LAKELAND — Nearly a month has passed and the bruise has faded, but Richard French is still stinging from the violence he encountered on a rural stretch of highway outside Plant City.
As French pedaled down Wiggins Road on June 14 on his regular 16-mile trek, a van rolled up behind him. With no oncoming traffic, the 78-year-old veteran cyclist stayed where he was, knowing the driver had plenty of room to pass.
But as the van pulled beside him, French felt an excruciating blow to his back. He thought the car might have clipped him with its side-view mirror.
It wasn't that harmless.
"I looked up and saw a red van in front of me with a guy hanging out halfway with a baseball bat looking back at me," he said.
He immediately stopped, got off his bike and collapsed in pain. Then he crawled for the cell phone on his bike bag to call 911.
For the past 20 years, Richard French has ridden his touring bike from his Lakeland home to Buddy Freddy's restaurant in Plant City. He and fellow cyclists call the rural route the French Connection.
French has encountered his fair share of silly behavior from drivers over the years. There was the man who slapped him on the rear end and another who threw a Slushee cup at him. But he never expected the brutality of what happened June 14.
His wife, Donna, was out shopping when their daughter came to the store to tell her Richard had been hurt. Donna said she's never really worried about him on the roads but always knew something could happen.
"I saw her face and I knew something was wrong," she said.
French was taken to Lakeland Regional Hospital, where X-rays revealed no broken bones or other internal injuries. Four hours later, he went home sore with a baseball bat-shaped bruise across his back.
French wasn't able to read the license plate or get a description of the person, so his family is offering $10,000 to anyone with information on the passenger or the red van. He said his nephew, who he describes as a multimillionaire who lives in Gadsden, Ala., and used to own more than 40 McDonald's franchises, is willing to fork over the dough to anyone who can lead them to the assailant.
"I just want to get the word out and get that sucker caught," French said.
French retired from the WR Grace phosphate company in Bartow in 1985. Since then he has ridden 10 times across Florida, dipping his front tire into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean each time.
Donna thinks it's a shame cyclists can't feel safe.
"You should be able to get on those roads and ride and people should have respect for you but they don't and that's horrible," she said.
Ruben Watson, president of the Tampa Bay Freewheelers bike club, has sent a message to about 3,000 cyclists in the community, hoping to track down the attacker. He said he has never heard of this level of maliciousness on the roads frequented by many cycling enthusiasts.
"I've heard of people having batteries thrown at them, but I've never heard of anyone being struck by a passenger holding something," he said.
But French will not be bested by his attacker. He is still riding the French Connection every Saturday. In fact, the week following the attack, he was back on his bike to meet the gang.
"It's not going to stop me one little bit from riding my bike," he said. "We just have to be leery that there are these kind … out there."
Eric Smithers can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3339.