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Professional cyclist injured in Alexander Valley hit-and-run crash


A top-ranked professional bicyclist from New Zealand was recovering Saturday in a Santa Rosa hospital one day after he was injured in a collision with a hit-and-run driver while on a training ride in Alexander Valley.

Michael Torckler, while still in critical condition, was improving, friends said late Saturday.

The suspected driver, Arthur Ben Yu, 36, was arrested Saturday afternoon at his home in Rohnert Park, said CHP Sgt. David Derczo.

Torckler, 26, was riding downhill on Pine Flat Road near Highway 128 on Friday afternoon at a high rate of speed when he collided with a car driving uphill. The driver then fled the scene, the CHP said.

The incident is the latest in a series of vehicle-versus-bicyclist incidents that have left five people dead in the past six weeks in the North Bay.

Steep, narrow and winding, Pine Flat Road is a dead end road and lightly trafficked. That makes it popular among cyclists, especially serious ones such as Torckler, a member of New Zealand's Pure Black Racing team who won the Tour of Borneo in May.

He was in Sonoma County training with the Santa Rosa-based Bissell Pro Cycling team and was scheduled to ride in Bend, Ore., in the Cascade Classic on July 17, said Glen Mitchell, Bissell's manager.

"We were slowly bringing him into our team and integrating him," Mitchell said.

Torckler arrived from Quebec, where Pure Black had been racing, on June 21 and was staying with friends of Bissell team members. He was airlifted to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital at 1:35 p.m. Friday unconscious with major head injuries and facial lacerations, the CHP said.

He was initially listed in critical condition at the hospital and remained in the intensive care unit Saturday evening, but Derczo said his injuries were no longer life threatening.

Torckler suffered 20 facial bone fractures that will need surgery, according to a report by New Zealand TV news program ONE News. Although Torckler was heavily sedated, he was able to communicate with people.

"They have carried out scans and they're very happy and pleased to report there's no major internal injuries to brain and head area," his father, Brohn Torckler, told ONE News.

Torckler narrowly escaped far more serious injuries.

"The word from the surgeon is that his face took all the impact, which essentially saved his brain," Mitchell said Saturday evening. Torckler's helmet "was essentially untouched," he said.

Some of his fractures had been "downgraded," his breathing apparatus was scheduled to be removed and minimal surgery was foreseen, Mitchell said.

"That's a huge contrast with 20 hours ago," he said, adding that when he first arrived at the hospital, according to authorities, it wasn't clear if Torckler would pull through.

Mitchell spoke about 24 hours after the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office put out a bulletin for a 1990's model black Honda sedan with blood on its windshield.

CHP investigators identified Yu as a suspect and reached out to his family in a bid to get him to surrender. He was arrested after his roommate notified investigators that Yu had returned to their Rohnert Park home, Derczo said.

No further information about Yu was available Saturday night.

Torckler was a rising racer who was rapidly making a name for himself after suffering a serious knee injury that curtailed his season last year with Pure Black.

"New Zealanders pinpointed him as one of the better riders in the country," said Mitchell. "We could tick the box with him for everything we're looking for and if we didn't grab him, our opposition was going to grab him."

Some of the qualities that have made him a strong racer will benefit him now, said Greg Cross, Pure Black's manager, speaking Saturday from Auckland, New Zealand.

"He's certainly a very resilient guy," said Cross. "His injury last year was a broken knee cap, so to come back from that requires a lot of determination and hard work and that really is what characterizes Michael."

Torckler's status as a rider helped push the news of his crash to competitive riders around the world, said Mitchell.

"It's something that's very horrific and it's one of the main things that riders think about, safety on the roads," he said.

In Sonoma County's cycling community, though, the talk Saturday focused not so much on the risks of riding but on the dynamics of hit-and-run drivers.

On June 8, retired SSU professor Steve Norwick, 68, suffered mortal injuries when he was struck on his bicycle by a hit-and-run driver on Petaluma Hill Road. He died 12 days later. Robert Cowart, 68, of Penngrove, has been charged in that case.

And on Friday, a man who ran down 4-year-old Christopher "Buddy" Rowe in a Santa Rosa crosswalk and then fled was sentenced to four years in prison.

"What is happening that someone would leave an injured human being, no matter how it happened, by the side of the road?" said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

"It's horrible what is happening," he said. "That's really what's been talked about."

It has been a grim month for cyclists overall.

On June 21, Brian Laurie, 68, of Sonoma, was killed when he rode into the path of a big rig on Eighth Street East.

On May 31, David Lemuel Standley, 34, of Cotati died after his bike crashed head-on into an SUV in the dark on River Road near Forestville.

On May 24, August Bissiri, 85, of Laguna Woods Village in Orange County was struck and killed by a car while riding his bicycle on Highway 1 near Bodega Bay.

In Napa Valley, Alfredo Hernandez Pedroza, 56, of Napa, was killed May 17 while riding his bicycle on Silverado Trail outside Yountville.