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A Belcourt staffer's shocking death triggers a push for bike safety

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When Brooke Kalan woke up to an early morning call Sept. 14 from her friend JP Banas, she sensed that all was not well. "I never receive calls from JP before noon," she says. When she answered, the news was even worse than she feared.

Their friend, Schuyler "Sky" Vassen, had been riding his bicycle with a friend down Natchez Trace in the Hillsboro Village neighborhood, using the bike lane. As he pedaled along, Vassen's chain apparently popped off. The sudden break sent the avid cyclist head first over his handlebars. When he landed, he hit the curb directly, causing severe head trauma. He was not wearing a helmet.

Sky Vassen was the last person his friends expected to be gone from their lives. An art, film and bike lover who worked part-time at The Belcourt, cherished by friends for his optimism and kindness, he was more the kind of person they'd call when they needed help.

"Sky would always be there for his friends," Kalan says. "No matter what, you could call him, and he would be there with a conversation, a hug, a ride — whatever you needed. He was rock solid."

So when Banas called her, Kalan recalls, she went straight to the hospital. The next 12 hours started with modest hope, as friends and family gathered at Vanderbilt's ICU. But that gave way to shock as they realized Sky would never regain consciousness. A short time later, he was taken off life support. Less than a day earlier, Sky had posted on Facebook that it was a beautiful day for a bicycle ride.

Vassen's memory has led friends, family and co-workers to create Skyroc: A Benefit Concert for the Oasis Bike Workshop, to be held this Friday, Nov. 4, at The Belcourt. The concert features music from Buffalo Clover, Colorfeels, Jessica Breanne & the Electric Hearts, and The Grayces. Door prizes will be awarded throughout the evening, including gift certificates to local businesses, vinyl from Third Man Records, a variety of items from The Belcourt, and bike helmets decorated by local artists. (Rumor says a certain trash-humping local director has donated his artistic skills.) The big prize will be given out last: a custom bicycle donated by Halcyon Bike Shop.

"Sky was an amazing positive influence in my life," says Banas, who helped organize the event. "I hope the same can be accomplished through this benefit: positive influence through good will and charity."

Apart from honoring Vassen's life, the evening's goal is to bring awareness to helmet safety. All funds raised will benefit the Oasis Center's Bike Workshop, a nonprofit earn-a-bike program for underprivileged youth that stresses all facets of bike care, including rider protection.

"It's hard to not think that Sky's death could have been prevented if he had worn a helmet," says Matt Polman, Vassen's friend and a Belcourt manager. Statistics show that only half of cyclists wear helmets, despite the high risk of head injury in bicycle-related accidents. Nearly two-thirds of all bicycle injuries in the U.S. are head injuries, and cycling is the leading cause of sports-related head injuries.

Like many cyclists, Vassen was not wearing a helmet. There is no way to know conclusively how much his injuries would have been lessened if he had been. Without one, though, his injuries were fatal.

Helmet safety continues to be a polarizing issue among cycling advocates. Much like vehicle seat-belt use, helmets are often seen as unnecessary or uncomfortable to riders. Even advocates will admit that no one looks cool with a padded Styrofoam hat on his or her head. But as Nashville continues to see a rise in urban cycling, ending the stigma against helmets becomes imperative.

Right now, helmet use is required only for riders 16 years of age and younger. Some cycling advocates say that making helmets mandatory for all riders only discourages individuals from getting on their bike. But it is challenging to find any other alternative to promote helmet use, other than strong educational programs that teach responsible bicycling. As urban cycling grows more widespread in Music City, supporters say, so should common-sense safety practices such as using lights at night, riding in bike lanes when possible — and yes, wearing a helmet.

The Oasis Center Bike Workshop sees part of its mission as getting young riders used to wearing helmets from the start. The program, started in 2008 as a collaboration between the Oasis Center and Halcyon Bike Shop — in the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the founders of both the shop and the workshop — teaches underprivileged youth bike safety and mechanics.

Students earn a bike by repairing and learning to operate it, and when they graduate from the free six-week program, they take it with them. In 2010, the workshop was awarded a $100,000 grant from Humana to expand its reach. The workshop does outreach with Metro Nashville Public Schools and other local groups, with headquarters located at the Oasis Center on Charlotte Pike.

"We are promoting cycling in every sense," says Dan Furbish, who heads the workshop. "Many young people don't know there is a helmet law if you are under 16. We want them to be aware, but not 'scared straight.' All funds from the show will be used to purchase the brand-new helmets, locks, and toolkits that we provide teens upon graduation from the program."

Furbish will have volunteer information available the night of the concert. All people, bike experts or novices, are encouraged to volunteer in the program.


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