco of the Houston-Galveston Area
Council, because the Census lumps bicycles in with "other"
transportation, and only counts those who ride to work, not those who
ride for pleasure or to run errands. Mitteco says estimating the real
number of cyclists in the Houston area is a very labor-intensive task
that has stymied her organization's efforts more than once over the

"We have pretty mild weather," says Wurth, whose definition of mild
might be different from yours. "You can cycle year-round here and it's
flat. It's not hard. You don't have to be a super-athlete to get
around. The road network is pretty good." Wurth thinks a little signage
— to educate motorists that cyclists do have a right to be there —
would go a long way.

"The streets are laid out like a giant waffle," says Butch Klotz, a
former bike messenger/car-less cyclist here who now resides in hilly
Charlottesville, Virginia. Klotz — who was also the lead singer in
noted local punk band 30footFALL — learned to appreciate Houston as a
cycling town from his Virginia mountain redoubt, where he discovered
cycling as primary transport was both more grueling and more dangerous
than it is here. "If you don't want to ride on a busy street [in
Houston], there are always quieter and safer ones running parallel to
them," he says. "You can get pretty much anywhere you want to go on
backstreets here." The trick is to learn them. Like most Houstonians,
who tend to learn only the freeway spaghetti bowls and major-road grid,
Klotz didn't know the maze of interconnecting back roads. Learning them
was the key to his happy cycling life.

"I never felt as self-sufficient as I did once I became confident on
my bike," says Klotz. "I got a good bike bag so I could carry stuff
around, a hand pump and flat-fix kit, and I felt like I could go
anywhere. Once you figure out how to navigate from West Dallas Street
down to the Bike Barn on Kirby in the Village, all on back roads, you
can go anywhere."

And free of the hassles of big-city driving like red-light cameras,
speed traps, gridlock and parking expenses and hardships, and/or the
hassles, sense of helplessness and occasional low-grade horror of
riding the bus, many Houstonians have found that their attitude to
their hometown has transformed.

"You get to see the city in depth," says Keri Smith, an assistant
professor at UT Dental School. "It can be really nice in the evenings
when the sun is shining off the tall buildings." Wayne Ashley, an
academic adviser at the University of Houston, says that even the most
familiar places reveal hidden charms, like an "amazing ethnic grocery
store" he found hiding in plain sight in an otherwise boring strip
center, and a tree-lined street of 1920s bungalows concealed among
humdrum new condos. "Houston is full of these very cool areas, but
they're really tough to find if you're speeding past them at 40 miles
an hour," Ashley says. Local artist Johnathan Felton touts it for its
aesthetics and potential for stress relief. If he's got the blues over
a fruitless job search or a fight with a girlfriend, he'll sweat it out
on his bike. "I'll fill up my water bottle, hop on my bike, get on a
trail and it's like, 'Trees!' 'Flowers!' Birds!' Families!'"

Klotz agrees. He says Houston has a peculiar beauty, one almost
devoid of natural amenities like hills, lakes and rivers. He waxes
poetic about a secret "ninja route" from the Heights into downtown, one
that bypasses the human waste-befouled Houston Avenue pedestrian
underpass in favor of a back street/rail yard/gravel road detour that
features a large homeless shelter as a primary landmark.

"Houston," Klotz sighs, audibly missing his old hometown, even from
the mountain idyll that is Charlottesville. "You love it because it's
made of garbage."

With few natural amenities, Houstonians have to build their own
environment, Klotz says. A world-class bikeway would go a long ways
toward doing that, and one is in the works. Indeed, it has been in the
works for 17 years now.

In 1992, under the administration of Mayor Bob Lanier, the city
announced plans for a 350-mile network of bike trails and on-street
bike routes. At the time, Houston was still hung over from the Oil
Bust. Yuppies were only just beginning to resettle the rotting urban
core, and Houston was still hemorrhaging affluence to the suburbs.
Lanier, as ever thinking like the real estate developer he was, touted
a bikeway network as a good amenity for the city to have in order to
compete with places like The Woodlands and Sugar Land. More pressingly,
there was pressure from the federal government. Houston took a beating
under the terms of the 1990 Clean Air Act. With the ensuing Intermodal
Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, the feds offered matching funds
to wean some locals from their cars.

