by Roy Exum
posted November 5, 2009
There is no rhyme nor reason why Christopher Thompson has just wrecked his life, but the story reeks of such senseless rage and indeterminate sadness that in Chattanooga, where bicycle enthusiasts have found a modern-day Mecca, it begs to be told.
Dr. Thompson, age 60, was a respected emergency-room physician for over two decades in Montebello, California. No one denies he helped literally thousands of patients at Beverly Hospital. But all of that changed on July 4th, 2008, when the doctor instead inflicted pain and injury to two bicyclists on Mandeville Canyon Road.
Court testimony reveals that the two riders, Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr, were riding side-by-side on the narrow, winding road when a car rapidly approached from behind. As soon as Dr. Thompson, the driver, could pass, he screamed at the riders to instead ride single file. Perhaps more was said and the cyclists responded in kind, yelling back and flipping a vulgar hand at the irate driver.
A police officer later testified that was when Dr. Thompson decided to “teach them a lesson.” He slammed on his brakes as hard as he could. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, “Ron Peterson, a coach for USC’s and UCLA’s cycling team, was flung face-first into the rear windshield of the doctor’s red Infiniti, breaking his front teeth and nose and lacerating his face. Christian Stoehr, the other cyclist, hurtled to the sidewalk and suffered a separated shoulder.”
On Monday a three-week trial over the terrible incident finally ended with Dr. Thompson being found guilty. Not only does he face up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on Dec. 3, he was also deemed a “flight risk” and a “safety threat to cyclists” and was therefore jailed immediately.
Stoehr, who testified he rarely rides his bicycle any more, summed it up best when he said after the trial. “It’s sad for both sides. I lost a lot of my time and my life, and he’s losing a lot of his.”
Not long ago, a bicyclist in north Georgia who was pedaling up the side of Lookout Mountain was deliberately struck and seriously injured in much the same way, but the cyclist was going up the mountain and struck from behind by the hit-and-run driver. This wasn’t road rage but an unfathomable criminal act. Other riders have been side-swiped and forced off the road all across the country.
And so it is that a growing number of enthusiasts are hesitant to take their bikes on solitary rides because there are some motorists who apparently cannot understand cyclists have as much of a right to the roadway as automobiles. “Our hope is that this brings to light how vulnerable cyclists are out there,” Peterson, 41, told reporters following the trial.
Unfortunately, a bicyclist’s bravado is sometimes irksome. The two California cyclists testified the doctor’s fast approach did not allow them the time to fall into single file, which the physician’s lawyers painted as a common irritant to those who drive on the narrow road.
In Chattanooga the road leading up Lookout Mountain is a popular climb for cyclists, but, this summer, a well-meaning safety engineer had the outside lanes grooved, causing a car tire to vibrate if an automobile is driven too close to the ditch. Unfortunately, the grooves also cause bicycle tires to vibrate, forcing the recreational riders away from the edge of the road where a car can pass more easily.
The Harley-Davidson Corp. has a great slogan, “Live To Ride – Ride To Live,” that is wonderfully fitting to all types of cyclists, but in the California case that just reached its tragic conclusion, there were no winners and a doctor who could heal hurts but couldn’t handle his own “road rage” is paying a dreadful price.
When the court bailiff cuffed the doctor’s skilled hands behind his back, he was visibly crushed, shaking his head in obvious despair, all because in one fleeting moment his emotions tried to rob two other men of their right to “ride to live.”
Just like Christian Stoehr said, “It’s sad for both sides.”