By Walter Cicha
Eight days before fate dealt him a tragically decisive and darkly ironic hand, nearly one year ago, he was awarded a $3 million federal grant to lead a team in the development of new technology aimed at improving health and extending life worldwide. Two days prior to that, he finished 33rd out of 250 top cyclists from all over NY, New England and Quebec in the ruthless 8.3 mile Whiteface Mountain Memorial Bike Climb. A week before that, he was 3rd by a bike length in the Cambridge (NY) Balloon Festival Classic. He ran his first ever timed mile in 5:38, at the Glens Falls Memorial Mile race, another two weeks prior. And just three weeks before, he finished 32nd out of 252 runners in the demanding 5.6 mile Prospect Mountain Uphill Road Race, near Lake George, beating me in a footrace for the first (and last) time. As if all this wasn’t enough activity, just one week prior to the uphill run he competed in his first ever triathlon, and won his age group (in spite of almost drowning in the swim leg). Was he perhaps driven by some sense of what was to happen on June 29, 2004?
On June 27th, we did our first hike of 2004, to the summit of popular 3,254 foot Crane Mountain in the Adirondacks. While we ate lunch next to idyllic Crane Mountain Pond that flanks the peak, he mentioned his plan to cut back on cycling and instead focus more on running and hiking. I think he was pleased with his early season running results… He also said that bike racing increasingly struck him as being slightly unsafe, especially in the lead pack’s mad scramble to the finish, to which he was no stranger. Listening, I envisioned an “extreme” cycling/speed hiking race from Warrensburg, NY to the summit of Crane Mountain and back (a roundtrip distance of about 60 miles), which would even include a swim across the lake… Whenever I was in his company, it seemed eclectic ideas rapidly drifted in and out of my head, some sports related, some philosophical or political, some crazy, others innocuous. My mind raced even faster than usual that hour by the lake…
Dr. David Ryan, British citizen, symbolized the best of America. In a country that boasts an ex-cancer patient who has won the Tour de France more often than any other person in history, David was a highly competitive and accomplished cyclist. In fact, he had raced semi-professionally in the 1990s throughout Great Britain, and couldn’t understand how or why so many Americans still confuse their Lance with their Neil.
In a country whose best alpine skier is, against all odds, the current World Cup Champion (Bode who?), David took up the sport at age 30 and just over two short years later was winning Nastar racing medals at many of his favorite New England and upstate NY resorts. I never met anyone so determined not just to learn, but also to excel…and so able.
In a country that has built its fortune and prosperity on the backs of more than half a dozen generations of innovative, hard-working and brilliant citizens, David was pursuing a highly successful and totally dedicated career developing new superconducting magnet technology so tumors and a variety of other forms of diseased human cells and organs could be diagnosed and treated non-evasively with greater efficiently and precision. The special magnets, which would not require helium super-cooling (as is the current state of the art), were intended for incorporation into a new generation of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) instruments that for the first time would be able to operate in remote and impoverished regions of the world.
In the spring of 2004, the General Electric Company submitted a final proposal to the National Institute of Health (NIH), lead-authored by Magnet Physicist Dr. David Ryan, who was only a few weeks away from being granted a U.S. Green Card. The NIH liked what thy saw and GE was awarded $3 million for the development of the highly humane MRI technology. Thomas Edison, a co-founder of GE over a century ago, also possessed the rare combination of an exceptionally strong back and exceedingly powerful mind that typified David Ryan.
David Thomas Ryan was born in Harregot, North Yorkshire, England on October 8, 1971. He excelled at school, especially in physics and math, from an early age. His unusual talent was officially recognized when he was awarded the prestigious Scott Prize in Physics, for finishing first in his graduating class at Oxford University. He followed this up with a Ph.D in Magnet Physics from the same fabled university and then worked at Oxford Instruments in England for a couple years before being drafted by General Electric’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, NY.
Not long after this, in the early months of the 3rd millennium, I met David. It was on a GE Newcomers hiking trip that I had organized to the summit of New Hampshire’s popular Mt. Monadnock, eighteen days after 9/11. David stood out on that hike, in height and in determination, as he relentlessly pushed me to my limit during our eventual race to the summit. Here began an irreplaceable friendship, and many hours of the most enjoyable competition of my life.
As member of the Oxford Cycling Team, David became legendary for his gutsy feats, typically pulling lesser riders behind him up rainy, gusty hillsides en route to victory. He cycled all over England and mainland Europe (especially France), logging well over 100,000 miles by the time I met him. On the very rare occasions when I would find myself leading him during a ride, I would look back and see him smiling. Cycling was to him what eating is to the obese or making fortunes is to the greedy. The healthy rush of two-wheeled freedom on the open road completely enamored him.
David was renowned for falling asleep at most lectures, and then waking up at the end to ask a question or two that stumped many an Oxford lecturer and then GE manager. Fellow Brits Dr. Francis Crick (of DNA double-helix fame) and Dr. Bertrand Russell (leading 20th century mathematician and philosopher) supposedly shared the same peculiar idiosyncrasy.