One year later, the Houston Comprehensive Bikeway Plan was approved
by City Council, and the year after that, it was funded to the
nationally unprecedented tune of $34.3 million by the federal
government, with the Houston Metro Transit Authority chipping in
another $8.9 million.

And in 1997, a full five years after the plan was announced, ground
was finally broken. There would be 63 miles of hike-and-bike trails
along the bayous and on abandoned rail lines. There would also be 128
miles of bike lanes, often described at the time as being similar to
those in "a college town," presenting an image of wide, smooth cycling
avenues teeming with buff young people cruising down tree-lined
streets. The remaining 169 miles would simply be designated "bike
routes" and would be posted with plenty of signs admonishing drivers to
share the road. It was announced then that the entire project would be
"close" to complete by 1999.

Lundeen was thrilled. "This is huge," he exulted in the Houston Chronicle
in 1997. "This is the biggest undertaking of any city in the country."
Wurth also remembers being overjoyed. He proudly hung a huge wall map
of the proposed bikeway network in his shop. "I was so stoked and
happy, like this was my dream deal, you know? Society was changing more
the way I wanted it."

But after Lanier left the mayor's office and Lee P. Brown took over,
Wurth's map started to seem like a cruel joke. Year followed year in
Brown's administration, and the most exciting projects — the dedicated
bike-only trails, often laid down along abandoned rail lines in the
Rails to Trails program — met delay after delay. At the end of 2002,
all bikeway projects ground to a halt when the city declined to budget
even the money that would guarantee it triple returns in federal
matching funds.

"Half the shit on that map never happened, and the rest just turned
out to be striping the gutter of a road," Wurth says. "Like, 'Go stripe
Antoine, the first three feet by the sidewalk, and then never maintain it.'"

Meanwhile, millions of dollars flowed into the hands of consultants
and the people who consult about consultants. City Councilman and
current mayoral candidate Peter Brown, an architect in private life,
was hired in 1995 to helped design a bike trail along White Oak Bayou.
In 2004, work had not yet begun, and he told the Houston Chronicle
that the city had spent $6 million paying "program managers," as people
who oversee consultants are called. Brown said the waste was downright

Meanwhile, many of those aspects of the plan that were put in place
— specifically, the bike lanes — failed to live up to Wurth's, and most
other area cyclists', expectations. (The sign-posted bike routes are
more popular.)

Wurth derides the bike lanes as "striped gutters." Far from
resembling those in "a college town," Houston's narrow, often
debris-strewn versions looked more like a slapdash way to quickly and
cheaply enact flashy displays of fairly meaningless "progress" and grab
those federal matching funds.

Dan Raine, the City of Houston's Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator,
acknowledged that the striped gutters were a quick fix. In an e-mail
interview with the Houston Press, he cited "the great pressure
to expedite the creation of bikeways to meet air quality goals," and
wrote that "the shortest path to meet these goals was to re-stripe
roadways to create bike lanes."

Wurth believes that the majority of striped bike lanes are actually
harmful to cyclists. For one thing, he says, they encourage motorists
to believe that cyclists must use them. In fact, cyclists are
entitled to the same rights as any other vehicle operators; riding in
the bike lane is optional. (Lundeen says that he has even had the same
argument with a police officer; anecdotally, quite a few police are
ignorant about local cycling laws.) Second, Wurth says the bike lanes
are dangerous even if there are no cars on the road. "The pavement's
all broken up, there are missing sewer covers and storm grates," he
says. As they are also liberally sprinkled with broken glass, bits of
metal and nails, Wurth calls riding in them "the fastest way to get a
flat tire in this city."

"We send out street sweepers to clean bike lanes when we receive
e-mails and photos of debris, but there are not enough street sweepers
to clean all the bike lanes on a high-frequency basis," Raine says. He
also points out that another advantage of the bike routes, as opposed
to the lanes, is that large vehicles travel closer to the curb when
there is no bike lane, and that the air they disperse sweeps away

Lundeen further contends that the bike lanes lull motorists into a
false sense of security and don't cede enough space to the left of each
cyclist. "Drivers don't worry as much about cyclists when cyclists have
their own lane," he says. Furthermore, the roads on which the bike
lanes were painted are supposed to have been divided up into two
ten-foot lanes for cars and two four-foot lanes for bikes, but Lundeen
suspects that road crews measured out the ten-foot lanes for cars first
and then gave the bikes whatever was left over, whether or not that
measured a full four feet. And he says he has seen places where the
crews have painted a stripe right through the middle of pre-existing
potholes. (Raine, an avid cyclist himself, cites the Heights Boulevard
bike lane — which does indeed look like one in a sylvan college town —
as a shining example of one that is well developed. Lundeen agrees, but
it seems very much the exception to the rule.)

