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Siblings riding RAGBRAI in memory of sister killed by texting driver Zachary Boyden-Holmes, DesMoines

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RICEVILLE, Ia. — On a lonely stretch of Highway 218 between Riceville and Osage, an all-white bicycle sits propped up on the far side of the berm.

If the bike's color didn't stand out so starkly against the verdant farmland, it could be easily lost in the overgrown weeds and leafy cornstalks encroaching on its handlebars.  

But behind that bike is a name — Grace Harken — and a family who refuses to let her memory fade.

That “ghost bike,” as these blanched displays are known, marks the place Grace was killed by a distracted driver three years ago. It's where Hannah, her sister, ran to her side and held her as she took her final breaths.

And it’s on Hannah's way to and from her seasonal job working at the same printing plant where the sisters picked up shifts the summer Grace died.

When Grace was killed, she was training to ride RAGBRAI — The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa — with Hannah, who promised she'd buy a bike and make the cross-state trek in 2016. In the wake of Grace's death, Hannah, 29, tried to ride alone that year, but the pain was still too fresh.

This year, with the help of her youngest brother, Isaac, Hannah will fulfill the promise she made to her sister and ride all seven days in memory of Grace.

The Harken siblings will be among a large contingent of cyclists riding to remember those killed, paralyzed or injured by vehicles while on their bikes.

During Sunday's Mile of Silence — a quiet remembrance of those lives lost  — more than 10,000 RAGBRAI bicyclists will honor a host of ghost riders, cyclists who live on in the memories of their friends and family.

Iowa's bicycle-friendly reputation is slipping

Despite thousands of miles of bike trails and playing host to the oldest, largest and longest touring bicycle ride in the world, Iowa's status as a cycling-friendly state has slipped in recent years.

Though Iowa's bike fatalities decreased by more than 50 percent in 2017 — dropping from a high of 11 in 2016 (including one on the first day of RAGBRAI) to five last year — young people often have been the victims.

The oldest bicyclist killed last year was just 19. The youngest, 8-year-old Cassandra Rieken, was riding her tricycle when she was hit by a passenger van.

Recently, calls for better bike safety have resulted in positive changes for the cycling landscape, including stronger laws and a new focus on bicyclists and pedestrians in the Department of Transportation’s long-term plans.

But more still needs to be done, advocates say, because with each pedal forward, there seems to be another pedal back.

“We have too many fatal bike crashes; that’s pretty straightforward,” said Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. “We have an average of five fatal bike crashes per year, and that number is five too many.”

There is no "silver bullet" to fix Iowa's bicycle problem, Wyatt said. Only through a combination of stricter penalties, better education, stronger infrastructure and more cyclists speaking up for their rights will the number of fatalities fall to zero. 

What makes this issue particularly heartbreaking, Wyatt said, is that no one gets on her bike to go for a ride and thinks she won’t ever make it home again. 

Grace, who would have been 22 this year, certainly didn’t think that.

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Something all her own

A brood seven strong, each with bright blonde hair, there’s no mistaking a Harken child in rural Riceville. A close family forged by farm chores, they are uber-involved in local sports teams and dutifully attend a community church.

Grace, the fourth of seven children, was a star basketball player. She was named Miss Mitchell County and wrote songs and poems in her spare time.

She nursed strays and farm animals back to health, including a chicken named Becca, which Grace let sit on her head.

“Grace didn’t know a stranger,” Hannah said. “By the time we left anywhere, she knew most everyone there. And she was excited about everything.”

In the summer of 2015, after her first year of college, Grace moved into a small house in Saratoga, Iowa, with Hannah. The pair worked with their dad on the third shift at a local printing company.

They’d all drive in at night, and Grace would haul her bike along to ride home in the morning.

No one in her family biked, so the middle child liked that cycling was "her thing."

"It was something all her own, and she loved that,” Hannah said.

In the weeks before Grace’s death, she was goading her older sister to get a bike. After Hannah gave in, they plotted the trails they’d tackle and decided that the next summer they’d do RAGBRAI.

Both the girls planned to move in the fall — Hannah to Chicago and Grace back to college in Canada — but they promised each other that no matter what, they'd meet back in the Hawkeye state for the annual ride.

On July 29, a Wednesday, Grace set out to bike home after work. Her dad and sister stopped to get groceries before heading home in their car.

Just past Osage on Highway 218, they slowed for an accident.

On the shoulder of the road lay a bright blue and green shoe.

“That’s Grace’s shoe,” Hannah remembers telling her dad, who took off running toward the scene.

Hannah held him from behind to make sure he didn’t move Grace, who was lying on her stomach with her cheek to the pavement. A woman and her son had seen the accident and gave them a blanket to cover Grace’s back.

“There was so much blood,” Hannah said.

Grace looked like she was still breathing. The family learned later that what they saw was involuntary lung movement — Grace had been killed by the impact.

But, not knowing, sister and father took turns talking to Grace until the paramedics arrived.