October 19, 2002 was a cloudy, blistery day, the kind that Dave loved for a quick cycle. We chose a stretch of some road near Pittsfield, MA flanking the NY/MA border for our first ride together. The plan was 40 fast miles. Thinking that Dave was just “another rider,” I aggressively let him draft behind me for most of the initial 10 miles. At mile 11, I hammered up a hill in an attempt to lose him — I arrived at mile 20 a couple minutes after he did and begged him to cut the ride short, as the better part of my legs evaporated somewhere near mile 17. He obliged, with a sarcastic smirk…
My most cherished memories of David were made in the late summer of 2003, when together with a mutual friend and our bikes we boarded a plane on 9/11 at JFK bound for Vienna, Austria. Our flight arrived as scheduled, but the bikes were delayed somewhere by a day. No matter…we spent a bonus day sightseeing the famous Hapsburg jewel. The remaining 10 days included 240 miles of ad lib bicycle touring – no reservations, just a map, bike/personal gear and some money – through southeast Czech Republic and then across northwest Slovakia to the High Tatra (Carpathian) Mountains forming the border with Poland. After “resting” by spending two exceptional days hiking in the near 9000-foot High Tatra Mountains, we returned to Vienna, this time mostly by train.
The Slovak custom guards made us feel like heroes as they admiringly questioned us for the better part of ten minutes, causing a line of Slovakia bound cars to extend back into the Czech Republic. Why did we choose Slovakia for our trip? How did a Czech/Canadian, Brit and American ever hook up for such a trip? How do we like Slovakia? Are people being nice to us on the roads? How far do we have left to ride today? Etc. Appreciation for cycling really does have a way to go in America…
I also met Zuzana — my girlfriend — along our travels, at a restaurant in the Czech spa town of Luhacovice. I thank David for providing the competition that helped overcome my shyness and fueled my pursuit of the lovely lady – my fluent Czech and her lack of English was the margin of victory. Another noteworthy memory from the marvelous trip: exceptional Czech and Slovak beer is great cycling fuel! If David still believed that British beer was better than the Czech variety, which he eagerly sampled from one town to the next, he certainly did not let on.
Eleven tough months separated the Memorial Day Mile in 2004, when I last raced against David or anyone else, and Sean’s 5K Run this past April 24th. Sean Patrick French was a high school student who was killed a couple years ago as a passenger in a car driven by a drunken “friend.” Sean was also a 4:18 miler. Thinking of Dave the whole way, I gave it all I had and managed to finish 2nd in my age group. The competition lives on…
And it was all encompassing. Not only in sports, in everything we did. After a particularly hard training run on June 24, 2004, while we drank a few British beers and ate some “British curry” at his place, Dave showed me a book by the curious name “How Would You Move Mount Fuji?” It turned out to be a collection of rather intriguing brainteasers, amongst other things, and we spent the rest of the evening trying to discover who could solve them faster and more accurately. This took place amongst bicycle parts from multiple countries, dozens of books, an ironing board, various computer parts, three or four gigantic cycling route maps, assorted clothing spanning at least three seasons, and who knows what else; a menagerie of items strewn with perfect randomness all over his living room. Here too, we were in close competition, for David Ryan was the first person I met who could hold pace with me even in the fabulously entropic arena of housekeeping.
June 29th, 2004 — a Tuesday — seemed more like a fall day, with unsettled clouds swirling above and unseasonably cool temperatures. By 7:30 p.m., two shocked and critically concerned travelers on Riverview Road in southern Clifton Park were trying to protect David Ryan’s body from the rain that had just started falling. A few minutes earlier, an out of control red Nissan Centra, speeding out of a turn, struck David instantly dead. The well-posted speed limit on that road is 45 mph, less in turns. The 18-year old driver, Joshua Paniccia, smashed his ton-toy into David at more than 83 mph. On June 6, 2005, he will be sentenced to between one and three years in state prison, with the possibility of youthful offender status. It is almost certain that Mr. Paniccia will be legally driving again as soon as he is released.
David’s last e-mail to me was sent at 5:58 p.m. on the last day of his life. The topics of discussion were our planned assault on Africa’s highest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro, in early 2006 and the upcoming fall visit of his parents from England — he planned to take them to see the Rockies and perhaps even the West Coast, places none of them had ever been.
I am staring at my huge computer monitor, which I inherited after David together with other electronic marvels, ski gear, and dozens of books. What will the world miss out on during the half century that Joshua Paniccia stole from David Ryan’s life? How many ingenious and life improving inventions? How many lives could have been saved from his work? Would David have remained in the U.S.A, or gone back to Europe to meet the girl of his dreams, as he often spoke of doing? Would he have qualified for the coveted 200,000 miles club? We’ll never know.
As I freewheeled the 1300-foot descent from Petersburg Pass into MA on the first day of May, my feet agonizingly frozen to near numbness in the wet, 20 F (with wind-chill) weather, I could almost see Dave ahead of me smiling, enjoying every moment of this intense unification with nature and the world’s most noble mode of transport. For a while the pain went away, but only in my feet…
May 3, 2005
Dr. Walter Cicha was the Director of the “David T. Ryan Ride for Safety Awareness,” held on October 9, 2004 in Schenectady, NY, which raised $21,000 for the “David T. Ryan Scholarship Fund.” The fund was donated to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY where it will be used to award annual $5000 merit scholarships to an exceptional student in Science or Engineering.