Tom Tomaka, 59, a retired IT professional, has been riding bicycles all his life, but his two-wheeling career almost came to an end on a warm September night in 2016.
He was heading north on U.S. 29 from East Point, grouped up with the Metro Atlanta Cycling Club on a 50-mile jaunt they call the “Airport Ride.”
“I decided to break away from the group with another friend,” said Tomaka. “We were riding very hard toward Castleberry Hill.” Then something went wrong.
Tomaka can’t tell you what. But when he woke up some time later, he learned that he had hit a tree, his helmet was smashed and his neck was broken. “Fortunately, this occurred within 2 miles of the Grady trauma center,” he said.
“They saved my life,” said Tomaka, “and they also completed a very delicate surgery, which had a high probability of neurological damage if things didn’t go right.” Three months later, he was back on his bike, enjoying a 100-mile ride.
Cyclists, including Tomaka, love Grady, which has one of the busiest Level 1 trauma centers in the country. Atlanta’s cycling community demonstrated that love a year ago, joining forces to launch the first VeloCity charity ride, raising $300,000 for Grady, the largest hospital in the state of Georgia and the most significant public hospital in Atlanta.
“We’ve wanted this to become the cycling equivalent of the (AJC) Peachtree Road Race,” said VeloCity co-chairman John Gregg, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. “We had almost 1,000 people last year, which was a good turnout for a first-year event. We’d love to get 1,500 this year; that would be huge.”
Thomas Dimitroff, general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, is co-chairman of VeloCity with Gregg. He’s also a dedicated cyclist, and a guy who has cracked a collarbone or two while enjoying his freewheeling pastime. He thinks VeloCity will attract 2,000 May 4, including some of those macho guys who used to make fun of him for wearing spandex.
The honorary chairman of the event is James C. Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises. Cox owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The VeloCity (pronounced “VELLah-CITY”) faithful have high hopes for the event, and the signs are promising. Just recently, on April 7, thousands of Atlantans enjoyed biking along 3 miles of Peachtree Street during the Atlanta Streets Alive event, sponsored by the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. Each year, the city closes off a main thoroughfare to automobiles, and welcomes pedestrians, cyclists, dog-carts and other muscle-powered travelers.
Ben Foster, policy and campaigns manager for the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, said last year’s Streets Alive event drew about 113,000. The day brings out bicycle-friendly Atlantans who are ready to “say yes to bike lanes, say yes to alternative transportation, yes to get out of your car,” said Foster.
And yes to insurance coverage. Because riding a bike in Atlanta, recently denounced as the home of some of the nation’s most aggressive drivers, can be a risky business.
“When you’re out there riding in traffic, it is dangerous,” said Greg Masterson, of the Metro Atlanta Cycling Club. “You’ve got to pay attention every second, and you gotta be good.”
There were 23 bicycle-related fatalities in Georgia in 2015, compared to 193 pedestrian fatalities in the same year.
About 30 MACC cyclists were out on a recent Wednesday for an early evening ride from downtown Atlanta toward the airport. Earlier that day, another group of 30 or so left on a different ride from the parking lot outside the Three Taverns Brewery in Decatur. They wore jerseys from the Little Five Points Flyers, Velo Atlanta and other groups.
“Atlanta is a good group ride town,” said Masterson, 59, a database administrator at the Federal Reserve, who rides about 140 miles a week.
Scott Bass, 50, an investment manager with Merrill Lynch, rides with a group that leaves from Brookwood Hills at 5:30 a.m. on Thursdays (and even earlier on Tuesdays). The cyclists prefer the early hour because it doesn’t cut into the workday. Riding in a group of 20 or 30 riders, all with lights on, helps create a safer environment, even in the darkness, he said.
And Atlanta has a group for everyone. “There’s morning rides, afternoon rides, rides on weekends, Saturday and Sunday rides — regardless of your desire to punish yourself, you can find a group that has a pace compatible to your riding,” said Bass.
This creates a favorable environment for a large-scale charity event such as VeloCity.
Here’s what the day will bring:
Participants pay a fee to register. They are also encouraged to raise additional money. Here is Tom Tomaka’s fund-raising page.
The event includes multiple rides of various distances. All rides start and end at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.
There are rides of 100 miles, 62 miles and 25 miles, and there is also a 5.8-mile “city ride” on blocked-off streets downtown. (You can see the routes at velocityatlanta.com.) All rides are supported by “SAG” wagons, and offer rest breaks, hydration and portable toilets.
At the end of the road is an all-day festival back at the stadium’s Home Depot Backyard, with a kids zone, food, adult beverages and live music from the ATL Collective.
In addition to the outdoor rides, there will be indoor cycling classes at the Home Depot Backyard.
“There are two big goals to it,” said Joselyn Baker, president of the Grady Health Foundation, which is the fundraising arm of the nonprofit hospital. “One is to create a new opportunity for financial support and community engagement with Grady. But also to celebrate the city and bring a new major sporting event to Atlanta. We are hoping it becomes a part of the sports fabric of the city over time.”
Bass said he and his friends will do the 100-mile ride. (Anything less would invite abuse from his hardcore crowd.) Members of the MACC group will sponsor one of the rest areas, and will be among the 400 volunteers helping to stage the event.
During the past 11 years, the September charity ride called One Love sponsored by the MACC group (they raise money for youth organizations such as the BRAG Dream Team) has grown to about 1,000 participants, Masterson said. He noted that the VeloCity ride reached that goal in its first year, which is an indication of how big it might become.
The AJC Peachtree Road Race will attract about 60,000 runners to trample down Peachtree Street on July 4. Logistics should make it difficult to grow a bicycle event to the same size, though Masterson points out that the Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City draws 30,000 cyclists each year.
And there is, perhaps, a symbiotic relationship between cyclists and Grady. Most cyclists are keenly aware of the hazards on Atlanta roads. “I’ve had to ride in the ambulance twice,” said Bass.
Some of those hazards are distracted drivers, but there are hazards in the roads themselves.
One of the Brookwood Hills riders, Steve Barton, became so annoyed with the potholes along a route they call “The Humps” that he spray-painted a white circle around each jagged depression, to make them easier to see in the dark.
Said Baker, “It is true that Grady’s trauma and emergency center does, on occasion, see cyclists that have had some sort of accident. The good news for those men and women is that there is a trauma and emergency center with the skill level to help them through those times with the best possible outcome. It is not trite to say you never know if you’ll need a place like Grady, but you’re glad it’s there when you do.”
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