Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

An unfinished ride

Cyclists looking for a safe, easy entry to downtown Baltimore from north of the city seek out Roland Avenue, a wide, divided road with two lanes in either direction, dedicated bike lanes, and even an often-unoccupied parking lane against the curb.

Cyclists looking for a safe, easy entry to downtown Baltimore from north of the city seek out Roland Avenue, a wide, divided road with two lanes in either direction, dedicated bike lanes, and even an often-unoccupied parking lane against the curb.

It was the road Tom Palermo chose on Dec. 27 for an afternoon ride on a mild Saturday when the temperature rose to 56 degrees. The holidays had been hectic as always, with a lot going on in the house he shared in the Baltimore County suburb of Anneslie with his wife, Rachel; their children, 6-year-old Sadie and 4-year-old Sam; and Mack Superdog, the snuggling pit bull. Palermo, a software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had also just completed a hand-built touring bicycle for a customer of the frame-building business he ran on the side, a hobby that sometimes consumed him.

Getting a break to simply enjoy a bike ride was as rare a December gift as the weather. From the time he was old enough to ride, Palermo loved bicycles. The native of Riverton, whose parents still live in Burlington County, was always on a bike or a skateboard, according to the friends from his high school days at St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia. Riding was an escape, a passion, a sport in which he competed, and was even responsible when Palermo met the love of his life.

As Palermo crossed into the city, he could have taken the parallel options of York Road or North Charles Street, but neither have bike lanes, so he traveled farther west and took Roland. Just south of Lake Avenue, the road rises slightly for a half-mile from the ancient streambed of Roland Run and crests in the 5700 block. A rider who tops that rise, probably coming out of the saddle to reach it, can see the sweep of the city and possibilities of the day before him. That is what Tom Palermo saw. It was 2:40 p.m.

Riding a bicycle on public streets - whether for exercise, enjoyment, transportation, or to train for competition - is unique among athletic pursuits. There are dangers and risks in any physical activity. People are injured playing basketball. They tear hamstrings on the tennis court. Injuries and even death can happen any time, but a softball player almost always comes home from the game. For cyclists, the danger is a companion on every ride.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2013, the most recent year for which results are available, 48,000 bicyclists suffered injuries in collisions with motor vehicles, and 743 died as a result of those injuries. No motorists died in the collisions.

"You can break your neck playing football or get hit by a ball in a freak accident, so I don't want to sensationalize the dangers of riding a bike, but there's nothing to compare with the physics of a car versus an unprotected vehicle operator," said Chris McKenna, a cycling enthusiast and a friend to Tom Palermo since their first day of freshman homeroom at St. Joe's Prep. "If you talk to the guys out on the road all the time, everybody has that in mind whenever you go for a ride."

Philadelphia and Baltimore share the same challenges as other older northeastern cities in making it possible for bikers to safely use streets that are often narrow; densely crowded; and, increasingly, are filled with motorists who are not operating their vehicles properly.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia tracks cycling deaths in the Delaware Valley, and each May there is a Ride of Silence to remember the riders who were lost in the previous year and to bring attention to the issue. The ride, an eight-mile loop through Center City that begins and ends at the Art Museum, is organized by coalition members Ray Scheinfeld and John Siemarowski. In an average year, there are eight to 10 collision deaths in the area. So far, four names are already on the list that will be read aloud May 20 at the 10th annual ride.

"You always kibitz when you're on a ride with friends, but we do this ride in complete silence, and it becomes very powerful," said Scheinfeld, who commutes every day from his home on West Oak Lane to the airport, where he is a planning manager.

At the front of the pack of more than 100 riders, a "ghost bike," a stripped-down bike painted starkly white, is drawn along through the procession. Ghost bikes are often placed at the scene of a fatal accident as grim reminders to both cyclists and drivers alike.

"Tom and I talked about how dangerous it can be, and the close calls when cars were zipping by," said Jeff Hulting, Palermo's brother-in-law. "But you never think that stuff can really happen to you. Tom was in such a protected bike lane, you think there's no way something can happen."

Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, 58, the second ranking member among Episcopalian clergy in the Diocese of Maryland, also chose Roland Avenue on Dec. 27. She was operating a green Subaru station wagon as she traveled south from her apartment building toward the city.

