By WALTER CICHA
First published: Tuesday, June 14, 2005 – Times Union, Albany, NY
Eight days before fate dealt him a tragic hand nearly one year ago, a National Institute of Health grant he authored was awarded. In the weeks leading up to the fateful day, he won his age group in a triathlon, competed in four bicycle and running races, and hiked in the Adirondacks, while finalizing the proposal that would land General Electric the multimillion-dollar grant. Was he perhaps driven by some sense of what was to happen on June 29, 2004?
David Ryan, British citizen, symbolized the best of America. In a country that boasts history’s most often-crowned Tour de France champion, David was a highly competitive cyclist. He had raced semi-professionally throughout Great Britain, and couldn’t understand how or why many Americans still confuse Lance with Neil.
In a country whose best alpine skier is the current World Cup champion, David took up the sport at age 30 and two years later was winning medals. I never met anyone so determined not just to learn, but also to excel — and so able.
Technological innovation is this nation’s key to prosperity. A scientist at General Electric’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, David was developing new magnet technology for diagnosis of human disease. The special magnets were for a new generation of MRI instruments more practical for use in underdeveloped areas.
David Thomas Ryan was born in Harregot, North Yorkshire, England on Oct. 8, 1971. He excelled at school, especially in physics and math. In finishing first in his class at Oxford University, David won the prestigious Scott Prize in physics. He earned a Ph.D. in physics, also from Oxford, then worked at Oxford Instruments before being drafted by GE.
As member of the Oxford Cycling Team, David was legendary for his gutsy feats, pulling lesser riders behind him up rainy, gusty hills en route to victory. He had cycled all over England and Europe, logging well over 100,000 miles. Cycling to him was what eating is to the obese or making fortunes is to the greedy.
David also was renowned for falling asleep during lectures, only to awaken at the end to ask questions that stumped many an Oxford lecturer and GE manager. Fellow Brits and Nobel Laureates Francis Crick and Bertrand Russell supposedly shared the same idiosyncrasy.
Not long after he arrived in the United States, I met David on a GE Newcomers Club trip to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. David stood out on that hike, as he pushed my limits during our race to the summit. Here began an irreplaceable friendship, and many hours of the most enjoyable competition of my life.
My most cherished memories of David were made in late summer of 2003, when, with a mutual friend and our bikes, we boarded a plane for Vienna. Our impromptu bike tour — no reservations, just maps and gear — took us across the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the Tatra Mountains, where we spent two “restful” days hiking.
Another noteworthy memory from the marvelous trip: Exceptional Czech beer is the perfect post-cycling reward! If David still believed British beer was better, his eager sampling of the local brew indicated otherwise.
June 29, 2004, seemed more like a fall day, with unsettled clouds and unseasonably cool temperatures. By 7:30 p.m., two concerned travelers on Riverview Road in Clifton Park were trying to protect David’s body from the rain that had just started falling. A few minutes earlier, a car had struck David instantly dead.
The posted speed limit was 45 miles an hour. The driver, Joshua Paniccia, then 18, smashed his ton-toy into David at what authorities estimated was at least 83 mph. Mr. Paniccia was sentenced last week to 1 to 3 years in prison after pleading guilty to criminally negligent homicide.
David’s last e-mail to me arrived at 5:58 p.m. on the final day of his life. He wrote about our planned assault on Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro in 2006, and his parents’ visit to the United States in the fall of 2004.
On what will the world miss out during the decades that Joshua Paniccia stole from David Ryan’s life? How many ingenious and life-saving inventions?
Would David have remained in America, 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-mile cycling club? We’ll never know.
As I freewheeled the descent from Petersburg Pass into Massachusetts on May 1 this year, my feet partially numb from the cold, wet wind, I could almost see Dave ahead of me smiling, enjoying this intense unification with nature and the world’s noblest mode of transport.
For a while the pain went away, but only in my feet. In the distance, a rolling New England meadow resembled the field in Bishop Monkton, North Yorkshire, which will keep my friend company for eternity.
Walter Cicha of Schenectady was director of the David T. Ryan Ride for Safety Awareness on Oct. 9 that raised $21,000 for scholarship fund in Ryan’s name at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.