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Cyclist ready to return, a year after collision


San Francisco cyclist Anoush Zebarjadian remembers some of last year's sweeping GranFondo ride through west Sonoma County, the long push toward the coast and the hills that marked the ride.

But he has no memory of the SUV that knocked him from his bike and continued on, leaving him choking on his blood from serious head and facial injuries.

It took more than four months of recovery in Santa Rosa and San Francisco for Zebarjadian, 58, to get back to work full time, and even longer to regain his driver's license and get his structural engineering business back on track.

It will be a few weeks more — nearly a full year since the Oct. 9 collision — for him to again mount a road bike and take a street ride. That is expected to come by Oct. 1, when Zebarjadian makes his return to the GranFondo and the rural roads of Sonoma County, leaving behind months of training on a stationary bike and marking his recovery with the 7,500 other riders on the road.

"I'm looking forward to it. I feel OK," said Zebarjadian, from his home in the West Portal area of San Francisco.

The driver involved in the crime has not been caught. But word of Zebarjadian's return has cheered ride organizers and participants, who were concerned, then angered following last year's hit-and-run collision.

"Anoush is coming back. It's a tragic story but fantastic to be able to say," said Greg Fisher, editor of Bike Monkey magazine and an organizer for the annual charity ride, known as Levi Leipheimer's King Ridge GranFondo.

The injured man's return speaks to one of the core values of cycling: "...getting knocked down and getting back up again, with a value on getting up...(especially) after a tragic, malicious act like this," Fisher said.

"We are humbled by Anoush's determination."

The GranFondo is a tri-level ride started in 2009 by Leipheimer, a professional cyclist and Santa Rosa resident. The route runs from Santa Rosa to the coast and back and captures many of west Sonoma County's picturesque views, rolling hills and steep grades.

"I remember the start of the ride. ... It was a very pretty day," said Zebarjadian, who said he had been a serious road bike rider since 2005, putting in about 150 miles on weekends.

He recalls stopping for lunch at the top of King Ridge above Cazadero, the ride toward Bodega Bay and the climb up and over Coleman Valley Road.

"I remember that long ride up," he said, one rider among the 6,000 who participated that day.

As he tries to recall Graton Road, his memory of the ride stops.

He was heading east on Graton Road, legally traveling at about 30 to 35 mph in the middle of the lane when he was hit by a vehicle headed the same direction, CHP Officer Mike Phennicie said.

The impact threw the helmeted rider from his Cannondale carbon fiber road bike. He hit the ground about 100 feet from where he was struck.

Some riders told officers the driver of an SUV had been harassing cyclists prior to the incident by driving aggressively, said Phennicie, lead investigator.

But no one was able to tell officers if the driver was a man or woman. And no one got the license plate number.

The vehicle was described as an older model SUV, possibly a 1991-1994 Ford Explorer, dark red, burgundy or maroon. But dozens of interviews with riders and attempts to find video from riders or photos by spectators showing the vehicle have been unsuccessful.

Zebarjadian has no memory of the collision, nor of the two weeks immediately following, said Nancy Lee, Zebarjadian's life partner of more than 20 years.

But he's been told of the riders who came to his aid, including a doctor who kept him from choking on his blood and may have saved his life.

"He was a great help for me," Zebarjadian said of the man he has thanked by e-mail, but has yet to meet.

The worst of the injuries were the broken cheek bone and crushed left orbital eye area, which kept him in intensive care for two weeks. From Santa Rosa he went to a rehabilitation hospital in San Francisco where he continued to improve from a double vision problem. He finally got to go home at about Christmas, he said.

"It destroyed some of his livelihood. He's been rebuilding his business. We've lost a lot to this person. We would like them to be brought to justice," said Lee.

In March he began working full time again at the business he created, Consulting Structural Engineers, Inc. thankful that the head injuries did not impact his ability to continue.

The couple said they were flooded with support and outrage on their behalf, even as the medical bills mounted and the loss of work made life difficult, Lee said.

"We feel very strongly, the whole community of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, the bicycle and non-bicycle (community), the medical profession, every-day people, really gave our whole family an outpouring of support," Lee said.

"It was a really rough time and it really helped, knowing that people really cared about what happened in their community."

Zebarjadian said he bears no grudge against the GranFondo.

"I believe this was a random act of violence and in no way the fault of the event organizers. No one could have imagined that a person would intentionally harass riders with their car and then progress to deliberately hitting a bike rider in the event," he said.

"If a crazy person wants to commit a violent crime like this, there is little anyone can do to stop them."

Accidental collisions between bike riders and vehicles are not rare in Sonoma County, where riders and drivers are common travelers on the region's scenic roadways.

But the collision between the vehicle and Zebarjadian falls under a different category, said the CHP.

Investigators said the driver may have swerved into the rider on purpose, which would make the collision an assault. The driver then continued down Graton Road, making it a hit-and-run.

Officers tracked down about 40 burgundy, older-model Ford Explorers searching for the car and the driver.

"All over the place, Petaluma to Cloverdale," Phennicie said. "We're at a wall on that one," said acting Lt. Robert Mota, investigation supervisor. "We never had any real good leads on it."

With the 2011 GranFondo set to bring in riders in a few weeks, both officers and the family are hoping for a tip leading to an arrest.

"It just seems maybe somebody knows something," Lee said.

Last year Zebarjadian was on the 103-mile route, but this year he will attempt the mid-range ride of 65 miles.

The CHP still has his bike, hoping to use it as evidence matched against a vehicle. But it may be returned to the rider prior to his return to Sonoma County.

Zebarjadian said he's not nervous about his return. But this time he'll ride with a partner and he's taken other precautions.

"I'm going to have several mirrors on my helmet," he said.