St. Louis elite bicyclist Casey Saunders was a regular guy — a “40-hours-a-week working guy” — who by sheer persistence competed with full-time professional racers, his many friends in racing said Monday.
Saunders, 30, died Sunday after he crashed into a metal barrier at the Tour of Kansas City bicycle race in the Crossroads, a race he had done before.
He was racing in the Criterium event of the tour, a tight course less than a mile long in which elite racers run their laps bending sharp turns on closed city streets.
Witnesses said his bicycle ran into a barrier on 18th Street just before the sharp turn north onto Oak Street.
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Saunders’ race ended with the crash of metal against metal, followed by the course monitor’s whistle-blasting warnings to the other racers and the rush to tend to the fallen racer.
“It was shocking,” said Abby Schubach, who was watching from her apartment window on the corner. “People were running around, surrounding him.”
It is unclear at what point in the race it happened, but his coach on the Dogfish Racing Team, John Merli, said Saunders was best known for his finishing sprints.
He always set himself up smartly, finding that seam and bursting through. And he did so with integrity for the other racers, without endangering others, Merli said.
“He was what we call an honest racer,” he said. “He was tenacious but humble.”
The police on the scene, and the ambulance crew that was summoned, could not save Saunders, and word of his death brought out grief from a cycling community that mourned him as one of their finest and kindest racers.
He was short, particularly his legs, but super muscular, said Mike Weiss, his boss and friend at Big Shark Bicycle Co., where Saunders was both an employee and a friend.
“We would always tell him, ‘Use your torso!’ ” Weiss said.
Saunders’ charge up the ranks of top state bicyclists always had that “David against Goliath” feel, Weiss said.
He looked “like a grasshopper,” friend and bicycle racer Susan Kubinak of St. Louis said. “He was all thigh.”
“He was always a fun guy to cheer for,” she said.
Saunders was a guy who rode the “ultimate beater” of a bicycle to work every day — some unknown brand of bike probably “not worth three bucks,” Weiss said. But he rode carbon-fiber bicycles on weekends.
Saunders would burn his way hard through the racing, getting stronger as the competition season went on, Weiss said. The Kansas City race was always one of his favorite runs, he said, as he propelled himself to the bigger racing events in July.
Saunders’ friend and team partner, Scott Ogilvie, sometimes helped set him up for his finishes.
“He was never out of control, reckless or putting himself in a dangerous position,” Ogilvie said in a Facebook post. “There are times when cyclists have tunnel vision and ride in a way that ignores the safety of other riders, but that was never, ever Casey.”
The news of Saunders’ death spread throughout the bicycling community, with condolences shared by the national organization USA Cycling.
Reaction on Twitter sounded with a familiar song, like an @rarexForm post saying, “Keep chasing wheels, and may the perpetual light shine upon you, Casey Saunders.”
And this from the Big Shark Bicycle Co.: “We lost a family member, friend, team mate and amazing soul yesterday. RIP Casey Saunders — the best guy we have…”
Merli visited with Saunders’ family late Sunday night, and they couldn’t help but ask, “Why Casey?”
He was an Eagle Scout, and he played jazz piano. He had a girlfriend who had traveled with him to Kansas City, and he was one of the “most aware, safest racers” on the course. He loved the outdoors, was frugal and understated, Ogilvie said.
In the 20 years that Merli said he has been involved with races, there have been many accidents, but never a death until now.
Weiss also wonders how it happened to Saunders, but he recognized the dangers that come with speed.
“The sport is exhilarating,” he said. “It is a strange combination of tactics, physicality and skill. There are a lot of rewards in a lifestyle that challenges and gives achievement. It’s a life worth living.”