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Friends, fellow cyclists ride to honor Palermo

Several hundred people gathered on Roland Avenue to remember Tom Palermo, a bicyclist killed when he was struck by a car while riding on Roland Avenue. A "ghost bike" was placed near where he was struck. (Baltimore Sun video)

Tom Palermo hadn't had as much opportunity as he would have liked recently to ride his bicycle. With a wife and two young children, and a full-time job and a business on the side, there just wasn't time.

"Last Saturday was a beautiful day," Palermo's brother-in-law, Jeff Hulting, told hundreds of Palermo's friends and fellow cyclists Thursday. Hulting said that his sister Rachel, "realizing how busy he had been, suggested Tom could do what he loved, and go out for a ride."

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Palermo, a fixture in the local cycling community, died that day after he was hit by a car in North Roland Park. The Baltimore County man was 41.

Hundreds of cyclists rode to the site of the accident Thursday to remember Palermo — and, some said, to send a message to the wider community about the vulnerability of riders on city streets.

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"I think a lot of regular drivers in the city just see groups of one, two, three cyclists," said Hans Ruppenthal, a member of the Baltimore Bicycling Club. "But if we have 700, or a thousand people, maybe they'll be like, 'Wow, there's more people riding bicycles than I thought.' … Maybe it means a little bit more awareness for the average person going to work or running errands."

The cyclists, many in bright racing gear, shut traffic down as they made their slow, somber procession along the 3-mile route from the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation to the 5700 block of Roland Ave, the site of the accident.

"For the cycling community, this is kind of part of our grieving process," said Nate Evans, executive director of Bike Maryland, which organized the event with Bikemore, a bicycling advocacy organization. "It gives us a chance to get out and celebrate a cyclist's life.

"In this case, it's Tom."

Episcopal officials have identified the driver of the car as Bishop Suffragan Heather Elizabeth Cook, the second-ranking official in the Diocese of Maryland. Police are investigating; no charges have been filed.

Cook was charged in 2010 with driving under the influence of alcohol in Caroline County. She pleaded guilty, received probation before judgment and was ordered to pay a $300 fine.

Evans said the focus Thursday was on Palermo.

"A lot of us are feeling upset right now over the way we lost Tom, over the circumstances, where it happened, how it happened," he told the crowd that gathered at the crash site. "We'll have a time for justice. But right now, the day is for Tom."

Palermo, a software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who also built and repaired bicycles, was well-known in the local cycling community. He is survived by his wife of seven years, Rachel Rock Palermo, and their children, Sadie, 6, and Sam, 4.

At the end of the ride Thursday, friends marked the site of the crash with a white-painted "ghost bike" chained to a post.

"Tom was incredibly passionate about bicycles," Hulting said. "Whether it was mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids, time-trial bikes — Tom loved them all. Not just riding, but also manufacturing and servicing them.

"Tom was also an advocate for safety for cyclists."

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Cyclists said they routinely have close calls on city streets. Greg Hinchliffe, executive director of Bikemore, counted two on the way to Thursday's ride.

"You try to minimize them by choosing your route carefully," he said. "You talk about defensive driving — we know defensive driving. We know anticipating, making eye contact. Because the stakes are so high.

"If I were to say anything to motorists, I would say, 'Slow down and pay attention. You're sitting on a ton of steel, and you have the capability to do immense harm. Even to kill someone. So the phone call can wait, the text can wait. You need to be sharp and paying full attention.'"

Ruppenthal said "any of us could go out for a ride and not come home."

"It's just a horrible tragedy, and on that route, too," he said. "We all ride in and out of Roland. It's one of the main ingresses and egresses in and out of the city."

Ruppenthal rode Thursday with his 10-year-old daughter, Vivi. They wore the matching pink gear of Team BBC, the Baltimore Bicycling Club's racing arm.

"I'm a Baltimore cyclist," Vivi said. "I've ridden right where the accident happened. I just wanted to come out and support the cause."

Hulting spoke of the good that could come from Palermo's death.

"As tragic as this accident was, and the grief that our family feels, it is our hope that the awareness caused by this horrible event will ultimately result in the saving of tens, if not hundreds, of cyclists' lives in the future.

"We ask everyone — cyclists, pedestrians and drivers — to be considerate of one another. Tom would want everyone to go for a ride — and to come home safe."

The family planned to receive friends from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road in Towson. A memorial Mass was scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Towson.

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