It was the same vehicle Cook was driving in 2010 when a sheriff's deputy stopped her on Maryland's Eastern Shore as she careened along, even though one tire had been shredded down to the rim by some unknown incident. Police said Cook had liquor, wine, and marijuana in the car; had vomit on her blouse; and, when a blood-alcohol test was finally done - the roadside sobriety test was halted because deputies believed she would fall and hurt herself - Cook registered a count of 0.27. The legal limit for operating a vehicle in Maryland is 0.08.

Cook was charged as a result of the arrest, but was awarded probation before judgment, which is not out of the ordinary for a first offense. She paid a $300 fine, completed her one-year probation without incident, and continued her climb through the ranks of Maryland's Episcopal clergy. In 2014, she was installed as bishop suffragan.

As she drove on that Saturday afternoon, however, Cook was once again a danger to herself, to other drivers, to pedestrians, and to bike riders. Authorities say she was both drunk and using her phone to text. Statistics from the NHTSA indicate that driving under the influence makes an accident eight times more likely, and texting while driving makes an accident 20 times more likely.

Cook went through the intersection at Lake Avenue, then passed Bellemore Road to her right, and finally reached the top of a small hill where a low stone wall beyond the sidewalk marked the address, 5712, of the Roland Park North community. Police said she looked down and swerved into the bike lane. It was 2:40 p.m.

Tom Palermo was obsessed with how things should fit together and fascinated by the challenge of devising clean, logical lines, whether in the strings of advanced computer code he taught himself or in the classic symmetry of a hand-built bicycle frame.

At 41, the lines of his life had come together seamlessly. His work with computer programming was deep and rewarding. He was lead developer for websites that helped in the fight against HIV/AIDS and created the public site for vaccine adverse event reporting.

As an avocation, when he could steal the time, he would lose himself in the side business of building bicycle frames. Everything was old-school. He used steel tubes and lugs and brazed them together with a torch and careful application of brass. There were hours of filing the frame by hand in order to make the lines just as perfect as he saw them in his mind's eye.

"I knew both sides of him," said Gary Dunn, who met Palermo nearly 15 years ago in a bike shop near the University of Maryland campus. "I knew the craftsman, and I knew the great family man. When he was working on stuff, his nickname was 'The Angry Man,' because he wanted it to turn out exactly how he wanted. Then, when he was with his kids, he was such a happy dad. He had a beaming face that you just couldn't wipe away."

Palermo went from St. Joe's Prep to study at Maryland and earned a degree in history but was drawn to the programming work, which he pursued almost as ardently as his devotion to riding a bicycle. He held various IT jobs after school and alternated those with his work as a master bicycle technician. While working in the bike shop at an REI in suburban Washington, he met coworker Rachel Rock, and one more line of his life fell into place.

Tom and Rachel married and moved to Anneslie, and Palermo became more accomplished in his frame-building work. Over the time he pursued that passion, he built only about 15 bikes. They took forever. In June 2004 he finished his first one and gave it to Rachel on her 30th birthday.

They rode together, of course, and traveled once to Belgium and France to watch two great European races, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, one-day classics held a week apart each spring. Palermo took his bike and rode the treacherous cobbled sections with a grin on his face.

Sadie and Sam were born in 2008 and 2010, and there wasn't as much time for bike-building. He was busy at work and busy at home. But there was always time to ride, eventually with the kids by his side. There was time to enjoy a beer with friends, to make a great meal, and to be with Rachel.

"Tom has my heart. He was a quiet guy, but once you got to know him he was fun, humorous, knowledgeable, and kind," said Rachel Rock Palermo. "I want him back."

Palermo also stayed involved with the local biking community and conferred with Nate Evans, the director of Bike Baltimore, on planning future bike routes in the city. As with most things, Palermo was serious about safety.

And, of course, because life should be orderly and logical, because it should fit together flawlessly and be protected, he always wore a helmet.

Cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia are working to provide cyclists with more protection than merely what is strapped to their heads. In Philadelphia, the most effective recent steps have been the establishment of dedicated bike lanes eastbound on Pine Street and westbound on Spruce Street, from Cobbs Creek Parkway in West Philadelphia all the way to the Delaware River.