“Keep breathing,” Hannah remembers telling her. “Stay with us. The ambulance is almost here.”

They followed the ambulance to the hospital, and the rest of the family joined them. Hannah had held Grace when she was born, and she held her one last time there.

Before this, Hannah said she had always thought of death like "a tunnel," something that slowly closes in on you, something that takes a long time to reach.

“But I sat there, and I realized that death is very instant,” she said. “One minute we are here on Earth and the next minute we are standing before God. I hadn’t experienced it like that before.”

Grace’s funeral was held in the Riceville High School gym, where people packed both bleacher sections. Her casket sat at center court, right where she’d started so many games.

Days later, authorities told the family a distracted driver admitted to police she had been texting on that clear, hot July morning before hitting Grace.

Courtney Lynn Johnson, who pleaded guilty to use of an electronic device, was looking down at her phone and didn’t see the flaxen-haired cyclist with the blue and green shoes who was enjoining "her thing" on her way home. 

Punishments to fit the crime

For her role in Grace’s death, Johnson received about $1,350 in fines and had her license suspended 180 days.

The lack of jail time for Johnson pushed Darrel Harken and his family to join with others who have lost loved ones on the road to push for stricter distracted driving laws.

Last year, texting while driving became a primary offense in Iowa, meaning drivers can be pulled over if they are seen using an electronic device. Texting also joined drinking, drag racing and fleeing the police as evidence of reckless driving, the offense needed for a vehicular homicide charge — which carries potential jail time.  

The law was a big win for the cycling community, but distracted driving didn't go away with that scratch of the governor's pen, Wyatt said.

While it's hard for Wyatt to say definitively that distracted driving is increasing, the bicycle coalition is seeing a rise in crash reports that don’t list “none” under driver distraction.

“To us, that means the cops may not be able to prove the driver was distracted, but they are not giving them the benefit of the doubt to say they weren’t — and that’s one of the indicators that we are concerned about,” Wyatt said.

For the last two legislative sessions, the coalition has pushed a safe-passing law, which would force drivers to change lanes to pass bicyclists. Both years the bill went through the committee process before failing to make it to the floor.

Increasingly, though, Iowa government is recognizing the need for transportation options beyond cars. The Department of Transportation released a long-term plan for bicyclists and pedestrians Thursday.

The plan “directs the department to mainstream bike and pedestrian concerns as part of all of our projects,” said Garrett Pederson, a planning team leader at the department.

The directive would extend to bicycle-friendly updates on roadways, Pederson said, adding that on rural roadways — like Highway 218 — that would most likely manifest in wider paved shoulders.

Wider shoulders, which exist in more bike-friendly states, would help keep rural riders like Grace away from a car's direct line of fire. 

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Being remembered

Two years ago, the same year Hannah was supposed to go on RAGBRAI with Grace, the ride added a mile of silence to honor victims of bicycle and car accidents.

In the vein of the Ride of Silence, which holds entirely silent rides across the country, riders are asked to turn off their stereos and refrain for talking during the mile of silence. 

Unfortunately, the loss of bikers to cars is nothing new and, for many bikers on RAGBRAI, the mile holds deeply personal meanings, said T. J. Juskiewicz, the ride's director. 

"There are a lot of people on RAGBRAI who if you asked them, 'Do you know someone hit by a car on a bike or, even worse, someone who died in a bike fatality?' Most will tell you, 'Yeah, I lost a friend' or 'I had a close call myself,'" Juskiewicz said.

Along this year's mile of silence route outside Onawa, the family and friends of Shawn Gosch will decorate the road in cardinal and gold in honor of the RAGBRAI rider and die-hard Iowa State fan who was killed while on a training ride. 

"Knowing that people will take a minute out of their week and have that respect and say those prayers for him means a lot," said Di Lenz, a colleague and good friend of Gosch's. "It's an indescribable feeling to know that your loved one is being remembered and being thought of.

"It absolutely makes my heart smile."

Hannah hasn't wrapped her mind around what the mile of silence will be like for her and Issac yet. "Overwhelming" and "emotional" are the only words that come to mind. 

Grace lived “every day sold out,” so Hannah doesn’t want to think of regrets or missed moments in the sisters' relationships during the mile.

But she does have one that she can't shake.

When Grace was biking away the day she died, Hannah wanted to scream out, "I love you." She almost did, but she didn’t want to embarrass her sister, so she decided against it.

Since then, she's resolved to say it over and over to the people she loves.

In the quiet moments, when Hannah thinks of her sister — all her basketball starts and that chicken, Becca, which Grace let sit on her head — Hannah tells Grace that she'll always love her.

And when she drives to work, past that ghost bike, she thinks of her sister's smile and, sometimes, she says a prayer.

Because behind that bike is a name — Grace Harken — and her family refuses to let her memory fade.

COURTNEY CROWDER travels the state as the Register's Iowa Columnist. She isn't a bicyclist, but plans to join the traveling circus known as RAGBRAI next year. You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or ccrowder@dmreg.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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