A Bakersfield mother of two who took up competitive cycling nine months ago after an injury ended her marathoning career died Sunday while competing in a bicycle race outside Yosemite National Park.
Authorities reported that Suzanne J. Rivera, 47, was part of a group of riders racing down a winding road in the Mariposa County Women's Stage Race when she slammed into a support vehicle parked on the shoulder.
Her death threatens to cast a pall over Thursday’s Bakersfield stage of the Amgen Tour of California, an event that has brought together the city’s cycling community in a high-profile show of civic pride.
The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office stated that Rivera succumbed to traumatic injuries after she crashed into a parked support vehicle in the 5200 block of Darrah Road. It said she was pronounced dead at 9:42 a.m. at John C. Fremont Hospital in Mariposa.
The Modesto driver of the support vehicle, a 2000 GMC Safari van, had stopped to help a cyclist and was partially blocking the road’s westbound lane on a curve, according to the California Highway Patrol.
“The cyclists ahead of (the van’s driver) were able to steer around the vehicle, but (Rivera) was not,” a CHP news release stated. Rivera “struck the rear of the vehicle and fell to the ground, where another cyclist ran over her,” it said, adding that the incident is still under investigation. No one was arrested and the van’s driver and passenger were not identified.
Three nurses and a doctor who took part in Sunday’s race attempted to resuscitate Rivera but were unsuccessful, said Bakersfield cycling enthusiast Kerry Ryan, owner of Bakersfield’s Action Sports and a central figure in the local Amgen organizing committee.
Ryan downplayed Rivera’s inexperience as a contributing factor in her death, saying there was probably little she could have done to avoid the collision without endangering other riders.
“I think she probably was just on the wrong side of the peloton (racing group) coming around a turn,” he said.
Bike Bakersfield multimodal coordinator Zac Griffin, who knew and sometimes rode with Rivera, agreed that the accident appeared to have been the result of unfortunate circumstances.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with the bike handling skills at all,” he said.
Griffin called Rivera “an inspiration,” saying she was the kind of rider who “would get in the middle of a bunch of guys and she would get to the front.”
“I appreciated the fact that she had that zest for life,” he said, adding: “She didn’t sit back and expect, I guess, the world to come to her. That’s the silver lining in the dark cloud.”
A statement issued Sunday by her Santa Barbara-based racing team, B4T9 Team, described Rivera as a loving mother and “amazing athlete” who quickly excelled at cycling after an injury forced her to quit running marathons, which she had done in the very competitive time of less than three hours.
“We as a community, team, and as individuals are heartbroken, devastated and sad beyond words that could be written at the loss of Suzanne,” the statement read.
Rivera quickly established herself as a promising new competitor in local and regional bicycle races. She won the Lost Hills Road Race on March 31 and placed fifth in last month’s Vlees Huis Ronde Road Race in Bakersfield.
On April 29 she posted by far the fastest time among women competing in an 18.4-mile individual time trial between Bakersfield College and Lake Ming. It was the same course professional cyclists are set to race in front of crowds expected to number in the tens of thousands at Thursday’s Stage Five of the Amgen Tour.
Rivera told The Californian after that performance that she was looking forward to comparing her time — 52 minutes, 39 seconds — against the pros’ marks.
The event she was competing in on Mother’s Day was a three-day stage race that began Friday with a 10-mile individual time trial. It continued with two more stages Saturday and concluded Sunday with the Bootjack Road Race, a hilly, 12-mile loop south of Mariposa.
Race results posted online by the Northern California/Nevada Cycling Association state that Rivera placed third in her category in Friday’s time trial. Although other results were not publicly available Monday, Ryan said she was riding at the front of her field at the time of the accident.
A spokeswoman for USA Cycling, the nation’s top competitive bicycling organization, expressed condolences for Rivera’s death. Communications director Andrea Smith said the organization does not track injuries or deaths in the sport but that she guessed racing fatalities would total “no more than a handful a year.”
Family members and organizers of the Mariposa race could not be reached for comment Monday.