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Friday, July 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Cycling
Ride around Rainier: Tom Zylstra riding from accident to opportunity

By Bob Sherwin
Seattle Times staff reporter

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tom Zylstra, riding a hand cycle, bikes up the hill into Eatonville during yesterday’s RAMROD bicycle tour. He completed 70 miles.
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As daylight slowly began to diminish on the mountain, Tom Zylstra, his left arm and shoulder aching from 13-1/2 hours of constant work, looked up at an 8 percent grade and realized that he had done as much as he could.

Zylstra stopped his bike just seven miles short from his goal of Paradise Lodge on Mount Rainier's south side. He had made it through 70 miles of the 154-mile RAMROD bike tour around Rainier. There were 750 bikers who had started at 5 a.m. in Enumclaw, and the field had long since left him far behind.

In fact, by late afternoon, when the first few riders had circumnavigated the mountain and returned to Enumclaw, Zylstra was just entering the park at the Nisqually entrance. He made it 10 more miles up the steep grades before giving in. But it hardly mattered. He wasn't out there to win. He was there to challenge himself, as well as others.

Zylstra, 43, from Sammamish, competed in the event not by foot, but by hand. He attempted to climb the various grades on a low-profile, three-wheeled hand cycle. Once an avid bike rider, Zylstra made the transition to this alternative bike after his left leg was badly damaged last October when he was hit by a car.

An 84-year-old woman, driving faster than 40 miles per hour, drifted off the shoulder and cut him down while he was riding his bike near Fall City. He has undergone several operations and now has to use a cane and wheelchair at times to get around. He has a 14-inch titanium rod attached to his fragile leg.

Doctors have told Zylstra that it's going to take a long time, but eventually his leg will heal and he will be able to resume his passion for bicycling. Yesterday, with the approval of the race sponsor, the Redmond Cycling Club, he participated with a three-wheeler after just 5-1/2 weeks training on it.

"I made it 70 miles. I feel ... I feel tired," said Zylstra as he rested at the lodge before returning home. "But I'm really pleased how I did and how long I hung in there."

Zylstra said he believes the accident has given him the opportunity to address the issues that have touched him personally. He wants to help show people with physical impairments that, despite his accident, it's still safe to ride a bike on the road. At the same time, he wants to sound a warning that some elderly drivers are unsafe.

"As strange as it may sound, I'm sort of glad it happened. I think I'm a better person for getting run over," Zylstra said. "I'm much more patient now and I'm so acutely aware of access.

"I like to think I'm a good person, but without this accident I would not have had that awareness and sensibility. I am able to experience now on a temporary basis what a whole section of this country experiences every day. It's incredibly humbling."
 
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He used the challenge of the RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day) as his platform. There were more than 3,000 entrants, but the event is limited to just 750, all chosen by lottery. Zylstra was fortunate to be selected and was the only hand-powered entrant. Zylstra's friend, Eric Jorgensen, rode on a bike next to him, and they were protected by a support vehicle behind them driven by Jorgensen's wife, Rose.

"The tendons in my shoulder and left arm really started acting up," Zylstra said. "It just took a toll on me."

Zylstra said he hoped that the message he sent is that there are athletic pursuits beyond the wheelchair. After all, those are the people, paraplegics and amputees, who inspired him to take up hand cycling.

"They are the most inspirational people I've ever met. They hop on the bikes and just fly," he said. "This is one of the most intense things I've ever done. It's three times harder than riding a bike. It makes you realize that these guys are incredible athletes."

As Zylstra prepared for the event, he noticed that none of the other hand cyclists took to the streets. They preferred trails and paths. "I asked why they were not on the road, even some less-traveled roads," Zylstra said. "I found out that they were all scared to death of being hit."

Despite being run over himself, Zylstra said whether it's bicyclists or hand cyclists, they all are entitled to a share of the road. He would like to turn the equation around, arguing that some drivers, such as the one who plowed into him, should be off the road.

It's a sensitive as well as a thorny issue, one that has confounded him. Without warning, he and his riding buddy, both large men brightly dressed, were run over during the day on a straightaway. The elderly Issaquah woman behind the wheel simply couldn't keep the car straight.

Yet she was given merely a minor traffic violation, according to Zylstra, and allowed to keep her driving privileges. Zylstra said police authorities told him the woman would have to do the same thing two or three more times before serious action could be taken against her.

"I don't harbor any animosity. I've talked to the woman. She doesn't realize she can't drive a car safely," Zylstra said. "She is impaired.

"If this had been a 17-year-old kid, it would have been a completely different story. They would have looked into drinking, whether he was on the phone. But with an elderly driver, it's as if society does not want to ask the question, 'Do you know how to drive this vehicle?' "

The accident empowered Zylstra to challenge the system. He said it took him at least 60 hours petitioning government and police agencies "before they officially looked into her as a driver. I live in the real world. We had to stop my dad from driving. Any time your privilege directly jeopardizes the public, it's wrong."

With the assistance of State Rep. Jeanne Edwards (D-Bothell), 75, who retired in March, a state house bill was introduced this spring. The Senior Safety Driving law would have created a system in which drivers age 70 and older would need to show they could safely operate a motor vehicle.

The bill died as it arrived.

"Most (legislators) don't want to grapple with it," Zylstra said. "I have a personal attachment to it, but people don't want to face it head on. (But) someone needs to take a look. The reality is, she's still driving."

Zylstra also lives with the reality that his leg, while it will heal, won't ever be quite the same. That won't prevent him from getting on his bike again. In fact, his favorite place to ride still is in the Fall City area where he was cut down.

"Every time I pass it, I get chills," he said. "But it doesn't scare me. I'm just thankful. There was a really good chance I could have died there. So I'm happy to be on a bike, moving."

Bob Sherwin: 206-464-8286 or bsherwin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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