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Young bicyclist knew hardship

ST. PETERSBURG — A hippie born in the wrong era, Michael "Frankie" Bentley took it easy when everything was hard.

At 16, he lost his mother to a quick-spreading cancer. She wasn't there to see him go to the prom, or watch him receive his high school diploma.

He struggled to become an adult. He worked several jobs in food service, but kept getting fired for sloppy dress or arriving late.

He liked to ride his bike. His dad often saw him riding to the beach, his guitar strapped to his back.

He moved out on his own for the first time in August, then lost his job. Without a car, he pedaled in search of work in the summer heat. Then, one day while reading the paper on a city bus, he looked out the window to see a man riding his bike away.

His friends and family wondered if he'd move back home with his dad. They grew close after losing a wife and mother.

"Frankie being Frankie, he never cried," said his father, Don Bentley, 53. "He was determined."

• • •

Frankie lived with his friend, Sarah Ibarguen, her sister and her sister's boyfriend.

The sisters, who are orphans, wanted a house of their own and invited Frankie to join them.

The group found a three-bedroom house in St. Petersburg that had oak, papaya and orange trees in the back yard. They painted it all sorts of colors. Frankie painted his room olive green. He was taking classes at St. Petersburg College. He was excited to vote for the first time in a presidential election.

One day, Sarah, 21, and Frankie, 20, looked at pictures of her parents. He told Sarah, "I bet your parents and my mom are hanging out together in heaven."

"I loved him for having that thought," Sarah said.

Having lost his job and his bike, Frankie rode his skateboard to Tour de Pizza, a bike-themed restaurant owned by Matt McClellan, on 37th Avenue N in St. Petersburg.

McClellan told him he wasn't hiring. Frankie asked if he could hand out fliers. He reasoned that if he handed out fliers, McClellan would have more business and need more help. He passed them out for no pay in the pouring rain.

McClellan soon became his boss and his mentor. They talked about opening a second location together.

"I'd only known him at the time probably a month," McClellan said. "That's how special it was. I could see his heart. It was beating so strong."

• • •

On Nov. 12, Frankie had the day off. When Sarah got home, he was in good spirits.

He had saved enough to replace the stolen bike, and he decided with Sarah to take a ride to the beach along Gandy Boulevard.

But Sarah's bike had a flat tire. They made three trips to Target to get the right bike pump.

"Something's telling us not to go on this bike ride," Sarah thought.

They had the kind of talk that comes easy to close friends.

The last thing she remembers is Frankie asking her in joking small talk, "So, how was work?" She replied with matching sarcasm.

Sarah doesn't know when, or from where, the Jeep Liberty came up behind them.

It struck Frankie's bike, sending him flipping over the hood and landing on the street.

The Florida Highway Patrol is still investigating, but it doesn't appear that the driver was under the influence of a controlled substance. Lily Elizabeth Lusty, 40, told troopers that she just didn't see the bikes.

"Something so little, something so little like chatting on your phone, can really ruin a lot of people's lives," Sarah said. "It seems like a one-in-a-million chance. It seems like it can never happen to you. And it's crazy when it does."

• • •

People who loved Frankie, even those older than him, said they often went to him for advice. He had a evenhanded perspective. Without him, they wonder what to do.

"He never once ended a conversation without saying 'I love you,' said his sister, Cassandra Bentley, 27. "That was really special to me. I know the last time I talked to him he said 'I love you.' "

The cycling community rallied around the family. Dozens of people left comments on a tampabay.com bicycling blog.

Two cyclists painted a bike white and left it near the crash as a tribute. The "ghost bike" is a memorial meant to warn motorists to watch for bikes. As far as they know, it was a first for the Tampa Bay area.

On Thursday, friends and relatives celebrated what would have been Frankie's 21st birthday at Tour de Pizza.

On Friday night, his friends went to hear Broken Social Scene at Jannus Landing. Frankie was supposed to go; he had requested the night off. After he died, his boss e-mailed the band.

Founder Brendan Canning, also a cyclist, wrote back. "If there is anything our band could do … we would be honoured."

Frankie's friends went without him on Friday, hoping to have a good time after a week and a half of grief. The band dedicated the show to him.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Young bicyclist knew hardship 11/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 2:58pm]
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