The more exciting aspects of the plan — the dedicated,
no-motor-traffic bike trails — have been much slower in coming. Wurth
wishes that it was a simple matter of "just going out there and
throwing down some fuckin' concrete," but he has learned that building
these trails involves cutting through bales and bales of red tape and
obtaining sign-offs from any number of governmental agencies and
business interests. "There's the Parks Department, Public Works, flood
control," he says, adding that sometimes the City and Harris County
butt heads and/or cross wires. "If it crosses any railroad tracks,
there's the railroad. TX-DOT has to pay for it and it has to meet
federal guidelines...You're talking about like a dozen agencies for one
little project."

Neighborhood associations, citing the possibility of increased crime
or ease of access to their homes, have strongly opposed at least three
of the plans. Lundeen attended a meeting for a planned bike route (not
even a trail) along Briar Forest on the west side; there, one resident
was concerned that the sign-posted route would "cut the neighborhood in
half," almost as if a rail yard were planned.

According to Wurth, the White Oak Bayou path was originally slated
to run along the waterway past West 11th Street and hook up with the
Nicholson Street trail and then head downtown, but a few residents of
the Timbergrove Manor subdivision have stymied the plan. "Their
property lines extend all the way into the center channel of the bayou
— just in that one little section," he says. "Normally there's an
easement there. So essentially a few holdouts in that subdivision put
the kibosh on that whole plan." And so now cyclists are forced instead
to traverse a rugged, dangerous stretch of busy West 11th and to cross
one-way, speeder-laden Shepherd and Durham to get to the Nicholson
Street trail.

"It's unbelievable all the things that have to happen to get these
things going," Wurth acknowledges. "But they can throw up a big-ass
stadium for a football team in record time." (See "Ghost Riders: Easy Come, Easy No".)

In 2001, four years after all the hoopla that greeted the bikeway plan, Bicycling
magazine ranked Houston (in a tie with Atlanta) as the worst cycling
city in America. While a great many area cyclists disagreed, few took
issue with the magazine's critique of the bike lanes aspect of the
bikeway network.

Wurth claims that nobody is going back to monitor the bikeway's
progress. "Nobody's asked, 'Are these bikeways good? Are people using
them? Are they meeting expectations? Are they encouraging cycling?' I
would give it a big fat F, the whole thing."

Raine disputes the contention that the bikeway is not being
evaluated. He says that it is, "with great consideration of safety, the
need for connectivity and overcoming barriers to mobility."

Lundeen is less harsh than Wurth, but he too hates the bike lanes.
"I can't in good conscience recommend that people use the on-street
bike lanes," he says. And he concurs with Wurth's grade. "At least the
way it was implanted," he says. "Repairs are not done. If the goal for
the bikeway is to get more people on the road, I don't think it does

Lundeen says that Dan Raine has an unenviable job. First, his
office is something of an afterthought in a city that sees big highways
and increasingly rail as the glamour mobility projects. Indeed, Raine's
office was left unfilled for more than a year after his predecessor
stepped down. And then there is Raine's constituency. Cyclists as a
whole have competing agendas, Lundeen explains. Some are commuters,
some ride recreationally, some want more mountain bike trails in parks,
while others want more signposted routes to help them get around town.
Any measure Raine gets behind is bound to disappoint some of them, not
to mention the vast majority of the motoring community, some of whom
see any expansion of cycling facilities as a threat to the Houstonian
Way of Life.

