When Cal Melick was killed on his bicycle last Wednesday, the pulse of the cycling community stopped. When it restarted, it was at a different beat, a sudden dissonant harmonic, missing that fundamental undertone that kept the order of things in the right key. There is no making sense of it. At least not with reason, which has no power to explain or soothe the madness in the random.
Cal rode every day, rain or shine, hot or cold. You could spot him from a distance, a lean figure on his black, steel Jeffrey Bock bike, head cocked to the side, spinning smoothly in a lower gear. We knew he had once plied the race circuit. Cycling behind him, we marveled at his art of turning the pedals in fluid circles, or keeping the perfect line on an imperfect bend in the road. Leading a pace line, he was metronomic in tapping out a steady speed. Following others, he’d lock into the sweet spot in the slipstream.
For the past three or so years, Cal preferred to ride solo. Except for Sunday mornings, when he would join one of the small groups leaving South Park to discover again the terrain to De Soto or Wellsville or Tonganoxie or Centropolis. And Monday evenings, on his so-named Recovery Ride, which he billed as a 20-mile jaunt at a moderate pace, he would join in the full-gas race up the south side of Clinton Dam. Otherwise he was a lone cyclist on lonely roads, wheels glued to the white line, the shoulder, the curb on the right.
And here his accident becomes the most cruel of ironies. Cal reportedly was struck head-on by a truck passing a car on a stretch of Douglas County 458. Had we been with him in a group, the accident might not have occurred. A group of cyclists in a riot of jersey colors is more visible to traffic than a single rider — and likely safer. But large groups in and of themselves are more dangerous than cycling solo, because of crashes caused by a rider’s momentary inattention or mishap — sudden braking, an inadvertent touch of wheels. In this Catch-22, Cal opted to spread the odds: cycle alone much of the time, and in small groups some of the time. He won that spread until Wednesday.
Whatever the odds, Cal stuck to asphalt. He eschewed gravel riding, often joking that every dirt road in Kansas should be paved over. And he couldn’t be lured off road onto trails and fat-tire bikes. He had long committed to the road bike, that slim, lissome metal silhouette ghosting through the wind.
Cal never said what drove this lifelong affair. Neither do most cyclists. It’s a private passion. No one asks, no one tells. Perhaps, for Cal, it was the freedom of the road, the silent whisper of speed across the landscape. Perhaps it was the 360-degree view of the undulating Kansas terrain running to the horizon. Spring would find him on the Cottonwood 200, a three-day ride through the Flint Hills, leaving Council Grove at sunrise to see the tallgrass prairie rise and fall in the long shadows of the morning light. In July, on the Lawrence Bike Club’s Lizard ride, we cycled together through an early morning Turner mist until the sun burned the art and hung the world anew. In the fall, Cal was a regular on LBC’s Octoginta, leading us into the wind and blowing leaves through the yellow and red painting of the trees. And in winter, dressed in thermal jersey and tights, he’d ride into the cold chill of the air and see the low sun refract through the crystals of snow, turning light liquid.
Perhaps what Cal felt was the close beauty of this land, so austere that it hurts the heart. Now gone, he is part of our hurt.