Brian McGuire pedals clear of tragedy to a new year of goals

It wasn't all smiles on a 750-mile ride through France, but Grand Canyon Education's Brian McGuire overcame a tragedy to complete the Paris-Brest-Paris.

Brian McGuire thought it might be time to give up his long-distance bicycling passion. When a truck plowed into his West Valley Cycle riding group on a February morning, killing two and sending a dozen to the hospital with serious injuries, he had survivor’s guilt and new fears.

“All it takes is one car,” he said.

But the executive director in business analytics at Grand Canyon Education overcame that fear to leave a message for anyone setting goals for the new year: Don’t let anyone steal your passion. “You decide if it is right.”

McGuire, 66, found long-distance bicycling just a dozen years ago, taking his first ride to a park for a yoga class. It was four miles – and he got a ride home. The next time he went 10 miles, then realized the canal trails in the Valley were nearby and he could go 15.

Brian McGuire gets ready for a late afternoon ride from his Litchfield Park neighborhood.

Growing up on a Wisconsin farm, he remembered the joy of hopping on a bike and had that again. “I had freedom, not being interrupted by people, breathing fresh air and getting the exercise my body needed.”  

He joined with Grand Canyon University employees on rides – he was a chemistry professor and GCU's executive director of Institutional Research – and he joined the Bull Shifters cycling group. The group's avid cyclists saw his enthusiasm, cycling ability to not lag, and invited him on longer expeditions. Within a year, he was doing the Grand Tour, the oldest double century (201 miles) in the U.S. and a California series of 200-, 300-, 400- and 600-kilometer rides in one year, a feat he has completed many times now.

He found that riding a bicycle was just the right speed to see a lot of things you couldn’t see in a car but still cover a lot of ground, all with the comradery of a group pace line.

“It’s an amazing thing to be a part of. You see 20 individuals lined up in the same jersey. You are trusting in every single person that they are going to make the right decision,” McGuire said. “Everyone is dependent on each other.”

In 2013, he went full in, pedaling 2,788 miles from San Diego to the Georgia coast in 17 days.

“It’s as mental as it is physical,” he said. “You won’t be successful if you have a defeatist attitude. Enough things will defeat you on a 200-mile ride.”

He had one dream, and he says it was a dream, not a goal yet: Ride the Paris-Brest-Paris, a challenging 12,000-kilometer (750 miles) ride through France in four days.

“It’s the mother of all long-distance rides,” McGuire said. “My clock is ticking: How many more years do I have until I can ride a bike that distance?”

Then came the tragic February day.

It was not unlike any typical Saturday ride with his new cycling club, West Valley Cycle. More than 50 riders were touring the West Valley. McGuire was usually in the rear, herding up stragglers, but five minutes before the ride, he decided to take the front position to lead the pace.

“I never do that. I don’t know why I did it,” he said.

As he was leading a small group of fast riders on the Cotton Lane Bridge over county road 85 near Goodyear, he looked back to see no one behind his faster group of four. They heard an emergency vehicle’s sirens, and quietly wondered, but kept going, only many miles later seeing a fellow cyclist and hearing the bad news.

A truck driven by Pedro Quintana-Lujan plowed into 19 of the group's bicyclists, killing 61-year-old Karen Malisa and 65-year-old David Kero, and causing injuries to 17. Quintana-Lujan told authorities his steering wheel locked up. Earlier this month, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office decided there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with a felony, returning the case to the city of Goodyear, which in late December decided to press misdemeanor charges.

It left McGuire with more than just disappointment over the charges, but questions on whether he wanted to continue bicycling.

“I have this survivor’s guilt,” McGuire said.

He talked with his partner about hanging up his custom-made titanium bike for good. Sonja Talley encouraged him to seek other riders and talk about their grief, and they met often over the next few weeks.

“If it was somebody else,” she reminded him, “you would tell them you gotta get back on it. You have to decide, do you love riding less because of one incident?”

Nothing could keep Brian McGuire from his dream of the Paris-Brest-Paris.

McGuire said he talked to survivors in the hospital, some who just a month ago were released after extensive treatment, and they told him they were getting back on the bike.

“I didn’t want that sport taken away from me by this,” McGuire decided. “And because of that I started doing more biking. I set new goals.”

One was to realize his dream in August, the ultimate randonneuring through France, the 750-mile Paris-Brest-Paris that is run every four years and has been since 1891 as a grueling test of endurance. He did long training through rides near the White Tanks and Estrella mountains, along the familiar routes of Sun City, and finished a challenging 750-mile ride in Colorado.

“You have to be obsessed to go that distance on a bike,” he said.

Both he and Sonja talked about how any ride can be your last, and he decided he had to be OK with that, as did his partner. ”In my more wisdom stage of life,” Sonja added, “worrying is not going to help anything.”

Though he still had fears going in, McGuire took off with the group signed up to do the Paris-Brest-Paris in less than 84 hours, riding 250 miles the first day, then 220, 200 and 75 the following three.

Sleep-deprived and exhausted, McGuire accomplished his goal of finishing the Paris-Brest-Paris.

Some riders hallucinate for lack of sleep or just lie down in the ditches for naps. McGuire kept going, and going, up and down hills on the route with 36,000 feet of elevation, until he finished.

“It’s life-changing,” he said. “I became a different person because of it. You realized what the human body can achieve and what people can achieve together. In my view, the whole country came together for this to happen. It’s about the human spirit.”

He was astounded by the cheering crowds, volunteers who cooked him crepes and helped fix his flat.

That spirit is his message going into the new year. Despite tragedy, uncertainty or pain, “pick a goal and move towards it.” This year, he is nearing 14,000 miles on a bike while planning new goals for 2024.

“You just keep going,” he said.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected].

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Related content:

GCU News: How to start a new year of mental fitness

GCU News: GCU Staffer Cycling More Than 2,700 Miles in Transcontinental Odyssey

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