Celebrating a Life - Patrick Rides On
By Abbie Donoghue
“It’s another lovely day on PRO8000,
It’s another lovely chance to ride your bike,
Whether it’s rainy, freezing, snowing or the wind is really blowing,
The day is going to go just as you like.”
Whether riding into a fierce headwind, through a rainstorm, or up a daunting grade, one variable has remained constant over the past seven months. Suzette Wanninkhof singing this song from the seat of her bicycle. She is a whip smart, charismatic combination of cycling, storytelling, and peanut butter consumption. Her older brother Patrick was much the same. Growing up in Miami, what Patrick did, Suzette did and vice versa. Their similarities included hobbies like cycling or an uncanny enthusiasm for grocery store BOGO discounts, but also a commitment to community service and social justice. Suzette cycled across the U.S. and advocated for affordable housing during the summer of 2014. In turn, Patrick embarked on the same journey in 2015. Halfway through his trip while riding in Oklahoma, he was hit and killed by a distracted driver.
A year and a day later, on July 31st, 2016, Suzette and her team made their first pedal strokes on the Dalton Highway in Deadhorse, Alaska. Their destination: Key West, Florida. This was the beginning of an 8000-mile journey, Patrick Rides On 8000, which would celebrate Patrick Wanninkhof’s life and advocate against phone use and driving.
On March 11th, PRO8000 rode into Key West and set bikes aside for a splashing revelry at the southernmost point of the United States. I spoke with Suzette in Miami in the days following the team’s arrival. I rode with PRO8000 for three months on the west coast and it felt strange to sit in her home, both of us wearing street clothes instead of our usual-- clad in chamois, sitting on the side of the road. We talked about Patrick, the mirage of closure, distracted driving and what is ahead for Suzette and Patrick Rides On.
How did this 8000-mile bike tour come to fruition and why did you choose a bike tour, specifically, to honor Patrick?
Patrick and I have always lived for adventure and we pursued the epic. We were in sync in every possible way and just understood each other. His death really disrupted a lot. It disrupted everything, to be honest, and I didn’t really know how to respond. At first I continued my life as it was supposed to be. I finished my summer teaching job and went back to school but it felt profoundly wrong. Trying to continue that illusion of normality was useless.
A few months after his death I started thinking, “What would Patrick do? How would he respond to something so senseless and tragic?” I kept thinking about our last 100-mile ride together and how we finished in Key West. I got it in my head that I needed to arrive in Key West and I knew Patrick would have done something epic. The most epic thing would be to get on our bicycles at the northernmost point, which is Deadhorse, and that is what we did.
When I first had this ludicrous seeming idea, I had cycling experience but I had no touring experience. I called his girlfriend, Rachel Hartsell who he had been dating at the time, and asked her if she wanted to join. Mind you she didn’t own a bike and she was even more new to this than I was. We were going to remember Patrick and talk to people about phone use and driving. We ended up with a team of seven including Greg Powell, Megan Ryan, Blythe Carter, Eric Geiger and Abbie Donoghue. Myself, Greg and Megan rode the whole route to Key West.
How did you advocate against phone use and what was the response you got from people?
What’s so different about phone use and driving is that it’s so actionable. The solution is to put your phone in the backseat while you are driving. We found that stopping to talk to people is the best way to advocate for this. Doing 8000 miles on a touring bike totally enables you to start a conversation. People are already curious about what you are doing when they see you and it’s easy to start that dialogue.
We often meet people who are waiting outside of a gas station, or at a grocery store, and we’ll just chat. Their response is always, “Oh my gosh, I hate when people do that”. Sometimes we’ll be riding and we’ll catch up to people who were using their phones and we can knock on the window and talk to them. They’re usually very defensive. I’ll ask them to put their phone down and they’ll say, “Oh, I was just changing the music,” or “Oh, I was just looking at a map.”
People think it’s justifiable.
Exactly. Often the rhetoric is texting and driving, not phone use but the woman who killed my brother was not texting. She was using her phone to check an app. And I think just creating that personal accountability is really what is going to start to change the conversation. It shouldn’t be, for example, I talk about my brother being killed, and everyone knows a similar story. This should be an isolated tragedy.
