The bike sits on a busy street corner, in the shadow of a gas station, pharmacy and hair salon.
It’s easy to overlook, but it’s been there for four years, chained to a light post near the intersection of Western Avenue and University Place in Albany. The bike is painted white, but it also has a distinctive character: Fake daises are attached to the bike’s handlebars and rear wheel, a small pink bear clings to the gear cable and feathers dangle from the hub.
The bike was placed in honor of Diva de Loayza, a 40-year-old fashion designer who died in 2007 after being struck by a minivan while riding her bicycle. The people who fashioned the white bike didn’t know her but felt it was important to mark the spot where a fellow cyclist had died. Their stark and haunting tribute is known as a ghost bike.
De Loayza’s ghost bike is one of seven in the Capital Region, but it is also part of a global phenomenon.
According to Ghostbikes.org, which provides locations for such installations all over the world, ghost bikes have appeared in 150 locations in more than 20 countries, including the Ukraine, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and Ireland. In New York, there are examples locally as well as in New York City, White Plains and Ithaca.
Ghost bikes serve as memorials for bicyclists who have been killed on the road but also as educational tools. They are typically installed by small groups of people who prefer to remain anonymous and let the bikes speak for themselves.
In the Capital Region, no single group is responsible for putting up ghost bikes, although many of the people involved are avid cyclists who are affiliated with organizations such as the Albany Bicycle Coalition and the Friends of the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail. Sometimes the people who erect the bikes were friends with the victim, but that is not always the case.
Lorenz Worden, an Albany cyclist who has helped install several, said that part of the ghost bike message “is that there is no author, there is no source. If ghost bikes are identified with an organization, that changes them somehow.”
Message of safety
Worden said the ghost bikes are really intended to speak to cyclists and remind them to exercise caution, follow the rules of the road and wear helmets.
“Bicyclists are worst when it comes to obeying traffic laws,” he said. “And the bicyclist is always the one who comes out second best.”
“Ghost bikes don’t say anything about fault,” Worden continued. “They’re just there. ... They’re about illustrating what happened.”
Claire Nolan, a Guilderland resident who teaches a bicycling education course, said, “They’re a message to drivers but also a message to cyclists. Cyclists are vulnerable, whether they’re riding a $3,000 bicycle or something much cheaper.”
Last week, the Mohawk Hudson Cycling Club sponsored a ride to mark the seventh anniversary of the death of David Ryan, a research scientist at General Electric who was killed while on a training ride on the 29-mile Mohawk River Loop. The driver, then-18-year-old Joshua Paniccia, was traveling in excess of 80 mph on a winding roadway with a 45 mph speed limit; the speed and impact of Paniccia’s vehicle flung Ryan 40 yards.
Club member Dave Kraus led the Ryan ride. He did not know Ryan and was not involved in putting up the ghost bike in his honor. But he and his girlfriend recently visited the bike to paint it and install a new sign. He said he thinks of Ryan often.
“I never met David Ryan,” Kraus said. “I remember him, though, and I remember what happened to him, because I ride that route frequently. ... I learned about David Ryan’s fate from the newspaper, like everyone else. I remember it almost every time I ride. I look behind me a lot more. I’m more alert to what’s going on around me. I’m more conscious that life can change in a split-second.”
The ghost bike “tells people what happened in a way that’s absolutely specific to what happened,” Kraus said. “When you see the bike, the message is unmistakable.”
The other ghost bikes in the Capital Region were erected for:
- Nicholas Richichi, 53, who was killed by an RV on Fuller Road in Colonie in 2007. (This bike is temporarily in storage due to road construction in the vicinity.)
- Alan R. Fairbanks, 72, who collided with a car on Route 5S in Rotterdam in 2006.
- Jose Perez, 60, who was killed by an SUV on Quay Street in Albany in 2006.
- Joel Melnikoff, 49, who was killed by a drunk driver on Route 32 in Bethlehem in 2006.
- Robert F. Zayhowski, 43, who was killed by a drunk driver on Route 66 in Sand Lake in 2000.
Memorial to a friend
Fairbanks, of Burnt Hills, was riding on the bicycle path in Rotterdam when he collided with a car; police said he rode through a stop sign and hit the vehicle. He died about a month after the accident as a result of an injury to his spinal cord.
Today, a plain white ghost bike is chained to the fence next to the bike trail, along with a sign that explains what happened to Fairbanks and the purpose of the ghost bikes.
“The first ‘ghost bike’ was placed at an accident scene in St. Louis in 2002,” the sign says. “Patrick Van Der Tuin, who placed the white bike, said nothing to anyone. Nevertheless, the memorial got people talking about the tenuous relationship between cyclists and motor vehicles. And so the anonymous, underground effort, organized by cycling advocates, continues just as Patrick intended. ... Those sites marked by a ‘ghost bike’ are a reminder that cyclists have a legal right to use public roadways.”
