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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Something happens when bicycles come together. Watch and you'll see it: The riders' legs begin to move in sync, and then their bodies follow. The more bikes, the stronger the effect. A dozen riding together move as single unit, shifting direction like a school of fish, a single entity stretching and contracting like an amoeba. The effect is almost hypnotic.
Leaning against a white Ford pickup, facing the bike lane that loops around the Miccosukee Golf Course in Kendale Lakes, Carlos Salazar looks mesmerized as the pack, at least two dozen strong, passes by. The bikes, expensive and well maintained, collectively produce a long, soft purr. The group rides every day, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays — today is Tuesday — the riders go fast, 25 or 30 miles per hour, sprinting the last half-hour in an informal race. Despite the speed, Salazar can pick out each individual rider. With a mix of sadness and vicarious excitement, he watches to see who's leading.
Eight weeks ago Salazar was pedaling. On August 28 the 38-year-old Colombian native was near the front of the pack ("I was number two!" he says) when, without warning, an SUV pulled into the bikers' path. Salazar tried to maneuver sideways, but there was no avoiding the collision. When he hit, his bike flew over the truck — 10 meters, he says — and crashed on the other side, breaking in two. He went under the SUV as dozens of bikes behind him plowed into it and bounced off each other like birds in a turbine.
It was one of the most spectacular accidents in Miami-Dade County, although amazingly no one died. Of about 40 riders, 11 were seriously injured. Salazar and another cyclist, Andres LaGuardia, were airlifted to Jackson's Ryder Trauma Center. Emergency medics triaged patients, sorting through the dozens of lesser injuries.
"I never saw the car," says Mario Alfonso, who was just ahead of Salazar in glorious first place. "I just stopped all of a sudden — boomp — and then I'm flying through the air, talking to God. He said, 'No, I don't want you up here!' and — bam — I fell down." An ambulance removed Alfonso from the scene. He had a broken pelvis, damage to his leg muscles, and a severed right index finger. His knee is still so swollen and disfigured that his leg looks like a gnarled tree trunk. "It was like hitting a wall you never saw," he says.
Cops ticketed the driver, Juan Tanaka, age 62, who they say had violated the bikers' right of way. But Tanaka's view, it turned out, was obstructed by cars parked in the bike lane. Condo residents say the owners told them to park there while the lot was being resurfaced.
Most gravely injured was LaGuardia, a young Cuban-born racer who lives nearby. The impact broke his wrist and cervical vertebrae, the bones in his neck. Eight weeks later he's still in a neck brace, unable to turn his head. LaGuardia, who came to the United States from the island five years ago, works as a handyman and carpenter. He's the breadwinner for his wife and two children. The accident has put him out of work and is symptomatic of a bigger problem: lack of respect for bicyclists in Miami. "In Cuba there are no lights, and people don't respect bicycles. They are muy agresivo," he says. "But here — they are super agresivo."
Hector Mesa, whose nephew Fabricio broke his shoulder and hip in the accident, agrees. "We come here because this place is supposed to be safe," says the truck driver by day and after-hours bike fanatic. Mesa says there simply isn't anywhere else for serious riders to go. "On weekends we go to Flamingo — okay, it's a little safer. But on weekdays, this is it.... I drive a truck. In Broward, Naples, they have bike lanes, but here — pffft."
If people thought the accident would deter bikers from using the area, they were dead wrong. "The next day we were out here double," says Roger Cadiz. "To let them know that we will ride, we will keep riding."
The route around the Miccosukee Golf Course is four miles of unbroken, gently winding, scenic biking. Every day of the week, from dawn to dusk, bicycles wind around the course. The group that crashed in August has no name, no organization, no formal membership, and no leader. But one man, almost everyone acknowledges, is the guru: Miguel Corrales.
Corrales is 55 years old with a fit body and a big-toothed smile. He also has a tumor the size of a small melon growing from the side of his neck. Born in Colombia, Corrales has been building and fixing bikes since he was five years old. He moved to the States October 12, 1969, and took up residence in Miami a year later.
He went almost immediately to work for Big Wheel Bikes, a well-known store in Kendall, where he started the Big Wheel Bicycle Club. It was with this group that he began coming to the golf course every day. "We lobbied the county for five years to get them to put that bike lane in," he says proudly. The lane was finally completed in the mid-Nineties. Since then, it has become a second home to Corrales.
"This is the nicest, safest place to ride a bike in Dade County," he declares. "We all get along nice. We have a hell of a ride, and the coaching's totally free. We have a lot of experienced riders out here. We got law enforcement officers, we got lawyers, we got superrich people, poor people like me. We got people from all over the world: Nicaragua, Haiti, gringos, all Central America."
On Saturdays many of the riders meet to race in the Redland. Each week Corrales presents the winner of that competition with the "cojones plásticos," a set of pink plastic testicles on a key chain, which the winner hangs from his bike until his possession is successfully challenged.
Corrales races sometimes, but less now than in the past. In 2003 he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors found tumors in his stomach and intestines, so he began a regimen of medication and radiation treatment. Three years ago he became very sick. He was forced to close his shop, Kendall Bicycles and Fitness, and doctors estimated he had only months to live.
"They gave me six months," he says cheerfully. "I'm still alive. Why? Because of the sport, because of my love for this sport. Because of my love for these people."
Corrales recovered and has eschewed further radiation treatment and prescription meds. He takes what he calls "natural medicines," and every day he rides his bike around the course. "This is my land," he declares, sweeping his hand across the panorama of manufactured ponds and grassy knolls.
His white Ford pickup is a virtual mobile bike shop. He has a bicycle stand in back and, beside it, a wheel-truing apparatus. The bed is filled with spare parts, tools, extra wheels, and random frames. He does minor repairs for free. Every day he fills two coolers with ice and drinks — soda, water, sometimes beer. Bikers help themselves, leaving dollar bills under his toolbox to pay him back. "You don't got a dollar, no problem," Corrales says.
"Miguel, he knows everybody. He cares about everyone. He's an excellent person," Salazar says of Corrales. With his elbow broken, Salazar, a barber, hasn't been able to work since the accident. "I don't have no health insurance, no nothing," he says, shaking his head. "When I cut hair, I keep half.... It's hard. Right now I'm not making any money.... Miguel and the bicyclists raised a little money for [my] rent."
The day after the crash, Corrales started a collection to help Salazar and a few other riders who had been most injured and were in a tight spot. He raised about $1000 a head. "I don't have family here; I don't have anybody," Salazar says. "I come to watch, to talk. This is like my family." Indeed, as he speaks, a biker, seeing him, turns off the road and pulls up, hand already stretched out. Salazar greets him with his left, unbroken hand. "Cómo estás, mi hijito," the man says. "How are you, my son?"
Just then the pack whizzes by. Both men turn their heads to watch, and Salazar's eyes take on a glassy look. "¡Última, última!" another man calls from the side. It's the last lap. After the group passes, perhaps 10 minutes later, Corrales is standing on the edge of the bike lane, watching intently, waiting. "¡Campeón, campeón, campeón!" he cries as the first three bikers rush past.
"I thought there can only be one champion," a biker nearby jokes. Corrales, still watching the riders come in, answers without looking: "They are all champions."