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After a friend's death, USF bicyclist follows a new path

NORTH TAMPA

Brandon Crain was riding his bike on the sidewalk recently when the short path forced him onto 46th Street. The oncoming cars whirred closer and a creeping feeling cinched him. Crain sped up and quickly turned off the two-lane road, terrified.

Unusual behavior for a 24-year-old who whizzed by cars and SUVs on Tampa's streets not long ago, who helped start the University of South Florida's cycling team and touted the rights of cyclists to "share the road."

Today, the outlook on the cycling movement has changed for Crain, as well as a few other former team members. Like novices, they've relegated their bikes to sidewalks and safe biking trails.

"I could not even imagine getting on the road. I would have a heart attack," Crain said. "How do you have a two-lane road with no shoulder and expect motorists to share the road with bicyclists? ... It doesn't really work."

It wasn't this way a year ago. When Joshua was alive.

• • •

Crain, a business economics major, has 10 years of biking under his belt. He used to mountain bike in his native Michigan. But not until he met Joshua Kuck through Facebook in 2006 did he cycle for sport.

Kuck taught Crain about road biking. Soon, they were working to establish a team at USF. Kuck solicited donations and got USA Cycling sanction. Later that year, the team became a reality.

They tried to change the image of cyclists as a nuisance, encouraging others in the biking community that they could safely share the road.

Kuck had charisma and character to drive the team, as well as a strict regimen. To train, they typically rode between 200 and 300 miles a week in San Antonio and Flatwoods Park in New Tampa.

Kristy Acuff, who rides the 7-mile paved loop at Flatwoods, remembers when Kuck asked her to join the team in the spring of 2007. Soon, she was in charge of keeping the team organized.

"I was spending as much time on this as I was at school," Acuff said.

Then tragedy struck.

Last October, during a 100-mile ride, a truck hit Kuck in Dade City. The 22-year-old was thrown from his bike and onto the road shoulder. Although he was wearing a helmet, Kuck died instantly of massive head trauma. Acuff and other team members were also on the ride, but not close enough to witness the accident.

When Kuck died, Acuff also stopped road biking, as did Crain. Others from the original cycling team did, as well, they said. Acuff now sticks to trails and the spot at Flatwoods.

"We are welcomed (on the road) but don't get the respect," Acuff said.

• • •

Kuck ran a stop sign on Clay Hill Road, leading to the accident, according to the Florida Highway Patrol crash report. The driver was not cited.

"It appears to me he (Kuck) mistimed it," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins.

Some of Kuck's friends, however, question whether he was entirely at fault.

Florida law says that drivers must give bicyclists at least a 3-foot buffer when passing them on the road. But Gaskins says the rule doesn't apply in this case because Kuck ran the sign.

"There are plenty of laws protecting us," Acuff said. "But it does no good putting ourselves in harm's way."

Florida ranks as one of the most dangerous states for cyclists. More than 130 cycling fatalities occurred in 2006. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 773 cycling fatalities nationwide that year and more than 44,000 injuries.

But the county and the city of Tampa have made changes in recent years to make the area more biker and pedestrian friendly, including more bike lanes in road improvement plans.

Anthony Astrab is the president of USF's cycle team. The 22-year-old accounting major joined the team during the fall 2007 season. Astrab acknowledges a few close calls while riding ,but feels the sport is safe.

"I have no problems with riding on the road. It is when everyone starts getting in a rush and starts getting impatient, whether riders or drivers, might start to not obey traffic laws. That is when things get out of hand," Astrab said.

Crain and Acuff worked with Kuck's family and USA Cycling to launch the Joshua Kuck Memorial Scholarship Fund earlier this month. The fund will award $1,500 each to a male and female cyclist nationwide who is promoting bicycle safety.

• • •

On the cycle team, Crain and Kuck were known as "the twins." They had a similar slender build and were almost indistinguishable when they wore their team uniforms. The yellow Specialized E-5 race bikes were custom painted and both were adorned with unique decals for the start of the spring 2007 racing season.

They bought the bikes as a reward for themselves for the quick start and success of the team.

About a month after Kuck's death, more than 100 riders from the community took a memorial ride through Pasco County, riding past the intersection where Kuck had died.

Crain participated in that ride, only to hear later that a cyclist had been hit and injured.

"That is what did it for me," he said.

He still rides his mountain bike to class — by way of the sidewalk and trails.

"I'm still proud we started the team," Crain said recently. But, he added, "it is just so dangerous to ride here."

Last December, Crain started taking apart his Specialized bike. He sold the parts, the sprocket, the gears, the brakes.

Now, the yellow frame sits day by day in his apartment, a memorial to his cycling comrade.

Jared Leone can be reached at jleone@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5314.

>>FAST FACTS

The scholarship

Members of collegiate USA cycle clubs are eligible to apply for the Joshua Kuck Memorial Scholarship Fund by Dec. 1. The fund will award $1,500 each to a male and female cycle club member nationwide who is promoting bicycle safety. For more information, go to www.usacdf.org.

After a friend's death, USF bicyclist follows a new path 10/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 6:50pm]

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