I have struggled for days trying to figure out how to write this, or if I even should bother. Cyclists being killed on their bicycles are not, unfortunately, unusual news. My journalistic tendencies initially had me wanting to report the 24 Hours of Lookout—an event that occurred last week in my hometown—like a newspaper story. I was simply going to explain that it happened in response to a local cyclist’s death, that at least 75 people showed up over the span of 24 hours (those were just Strava users; the actual number is likely well over 100), that hundreds of laps and hundreds of thousands of feet and hundreds of miles were collectively pedaled. But after witnessing the profound effect the ride had on its participants, that approach didn’t feel quite right.
Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, is the locals ride. According to Strava, the route most people agree on (which begins at a dramatic stone gate and ends at Buffalo Bill’s actual grave) is a “category 2” climb with an average grade of 5 percent. You ascend nearly 1,300 feet over 4.5 miles, from the small town of Golden to a dramatic overlook bordered by pine forests and offering sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains on one side and downtown Denver and the eastern Colorado plains on another. Strava currently has more than 72,000 recorded attempts by almost 10,000 people.
But the numbers don’t convey why Lookout matters. If you are passionate about cycling, you know about that one ride in your area: the one that’s not easy but is highly revered. By vitrue of low traffic or a well-paved shoulder or simply a high concentration of cyclists, it’s as “safe” as a great on-road cycling route can be. It’s the one you can ride time and again and with every turn of the pedals, that route will set your soul right.
That’s likely why, when 38-year-old Tom Flanagan got home from a multi-day business trip in late August that probably had him sitting in a stifling conference room for hours on end, he said a quick “Hello” to his wife and 8-year-old son before saddling up and hitting the road for one of his favorite climbs. It would be his last ride on Lookout; Flanagan was hit head-on by a drunk driver around 6:30 p.m. and died a few hours later.
The community was stunned and, initially, the response was to arrange a GoFundMe page for Flanagan’s family. But some of the local cyclists who ride Lookout every Thursday morning felt that more needed to be done. One of those riders—Mike Lee—had been thinking of organizing a for-fun, 24-hour ride on Lookout and decided it was time to do the event but give it more meaning. 24 Hours of Lookout was born and scheduled to begin Thursday, October 22, at 6:30 p.m.
“I vividly remember climbing up Lookout Mountain in the early dawn light one day, passing the impromptu memorial that sprung up on the corner where Tom was hit and feeling a deep need to do something,” wrote Lee following the event. “I thought of my family, of my two boys, of my wife, and I tried to imagine what Tom’s family must be going through. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I resolved to bring as much love and support to Tom’s family as I could.”
Thanks to social media and a few, key bicycle industry connections with Rapha and Rodeo Labs, word spread like wildfire. Lookout is a made-for-Instagram ride and Instagram is where cyclists began to find out about the memorial event. Golden (where I live) is a town of about 20,000 and, in the week leading up to 24 Hours of Lookout, the ride was on the lips of roadies and mountain bikers alike.
As a Millennial, I’m overwhelmed daily by concerns and criticisms that my generation, and those after me, lack true social connections. We don’t belong to nor function in the real world anymore, experts say, because we’re so damn connected to our mobile devices. But it was social media that turned the idea of three guys into a local phenomenon that united hundreds of bicycle riders whom had never met in honor of a man almost none of them knew. And while road cycling is not the world’s safest recreational pursuit, this event demonstrated that it’s much more than a healthy activity—cycling connects us, even to strangers, on a very profound level.
The event began on a night with some of the worst weather Golden had experienced all year—40 degrees and raining. Still, 25 people showed up, including a group of five locals who rode the 9-mile lap on full-suspension mountain bikes. A handful of cyclists pressed on through the night, stopping only for a few hours to eat, warm up and catch a bit of sleep. Two county sheriff deputies quietly watched over the group from a distance.
On Friday afternoon, Flanagan’s wife and son visited Lookout. Eight-year-old Owen brought his bike and pedaled—surrounded protectively by several adult cyclists—to his father’s memorial on the mountain. The family’s message to the riders was to go out and be with their people (cyclists), have a good time, smile and live every day to the fullest.
The final lap was launched at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. “As we climbed the rain returned, the sun departed and we held together like a peloton, moving as one up the iconic mountain,” wrote Lee of the moment. “A mixture of cyclists from all walks of life. Strangers before today but united in movement—connected in a way that simply cannot be described.”
In the end, Lee managed 13 laps of Lookout, or 123.5 miles and 16,000 feet of climbing. His riding partner Rich Rodgers led the day with 22 laps. Participants helped push the Flanagan Family GoFundMe page significantly closer to its $100,000 goal (which it has now surpassed). And several days later, cyclists were continuing to connect in real life thanks to a single hashtag, #24hoursoflookout, and the memory of a man who was “just like us.”