ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Last year, 16-year-old Nathan Barkocy was the youngest category four racer to win the Tour of the Gila in southwestern New Mexico. This year, he wanted to win in category three.
On Saturday, his plans took a devastating turn when a car struck his bike near Coors and Los Padillas SW while he was on a training ride. His coach, Stephen Williamson, also was struck and injured, although not as severely. A third cyclist was not hit.
“He was working toward being a cycling pro,” Nathan’s mother, Marybeth Barkocy, said in an interview Wednesday. “He’s going to be really mad when he finds out he can’t do it.”
Marybeth Barkocy said her son suffered a traumatic brain injury and is still in a coma at the University of New Mexico Hospital, although he is starting to become responsive.
“He’s starting to follow some simple commands,” she said. “His eyes are still closed, but he’s getting really agitated when they try to mess with him, which is a good sign that he’s healing.”
Nathan, a sophomore at St. Pius X High School, was on a 50-mile training ride around 11 a.m. on Saturday with Williamson and his teammate, Adam Brugge, 17. The cyclists, along with several other teenagers, race for the TLC Development team.
Brugge said he was riding behind Nathan Barkocy and Williamson as they were heading south on Coors in the right lane when he heard a car behind him.
“I was a couple inches from his back wheel because that’s how we ride,” Brugge said. “It all happened so fast. I remember hearing it, but that’s something you hear a lot – a car coming up. You don’t necessarily think it’s going to be right there next to you.”
Brugge said he doesn’t know how the car managed to hit the other two cyclists but not him.
Nathan Barkocy was thrown about 20 feet, Brugge said, and by the time he reached him he was unconscious.
“I was able to stay relatively calm when it all happened,” he said. “I immediately went over to Nathan. His eyes were open and I went, ‘Nathan! Nathan! Nathan!’ but there was no response. I made sure he was breathing and everything and called 911.”
The driver, 55-year-old Marlin Austin, was charged with careless driving, according to Sgt. Aaron Williamson of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. He said the charge is not an offense one is arrested for and said deputies don’t believe Austin was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Stephen Williamson was also struck by the car and hurt his shoulder and hip. He came hobbling toward them a couple minutes later, Brugge said.
Marybeth Barkocy said that as soon as she heard the news she started praying her son wouldn’t have a head or spinal injury. She said she’s glad his spine wasn’t injured but is worried about the extent of his brain injury.
“It’s your worst nightmare,” she said. “It’s what I pray wouldn’t happen every day.”
Nathan Barkocy had been riding competitively since middle school, Marybeth Barkocy said, and had raced in several high-profile races.
In 2015, he took 10th in the road race portion of Junior Nationals in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and won in category four in the Tour of the Gila. Cyclists are put into categories based on how many qualifying races they place highly in throughout the year. Category five is the lowest and category one is the most competitive.
Marybeth Barkocy said when her son goes on training rides of 50 to 100 miles, it’s impossible to stick to bike paths. She said she hopes the crash raises awareness among drivers about safety for cyclists.
“I think, first of all, drivers need to be paying attention,” she said. “This was a four-lane road. The driver could have easily been in the left lane. He’s basically getting a reckless driving charge and that’s it. I’d like to see laws protect cyclists more.”
After visiting his friend in the hospital every day since the crash, Brugge said he hasn’t gotten back on the bike yet. But he hopes to soon.
“I’m a little more apprehensive,” Brugge said. “I’ll probably start riding again tomorrow or day after. I needed some time to think about it and decompress.”