Before he was lying on the side of the road, his crumpled bicycle several feet ahead of him, his shoes scattered behind him, Thomas Burbach was pedaling east on L Street, heading home after a long ride around Omaha.
As he approached 120th Street on May 20, it was nearing 10 p.m. It was dark and Burbach still had a long way to go, but that was the plan. Working two jobs and taking care of twin boys, Burbach found that nights were his only time to train for RAGBRAI, the annual bike ride across Iowa.
He doesn't know what happened in the seconds before he was flying off the black road bike and toward the ground. He's not sure if the driver of the car that slammed into him saw his flashing light, or why the car immediately sped away.
But despite the metal plate in his leg, the complications from his injuries — infections, pneumonia, days on a ventilator — Burbach, 39, knows he's lucky to have survived. Though it will take more time in the hospital and plenty of physical therapy, he is expected to recover.
“One of the first things he said is 'I don't have any anger toward this person. I don't hold a grudge. I forgive them,” said his sister, Angela Burbach. “He said he was sure they didn't mean to hit him; maybe he caused it — to me, that's all the more reason to have stopped.”
Police have made no arrests and have few details to go on. The first people to come upon the scene saw only the damage: Burbach and his bike, the light still blinking.
Marshall Stewart spotted the blinking light and pulled over. The 25-year-old party DJ and pizza delivery driver prides himself on carrying roadside emergency supplies for just about any kind of emergency. He's got a gas can, a pump, blankets, a first aid kit.
He didn't, however, have the supplies to help a victim who appeared to have nearly lost his leg. Stewart called 911, wrapped Burbach in some extra clothes and tried to distract him from the pain as they waited for help.
Though Burbach was not wearing a helmet, he didn't suffer head injuries or serious internal injuries. He's had a steady stream of visitors in the hospital, including several siblings (one of his brothers, Christopher Burbach, is The World-Herald's public engagement editor) and the friend with whom he planned to ride RAGBRAI.
He's also seen an outpouring of support from the local cycling community, including donations to help with his medical bills.
Carlos Morales, the City of Omaha's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said it's a group that has grown significantly in recent years and one that often bands together when a cyclist is involved in an accident.
It's hard to track exact numbers of cyclists in the city, but Morales said the number of bikes carried on city buses, the popularity and growth of bike stores and interest in bicycle and pedestrian improvements show a growing movement.
The bikes-on-buses program began in September 2008. A few hundred bikes were carried between then and the end of the year. By 2012, the annual total was 18,000.
Improvements largely focused on the eastern half of the city — including new bike lanes on roads such as Leavenworth Street — have helped give cyclists a safer place to ride.
But Morales said not all city streets are created equal when it comes to spaces for cyclists to ride comfortably.
Though west Omaha does have trail systems, the city lacks an east-west connecting route for cyclists. So people riding long distances must choose from a handful of major thoroughfares that typically have several lanes of vehicles traveling at higher speeds, such as the stretch of L Street where Burbach was hit.
“On any of those streets you are taking a little bit more risk overall,” Morales said. “When the speeds start to increase, it increases the probability of having a fatal crash or being seriously injured.”
Between 2008 and May 2012, the most recent numbers available, Omaha had a total of 304 reported bike-car crashes, with a peak of 87 in 2008.
Statewide, the number of injuries from bike-vehicle crashes has dropped from the early 1990s, when numbers hovered around 450 per year, to around 250 per year since the mid-2000s. Fatal crashes are relatively rare; the Nebraska Department of Highway Safety reported three in 2009, two each in 2010 and 2011 and none in 2012.
Morales said making streets safer for cyclists and drivers will require more work — and more facilities designed to accommodate two-wheel vehicles as well as four-wheel vehicles.
“Biking is growing in popularity, and we're trying to catch up as a city with the infrastructure,” he said.
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