For his part, Raine insists that things have improved since Bill
White, a cyclist himself, became mayor. Raine points to the 15 miles of
new trails opened this year. The Columbia Tap Rails to Trails path, a
long-delayed Third Ward-Downtown link, was finally completed this year
after an almost-comical series of delays. (A 1997 Chronicle
article stated that Columbia Tap "may not be complete until 2000,"
while a 2001 article predicted its completion in 2004. In actual fact,
it was officially opened in March of 2009.) While the October 2
ribbon-cutting for the MKT Trail, a Heights-Downtown Rails to Trails
link that spans White Oak Bayou, was recently pushed back to December
19, at least that is a delay of months and not years. Last month marked
the completion of the Little White Oak Bayou trail, which connects
central and eastern sections of the northern Inner Loop. Earlier in the
summer, suburban trails were opened on Halls Bayou in northeast Houston
and one more in far west Houston, and Raine says six more trails and
four new bridges over Brays Bayou are slated for 2010.

Raine says his office is looking at connecting the often scattered
bikeways and completing paths along all the bayous in the region. He
also touts the city's bike safety Web site and updated bike map, and
says Houston is on the right track, but that the changes cyclists would
like to see will take time. With the arguable exception of Bob Lanier,
White has done more for cycling in the city than any other mayor in
Houston history, and Raine hopes that the next mayor will show as much
interest. (Lundeen sees Houston's term-limited mayoralty as problematic
for long-range projects like the bikeways plan. He believes the
realities of relatively short stays in office favor the development of
cheap, flashy improvements [like the bike lanes] over cohesive,
enduring regional plans.)

As far as Wurth is concerned, White's work was welcome, but it was
too little and too late to have saved his friend Cisco Rios. He
believes that had one of the planned, long-delayed branches of the
Heights-area White Oak Bayou trails been finished in 2007, Rios would
have been on it and not the shoulder of Old Katy Road.

Rios's death galvanized Wurth. The process of Wurth becoming active
is right there for all to see on the message boards of BikeHouston,
where Wurth posted a eulogy of Cisco and a lament over the state of
Houston's cycling environment. Other posters urged him to get involved,
and he did. He ran for the board of BikeHouston and won a seat. He
spoke before City Council and asked why its Bicycle/Pedestrian
Coordinator position sat vacant for over a year, and put forth his
friend Dan Raine as a qualified candidate. Raine got the job.

On a more personal level, he hosted Houston's first "ride of
silence" in honor of Rios and other fallen cyclists. For the slow-paced
12-mile ride from Memorial Park to downtown and back, Wurth hired a
bagpiper to play "Amazing Grace" and got Mario Pena, the brother of
Leigh Boone (Houston's other ghost bike recipient; see "Ghost Riders: Way of Life"), to say a few words.

It's a good thing Rios was remembered so well by the cycling
community. The world at large hasn't treated him as well. The driver of
the van was questioned by police and released with no charges filed,
though he and his employer — Silver Eagle Distributors — were later
sued by Rios's family. The trial was ugly. Picking up on his
couch-surfing temporary lifestyle, the defendant's lawyers portrayed
Rios as a vagrant with no fixed abode and a reckless cyclist who was to
blame for his own demise. They contended with some backing from the
police that he had no light on his bicycle. Rios's friends all say he
bought a light several weeks before the accident, as the Night Rider
All Stars had been stopped and warned by a cop in Memorial for not
having lights at the time. And everyone who knew him said he was very

The Rios family lost. According to Rios's riding partner Ahmad
Cherry, Silver Eagle's attorneys successfully argued that the driver
was not on the clock and thus the company was not a party to any
damages. Cherry says a suit is still pending against the driver alone.
"I don't know what can come of that," he says. "Even if the guy loses,
what are you gonna do? Take his CD collection? He's not an affluent guy
or he wouldn't be driving a beer truck." (Neither of the two
firefighters involved in the collision that killed Leigh Boone was
charged with a crime, and the Boone family, not optimistic about its
chances of winning in court against a city employee, has not filed

Cherry thought it was ironic that a beer truck would be his friend's
undoing. "He gave up the doughnuts and the alcohol and then that Bud
Light truck came callin' for him," he says. "It was like the alcohol
was gonna get him one way or another."

Wurth says it wasn't booze that found a way to kill Cisco Rios.
Cisco was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had Houston's
approach to enacting its long-planned, half-finished bikeways plan not
been so lackadaisical, he would not have been. Beer trucks are not
allowed on bike paths, after all.