In early April, dozens of cyclists gathered in a midtown Kansas City grocery store parking lot for a crosstown trek in honor of a fallen friend and fellow rider.
Thirty-two-year-old Anthony Saluto had been killed a few days earlier when a driver heading in the opposite direction swerved into his lane and hit him. Many of the cyclists, including Peter Quick, were still shaken up.
“It’s like losing a family member,” Quick said. “Bicyclists in this town are a pretty tight-knit group. So when something happens to somebody you know, it hits home pretty fast.”
As old pop songs blasted from a giant boom box, the cyclist gathered around a trailer carrying an unusual bike: a hybrid like the one Saluto rode that was stripped of tires, breaks, chains and pedals. It was painted entirely white and displayed a sign: “Anthony Saluto: Ride in Paradise.”
Many advocates see a bright future ahead for cycling in the Kansas City area, as growing numbers of cities build bike lanes and an increasing variety of bike groups have made cycling accessible to more riders.
But plain, white ghost bikes installed at the sites of cyclist traffic deaths serve as a chilling reminder that safety remains a problem for the growing bike community.
Ghost bikes often are not legal in many areas, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a common sight in cities throughout the world.
The tradition, however, has Missouri roots.
Most cyclists trace it to Saint Louis in the early 2000s, when cycling advocates installed them both as a way to mourn and to send a message.
“It’s a way to draw attention to the fact that cyclists – just like pedestrians and folks in wheelchairs - are a little bit more vulnerable when we’re out on the road. And we’d like motorists to know we’re here and would like them to be more careful,” says Eric Rogers, executive director of BikeWalkKC, an advocacy group.
A decade and a half after the first ghost bikes appeared, their message remains urgent, especially in Missouri.
Last year, nine cyclists were killed in the state, compared with an average of around four during each of the previous six years.
The Missouri Department of Transportation says the jump was due in large part to an increase in vehicle miles traveled in the state, which has led to more cars and bikes interacting.
But cyclists say there’s more going on. Many say they feel intimidated by drivers who – intentionally or not – threaten their safety.
“We’re not in the way of traffic; we are traffic,” says cyclist Rod McBride. “We deserve to get there alive just as much as anybody else, and we don’t have four walls and a seat belt and an air bag to protect us.”
State laws are clear: Cyclists are entitled to the road.
Bikes aren’t allowed on sidewalks in business districts, such as downtown Kansas City. They can use a full lane if they’re riding at the speed limit or if staying right isn’t safe. Cyclists can also occupy the full lane if they’re turning left.
Cyclists at the Saluto rally agreed about the need for more driver awareness of cyclists, but some acknowledged there’s a problem in their ranks, too.
“There are cyclists who are bad cyclists. I know people who don’t ride that well, and I don’t like riding with them cause they are hazards to themselves and other people,” says Steve White, former president of Cycling Kansas City.
Advocates ask motorists to be patient, because any collision involving a bike and car rarely ends well for the cyclist.
As the final riders arrived at the memorial ride for Saluto, the size of the group made clear the impact of his loss and underscored how the numbers of dedicated cyclists are growing.
Cycling advocates say the increase will lead to safer riding. Studies show the greater numbers of cyclists in a city, the safer a place it becomes to ride.
Many in the group wore eye-catching costumes, and bystanders might have been forgiven for mistaking the ride as light-hearted. But the loss of their fellow rider and the serious danger cyclists still face preyed on the minds of many.
“Our kids and our wives would miss us if we were gone. And obviously Anthony’s family misses him cause he’s gone now,” said cyclist Harley Kennedy. “These are people, and we’ve got to make sure to look out for one another. If somebody loves to do something, why not let them do it?”
Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR