Mason Gravley, 30, Lead Adventurer for our partner, Athletic Brewing Company, was spearheading a cross-country bike trip to celebrate the opening of its new brewery in San Diego, CA, when he was struck near Des Moines, IA from behind by an F-150. The driver peeled away and left Gravley in the dust, in pain and shock. Here’s his riveting story, as told to Spartan writer Patty Hodapp—and what he learned from the incident about facing fear. Plus, pro tips from Spartan Champ and cycling enthusiast Ryan Atkins to stay safe on the road while you train.
It was a gorgeous, sunny, warm Iowa-August kind of day—prime conditions for a bike ride—when in a split second, my world came crashing down. Literally.
As lead adventurer for Athletic Brewing Company, I was in charge of supporting a cross-country bike relay to celebrate our brewery’s new location in San Diego, CA. We had taken off from our home base location in Stratford, CT weeks before, and were approaching the trip’s halfway point.
Riders were crushing 100-ish miles per day passing a baton (soon to be beer-tap handle) to execute a 3,100-mile journey over 37 days. Our main goal? To arrive at the ribbon cutting in early September, safely. Despite dodging tornadoes, and battling a tropical storm, severe lightning, steep mountain climbs, pounding rain, heavy traffic and gale-force headwinds, everything was going smoothly. Almost too smoothly.
We were on schedule, the riders were dominating the challenge and the other trip coordinator, Nick Brown, and I were driving our Athletic van to provide nutritional and logistical support. In sampling non-alcoholic six packs by the droves, and in the midst of pulling off a cross-country haul in a pandemic, we had a lot to be grateful for.
However, in a stint on the team Cannondale bike, I nearly lost my life in a hit and run that made us rethink the whole thing.
We were near Des Moines, IA, on a wide county road with ample room for traffic and cyclists. Our current rider had just finished his leg. At 1 p.m., I jumped on the Cannondale to maximize remaining daylight and give the next rider a lead. Stuck in the support van all day, I was eager to move and contribute mileage to the cause. (Plus, having bagged six cross-country bike trips myself, distance cycling isn’t new to me. I live for it.)
I was listening to a podcast about NBA playoffs and cruising strong, 10 miles into a 30-mile stint. I remember thinking, man, this trip is just great, it’s going so well, watching corn and soybeans flash by. Then, out of nowhere, it felt like a frat boy gave me an open-hand slap on my back, only worse. A huge sickening thud sliced the peaceful environment in half.
A gray F-150, charging over 60 miles per hour, got too close. Its side mirror smacked me right between the shoulder blades and shattered. Glass and plastic exploded around my body, face and Giro helmet. My handle bars and left shoulder scraped along the truck’s body. The engine roared, screaming in my ears. Time slowed to a crawl and hit lightning speed in the same instant.
Is this happening? Is this happening? Is this REALLY happening? I thought.
As my mind caught up to reality, it occurred to me: oh my god, I’ve just been hit. But instead of stopping, as honest drivers would, the truck revved and the driver bolted, sliding back into the vehicle lane before I could even get a look at the license plate. The brake lights never engaged. The truck never swerved. This was intentional.
Luckily, the driver hadn’t taken me off the bike. I kept my balance, but pulled over immediately and dismounted. I dropped to my hands and knees on the pavement and went into shock. Searing pain in my shoulders and back enveloped my consciousness. I took a quick inventory of my body. I was still breathing. Thank god. My son, my wife. MY LIFE.
I’m sure the person didn’t mean to hit me, but they had certainly tried to buzz me—a prank-like technique drivers use to get as close as possible to cyclists. It creates a wind tunnel that scares you half to death. So what seems like a funny-ha-ha moment behind the wheel is actually terrifying when you’re the cyclist.
I’m sure they thought, oh shit, I just hit this person, and split as fast as they could.
This kind of road hassling wasn’t new to us on this trip. Especially in Iowa. There’s a subculture there of vengeful drivers who are annoyed with cyclists (perhaps related to Ragbrai, an annual cross-Iowa trek which brings 10,000+ riders through the state and may be perceived as overwhelming to local business).
A few days prior, our rider had a styrofoam cup of some liquid chucked at him from a passerby window. We had riders get flicked off, and gassed and smoked out by diesel engines (a technique called “rolling coal”), as well as brake checked (where drivers get in your lane and slam on the brakes so you’re forced to slam on yours). It’s all dangerous—and these rude gestures were happening more frequently than usual that day. The bottom line being: when you pit a bike against a car, the vehicle always wins.
Once I collected myself, I was pissed. No one stopped to see if I was okay as I hunched over on the ground next to my bike. I was cut, bleeding and bruised. I picked up the mirror, which had been ripped off in the “accident” and called the Athletic support van a few miles down the road. I told them to look for a truck with a missing mirror. My colleagues (Nick and Chris) came to meet me right away. And after a breather, still fuming and determined not to let this incident dampen the trip, I gave my crew the mirror and thought screw it. I remounted and crushed out the remaining 20 miles of my ride. Ironically, during that section, another angry driver stopped, pulled over and grabbed my handlebars yelling at me to get on a bike path. Afterward, I filed police reports with the Knoxville PD and Des Moine PD about the hit and run.
It wasn’t until later that night, when I FaceTimed my wife and saw my 16-month-old son’s smile that the severity of what had just happened really hit me. I had found out the week before my accident, three other cyclists had been killed in the area—from commuters to people on cross-country touring trips, to a man running for mayor in Jacksonhole, WY.
I just dodged a bullet by mere inches. I thought. I could very well not be here right now. I could have been number four on that list.
After much discernment with Athletic’s owners, Bill Schfelt and John Walker, we decided to push forward with the journey. But, we completely revamped our itinerary to stick to bike paths, rail trails, and cycling-friendly areas.
Overcoming this obstacle with major adjustments actually made the trip better. We moved away from filler areas with empty, desolate highways and moved into places more receptive to what we were doing. We connected with cool communities from Telluride, CO (scoring airtime on KOTO, the local radio station there) to Cheyenne, WY, where our rider, Julie, dominated a century on a city trail by wrapping it five times—something that had never been done before—to raise money for her local trail systems. (Athletic matched her fundraising efforts dollar to dollar.)
Turning these scary, life-threatening experiences into life lessons is key. I realized, by getting back on the bike, that I can’t (and won’t) be afraid to live. That’s something I want to show my son. Being a parent is like living with a piece of your heart running around outside of your body. And all of us active athletes take calculated risk. We all walk the knife’s edge between death and life.
My main takeaway was that everything will always be okay. I don’t want to fold from fear, or run from pain, but to embrace the challenges to get back up and keep hacking it. Because if we don’t choose to push forward despite hard things, are we truly living, or just slowly dying? I want my son to grow up knowing that hard things happen in life, but that no matter what, he will always be okay.
A few weeks later, we rolled into San Diego on time and with a huge posse of riders at a safe social distance to celebrate our brewery opening. This hit and run accident completely reframed what I worry about now. And above all, I’m not going to let it get me down or stop riding. In fact, if it helps me, Athletic, my son and any other cyclist out there to become more aware and careful, my story might just save other lives.
Our Spartan Takeaway: Pro Tips to Stay Safe from Ryan Atkins
This gut-wrenching, close-call encounter made Gravley think,“who the hell would hit someone and not at least check on them?” But the fact is, those drivers are out there, and in numbers. According to the Federal Highway Administration, almost 1,000 cyclists per year die in fatal bicycle accidents each year.
We checked in with Spartan Pro Ryan Atkins who cross trains 4-5 days per week on the bike, for his take. He has also had hundreds of close calls with vehicles, he says, and was hit twice when he was younger, attending university. Both times, he was okay in the end, but went through a car windshield when a driver made a last-minute signal change, and another time an unaware driver crushed his handlebars. “In both cases, I was bruised and cut up, but not seriously hurt,” says Atkins. “The drivers simply didn’t see me, somehow!? It was pretty scary.”
Hit and runs are terrible, he says, and has lost friends and acquaintances in these kinds of accidents. “There is really no excuse for it!” Atkins says. Luckily, he lives in an area where there is heavy bike traffic so cars are used to cyclists’ presence on the road. “I just try to be mindful and treat the drivers with respect, whilst also not being fearful. Cycling is such a great activity that it would be terrible to stop just because of some inconsiderate people. I think being aware of the danger is important to mitigate the danger.”Atkins, who logs hundreds of cycling miles each month, says the best course of action to stay safe and build awareness looks like this:
- Wear a helmet. Always.
- Know your area. Ride on quieter roads with lower speed limits.
- Consider getting a gravel bike. Gravel roads are usually quieter in terms of traffic.
- Get lights for the front and back of your bike—ideally, a red light for the back that blinks.
- Ride predictably. Indicate your turns and shoulder check often.
- Don’t ride with music unless it's a really quiet road, or just wear a single earbud.
- Consider riding inside some days to lessen your exposure. Avoid riding at rush hour.
And he makes a chillingly good point for everyone behind the wheel: “A note to any angry motorists out there... Is it really worth murdering someone just to get to your destination 10 seconds quicker?”
The Good News—Cross-Country Trips by Bike Path Will Soon Be an Option
While douchebaggery may never be completely stamped out in the driver-cyclist relationship, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is building a 3,700-mile bikeable path along old railroad beds that will traverse 12 states and run coast to coast—the first of its kind. While it’s not complete yet, it’s well in the works. Gravley says the Athletic tour hit at least 300 miles of it on the way to California.
After experiencing what it takes to bike across the US and knowing just how dangerous it can be, Athletic Brewing will be contributing to the Great American Rail Trail to provide a safe, seamless and adventurous route to keep riders completely off of vehicular roads in their coast-to-coast treks. Maybe they'll even take a team to bike the path when it's complete.
And we, as Spartans, can help raise awareness, too. It’s simple, for now. Share this story on social media, refine your own bike safety habits as you train, and watch your own back very carefully, so everyone can get home safely at the end of the day. Enough said.