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Editor’s note: Over the weekend we were shocked by the tragic death of Kenyan professional cyclist John Njoroge Muya at the Tour of Matabungkay. Jennifer Carruthers was the race photographer on the scene and she gives her account of the circumstances that lead to the terrible loss of a husband, father, and member of the cycling community.
Billed as “the most awaited road cycling event of the year”, the 2014 Tour of Matabungkay attracted a record number of participants at just over 500 riders across the categories for the challenging four stage 3-day race. The majority of the competitors are Filipino, but the race has also been attracting more and more international participants from around the world. This year, the Kenyan Riders team, with a strong five-man squad made the TOM as part of their Asian racing campaign that also includes the Tour of Khatulistiwa in Indonesia. The remarkable 30 year old Kenyan rider, John Njoroge Muya, who had finished a noteworthy third place overall at the 2012 Tour of Rwanda and had competed in the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, won the opening 42km hilly Individual Time Trial with a winning time of 58’25”. Stage Two was held on the same day, October 18th, at 1:30pm. The Kenyan Riders team largely controlled the 88km road race like a well-oiled professional team, and it was a bunch sprint for the line, with Filipino rider Archie Cardana (Von Dutch) snatching the win.
John Njoroge Muya retained his yellow jersey status and was presented with the yellow jersey to wear for Stage Three, the 143km mountainous Queen stage, which contains numerous steep climbs. According to his coach, Rob Higley, it was John’s first ever yellow jersey and this made him extremely proud. His teammate, Ayub Kathurima, was in third standing on GC, having also posted an ITT result just under one hour. On day two, October 19th, the riders rolled out of the Matabungkay Beach Resort and Hotel at 8:30 AM, to first complete a 20km neutral section through a few towns before the official race started just before the first steep climb. It wasn’t long before the race was shattered into groups, with a front bunch that continuously shrank in size. The overcast conditions kept the heat at bay as the riders zigzagged up and over numerous mountains that almost resembled a roller coaster ride. The pace set by the enthusiastic Filipino climbers was so fast that not many of the international riders were able to keep pace, however all five of the Kenyan Riders were comfortable, along with Italian rider, Paolo Caputo (Team DirectAsia.com) and Bastian Dohling (Specialized Mavericks).
One hour into the race, John (Njoroge Muya) had misjudged a sharp corner at speed and chose to take a small tumble into the grass on the road-side rather than endanger his breakaway companions. He was unharmed, remounted, and chased back to reconnect with the breakaway group. All of his team-mates had dropped back to wait for him. They spent 10 minutes of hard pacemaking to re-establish contact. John did mention to his team mates that he had just learned that his brakes were not as good as he wished, and the team moved more carefully through the remaining corners. According to his teammates, John had no more bike handling problems. The breakway group was back together just before the KOM climb where Ronald Hualda (LightScience/American Vinyl) snatched the points needed to win the polka-dot jersey.
By this point, there were 14 riders left at the head of the race. The traffic was light on the narrow mountain highway, but there was ever the presence of motorbike marshals and police vehicles sweeping ahead of the bunch to clear the road, and armed soldiers could be seen on the roadside from time to time. Racing in the Philippines is never on 100% closed roads and traffic control is notoriously difficult. An ambulance was following just behind the breakaway group. Shortly past 10:00 AM, almost halfway through the course, the front group was flying down a steep descent with speeds close to 80km/h and rounded a descending corner to find things not quite as usual. A black Hyundai Accent vehicle had ignored the marshal’s instructions and was the only vehicle to be moving slowly uphill while all the other vehicles had complied to pull off the road.
The extremely tight corner thus had become even narrower and John, who just happened to be on the left side of the breakaway group at the time (in the Philippines you drive and ride on the right side of the road), found himself with nowhere to go. It seems most likely, according to the coach, that John did not wish to cut back to the right with sudden braking to take the inside line for fear of causing a big pile up at the speeds the group was traveling. Based on the angle of the collision it is speculated that John was making a last ditch attempt to get around the car to the left, where he had found safety on the first fall, but this time there was no grass and the head on collision with the car was unavoidable. If he had succeeded in passing the car on the left, the line of stopped vehicles would have been waiting for him there. It was an impossible situation, where the rider truly had nowhere to go.
The unavoidable collision into the car resulted in severe head and body trauma, and while he had immediate care from the ambulance that was on the scene within seconds, the paramedics were unable to keep him alive on the way to the hospital. John’s bike sailed through the air, and the only thing his team-mates were aware of was that the bicycle had broken when it smashed into the ground.
The driver of the vehicle, 35-year-old Carl Hector Agoncillo Rustia, was arrested, and a case was formally filed against him on Monday, October 20th.
Unaware of the severity of the accident, the lead group was able to focus on the task at hand, as they left the Nasubgu-Ternate Highway behind to race through numerous small towns. Organizers quickly posted marshals further up the hill to warn the remaining cyclists to slow down and be careful. By the end, 12 men still remained in the lead group, and it was Rener Clauna of Aboitiz Power who won the sprint for the line. Kenyan Riders’ Ayub Kathurima came in fourth, but moved into the Yellow Jersey and overall winner of the Tour of Mataungkay 2014.
Organisers had changed the finish line to be closer to the race hotel to facilitate a smoother transitioning time, and this is where Kenyan Riders coach Rob Higley informed the team of what had happened to John. The general feeling shared by all those at the TOM was of shock and dismay. It’s rare to loose a rider during an event, almost unheard of even.
In an effort to show support to the Kenyans, and also to celebrate and honour the life of John Njoroge Muya, the race was officially brought to a close with stage three, and the final day was a neutral group ride to the finish. The sun was shining on October 19th as the hundreds of participants rolled out from the event hotel, sorted into a fast, medium, and slow moving groups. The yellow jersey’s from the different categories were given the rare opportunity to ride together and the DirectAsia.com team members wore black armbands. It was also an emotional time for them, having lost one of their own team members, Colin Robertson, just 4 months prior in early June. Colin had been out training in Hong Kong when he was struck by a truck that ended his life. Colin, coincidently, had been the Tour of Matabungkay’s 2012 champion.
By the end of the 130km course, which showcased the stunning Batangas region, many new friendships had been forged. The Kenyan Riders team rolled across the finish line together, arms raised, in a show of solidarity.
It is hoped that this tragic incident will bring more awareness to traffic safety. It is recognized by all that the road control at the Tour of Matabungkay could be improved with additional marshals, however the local police and army were also on hand to help control; it was the best they could manage in a country that does not always pay heed to the authorities. John’s split second decision ultimately cost his own life but it was admirable that he did not endanger the safety of his breakaway companions by swerving into them.
John leaves behind his wife and baby boy who will need to re-build their lives. There is a fund being set up to help with this as well as the cost of transporting the body back to Kenya, and to help secure the continuing future of the Kenyan Riders team, for which John has sacrificed his all. If you are in a position to donate, it would tremendously help their cause. The details will be posted shortly on the Kenyan Riders Facebook page, as well as here on CyclingTips.