Regular riders, however, report the lanes are often used for illegal parking, are employed as an additional lane by cabdrivers and others in a hurry, and are still hazardous at every cross street.

Still, the Bicycle Coalition and others are encouraged by the city's dedication to the effort, much of which is credited to Mayor Nutter, who has been a consistent advocate for recreational biking in Philadelphia (and whose wife, Lisa, is a competitive track cyclist).

"We take very seriously that safety is an important part of our mission," said Andrew Stober, the chief of staff for the Mayor's Office for Transportation and Utilities. "We have installed about 50 miles of new bike facilities in the last eight years. We're making headway when, frankly, the political support is not always there.

"We like to restripe when we repave, because the stripes aren't paint, but a kind of plastic that gets absorbed, and it adheres better if the pavement was just put down. We don't have the level of investment for repaving that we'd like to have."

In fact, the city has a repaving backlog of 900 miles, or enough to pave Broad Street from Cheltenham Avenue to the Navy Yard a total of 72 times. While the 50 miles of new bike lanes is admirable, Boston, another dense, strapped northeastern city, has created twice as many miles in the same time, according to the Bicycle Coalition.

The lanes are a great addition, but everyone agrees there is no amount of planning or design that will prevent the tragedies that result because of drivers who shouldn't be doing what they do behind the wheel of a car.

"You look around and all you see are people on the phone, even as they take their foot off the brake and roll through lights," said McKenna, Tom Palermo's friend from The Prep. "When I heard the report about Tom, I looked at the road on Google Maps, and the first thing I thought was: 'Shoot, this road is wide open. The driver must have been distracted.' "

There is a ghost bike chained to a street sign at the intersection of Roland Avenue and Drohomer Place, just a few yards beyond the crest of the hill at 5712 where Heather Cook's station wagon slammed into the back of Tom Palermo's bicycle and sent the rider hurtling into her windshield.

The impact shattered the passenger's side of the windshield and punched a hole in it nearly a foot across. Cook kept driving, police said, leaving Palermo in the street. Passersby reached him quickly and called for emergency help. About 20 minutes later, Cook returned in the damaged car to the scene, where police arrested her and took her to Baltimore's central booking facility. When she was given a blood-alcohol test, nearly an hour after the collision, the result was 0.22, police reported. Authorities said her phone showed a text conversation was taking place when Palermo was killed.

"You pretty much have to be drunk and texting to hit somebody there," said Chris Bishop, a fellow bike-builder whom Palermo befriended and encouraged over the years. "It's your worst nightmare because you always think you're skilled enough to avoid getting hit."

Rob Rowello, another friend from The Prep, started a Facebook page with a dual purpose. He wanted to make sure the incident received attention and was handled properly by the criminal justice system, and he wanted to help the family's attempt to establish an educational fund for Sadie and Sam. (Information concerning the fund can be obtained at by searching "Children of Tom Palermo.")

"There are about 150 of us from The Prep who have reconnected over the years, and we all send messages back and forth, so I knew Tom was living in the Baltimore area, and when I saw the news, I was taken aback," Rowello said. "I dug around and found the prior DUI and reached out to the media there to make sure the facts in the case came out. It wasn't to be vindictive, but things can get brushed under the rug. Tom was a really good guy. He was a safe rider. He knew the rules of the road."

On Jan. 15, Heather Cook was charged with a litany of crimes, including manslaughter and driving under the influence. She is out on bail awaiting trial and, if convicted of the most serious counts, could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. She has been asked to resign her position in the church.

In the days after Tom Palermo's death, that last bike frame he completed came back from being painted, and the bicycle itself needed to be put together and delivered to the customer. Rachel Rock Palermo was dealing with a lot, more than anyone should ever have to, but she knew what Tom would want, and she began to search for a bike shop to finish the job.

"I told her, 'No way. I'm going to do this,' " Chris Bishop said. "I wanted it done right, because Tom would have done the same for me."

He assembled the fork, the handlebars, the crank, the fenders, the racks, the wheels, everything; completing Tom Palermo's vision of all those logical lines, all those different pieces of a bicycle's personality, becoming a thing of functional beauty with a life of its own.

"Of course," Bishop said, "it went together perfectly."