One of Fairbanks’ friends, Fred Thompson of Niskayuna, helped put up the ghost bike and maintains it. He said the intersection where Fairbanks was killed is difficult because overgrown vegetation and the curve of the road make it tough for drivers to see cyclists coming off the bike path. Thompson would like to see a flashing light installed where the accident occurred to warn drivers to slow down.
“The ghost bike is a reminder to motorists and cyclists to be careful on the road,” said Thompson, a founding member of the Friends of the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail. “Most of the time I don’t get hassled when I’m riding. But recently a guy behind me started honking his horn the minute the light turned green. Those little things irritate you.”
He said he doesn’t want credit for the ghost bike: “It’s the least I could do.”
Fairbanks’ daughter, 45-year-old Susan Briggs of Williamstown, Mass., said Nolan and Thompson approached her about putting up a ghost bike.
“I was enthused with the idea,” she said. Though she accompanied the small group when they installed the bike, she did not help make the bike. “I was not in the right mindset,” she said.
“The bike is a memorial but also a caution,” Briggs said. “Sadly, cyclists tend to get overconfident and not realize what they’re doing, as do drivers.”
She said she didn’t meet Thompson until her father was in the hospital and he wrote her a letter. Today she is a regular at the Ride of Silence, an annual ride that remembers cyclists who have been killed or injured; the ride usually stops at the Albany area ghost bikes.
“On the last ride, we passed at least three ghost bikes,” Briggs said. “It’s frightening that you can do that on a 15-mile ride in Albany.”
Briggs has two young children who both bike, and they are well aware of what happened to her father.
“I talk about it with the children,” she said. “I say, ‘You do need to follow the rules of the road, you do need to watch out.’ They know the story. We talk about it often, whenever we’re on our bikes.”
Nolan and her husband, Bert Schou, help maintain de Loayza’s bike.
“People kind of adopt the ghost bikes,” said Nolan, who did not set up de Loayza’s ghost bike but has helped install others. “Bert and I have painted Diva’s bike. We see it and think, ‘It looks like it could use a coat of paint.’ ”
She said she passes de Loayza’s bike multiple times a day and she feels like she’s gotten to know Diva through the bike.
“Diva has enriched my life,” she said. “She has made me more compassionate. I never met her, but I feel like I know her. I feel like the bike keeps her alive.”
Margaret Partyka was good friends with de Loayza and considered her “my mom, my sister and my best friend, all in one.” After de Loayza died, she took over de Loayza’s shop, Some Girls Boutique, which has locations in Troy and Syracuse.
Partyka, 27, first met Nolan and Schou when she saw them spray-painting de Loayza’s ghost bike and decided to approach them and find out more about what they were doing. She has since become friends with the couple and helps them maintain and decorate the bike, which she describes as keeping the bike “Diva’d out.”
Partyka initially struggled to accept the ghost bike.
“I have to be really honest,” she said. “It was very hard for me to look at it. When I saw it, I thought, ‘Excuse me, as if this isn’t hard enough.’ I’ve come to realize that the ghost bike is really a tribute, a reminder to wear a helmet and be careful. People always tell me, ‘Oh, I went by Diva’s bike.’ It’s a way to keep connected with her. At first, I didn’t want to be reminded of what happened. But taking the bad and turning it into something positive is something Diva taught me. ... Every time I see a ghost bike, I make the sign of the cross.”
De Loayza was not wearing a helmet when she was struck.
Partyka isn’t a biker, but through Some Girls Boutique she raises money for bicycle education.
“I didn’t picture this theme for my life, but I will always push for bicycle safety,” she said.
Recently, a discussion of ghost bikes broke out on the editorial page of a local newspaper.
One writer, referring specifically to the ghost bike for de Loayza, suggested that “maybe it’s time to put a time limit on these ghost bikes.” In response, another writer voiced support for keeping the ghost bikes, saying “that lone bike represents a loved one whom some family, somewhere, lives without every day. ... Ghost bikes help remind motorists of the importance of being alert while driving. If ghost bikes disappear, more cyclists may disappear with them.”
Worden said theft of the bikes has not been a problem, with the lone exception being the Fairbanks ghost bike, which has lost its seat and pedals to unknown vandals.
Worden provided a long list of cyclists who have been killed on Capital Region roadways, in addition to the seven cyclists who have ghost bikes erected in their honor.
“We hope we don’t need to put up another one,” Worden said. “But if there’s another fatal accident, we will put one up.”