Definitely. And there’s something so powerful about traveling on a bicycle and advocating against something that directly makes you vulnerable. Have you had a heightened sense of awareness that people may not be seeing you on the road?
I think we are very aware of the dangers of entering a roadway whether it’s in a car or a bicycle. Logically, it’s very scary and very concerning how people are impaired but I don’t ride with fear.
I don’t feel afraid while I’m riding and I think that has to do with a closeness I feel with my brother while I ride. It’s the one thing we always did together and the one way I feel calm.
I think for other people who know about this trip like my parents and so many supporters, they think because my brother died on a bike, I should be nowhere near a bicycle. I understand that logic but I also know Patrick wouldn’t be afraid. Patrick would get back on his bike and that’s why we named the trip Patrick Rides On, this idea of pursuing this adventure, an opportunity to stop a fatal plague in a lot of ways. So yes, it’s scary, but it doesn’t actively scare me.
You just rode your bike for seven months. That’s a long time. How did you keep Patrick top of mind and keep the message as a prominent focus point after so long?
The trip for me absolutely centers around Patrick but other teammates are riding for other reasons. For Megan, it’s remembering her friend who died in the military, for Greg, it was another cyclist friend, for you, it was getting to finish an amazing ride that you weren’t able to finish due to someone else’s negligence at the wheel.
Also experiencing grief is never in isolation. Everyone has a serious loss. To what degree varies tremendously but often times when people see our touring bikes and we talk about Patrick, it’s always surprising how people open up. People always want to connect with others and remember those they’ve lost and being someone traveling, it’s a nice outlet to be able to tell people memories. Not everyone on the trip got to meet Patrick so it was a really cool opportunity for fostering community.
And I think for me, I think about Patrick every day. Not every minute but I think about how he would appreciate just a really good ice cream or a really good view of the water and while Patrick isn’t necessarily in all of those things, I know that he could appreciate them.
So that’s how he is constantly integrated.
How was riding through Florida, where you have so much history?
It was surreal. Having Florida as both Patrick and I’s home state and our end point was really emotional. It felt like coming home.
You just finished the tour. Is there any closure in this ending or is there a sentiment that the tour ends but the work continues? That you keep living and Patrick doesn’t?
So I think there’s this huge satisfaction with this tour. But even though we just accomplished this ambitious goal, it’s definitely melancholy too. One of the cathartic things about touring is having linear, very achievable goals every day. You ride a little farther and everything you do is so satisfying but now my goals and my progress are not that linear.
Touring has very tangible goals every day. We biked here. We set up a tent. We made our food. We are going to sleep. The immediacy of it is very beautiful in a way that you don’t get anywhere else.
Yes, and working through a really difficult memory I have or starting to craft lesson plans for my first year as a teacher doesn’t have the ease in the way that touring does.
Also what you touched on is totally right. The finishing of this ride is in no way the end of my grief journey. Patrick today is as dead as he was on July 31st, 2015 and he is always going to be dead for as long as I’m alive and that’s why there is no conclusion to grief. He doesn’t get a second life.
What do you think the future holds for both you and Patrick Rides On? Can you talk a bit about the memorial fund?
In the fall I’ll start my first year teaching in Miami and I know that it’ll be exponentially more challenging than the hardest climb in the Canadian Rockies. Patrick was a physics teacher in New York City and it will be really cool to take that place in the classroom.
We are doing two things in Patrick’s memory, one has already started and one is more of a nebulous plan. Last year we gave the first Patrick Wanninkhof Memorial Scholarship to two students at Fordham High School of the Arts in the Bronx where he taught. Patrick was so intent on his students going to college and the memorial fund is a way of doing that.
We also want to use the fund for bicycle advocacy, hopefully in the form of teaching learn to ride classes. Patrick was also very passionate about bike education so we hope to start something in Miami where I will be teaching and where we grow up. There is also such a serious lack of cycling advocacy and infrastructure here. This tour was an amazing opportunity to honor Patrick and talk about phone use and driving but I think it’s the first of many actions.
To read Suzette’s trip blog, see photos from the tour, and learn more about the fund, check out www.pro8000.com and @pro8000 on Instagram.